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Case Name United States v. Alabama VR-AL-0260
Docket / Court Civ. A. No. 479-E ( M.D. Ala. )
State/Territory Alabama
Case Type(s) Election/Voting Rights
Special Collection Civil Rights Division Archival Collection
Selma and early civil rights enforcement
Attorney Organization U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division
Case Summary
This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.

In 1960, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the State of Alabama and registrars from Macon County, AL, under the Civil ... read more >
This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.

In 1960, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the State of Alabama and registrars from Macon County, AL, under the Civil Rights Act. The DOJ argued that racial discrimination had deprived Macon County's black citizens of the right to vote, and it sought preventative relief under §1971 (later transferred to 52 U.S.C.A. § 10101) in the form of an injunction. §1971 provides that "[w]henever any person has engaged about to engage in any act or practice which would deprive any other person of [the right to vote], the Attorney General may institute for the United States...a civil action...for preventive relief." The case was brought before Judge Frank Johnson of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Judge Frank Johnson was one of the few judges in Alabama sympathetic to the civil rights movement and ultimately issued the injunction that made the Selma-to-Montgomery marches possible.

The Alabama state constitution required voter registration applicants, among other things, to fill out a long questionnaire and to be able to read and write any article of the federal Constitution requested by the registrar. Once someone was registered to vote in the State, they did not need to register again for subsequent elections. The Civil Rights Act required that registration be conducted free of discrimination and in a fair and reasonable manner.

The State moved to dismiss the suit on October 18, 1960, arguing hundreds of grounds, including "contentions that the United States has no right to commence or prosecute this action because it seeks preventive relief on behalf of a group or class of persons" and "an attack on the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act." The State also argued that it was not responsible for discriminatory acts committed by its registration officials.

On Nov. 17, 1960, Judge Johnson denied the motion to dismiss. 188 F. Supp. 759. The court held that Congress, through §1971, specifically authorized the U.S. attorney general to commence litigation for preventative relief against a party that had or was about to engage in racial discrimination abridging the right to vote. The court further held that "[a]ny discriminatory acts on the part of state officials while acting in the discharge of their official duties, which deprive citizens of their constitutional rights are properly imputed to the state...[I]t is only because of the states' constitutional responsibility [to prevent such discrimination] that the actions on the part of state officials fall within the prohibition of [the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments]." The court also held that despite the State's contention the DOJ was not a real party in interest, Congress had entrusted the DOJ with guardianship of public interest in injunctive relief suits when it came to constitutional guarantees.

On March 17, 1961, Judge Johnson issued a final injunction after reviewing evidence from both parties. 192 F.Supp 677. Judge Johnson found that in Macon County, the black voting age population outnumbered the white voting age population by over four times, and yet less than 10% of eligible black voters were registered to vote while nearly all eligible white voters were registered to vote. Ultimately, he found that the evidence "overwhelmingly" indicated that the State, through its officials, had deliberately engaged in acts and practices designed to discriminate against qualified black voters attempting to register to vote.

These acts, the court found, included: (1) delaying black applicants' ability to take the qualifying test but not similarly delaying white applicants, (2) denying black applicants assistance in completing their applications but providing it for white applicants, (3) requiring white applicants to write shorter passages from the Constitution than black applicants or allowing white applicants to skip the writing test altogether, (4) denying black applicants due to technical and minor errors in their applications but registering white applicants with similar errors, (5) not notifying black applicants if their application was denied or if they had successfully registered, and (6) failure and refusal to provide sufficient registration facilities to accommodate all black applicants while providing sufficient facilities for white applicants. One result of these intentional "slowdown" tactics was the overall delay of black voter registration.

Judge Johnson therefore held that the State had engaged in racial discrimination that deprived black citizens in Macon County of the right to register to vote, in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act. He found that the Fifteenth Amendment applies to "onerous procedural requirements" that may be facially neutral but have the effect of denying the right to vote on the basis of race. Judge Johnson thus ordered a permanent injunction, requiring the State to place certain eligible black voters on the voting rolls immediately, stop its discriminatory practices, and provide timely and nondiscriminatory application processing. The injunction allowed the State to retain administration over its registration processes.

The State appealed, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed on June 1, 1962. 304 F.2d 583. The State did not challenge the finding of racial discrimination, but rather if the district court could affirmatively order the State to immediately register the specified eligible black voters. In an opinion by Judge John Brown, the Court of Appeals held that such an injunction was permitted in light of the overwhelming evidence of persistent racially discriminatory voter registration practices. The court found that the Civil Rights Act contemplated that district courts could implement broad relief, which included affirmative injunctions. The State appealed to Supreme Court, which issued a one-line per curiam decision agreeing with the court of appeals. 371 U.S. 37.

The case is closed. We have limited access to case records and information, and we will update this page if more become available.

Virginia Weeks - 04/06/2018

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Content of Injunction
Discrimination Prohibition
Race discrimination
Test or device
Voting access
Plaintiff Type
U.S. Dept of Justice plaintiff
Candidate qualifications
Voter qualifications
Voter registration rules
Causes of Action Civil Rights Act of 1957/1960, 52 U.S.C. § 10101 (previously 42 U.S.C. § 1971)
Defendant(s) Registrars
State of Alabama
Plaintiff Description Department of Justice
Indexed Lawyer Organizations U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division
Class action status sought No
Class action status outcome Not sought
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Plaintiff
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Declaratory Judgment
Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Litigation
Order Duration 1961 - n/a
Filed 1960
Case Closing Year 1961
Case Ongoing No
Court Docket(s)
No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
M.D. Ala.
Opinion (188 F.Supp. 759)
VR-AL-0260-0002.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
M.D. Ala.
Opinion (192 F.Supp. 677)
VR-AL-0260-0001.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
U.S. Court of Appeals
Opinion (304 F.2d 583)
VR-AL-0260-0003.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
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Judges Cameron, Benjamin Franklin (Fifth Circuit) show/hide docs
Johnson, Frank Minis Jr. (M.D. Ala., Fifth Circuit, Eleventh Circuit) show/hide docs
VR-AL-0260-0001 | VR-AL-0260-0002

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