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Case Name United States v. Penton VR-AL-0261
Docket / Court Civ. A. No. 1741-N ( 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 May 1960, pursuant to allegations that Montgomery County engaged in racially discriminatory voter registration and ... 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 May 1960, pursuant to allegations that Montgomery County engaged in racially discriminatory voter registration and voting practices, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a demand of records under the Civil Rights Act. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama subsequently ordered state officials to produce those records despite their objections. In light of those records, the DOJ filed this suit in the same court on August 3, 1961 against the State of Alabama and the Montgomery County Board of Registrars. The DOJ sued under the Civil Rights Act for racial discrimination depriving citizens of the right to vote in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as well as the Civil Rights Act. The DOJ sought injunctive relief to stop discriminatory past practices in Montgomery County and ensure future practices would be fair and and nondiscriminatory.

On November 20, 1962, the court (Judge Frank Johnson) issued an injunction after reviewing evidence from both parties and finding that the State and County's practices violated the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as well as the Civil Rights Act (212 F. Supp. 193). 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 court found that there were about twice as many eligible white voters in Montgomery County as eligible black voters. But registered white voters outnumbered registered black voters by almost ten times. Moreover, the court found that between 1956 and 1961, over 96% of voter registration applications from white citizens were accepted while over 75% of applications from black citizens were rejected. Among the rejected black applicants were hundreds that had over a decade of formal education.

The Alabama state constitution required voter registration applicants, among other things, to fill out a questionnaire without assistance, to be able to read and write, and to sign an oath. However, the court found that while black applicants were denied assistance, white applicants were not always so denied. Further, the court found that the questionnaire was used as a qualifying test for black applicants but not for white applicants, and so black applicants would be rejected if there were technical or minor errors on their questionnaires. Such errors on white applicants' questionnaires, however, did not result in denial of voter registration. Moreover, the court found that between 1958 and 1960, hundreds of black applicants were rejected because officials started administering the oath orally and then allowing applicants to leave without asking them to sign the oath as required. Meanwhile, the court found that officials administering the oath for white applicants would subsequently mark their questionnaires as if the applicant had signed the oath. Separately, the court found that the County did not notify black applicants if they were rejected, denying them the opportunity to appeal within the permitted thirty-day window.

Ultimately, Judge Johnson held that the evidence "overwhelmingly reflects that...[the County and the State] deliberately and consistently engaged in procedures and practices" that favored white applicants and discriminated against black applicants. The result of this discrimination, the court held, was to deprive black citizens of the right to vote.

As part of the court's injunction, it ordered that certain black applicants who had been rejected be immediately registered to vote based on evidence indicating that but for discriminatory practices, the applicant would have satisfied qualification requirements. The court further ordered that (1) assistance on particular questions of the questionnaire must be provided to all applicants, (2) applications were not to be rejected for failure to sign an oath unless he or she affirmatively refused, (3) applications were not to be rejected for technical or minor errors, (4) applicants must be notified if and why their application was rejected within 10 days, and (5) the only permissible rejections on the basis of lack of good moral character (as required by Alabama) were those based on felony status, drug or alcohol addiction, or crimes involving moral turpitude.

In his closing remarks, Judge Johnson noted that this case was among several finding that Alabama and its agents had deprived voters of the right to vote on the basis of race. Judge Johnson noted that "the only true basis of a representative government is equality in the right to select those representatives. No such equality can exist when a class of our citizens is deprived of its right to vote because of its color. This right to vote is a personal right that is vested in qualified individuals by virtue of their citizenship. It is not a privilege to be granted or denied at the whim or caprice of state officers or state governments."

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

Virginia Weeks - 04/07/2018


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Issues and Causes of Action
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Issues
Constitutional Clause
Equal Protection
Content of Injunction
Discrimination Prohibition
Discrimination-basis
Race discrimination
General
Test or device
Voting
Voting access
Plaintiff Type
U.S. Dept of Justice plaintiff
Race
Black
Voting
Voter qualifications
Voter registration rules
Causes of Action Civil Rights Act of 1957/1960, 42 U.S.C. § 1971
Defendant(s) Registrar
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 granted No
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 1962 - n/a
Filing Year 1961
Case Closing Year 1962
Case Ongoing No
Docket(s)
No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
Opinion (212 F.Supp. 193) (M.D. Ala.)
VR-AL-0261-0001.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 11/20/1962
Source: Westlaw
Judges Johnson, Frank Minis Jr. (Fifth Circuit, Eleventh Circuit, M.D. Ala.)
VR-AL-0261-0001

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