University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
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Case Name United States v. Cartwright VR-AL-0263
Docket / Court Civ. A. No. 1957-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.

The Department of Justice brought this suit on July 19, 1963 under the Civil Rights Act against the State of Alabama 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.

The Department of Justice brought this suit on July 19, 1963 under the Civil Rights Act against the State of Alabama and the Board of Registrars in Elmore County, AL. The DOJ alleged the State and Board had engaged in racially discriminatory deprivation of the right to register to vote, and it accordingly sought injunctive relief to end such practices and ensure nondiscriminatory voter registration procedures going forward. The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.

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 be of good character and embrace the duties of citizenship. 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. Starting on Feb. 17, 1964, the questionnaire included an oath to defend the federal and state constitutions, which had to be signed and sworn to by the registration applicant in front of a Registrar member. The revised questionnaire also included a requirement that the applicant read aloud passages from the Constitution assigned by the presiding Registrar member, as well as that the applicant write words the Registrar member dictated.

The DOJ filed a motion on Oct. 24, 29163 to examine County records related to voter registration. The County complied with the request, though a large amount of relevant records were unavailable because the Registrars had unlawfully burned most registration applications accepted prior to June 1961 and all rejected applications prior to November 1959.

After reviewing the evidence, the court (Judge Frank Johnson) granted injunctive relief on June 17, 1964. 230 F. Supp. 873. 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 from December 1959 through March 1964, state officials "engaged in racially discriminatory acts and practices in conducting the registration of voters in Elmore County," including (1) applying different standards in evaluating applications from black and white applicants such that black applicants' questionnaires were evaluated more stringently and denied for technical or minor errors, (2) allowing Registrar members to assist white applicants but not black applicants, (3) denying black applicants for failure to sign the oath after failing to instruct them to do so while reminding white applicants to sign the oath, (4) not notifying black applicants of their rejection or the reason for it, and (5) requiring rejected black applicants to wait 90 days before reapplying.

The court found that while the County's white voting age population was about 2.5 times greater than the black voting age population, there were 30 times more registered white voters than registered black voters. The court also found that while over 93% of black applicants were rejected, just over 4% of white applicants were rejected. Most of the rejected black applicants demonstrated they met the qualifications for registration. The court attributed these discrepancies to the state officials' discriminatory conduct. Moreover, the court held that the discriminatory conduct was part of a larger "pattern and practice of racial discrimination."

Finding that state officials' conduct violated the Civil Rights Act, as well as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Judge Johnson enjoined the County and Board of Registrar from continuing this practices and from adopting new measures that would only perpetuate past discrimination. Judge Johnson also ordered the Registrar to immediately place on the voter registration rolls qualified black applicants rejected solely on the basis of race, as well to establish and maintain for all applicants the qualification standards previously used for white applicants.

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 - 04/13/2018

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Due Process
Equal Protection
Content of Injunction
Discrimination Prohibition
Race discrimination
Test or device
Voting access
Plaintiff Type
U.S. Dept of Justice plaintiff
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) Board of 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 Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement
Source of Relief Litigation
Order Duration 1964 - n/a
Filed 1963
Case Closing Year 1964
Case Ongoing No
Court Docket(s)
No docket sheet currently in the collection
General Documents
M.D. Ala.
Opinion (230 F.Supp. 873)
VR-AL-0263-0001.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Source: Westlaw
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Judges Johnson, Frank Minis Jr. (M.D. Ala., Fifth Circuit, Eleventh Circuit) show/hide docs

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