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Resolution

Honoring 15 African American Men and a Southern White Lawyer in their Fight for Voting Rights in the State of Mississippi during the 1950s

WHEREAS, the State of Mississippi, during its 1890 Constitutional Convention, enacted various provisions to ensure that African Americans would not enjoy their 15th Amendment Right to Vote; and

 WHEREAS, the State of Mississippi's 1890 Constitutional Convention implemented certain provisions as a prerequisite for voting, such as poll taxes, literacy tests and "grandfather clause"; and

 WHEREAS, the new constitutional provisions had quick and lasting impacts since, before its passage in the State of Mississippi, in 1867 almost 70 % of African-American men of voting age were registered to vote. However, by 1892, two years after the adoption of the new constitution, there were less than 6 % of African-American men who were registered to vote; and

WHEREAS, the test adopted in Section 244 of the 1890 Convention required that "every elector shall, for registration, be able to read any section of the constitution of this State; or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof." It was believed that Section 244, often called "the reading clause", would take advantage of the fact that in Mississippi at least 10% of the White and 60% of the Colored population could neither read nor write; and

 WHEREAS, the understanding and interpretation clauses were designed solely to deny African-American men the right to vote and to furnish a loophole to qualify illiterate whites, since the Circuit Clerk could select any provision of the constitution for interpretation and often-time the most difficult provisions were selected for African Americans; and

WHEREAS, on November 10, 1949, the Forrest County Board of Supervisors notified the Registrar and Circuit Clerk of Forrest County, Luther Cox, to provide for a new county-wide registration; and

WHEREAS, a second order was made by the Forrest County Board of Supervisor notifying the Circuit Clerk that a new registration of voters for Forrest County would be required for use in all federal, state and local elections starting on June 1, 1950 and for use in future elections; and

 WHEREAS, on April 11, 1950, a complaint was filed with the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi against Luther Cox, the Circuit Clerk of Forrest County, by fifteen (15) African-American men who were all qualified under the constitution and laws of the State of Mississippi to register as voters and vote in all federal, state and local elections in Forrest County, Mississippi; and

 WHEREAS, the following 15 African-American men: Rev. Isaac C. Peay (Pastor, Mt. Zion Baptist Church), Mr. Benjamin F. Bourn (Owner of Bourn's Grocery), Mr. Rufus Howze (Owner of Whitney's Grocery), Mr. Ratio Jones (Teacher), Dr. Charles W. Smith (Physician), Rev. Johnnie H. Mays (Pastor, Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church), Mr. Clifford S. Kelly (Teacher), Rev. Charlemagne P. Payne (Pastor, St. Paul Methodist Church), Dr. Theodore J. Fykes (Dentist), Mr. Joe Knox, Sr. (Farmer), Mr. Joe Knox, Jr. (Principal/Teacher), Mr. Milton Barnes, Sr. (Owner of Barnes Cleaners, the Hi-Hat Club, and Black Sox Baseball Team), Mr. Alfonso Clark (Teacher and Owner of Clark Funeral Services), Mr. Barry L. Neal (Teacher and Commander of Post 9832 VFW), and Dr. E. Hammond Smith (Pharmacist and Owner of Smith Drug Store); pooled their financial resources and took the unusual step of retaining a southern white attorney and former Mississippi Chancery Court Judge, T. Price Dale, to represent them in the first voting rights case in the State of Mississippi; and their names were subsequently plastered on the front page of the Hattiesburg American newspaper on May 6, 1950; and

 WHEREAS, an answer to the federal complaint was filed by the Forrest County Attorney, M.M. Roberts, requesting that the civil action be dismissed, with 25 attorneys from the local bar, affixing their names thereto, along with 2 attorneys from Jones County, Mississippi; and

WHEREAS, on October 13, 1950, the case was dismissed on the face of the petition by United States District Court Judge S.C. Mize without hearing any evidence and the names of the 15 African-American men were once again published in the Hattiesburg American newspaper; and

WHEREAS, on November 8, 1950, the 15 African-American men appealed their case to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and sought an Injunction to restrain Forrest County Circuit Clerk Luther Cox from discriminating against them by refusing to register them as voters because of their skin color; and

WHEREAS, on June 21, 1951, the United States Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the judgement of the district court and questioned the practices of Forrest County Circuit Clerk Luther Cox; and

 WHEREAS, the ruling by the Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit was definitely a victory for many African Americans in the State of Mississippi; however, the year following the ruling, the Mississippi Legislature attempted to amend Section 244 to require all applicants to read and interpret any section of the constitution, but the attempt was rejected by voters in a referendum in the November 1952 election; and

WHEREAS, after the passage of Brown vs. Board of Education on May 17, 1954, which overruled the Separate But Equal Doctrine, the Mississippi Legislature, put the referendum back before Mississippi voters, with the assistance of the newly created White Citizens Council, who campaigned for its ratification; and

WHEREAS, those in support of the referendum realized its sole purpose was to limit Negro registration, thus the amendment to Section 244 was adopted by voters in the November 1954 election and implemented by the Legislature in January 1955 and as amended, remained the controlling rule for elections in Mississippi for over a decade.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) commends these 15 African-American men; Rev. Isaac C. Peay (Pastor, Mt. Zion Baptist Church), Mr. Benjamin F. Bourn (Owner of Bourn's Grocery), Mr. Rufus Howze (Owner of Whitney's Grocery), Mr. Ratio Jones (Teacher), Dr. Charles W. Smith (Physician), Rev. Johnnie H. Mays (Pastor, Sweet Pilgrim Baptist Church), Mr. Clifford S. Kelly (Teacher), Rev. Charlemagne P. Payne (Pastor, St. Paul Methodist Church), Dr. Theodore J. Fykes (Dentist), Mr. Joe Knox, Sr. (Farmer), Mr. Joe Knox, Jr. (Principal/Teacher), Mr. Milton Barnes, Sr. (Owner of Barnes Cleaners, the Hi-Hat Club, and Black Sox Baseball Team), Mr. Alfonso Clark (Teacher and Owner of Clark Funeral Services), Mr. Barry L. Neal (Teacher and Commander of Post 9832 VFW), and Dr. E. Hammond Smith (Pharmacist and Owner of Smith Drug Store); for having advanced our mission, goals and objectives as active members of the Hattiesburg/Forrest County Branch of the NAACP at the time of filing the voting rights case on April 11, 1950.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lauds the historical contributions of these remarkable, valiant 15 African-American men of Forrest County, Mississippi, along with their intrepid attorney, T. Price Dale, for their tenacity and bravery during the perilous times that exposed them to significant dangers posed by white supremacist and segregationist groups who opposed African-American men and women exercising their 15th Amendment Right to Vote.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the NAACP advocates for the historical contributions of these unsung heroes to be prominently recorded and preserved in civil rights history throughout the State of Mississippi and larger historical context of the movement, for making the first voting rights challenge to the 1890 Constitutional Provision, Section 244, solely enacted to disenfranchise African-American voters.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the NAACP calls upon the State of Mississippi and all national civil rights archival entities to join us commemorating the voting rights legacies of these 15 African-American men and their attorney on the 70th Anniversary of this landmark case and further petitions for their historical fortitude to be afforded the level of eminence as within the United States Commission on Civil Rights, that repeatedly references the case of Peay vs. Luther Cox, in all of their reports on voting rights in the State of Mississippi.

Derrick Lewis - Youth & College Hero

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