Elections are meant for residents to have a place and a voice at the discussion table.
Decades after the 15th Amendment made it illegal to deny a citizen the right to vote based on race, African Americans continued to face hurdles limiting elected representation.
In 1969, on the heels of a national civil rights movement, Tyler/Smith County business, education and civic leaders within the African-American community lead a charge for change. It took individuals and creation of a vocal, organized and aggressive group to push implementation of the Voting Rights Act.
Andrew Melontree, 82, a former county commissioner, said the Tyler Organization of Men was born of frustrations with the lethargy of traditional civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Those organizations were not pushing implementation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which held the promise that minorities could be represented on boards and councils, as aggressively as black leaders in Tyler expected, he said.
The voting act was designed to end discriminatory election practices, such as literacy tests, and helped create voting districts to give minorities equal opportunities for representation.
The act became law in 1965, but it took more than a decade before African Americans were elected in some communities. Tyler’s city council members were elected “at-large,” which means the top vote-getters won the position. The system and a vastly outnumbered minority made election of an African American practically impossible.
From its birth, the Tyler Organization of Men’s mission statement and end goal was to equalize Tyler and Smith County African Americans’ opportunity to be heard on matters of education, employment, politics and community, Melontree said.
“We were eager and steadfast in forcing the full limit of the law,” Melontree said. “The law was there for us. It was signed in 1965, but we just didn’t have the tenacity to push it before that time.”
In 1969, Martin Edwards, a local physician, became the first elected minority in Smith County when he won an at-large seat on the TISD board. Melontree said the win took organization catching the opposition off guard to grab the first seat. African American leaders felt emboldened but knew it would take action to gain more positions.
In 1970, three men, Cleotha Whitaker, a local barber, and educators S.E. Palmer and Earnest Square, sued the city of Tyler for creation of single-member districts. Creating districts and drawing lines according to the population and demographic make-ups within geographic areas would open the door for fair representation.
S. Eloyce Green, Palmer’s daughter, said the three men were independent businessmen and not fearful of repercussions, such as losing a job. She said they knew
“At that time, they did this, people were not as responsive to lend their name to something of that nature,” Ms. Green said. “But they wanted something for the community.”
Darryl Bowdre, District 2 city councilman, called the men “courageous.” He said it took their suit and combined effort from individuals, groups such as TOM, and state Rep. Paul Ragsdale, of Dallas, (one of the first African American state representatives elected since Reconstruction) who helped guide litigation efforts.
“They were exciting times. They were challenging times,” he said. “They were tougher days. There was opposition that felt blacks couldn’t represent themselves and were open to share that position.”
When the suit succeeded five years later, two minority city council districts were created.
The battle was won, but the war continued as African-American leaders pushed for creation of a minority County Commissioners precinct. Melontree, served 20 years on the court and said maintaining a minority spot on the commissioners court was a battle when precinct lines were redrawn each decade.
Melontree said the cause was won because leaders legitimized the argument for change and maintained consistent pressure for application of the law.
Bowdre said the fights paved the way for the future.
“They were significant times because those efforts were for all people to be treated equally and have a voice,” he said. “Whether white, black, Hispanic — right is still right.”
Ms. Green agreed that action to help one community helps all communities. She said it took the desire of forward-thinking men to bring the Africa- American community together for a better quality of life.
Time and positive social change has dulled the memory of more difficult times, she said.
“A lot of people don’t know about the lawsuit,” she said. “They just run and serve on the city council because they can.”