Photo Vault: Civil rights pioneer fought for voting rights

Earlier this week voters in Georgia and 10 other states had their say in who they believe should be the Democratic or Republican candidate for president of the United States. The moniker “Super Tuesday” is probably a misnomer since, according to data compiled by the United States Election Project, fewer than 30 percent of the registered voters in Georgia even bothered to turn out. Alabama fared slightly better at 35 percent. The numbers for the other nine states weren’t available at press time.

These statistics prompted Photo Vault to hark back to a time when it took more effort than showing up with a driver’s license for many people in the Peach State to vote in Democratic primaries.

On March 6, 1946, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Rev. Primus E. King, a black man from Columbus, Ga., could vote in the Georgia Democratic primary.

A Baptist pastor and a barber, he had been turned away when he attempted to vote in an election in 1944. He filed suit against the Muscogee County registrar, charging that Georgia’s Democratic primary, then limited to white people, was unconstitutional.

In April 1945, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans agreed with the Rev. King, and a year later the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision when it refused to review the suit.

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The year of the Rev. King’s suit, an apparent victory for blacks had occurred. The Supreme Court outlawed whites-only primaries, ruling in a Texas case. But the 5th Circuit then held that Georgia election laws differed from those in Texas.

In February 1945, Georgia removed a major barrier, outlawing a $3 charge to vote: the poll tax. But it remained for the Rev. King to take the most crucial step in opening primary voting opportunities to Georgia blacks.

The ‘46 Democratic primary for governor was the first in Georgia since Reconstruction to be open to blacks. Segregationist Eugene Talmadge played on white fears about black voting, and exploited another notorious element still remaining then in Georgia politics, the unit system, to defeat James Carmichael, a liberal candidate.

The city of Columbus observed a “Primus King Day” in 1973.

And King became a symbol of the battle of right against might.

The Rev. King recalled that he had received threats and a $5,000 offer to drop his suit. He refused.

American business executive and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, also a native Georgian, often cited King as a pillar of the civil rights movement. Jordan, well known as an influential figure in American politics, was a close adviser of President Bill Clinton.

“Every day I come into this office, I think about Primus King and the fact my parents could vote 48 years ago,” Jordan reportedly said at a dinner with the Clintons years ago. “Primus was my friend, and he told me the white people in Muscogee County told him, ‘If you don’t withdraw this suit, you could end up in the Flint River.’ And Primus King said, ‘Well, if I end up in the Flint River, at least I’ll end up there for something, because all them other colored people were thrown in there for nothing.’ “

The Rev. Primus E. King died in 1986 in a nursing home in Columbus, Ga. at the age of 96.

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