Until Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, segregation by race was the supreme law of the land throughout the southern United states. By law, blacks could not eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, swim in at beaches and public pools, or attend the same schools, universities or churches occupied by whites. Education and employment opportunities were restricted by race, and state, local police, and the courts, upheld and enforced these laws.
Following the Albany, Georgia Civil Rights Movement of 1960-1962, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had led demonstrations, civil rights activism expanded into Sumter and several other counties throughout Southwest Georgia. At the time, African Americans accounted for over 52 percent of Sumter County’s 25,000 residents, while less than 150 of them were registered voters, indicative of systemic voter suppression and intimidation by local officials. The medium income for whites was $5,100 compared to $1,200 for blacks, who were powerless in challenging the status quo.
In 1962, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee activist Charles Sherrod, then Project Director of SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Project in Albany, dispatched SNCC field workers Don Harris, John Churchville, Ralph Allen, Bob Mants, John Perdew and Willie Ricks to Americus. Their mission was to begin a grass root community-led voter registration and education initiative. They met with an already energized group of local activists known as the Sumter County Voters League, led by Cotton Avenue tailor shop owner, Sam Weston and rural church deacons Trim Porter, Leaston Cooper, and Lonnie Evans, who became the first elected President of the Americus-Sumter County Movement. Despite Klu Klux Klan bombings of black churches in surrounding counties, black Americus pastors like Rev. Daniel Thomas of friendship Baptist, R.L. Freeman of Bethesda Baptist, Rev. Ulysses Brown of Union Tabernacle Baptist, and second Movement President Rev. J.R. Campbell of Allen Chapel AME, opened their doors and provided spaces for Mass meetings to be held. These meetings produced a well-coordinated and disciplined coalition of students, parents, civic, and faith leaders established a “Freedom Center” and began to canvas their neighborhoods, block by block, with the goal of registering African Americans to vote and elect candidates of their choice. Despite the brutal beatings and jailing of hundreds of civil rights protestors that followed, more than 3,500 black registered voters were added to the voter rolls by the end of 1965, while continued protest marches helped to pass the Voting Rights Act of that same year. Sumter County officials then conceded to the Americus Movement demands to appoint two black women as voter registrars, the first ever in the history of Sumter County. They were Mrs. Thelma Smith-Walker, and Mrs. Dorothy Bozeman, both educators in the county school system.