Nonetheless, despite the humiliation of her earlier hearing in the County Clerk's Office, Mrs. Frost---a soft-spoken woman of thirty-eight---had returned to that dingy room to stand in front of that counter again. "I was scared I would do something wrong," she recalls. "I was nervous. Shaky. Scared that the white people would do something to me." But, she says, "I wanted to be a citizen," truly a part of her country, and she felt that voting was part of being a citizen. "I figure all citizens, you know, should be able to vote." In the months since January, she had, with her husband asking her questions, studied, over and over, all the questions she felt the Board might ask, until she thought she would be able to answer every one. And on August 2, she put on her best clothes and went down to the courthouse again.
As it turned out, however, the diligence with which Margaret Frost had studied turned out to be irrelevant, because the Board examined her and the two other applicants as a group, and one of them wasn't as well prepared as she.
When she asked Stokes for an application, he said, "There's twelve questions you have to answer before we give you an application." He asked just two. Mrs. Frost answered them both correctly, as did one of the other applicants. But the third applicant answered the second question incorrectly, and Stokes told them that therefore they had all failed. "You all go home and study a little more," he said.
Margaret Frost left the room quietly, and she never sued or took any other legal action to try to force the Board to register her. Doing so, however, would almost certainly not have helped. In August, 1957, black Americans in the South who were denied the right to vote, and who asked a lawyer (if they could find a lawyer who would take their case) what law would assist them to do so, were informed that there was no such law---and that information was accurate. Summarizing the situation, a study made that same year by the United States Department of Justice concluded that "There is no adequate legal remedy" for a person who had been denied a registration certificate by a county Board of Registrars.
The scene that had occurred in the Eufaula courthouse was not an unusual one in the American South in 1957. After the Civil War almost a century before, there had been an attempt to make black Americans more a part of their country, to give them the basic rights of citizens---which included, of course, a citizen's right to vote---and in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution had supposedly guaranteed that right, forbidding any state to "deny or abridge" the "right of citizens . . . to vote" because of their race or color. But the amendment proved to be an insufficient guarantee in the eleven southern states that had seceded from the Union and formed the rebel Confederacy; specific laws to give the amendment force and make it meaningful---federal laws, since there was no realistic possibility that any southern state would pass an effective statute---were going to be necessary. During the eighty-seven years since the Fifteenth Amendment had been ratified, scores, indeed hundreds, of proposed federal laws had been introduced in the Congress of the United States to ensure that black Americans would have in fact as well as theory the right to vote. Not one of these bills had passed. And in Barbour County, in which there were approximately equal numbers of black Americans and white Americans, out of 7,158 blacks of voting age in 1957, exactly 200---one out of thirty-five---had the right to vote, while 6,521 whites had that right. In Alabama as a whole, out of 516,336 blacks who were eligible to vote, only 52,336---little more than one out of ten---had managed to register. For the eleven southern states as a whole, out of more than six million blacks eligible to vote, only 1,200,000---one out of five---had registered. And of course, even those blacks who had registered to vote often didn't dare go to the polls to cast ballots, because of fear of violence or economic retaliation. In 1957, there were scores of counties in the South which had tens of thousands of black residents, but in which, in some elections, not a single vote had been cast by a black.
Excerpted from Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro Copyright 2002 by Robert A. Caro. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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