On this last Sunday of Black History Month, a black Columbus-ite whose legacy shook the American legal standard and created a pathway to fair and equal voting rights for African Americans countrywide comes to mind. His name was Primus King.
In July 1944, King, a registered voter, attempted to cast a ballot at the Muscogee County Courthouse for the Democratic primary election. Law officers at the courthouse, located in a brick building just where the Government Center stands downtown today, roughly removed King and let him know that blacks were not allowed to vote.
This was not simply a denial to select a Democratic candidate, but effectively a denial to select an elected official. The Democrats had such a tremendous control on Georgia politics that the primary was the only real chance a voter had to make a choice between candidates seeking local and state office. To ban blacks from this election was to essentially ban them from having any political agency.
King knew he would be denied at the courthouse, as did his peers of Columbus civil rights activists. So after being ejected from the premises, King walked, as planned, to the law office of Oscar D. Smith Sr. Smith, a white attorney, prepared a lawsuit against members of the Muscogee County Democratic Party for denying King his right to vote.
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This lawsuit went to the Federal District Court in Macon, where Judge T. Hoyt Davis ruled in King's favor and awarded $100 (his attorney had asked for $5000). The defense attorneys appealed the decision and it went to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. In 1946, Judge Samuel H. Sibley upheld Judge Davis' decision in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. But the Muscogee County Democrats, determined as they were, tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. It declined.
As a result of King's courage and the pooled resources of his allies, African Americans were finally able to exercise the right to vote in Georgia Democratic primaries. And eventually, the same Democratic Party that pushed King away would come to honor him. In 1973, Columbus Mayor Bob Hydrick proclaimed June 28 "Primus King Day," and in 2000, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes named a stretch of Macon Road, "Primus King Highway." In fact, they also -- nearly 30 years after Judge Davis' ruling -- finally awarded King his $100, which with interest had become $324.70.
This story is especially relevant as we prepare for Super Tuesday. It is an important primary for both parties, and the African-American vote will make a big impact.
If the story of Primus King and its legal implications interest you, consider attending the Primus King Panel Discussion being held Monday at 6 p.m. at the main branch of the Columbus Library on Macon Road. This free event will feature U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land and other panelists discussing the King case and its impact. Voter registration will also be on site.
-- Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent contractor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.