Today’s guest columnist is Dr. Robert Glaze.
In early June of 1954, I returned home to Birmingham after my junior year of college, terribly concerned that the unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of the U.S. earlier in May requiring the integration of all school systems in the nation would change the world of southern America for the better, but could cause chaos.
I had turned 21 in April of that year and I wanted to become a voter as soon as possible.
I realized that the Alabama Legislature, over the recent years, by a series of provisions had progressively made the eligibility for voting more restrictive and/or punitive to limit the participation of blacks and poor whites in elections: registration limited to times during the work week, limited locations to register, e.g. only the County Court House, the necessity to complete correctly a long, four page questionnaire, which required detailed information, employment, places of residence in recent years and educational information.
In addition, you had to be personally interviewed by one of the three members of the Jefferson County Board of Registrars and, only one of them granted interviews at a time. To cap the absurdity of this situation, you were also required to pay poll tax to be allowed to vote. If memory serves it was $2/year. BUT, if you were registering for the first time, you must pay $2/year for every year that you had lived in the state since you were 21 with some exceptions.
One other matter is of particular relevance to this tale. My brother, Andrew L. Glaze Jr.,13 years my elder, was at this time a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald, and not admired, to say the least, by the indigents of the Court House who were, if not Klan members, overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Klan and its militant segregationist actions and views. Burdened by being a Harvard graduate, he had been the author of several reports suggesting sundry misdeeds and malefactions at the Court House. He was supported by his splendid editor Duard Legrand, who eventually urged Andy to leave town, because of Duard’s fear for his life.
For these and other reasons related to his desire to write poetry, plays and be more a part of the American literary scene than he could be, remaining in Alabama, he and his family moved to New York.
When I went to register to vote at the Court House, the line of penitents was long, impatient and scared for the most part. We were issued the questionnaires to complete, a bifold 8 x 11 back and front mess. Name, places of birth, education, places of employment, etc.–don’t remember it all. It required a loyalty oath, which was certainly in vogue at the time.
As I remember it, we filled out the form and then a clerk reviewed it in detail, asking questions for clarification or additions. The form says the Registrar or clerk will fill it out but that was not what went on.
Standing behind me in line was a black gentleman, or as I would have described him in 1954, a colored gentleman, dressed in coat and tie, well-spoken, middle aged, and as I later learned in conversation, a graduate of Tuskegee. Yes, we did have a lot of time for conversation as the line eked forward. He told me that this was the first time in a long while he had tried to register to vote as it was “very difficult” he said, calm, but clearly nervous.
When my turn finally came, I went in the small office where one of the three members of the Board sat behind a small desk, leaning back in his swivel chair with his feet on the desk, a wizened man who looked like he had been sent from central casting to fill a role as a member of the KKK, dressed, as “country going to town.” He mumbled and grumbled over the questionnaire, finally snarling at me a question…”Yo name is Glaze. Any kin to that Glaze fella, works for the newspaper?”
“Yes sir, he’s my brother.” I replied. He got red in the face, raised his voice as he signed the form and told me, “Get the Hell outer here and don’t come back spying on us!”
Of course, I had not come to spy, but unusual for me I kept my mouth shut and turned to leave. As I got to the door, he yelled, “Next“, and the aforementioned black gentleman went in.
For whatever reason, curiosity, perversity, or outrage, I stopped just outside the door to listen to what the interview of the black gentleman entailed. It was a one way rant of insulting questions, repeatedly addressing him as “boy” or “you” but the gentleman stood there appearing impassive as best I could tell from the rear.
Finally the inquisitor happened to look up and notice me standing just outside the door. “What the holy Hell are you doing still here?” Angry beyond trusting myself to say anything, I remained mute, which only further enraged him. He then turned to the supplicant, signed his form approving his application and proffered. “Goddamn it, get the Hell out of here, nigger, and take that asshole spy with you.”
No telling how much the African-American man had to pay in poll tax because of his age.
And so, the black gentleman, whose name I never learned, and I became registered voters in the great state of Alabama.
Dr. Robert Glaze is a native of Birmingham, graduate of Ramsay High School, a biochemist, and a retired Vice President of Research and Institutional Advancement of UAB.
David Sher is Founder & Publisher of ComebackTown.com. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.