Charles Gomillion, Educator-Community Activist
Charles Gomillion, Educator-Community Activist
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Sociologist Charles Goode Gomillion has devoted his life to improving the status of
black Americans living in the South. This essay provides information about
Gomillion's years in South Carolina and Alabama and his professional work at Tuskegee
University. His civil rights activities in Macon County, Alabama—including bis
involvement in a landmark Supreme Court case—also are discussed. Four documents
written by Gomillion follow this essay.
Sociologist Charles Goode Gomillion has devoted his life to improving the
status of black Americans living in the South. His work certainly is remembered
by students and faculty who were with him at Tuskegee Institute over a
fortyyear period and by adults of the city of Tuskegee, Alabama where a public
building and street have been named in his honor. Civil rights scholars and
activists also remember him because of his involvement in a landmark Supreme
Court case. Unfortunately, his writing and clinical activities have gone largely
unnoticed by sociologists.1 This essay is intended to correct that oversight.2
Charles Goode Gomillion (1987a) was born at high noon on Sunday, April
1, 1900, in Johnston, a small town in rural Edgefield County, South Carolina.
His father, a custodian, was illiterate and his mother could barely read and write.
But both parents encouraged Charles and the three younger children not only
to work hard and be frugal but also to recognize the value of asking questions
and reading. Gomillion remembers going alone or with his mother to ask “white
folks to give us magazines,” and his mother regularly bringing home The
Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper directed at black readers, and the
At the age of 16, Gomillion left his hometown to attend high school at Paine
College, a small Methodist school in Augusta, Georgia.3 He was admitted on
probation because he had completed only 26 months of formal education.
Gomillion worked the whole time he was at Paine to pay for his education, but
began every new academic year in financial debt to the school. Of the 35
students who were in his entering class, only Gomillion and five others were
Gomillion continued his education at Paine and was graduated cum laude
in 1928. He had become a social science major in college because the school
dropped psychology, his initial major. Also, Gomillion lost interest in
psychology while taking an introductory sociology course from Professor Isadore
Williams,4 a graduate of Howard University. Her primary text was E. A. Ross’
(1920) Principles of Sociology, and Gomillion (1987a) "fell in love with the
processes of social interaction" which Ross emphasized.
Bertram Doyle was another one of Gomillion's teachers at Paine. Doyle,
Dean of the College and Professor of Sociology, had graduated from the
University of Chicago after writing a dissertation on the etiquette of race relations.
Gomillion took only one course from Doyle, but the class only had half-a-dozen
students and it was a good opportunity for him to get to know the teacher.
Gomillion was very impressed by Doyle's knowledge, his excellence as a
teacher and even his speed reading ability. Doyle later moved to Fisk
University, and Gomillion was drawn there because of his respect for Doyle.
Gomillion held many jobs to pay for his education—in Philadelphia;
Augusta and Milledgeville, Georgia; Detroit; and Hartford, Connecticut. But
after he finished undergraduate school, he spent most of his career at Tuskegee
Institute in Macon County, Alabama. Gomillion passed up a position selling life
insurance in 1928 to take a one year position teaching history in Tuskegee
Institute's high school program. His mother-in-law had found the position at
Tuskegee and his work there developed into a relationship lasting more than
Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881, was to be
a high school and college for black students with an all black faculty and
administration. The school was located in the city of Tuskegee, approximately
forty miles east of Montgomery, the state capital, and about forty-five miles
southwest of Columbus, Georgia.
Gomillion taught in Tuskegee's high school for five years5 and then was
promoted to the college program. He later became a professor of sociology, and
served as Dean of the School of Education, Dean of Students, Chair of the
Division of Social Sciences and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Gomillion (1987a) stayed at Tuskegee, he says, because he "had total freedom.
No president interfered with any of my activities. There was no criticism if
(because of my activities) I made arrangements to cover my classes." During
Gomillion (e.g., 1942
, 1947, 1952, 1957b, 1959b, 1962a, 1965a)
published articles about civil rights, voting and the status of blacks in the South.
Gomillion (1987b) says he "never wanted to be anything other than a
teacher" and reluctantly accepted a number of administrative posts at Tuskegee
only because he was allowed to teach one or two courses per academic session.
Gomillion (1987a) described his teaching in the following way:
Most of my courses start out with, ‘Who am I? What courses am I
taking? How can these courses help me as a citizen or worker? and
What can I use from this course in the kind of work I'll be doing?'
I want to teach (students) their roles as citizens and as college
graduates ... what they could do and should do.
Gomillion thought if he could get his students to think about these
questions, they would do better in school and in later life. To do his best as a teacher,
he thought he needed to give his students the same kind of freedom that the
presidents of Tuskegee had given him.
In the early 1930s Gomillion wanted to go to the University of North
Carolina for full-time graduate study and to take part in the research that was
being conducted on the sociology of the South under Howard Odum. But the
University of North Carolina did not admit blacks to its graduate school at that
time, and Gomillion couldn't afford to attend any of the prestigious colleges in
Gomillion (1987a) did arrange a leave from Tuskegee for one year, 1933–
34, to take graduate courses at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. There
he decided to study what he wanted rather than take the courses required of those
enrolled in a degree program.6 He came to work with Doyle, who had moved
from Paine College, E. Franklin Frazier,7 who had left the Atlanta School of
Social Work, and Charles S. Johnson, who had been with the Urban League.8
Seven years later, in 1941, Gomillion received a scholarship allowing him
to spend one quarter in the Ohio State University's graduate program in
education. While there, he was advised to enroll in the graduate program in sociology.
He had to drop out periodically for financial reasons, but finally received his
Ph.D. in sociology in 1959, when he was 59 years old. His adviser was Brewton
Berry, an expert in race relations, and Gomillion did his dissertation on civic
democracy in the South.
In addition to his work at Tuskegee, Gomillion (1987c) engaged in a
number of "eye-opening" field experiences. In the summer of 1934, after
completing a year of work at Fisk University, faculty member Charles Johnson asked
Gomillion to join a field research project. Supported by a grant from the
Rockefeller Foundation, the project would send teams of researchers to selected
counties to interview tenant farmers, plantation landlords (if possible), and
business people, such as grocers, who had connections to agriculture. Gomillion
was asked to be part of a team of three individuals assigned to visit one county
in Texas and two in Mississippi.
After Gomillion heard that two blacks were lynched in Mississippi, he tried
to withdraw from the project. He had early childhood experiences that
contributed to his fear9 and, as he put it, "I'm not good at controlling my temper. I
was afraid I wouldn't survive" (Gomillion, 1987a).
Johnson convinced him to take part in the project by telling Gomillion to
leave the talking to a light-skinned black woman who was part of the team, and
the team leader, Lewis Jones:
Let Edmonia be Miss Ann, the other guy will be the chauffeur and you be nigger boy in the back of the car (Gomillion, 1987a).
Gomillion said it was difficult at times, but "I kept my mouth shut."
In 1937, Gomillion worked in the field once more—interviewing cotton and
tobacco fanners in Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina. He worked
for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Division of Resettlement, under
the direction of sociologist Edgar A. Schuler. The government wanted the
information for a study comparing fanners who were being resettled with those
who were not. Collecting the facts and helping to analyze them once again gave
Gomillion the opportunity to learn more about the problems blacks were
While Gomillion's teaching and written work were known locally, he is
remembered nationally for his involvement in the civil rights struggle.10 He was
the forceful, patient President of the Tuskegee Civic Association (TCA) from
1941–45 and again from 1951–68 and in 1970. As President, he began to
challenge Macon County's treatment of black citizens.
The struggle was long and difficult. Numerous legal actions had to be
initiated and a boycott of the city's white businesses began in the early 1950s,
several years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott—or, as it was
called in Tuskegee, the trade with your friends campaign—was officially
endorsed by the TCA in 1957 and lasted two more years. It was so successful that
half of the white-owned businesses were gone by the spring of 1958 and sales
were down 45–60% for those that survived. As a result, white resistance started
to diminish, voter registration began to take place, and the courts started to be
Gomillion won his most impressive legal victory (Gomillion versus
Lightfoot) in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1960. Gomillion's successful suit stopped
the local gerrymandering which had kept all but about ten blacks from voting
in town elections. According to the attorney for the Tuskegee Civic Association
, "the Gomillion case is one of the landmark cases of the
century. It opened the door for the redistricting and reapportioning of various
legislative bodies from city hall to the U.S. capitol and also laid the foundation
for the concept of 'one-(person)-one-vote.'"
Gomillion's activism was in organizations that wanted to improve the
position of blacks in the community. Activism, however, is not always popular and,
even when it is, it is not acceptable to all segments of the community.
Gomillion's involvement, for instance, as a board member of three organizations—the
Highlander Folk Center, the Southern Negro Youth Congress and the Southern
Conference Educational Fund—was suspicious to some because these groups
had been accused of being Communist front organizations
1964; Georgia Commission of Education, 1957.)
Gomillion (1987b) was willing to work with people with different political
leanings if they shared his objective, civic democracy. Gomillion never publicly
denied the charges of communism because he thought "those who know me
know I'm not a communist and those who don't know me wouldn't believe me
anyway." He told two successive Presidents of Tuskegee that he was willing
to resign if they thought his behavior in any way embarrassed the school. His
community actions were never criticized by university officials and they never
even asked him about the accusations of communist affiliations.
In the 1960s, when progressive northerners joined hands with southern
blacks and whites to address issues of racial inequality, Gomillion didn't march.
He (Gomillion, 1987b) was berated by some for this, and he particularly
remembers an occasion when a Tuskegee student confronted him about his lack of
involvement in the Selma to Montgomery march. He replied, "Any dumbbell
can march, no dumbbell can do what I'm doing" in organizations and in the
Gomillion (1987a) had made a strong verbal response. He let the student
know about his expertise but did not tell her his point of weakness. Gomillion
always tried to avoid the possibility of a physical confrontation. He "tried to
stay out of positions where (he) might lose i t . . . because of anger.'' He worried
about confrontations because he wasn't sure he "could turn the other cheek."
As Gomillion put it: "I can't tolerate anyone interfering with my movement...
I can take verbal abuse ... (but) don't block my movement."
Four documents written by Gomillion are reprinted in this issue of the
Clinical Sociology Review. The first, "The Tuskegee Voting Story," appeared
in a 1962 issue of Freedomways, a quarterly review of the Negro freedom
movement. The article is included to give readers a better understanding of life,
at that time, in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Two letters follow this article. The first was sent in February, 1959 to
Charles Gomillion by a member of a White Citizens Council in Lake Charles,
Louisiana. Gomillion's response, written in March, was published totally or in
an abbreviated form in a number of newspapers.
The third item, "Questions Which Might Be Asked in Planning a Program
of Social Action," was written in the late 1950s and published in the 1966
anniversary program of the Tuskegee Civic Association. The brief list was used,
for many years, by the leadership of the Tuskegee Civic Association in deciding
which cases or projects the association should take on or support. The
association was very interested in determining in advance, as best they could, the
possible impact of a project in relation to expenditures of money and time.
The final article is an unpublished paper, "The Role of the Sociologist in
Community Action in the Rural South." Gomillion was scheduled to deliver
this paper at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in
Chicago in 1965. He was unable to attend the meeting but the paper was
presented by a southern newspaper editor, Ralph McGill.12 Gomillion's style
in this paper—gentle, non-confrontational—is characteristic of the approach he
used in papers to be delivered at sociology meetings. In this article he
encourages sociologists to be active in bringing about progressive social change.
Gomillion (1987a,c) describes his life's work as that of an educator and
community activist. He wanted his students and colleagues to understand the
importance of using their gift—their education—to improve conditions of the
society. He seems almost embarrassed when he discusses his research and
writing. He thinks he didn't publish enough and he wishes he'd had a better
writing style, one that was interesting, breezy and polished.
Gomillion (1987a) says "sometimes I felt I hadn't done what was expected
of me ... the research that gives prestige. But when I hear from my students
and alumni, I think maybe I wasn't intended to be a research sociologist."
Perhaps we need to do a better job of defining our field. We need to let an
88 year-old sociologist who has spent over 25 years solving important
community problems and writing about community changes know mat we value,
encourage and publicize sociologists who are scholar-practitioners as well as those
who are research sociologists.
1. Gomillion's work is discussed in
Smith and Killian's (1974)
"Black Sociologists and Social
Protest" and in Butler Jones' (1974) "The Tradition of Sociology Teaching in Black Colleges."
2. I am indebted to Dr. Gomillion for sharing his materials and agreeing to a series of interviews
about his work. The detail he provided would have been very difficult to acquire without his help.
Any errors in fact or analysis, however, are the author's responsibility.
3. Many of the black colleges began as high schools and later offered bom high school and college
programs. The pastor of Gomillion's church, Bethel CME, was a student in the theological program
at Paine College and recommended the high school program to Gomillion.
CHARLES GOMILLlON, EDUCATOR—COMMUNITY ACTIVIST
4. Gomillion (1987a) has established "a little prize at Paine in honor of her introducing me to
sociology." The award is given each year to a graduating student with the best academic record in
5. Among the courses he was teaching was the only one he had failed at Paine. This was a history
course and Gomillion had been yelled at by the teacher about a window shade that had been pulled
down incorrectly. Gomillion (1987a) recalls "the teacher was a white Mississippian and he shouted
'stop sitting like a knot on a log and pull the shade down.'" Gomillion said he left the room,
wouldn't apologize and never returned to the class.
6. According to Gomillion (1987a), I "took what I wanted to take to help me do a better job of
teaching. I knew I wanted to teach at Tuskegee and work with organizations in the South to help
them do what they could to change things in the South." Gomillion was "trying to raise the status
of blacks, economically, politically and educationally."
Gomillion was able to attend Fisk because a professor who had known him at Paine College
arranged for all tuition to be waived and the Bethlehem Center in Nashville gave him room and
board. Gomillion was divorced from his first wife and had custody of their two young daughters at
this time. Gomillion's sister, who lived in Washington, D.C., cared for his daughters while he
attended Fisk, and Tuskegee continued to pay him his full salary, which allowed for the support of
his family while he was in school.
7. Gomillion (1987a) thought "Frazier was good in research and seemed not to be afraid of
whites . . ."
8. All three professors received degrees from the University of Chicago.
9. When Charles Gomillion (1987a) was a child, his father had killed a white man. The court said
this had been done in self-defense but after the trial his father never went out of the house at night.
He also would not let the children do anything that would put them at risk (e.g., “deliver newspapers
to the homes of whites, dance for white men for pennies") and cautioned the children to "play with
white children but don't take any foolishness off them.”
10. Gomillion's leadership role is documented in Robert Norell's (1985) Reaping the Whirlwind.
This volume, winner of the sixth annual Robert F. Kennedy book award, is an excellent account of
the civil rights movement in Tuskegee. Ray
Jenkins, in his 1985
review, said "In the final analysis
this is a profoundly depressing book, a tale about two peoples who have an immense amount in
common—notably crushing poverty and isolation—and a single irrelevant difference—their color—
and yet that difference has made them perpetual enemies."
Another important source of information about Gomillion's role as an agent for change is
Guzman's (1984) Crusade for Civic Democracy. Guzman, a former history professor at Tuskegee
Institute, “is remembered by former students as an excellent teacher (who was) a stickler for accuracy
and thoroughness. Her book embodies these characteristics” (Vernon, 1984:B8).
11. Gomillion (1987a) said J. Edgar Hoover thought the Southern Negro Youth Congress was a
communist-front organization The alleged communist-connection was one of the reasons Gomillion
decided not to travel abroad except for Canada. As Gomillion noted, “even the President of Tuskegee
had problems getting papers for international travel." Though he would have liked to travel abroad,
Gomillion said "there was enough for me to see and do in the U.S."
12. Gomillion (1987a) is not sure why he was unable to attend the meeting. His wife Jennie, who
died of cancer in 1967, may have been ill or he may have had to be in court or had to prepare materials
for a court hearing. Ralph McGill, the white editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who was supportive
of the TCA and a "staunch opponent of lynching," was going to be attending the meeting. McGill
accepted Gomillion's invitation to present the paper for him.
Review of R.J. Norell's Reaping the Whirlwind. The Baltimore Sun. December 16.
Anonymous 1964 Communist front associations of Charles G . Gomillion. Montgomery, Alabama.
Durr , Virginia Foster 1985 Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr . Alabama: The University of Alabama Press.
Georgia Commission on Education 1957 Highlander folk school . Paper attempting to document Highlander as a communist training school . Atlanta, Georgia.
Gomillion , Charles Goode 1942 The influence of the Negro on the culture of the south . Social Forces . 20 / 3(March): 386 - 90 .
1947 The Negro and civil rights . Pp . 292 -301 in Jessie P. Guzman (ed.) Negro Year Book . Alabama: Tuskegee Institute.
1950 Trends in selected aspects of public education for Negroes in Macon County , Alabama, 1938 - 39 , 1943 - 44 , 1948 - 49 . Tuskegee, Alabama: Tuskegee Civic Association.
1952 Civil rights . Pp . 280 -92 in Jessie P. Guzman (ed.) Negro Year Book . New York: William H. Wise & Co.
1953 Selected aspects of public education in Alabama and in Macon County, 1951 - 52 .
1957a The challenge of the present crisis in Macon County. Speech delivered at mass meeting of the Tuskegee Civic Association , Washington Chapel A.M.E. church, Tuskegee, Alabama. July 30 .
1957b The Negro voter in Alabama . Journal of Negro Education . 26 /3(Summer): 281 - 86 .
1957-59 Questions which might be asked in planning a program of social action. Guidelines used by the Tuskegee Civic Association. Published in the program of the ninth anniversary celebration of the crusade for citizenship of the Tuskegee Civic Association ; June 28, 1966 .
1958 Letter to the Macon County Committee from C. G . Gomillion, President, The Tuskegee Civic Association, February 14 .
1959a Civic democracy in the south: Summary and conclusions . Pp. 165 -70 in Civic Democracy in the South, unpublished Ph.D dissertation , Ohio State University.
1959b Civic democracy and the problems of registration and voting of Negroes in the south .
Lawyers Guild Review . 18 : 149 - 51 .
1959c Letter to White Citizens Council member . March 7 .
1959d Equality of opportunity: Essence of civic democracy. Speech delivered at the 19th annual meeting of the Marion, Indiana Urban League in its observance of Equal Opportunity Day . November 19 .
1960 Letter to members of the Southern Sociological Society . March 25.
1962a The Tuskegee voting story . Freedomways . 2 /3 (Summer): 231 - 36 .
1962b Toward civic democracy: Landmarks along the way . Speech given at Paine College, Augusta, Georgia. December 4 .
1963 Suggestions to white Americans who want to improve race relations. June 3. Published in the programs of the anniversary celebrations of the crusade for citizenship , Tuskegee Civic Association; June 28 , 1966 and June 27, 1967 .
1964 Responsible government and responsible citizens in a political democracy. In the program of the 7th anniversary celebration of the crusade for citizenship of the Tuskegee Civic Association . June 23.
Jenkins , Ray 1985 Jones, Butler A.
1974 1965a Civic democracy in Tuskegee . Freedomways . 2 /3 (Summer): 412 - 16 .
196Sb The role of the sociologist in community action in the rural south. Prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association . August 31. Paper not delivered .
1966 Factors contributing to the development of culturally disadvantaged children. Social problems class handout. Published in the program for the ninth anniversary celebration of the crusade for citizenship , Tuskegee Civic Association; June 28 , 1966 .
1967 The decade ahead. In the program of the 10th anniversary celebration of the crusade for citizenship of the Tuskegee Civic Association . June 27.
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1987b Interview. July 3 .
1987c Interview. July 10 .
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Hall , Woodrow Wadsworth 1960 A Bibliography of the Tuskegee Gerrymander Protest . Tuskegee, Alabama: Tuskegee Institute, The Department of Records and Research.
Pp. 121 -63 in James Blackwell and Morris Janowitz (eds.) Black Sociologists, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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1985 Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee . New York: Alfred A.Knopf.
1920 The Principles of Sociology . New York: Century.
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Taper , Bernard 1962 Mrs. Jessie Gusman-Determined spirit aids in publishing book . The Tuskegee News. February 2:B-8.
1901 Up From Slavery . New York: Doubleday.
White Citizens Council Member 1959 Letter to Charles Gomillion. February 26 .