The voting rights movement in Fayette County, Memphis took a major turn on this day in 1960 after it was decided in a court case that Black voters could not be barred from registering to vote. The predominately Black county became a hotbed of political activity from this point forward, leading to the creation of a community of Black voters who were evicted from their homes for daring to exercise their civil rights.
In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960 into law, which made it illegal for voting committees to deny any citizen the right to register. However, powerful white families in Fayette County conspired to make the process to register difficult. For starters, the registration offices were only open on one weekday and with just one registrar working the desk. Further, workers at these facilities spit on Black registrants and threw coffee at them.
Undeterred, around 1400 Black voters were officially registered. But in retaliation, white landowners evicted Black farmers and sharecroppers from their lands. A Black landowner, Shepard Towles, allowed the evicted families to congregate on his land, creating the so-called “Tent City” or “Freedom Village” compound. These same Black voters were blacklisted from buying goods from white stores, all because they were registered.
Tent City began drawing attention from white civil rights activists from around the nation. Tent City would operate for another two years before the families dispersed and found other options for housing. Yet, the fight for voting rights continued well into 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act that enforced equal rights to all.
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