Educator and community activist Charles Gomillion worked at the Tuskegee Institute for more than 40 years. As president of the Tuskegee Civic Association, he worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to increase African American voter registration in the South. Gomillion was the lead plaintiff in the landmark 1960 civil rights case Gomillion v. Lightfoot, which led the Supreme Court to declare gerrymandering unconstitutional.
Gomillion was born in Johnston, South Carolina, in 1900. Although his parents encouraged his education, Johnston’s African American school only ran three months of the year. Gomillion left home at 16 to attend secondary school at Paine College, a Methodist school in Augusta, Georgia, where he completed high school and some college before dropping out to help his aging parents. After working as a junior high school principal, he returned to Paine to finish college and began teaching at Tuskegee Institute in 1928. Gomillion continued his own studies in sociology, eventually earning a PhD from Ohio State University when he was 59 years old.
In the 1930s, Gomillion attempted to register to vote several times, starting in 1934, and was finally successful in 1939. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Gomillion, by then the dean of students at Tuskegee, worked to register voters, which prompted the state legislature to redraw the borders of the city in 1957 to maintain white political power. Tuskegee’s municipal boundaries were gerrymandered to create a 28-sided shape that retained every white person within the new city boundaries and excluded all but 12 African Americans. Gomillion brought suit to contest the redistricting in Gomillion v. Lightfoot.
King sought Gomillion’s advice for his book, Stride Toward Freedom, and thanked him for his “significant suggestions and real encouragement” in the book’s preface (King, 11). After the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in Gomillion v. Lightfoot, Gomillion encouraged the Tuskegee Civic Association to work for collaboration between whites and blacks. However, by the mid-1960s, the prospect of interracial politics was met with firm resistance from local African Americans who had been thoroughly excluded for so long. Gomillion left the Tuskegee Civic Association and, in 1970, retired from Tuskegee Institute.
William A. Elwood, “An Interview with Charles G. Gomillion,” Callaloo 40 (Summer 1989): 576–599.
Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960).
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.