Mobile native John L. LeFlore's (1903-1976) career as a community leader and civil rights activist spanned more than 50 years. In the mid-1920s, he transformed the Mobile chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) into one of the most active organizations in the state. During the 1950s, he moved to more direct intervention in local and state politics as head of the Non-Partisan Voters' League, through which he lobbied for the desegregation of Mobile's schools and government.
John L. LeFlore was born in Mobile, Mobile County, on May 17, 1903. His father, Doc, died when LeFlore was only nine months old, leaving his mother, Clara, to care for John and his siblings. LeFlore went to work at an early age selling newspapers to help support his family. He graduated from Owen Academy, a small, privately run school for African American children, in Mobile in 1920. In 1922, he became one of the few blacks in Mobile to pass the civil service examination at a time when limited access to education and the persistence of white supremacy often made it difficult for blacks in the south to do so. That same year, he married Teah Beck, the granddaughter of a prominent black physician, with whom he would have three children. Teah's father helped LeFlore obtain a position as a postman, a job he kept until 1965.
LeFlore's position with the U.S. Postal Service and his marriage into a prominent family did not shelter him from the indignities of life for African Americans in the segregated South. On their honeymoon, for instance, John and Teah were denied the use of a sleeping car on an overnight passenger train. Three years later, an incident on a Mobile streetcar spurred him to fight for change. In 1925, LeFlore was accosted by police after an altercation with a white passenger on a local streetcar. Soon after, LeFlore wrote to the headquarters of the NAACP and inquired about reorganizing the Mobile branch, which had been inactive for several years. With the support of the national office, LeFlore quickly found 50 new members, and the group reorganized later that year with LeFlore as its executive secretary, a position he would hold for the next half-century. His position as a postman put him in daily contact with Mobile's black community, and he thus had first-hand knowledge of the important issues facing its members.
LeFlore's efforts soon spread beyond Mobile. The national office sent him to help reorganize faltering branches along the Gulf Coast. In less than a decade, LeFlore became one of the most important activists in the region. In 1936, he helped establish the NAACP's Regional Conference of Southern Branches and became its first chairman.
The rapid industrialization of Mobile during World War II transformed the city and the local NAACP. Throughout the war years, LeFlore lobbied for more equitable housing and training for black workers. When a race riot broke out at the Alabama Drydock and Shipbuilding Company (ADDSCO) in 1943, LeFlore took depositions of injured black workers and helped negotiate their eventual return to the shipyard.
Voting rights remained a top priority for LeFlore. After the U.S. Supreme Court's 1944 decision in Smith v. Allwright, outlawing the common southern practice of whites-only primary elections, LeFlore selected 12 prominent African Americans to test the ruling in Mobile. The men were turned away from the polls that May in a confrontation captured by a photographer from Life magazine. The magazine published the photographs as part of an exposé on reactions in the South to the Smith decision. In 1946, Alabama voters passed the Boswell Amendment, an attempt to circumvent the Smith decision by implementing an "understanding clause." Under the new law, anyone who wanted to register to vote had to explain a section of the U.S. Constitution selected by registrars, who often denied the applications of blacks and poor whites by declaring their answers unsatisfactory. LeFlore fought the amendment vigorously and prepared a suit to test its constitutionality. His efforts to bring the suit were overshadowed by the more activist Mobile Voters and Veterans Association, a newly organized group of black World War II veterans who wanted a more direct role for African Americans in post-war politics. The VVA hired two lawyers from a Chicago law firm and filed a suit of their own on behalf of Hunter Davis and other black Mobilians. (The Boswell Amendment was eventually declared unconstitutional in 1949 in Davis et al. v. Schnell et al.)
In June 1956, Alabama attorney general John Patterson secured an injunction against the NAACP for failing to register as an outside corporation. Statewide, the ruling destroyed the NAACP's effectiveness and in many areas seriously hampered civil rights activity at a crucial period. In Mobile, however, LeFlore and other activists reorganized quickly under the auspices of the Non-Partisan Voters' League, which had been organized shortly after the 1944 Smith decision. LeFlore was named director of casework, a position that allowed him to set the organization's legal agenda.
In 1957, under LeFlore's direction, the group began publishing candidate endorsement pamphlets known as "pink sheets" for the distinctly colored paper upon which they were printed. The pamphlets listed the names of candidates for various state and local races who were considered supportive of the black community and civil rights. The pamphlet effort was very successful: From 1957 to 1969, candidates endorsed by the Voters' League consistently carried the city's black wards. During these years, LeFlore served as a crucial intermediary between black voters and white politicians. Led by LeFlore, the league also brought hundreds of incidents of discrimination to light and lobbied for equality. Working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, LeFlore filed a suit to desegregate Mobile's public schools. The case, Birdie Mae Davis v. Mobile County Board of Education, was not fully adjudicated until 1997, however, making it the longest-running secondary school desegregation case in American history.
One of the politicians who consistently received the Voters' League's endorsement was Joseph N. Langan, who was elected to his first of many terms as a Mobile city commissioner in 1953 Langan had always been a strong supporter of civil rights. As a state senator in 1946 he had opposed the Boswell Amendment and led a filibuster to defeat a new version of the law in 1949. By working with Langan, LeFlore successfully desegregated several downtown businesses and restaurants, the local library, and the city-owned golf course in the early 1960s. At a time when cities like Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma erupted with racial violence and direct-action protests, Mobile's path toward desegregation proceeded with moderation, earning LeFlore a considerable amount of respect among black and white leaders.
In the mid-1960s, however, after seeing the success of the more direct-action methods employed by activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth, younger Mobile civil rights activists began to question LeFlore's advocacy of polite persistence. In 1966, a group of young activists formed the Neighborhood Organized Workers (NOW) to pursue economic development in the black communities around Mobile. Some NOW leaders viewed LeFlore's relationship with Langan as paternalistic and sought instead more direct participation in government by African Americans. In June 1967, LeFlore's Chatague Avenue home was bombed. No one was injured in the blast and a year-long investigation failed to uncover any suspects, but some members of the black community speculated that the would-be assassins were black. The fact that this might even be possible reflected the changing relationship between LeFlore, the aged activist, and the younger black community. LeFlore had little influence upon the members of NOW, who viewed him as out of touch with the changing times. In April 1968, NOW decided to hold a parade to mark the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr despite being refused a permit by city officials. This march inaugurated a period of direct confrontation with city leaders. NOW went on to organize business boycotts, sponsored a speech by Lowndes County Freedom Organization founder Stokley Carmichael, and organized a highly effective protest outside the city's auditorium during the nationally televised American Junior Miss pageant. Throughout these events, LeFlore urged caution from the group and attempted to mediate the disputes between the organization and the city's white leaders.
When NOW proposed a boycott of the 1969 city election, LeFlore pleaded with the group to reconsider. On Election Day, NOW members confiscated pink sheets from the black wards, contributing to extremely low voter turnout, particularly in the black wards, and Langan was defeated. Additionally, no winning candidate carried a single black ward; with the increase in the city's white population brought about by annexation of areas west of the city, local white politicians no longer need the black vote to win. In response to this new electoral reality, LeFlore urged African Americans to seek office for themselves and agreed to run for the U.S. Senate in 1973 as the National Democratic Party of Alabama candidate. His bid was unsuccessful, but LeFlore was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives along with a new slate of black legislators from south Alabama the following year.
After his election, LeFlore began working for more direct participation by blacks in Mobile government. In October 1975, the Voters' League filed a suit against the city alleging that the at-large election of commissioners was inherently discriminatory to minorities. The case, Wiley Bolden et al v. City of Mobile, lasted for nine years but led to the eventual restructuring of Mobile's commission form of government into districts. As a result, African Americans and women were elected to the commission for the first time in the city's history. LeFlore did not live to see this new government, however; he died of a heart attack on January 31, 1976. He was remembered as a Moses of his people and is buried in Mobile's Magnolia Cemetery.
John LeFlore's many contributions to Mobile have been recognized by the city. A magnet school is named in his honor and his office building is listed on the African American Heritage Trail. In August 2009, city officials dedicated Unity Point Park, a small public space honoring the legacies of LeFlore and Joseph Langan.
John L. LeFlore Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Mobile, Alabama.
Kirkland, Scotty E. "Monumental Point: Downtown's Unity Point Park Memorializes Two Outspoken Advocates for Civil Rights," Mobile Bay Magazine 26 (June 2010): 96-99.
Kirkland, Scotty E. "Pink Sheets and Black Ballots: Politics and Civil Rights in Mobile, Alabama, 1945-1985." Master's thesis, University of South Alabama, 2009.
Richardson, Frederick Douglas. The Genesis and Exodus of NOW. Boynton Beach, Fla.: Futura Press, 1996.