Joseph N. Langan (1912-2004) was a longtime Mobile politician. As a state senator, he worked for voting rights and opposed the Dixiecrat movement, and as a Mobile commissioner, he expanded the size of the city and crafted a moderate approach to advancing the equality of African American citizens.
Joseph Nicholas Langan was born in Mobile, Mobile County, on March 11, 1912. His father, David Langan, served as the tax collector for Mobile until 1911. Later, he went into business with his brother, opening a men's clothing store in downtown Mobile. When the store was destroyed by a hurricane in 1916, Langan moved his wife and four children to Semmes, a small community in north Mobile County. After World War I, the Langans moved back to Mobile and opened a grocery store on Espejo Street.
The Langans were devout Catholics. Joseph Langan attended St. Mary's parochial school for his early education and then transferred to Murphy High School, where he graduated in 1931. That same year, he joined the Alabama National Guard and also took a job in his uncle's law firm. At night, he studied for the Alabama bar exam and passed in 1936. In 1939, Langan ran successfully for a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives. The 27-year-old politician worked for the improvement of Alabama's voting laws and oversaw the installation of voting machines in Mobile. Langan's term was cut short in 1941 with America's entry into World War II. He rejoined the National Guard and was sent to Arizona for training. During the latter years of the war, Langan served with the Thirty-first Dixie Division as a chief of staff in the South Pacific during campaigns in the Philippines and New Guinea, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star.
Like many returning soldiers, wartime service had a moderating effect on Langan's racial views. Growing up in the segregated South, Langan was keenly aware of the seriousness of the color line, even if he and his family did not always adhere to the status quo. As a Catholic, he had been taught that all men were equal in the eyes of God, and he had grown up in a racially mixed neighborhood. His religious upbringing, his childhood memories, and his military service shaped his deeply held notions of justice and equality.
While in the National Guard, Langan witnessed the demeaning effects of segregation on black soldiers and became determined to speak out against such injustices. When he returned to Mobile after the war, he found the city much changed by rapid industrialization of the shipbuilding industry and the expansion of the Army Air Force base at Brookley Field. The population also had increased dramatically, making Mobile one of the most crowded cities in America. Incidents of racial violence had also increased during the war. Upon his return, Langan began speaking out about the unequal treatment of blacks in Mobile, particularly on city buses. Langan married Maude Adele Holcombe in 1943; the couple had no children.
In 1946, Langan returned to the political arena and was elected to the Alabama State Senate. As the only senator from Mobile County, Langan held a powerful position. Any new piece of legislation that affected the county had to win his approval before going forward to the legislature. Langan used his position to work toward improving the lives of white and black Mobilians and was an early supporter of equalizing the salaries of white and black schoolteachers. He was also a supporter of the candidacy of James E. Folsom for governor and became one of Folsom's leading allies in the state senate after he became governor. In 1945, Langan was among the strongest opponents of the Boswell Amendment, a state constitutional amendment aimed at disenfranchising black voters by implementing a vague "understanding clause" to all new voter registration applications. Registrants would have to explain any section of the U.S. Constitution to a registrar's satisfaction before being allowed to register. The measure, Langan and others argued, allowed white registrars to deny the applications of new black voters, thus violating the Constitution.
Langan's opposition to the Boswell Amendment angered some segregationists in the Alabama Democratic Party. But he earned the support of civil rights leaders like John L. LeFlore, a Mobile postman who had led the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1925. Understanding that the local registrar's office was the best route to registration for African Americans, Langan lobbied Folsom to appoint E. J. "Gunny" Gonzales to a vacant seat on the Mobile County Board of Registrars. Gonzales also opposed the Boswell Amendment and even testified for the plaintiffs in a court case that eventually declared the Boswell Amendment unconstitutional.
In 1949, segregationists in the Alabama Legislature attempted to pass another version of the Boswell Amendment on the last day of the session. Langan led a 23-hour filibuster to defeat the new bill. The following year, Langan lost his Senate seat to Thomas Johnston, a Dixiecrat supporter with strong financial backing from Old Guard segregationists who were determined to oust Langan. After his defeat, Langan accepted a commission from the U.S. Army and returned to active service in Korea, where he remained until 1952.
In 1953, Langan won a seat on the Mobile City Commission, with the support of a large number of African Americans who remembered his efforts to defeat the Boswell Amendment. During his first term, Langan sought to create a biracial coalition of citizens to discuss Mobile's racial problems. These efforts earned him the respect of many white liberals and black Mobilians. Langan's support for civil rights still remained unpopular among some white Mobilians, however. In the 1957 election, he faced E. C. Barnard, leader of the local Ku Klux Klan. This election also witnessed the introduction of "pink sheets," informational leaflets endorsing candidates that were part of a campaign conducted by the Non-Partisan Voters League, a local organization run by John LeFlore. The League's endorsement, combined with Langan's wide appeal among white voters, particularly Catholics, swept him to an easy victory over Barnard.
Throughout the 1960s, as civil rights demonstrations erupted in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Mobile remained comparatively quiet. Langan continued to work with activists like Spring Hill College professor Father Albert Foley and John LeFlore and oversaw moderate concessions, including the desegregation of downtown lunch counters, the public library, and the city-owned golf course. Langan also oversaw several large expansions of the city limits, increasing the size of Mobile dramatically.
Langan was easily reelected in 1961, but in 1965 he faced his first real opposition from local businessman Joseph Bailey. Bailey's own ties in the white community threatened to undermine Lagan's white support. During that election, Langan won by fewer than 1,500 votes, all of which came from the black community.
After 1966, the political situation in Mobile changed dramatically with the emergence of the Neighborhood Organized Workers (NOW), a civil and economic rights organization run by a group of younger African American activists who had grown tired of the moderate politics of black leaders like John LeFlore. NOW also attacked Langan and the other Mobile commissioners for their slow response to problems in the black community. NOW wanted to see more blacks in government and saw the relationship between Langan and LeFlore as an outdated form of paternalism, a view many felt was confirmed when, in 1966, Langan appointed LeFlore as the first black member of the Mobile Housing Board.
As the 1969 election neared, members of NOW organized a "no vote" campaign. LeFlore attempted to fend off the action but was unsuccessful. Langan's challenger was again Joseph Bailey, who ran a series of ads with photos of Langan with John LeFlore in an attempt to show that the incumbent commissioner was too friendly with the civil rights leader. Combined with NOW's boycott in the black wards, the campaign to unseat Langan was successful; Bailey won by more than 1,000 votes. Langan used the remainder of his time on the commission to appoint several black citizens to city positions. He would never again hold public office.
After his defeat, Langan returned to his law practice. During the late 1970s, he testified for the plaintiffs in Bolden v. City of Mobile, the landmark case filed by the Non-Partisan Voters' League that alleged Mobile's at-large election system was inherently discriminatory to African Americans. After a decade-long legal battle, the city's form of government shifted to a mayor-council format. In 1985, Langan ran for the newly created District Two seat, which boasted a 70-percent African American majority. He was defeated by Charles Tunstall, a local minister who became the first African American commissioner in the city's history. Langan remained active in Mobile for the rest of his life, particularly in the local Exchange Club and various Catholic charities. He suffered a stroke in February 2003 and never fully recovered; he died on November 2, 2004, at the age of 92. He is entombed in the Holy Sepulcher Mausoleum in Mobile's Catholic Cemetery.
In August 2009, the city of Mobile dedicated Unity Point Park, a small public space located at the historic boundary between
the white and black sections of town. The park features a large bronze statue of Joseph Langan and John LeFlore standing together
to honor their efforts in securing equality for all Mobilians.
Ahmed, Nahfiza. "The Neighborhood Organized Workers of Mobile Alabama: Black Power and Local Civil Rights Activism in the Deep South, 1968-1971." Southern Historian 20 (1999 ): 25-40.
Gonzales, James J. Gunny Memoirs of Mobile's South Side, Riding Alabama's Tide of White Supremacy. Greenwood Village, Colo.: Academy Books, 2007.
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.
Nelson, Bruce. "Organized Labor and the Struggle for Black Equality in Mobile During World War II." The Journal of American History 80 (December 1993): 952-88.
Nicholls, Keith. "The Non-Partisan Voters' League of Mobile, Alabama: Its Founding and Major Accomplishments." Gulf Coast Historical Review 8 (Spring 1993): 74-88.
Thomason, Michael V.R., ed. Mobile: The New History of Alabama's First City. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Scotty E. Kirkland
History Museum of Mobile
Published November 23, 2010
Last updated March 25, 2013