By Cameron K Bell
At the young age of 24, Mary Bell became the first African American woman to run for office in Americus when she ran for Justice of the Peace. In great anticipation on Election Day, July 20, 1965, she walked up to the polling place prepared to cast her ballot. There were 3 lines labeled “Colored,” which was around back, “Men,” and “Women.” Bell stood in the line labeled
“Women.” When the clerk told her she couldn’t vote from this line, Bell refused to move. Then she realized 3 of her comrades from the movement, Maimie Campbell, Lena Turner, and Gloria Wise were standing in line behind her, and also refused to move. Unbeknownst to Mary Bell, the plan for the day was to challenge Americus’ segregated polling places.
The clerk called the sheriff who arrested and jailed the four women for “blocking the entrance to a polling place.” The women refused bail on principle. Not only did they not believe they had done anything wrong, but by the 4th day of the imprisonment, with protests in the streets calling for their release, the White Businessmen’s Association of Americus offered to bail them out.
The women refused, because in earlier movement work organizers had attempted to work with the White Businessmen’s Association on ending discriminatory business practices and they refused. So, this sudden change of heart seemed less than genuine.
Bell, Campbell, Turner, and Wise stayed in jail for 10 days. They sued the county and after 2 years of legal maneuvering the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Americus could no longer have segregated polling places and ordered a new special election to be held for Justice of the Peace.
While Mary Bell still lost the Special Election in 1967, the larger battle for access to the polls had been victorious. This episode in Americus history is critical for not only understanding the past, but making sense of contemporary struggles. We must continue to preserve our stories and share them with the next generation. If you have any documents, memories, experiences
from the civil rights struggle in Americus and Sumter County, collect them, record them, and reach out to Sam Mahone with the Americus Sumter County Movement Remembered Committee. Write to ASCMRC, Inc. 311 Harvey Lane Americus, Georgia 31719, or ASCMRC, Inc., P.O. Box 1383, Americus, Georgia 31709