TIFTON – Former State Judge Larry B. Mims recalls the lawsuit that ended the at-large voting laws for the Tift County Commission and the county school board.
A 1984 lawsuit created districts for Tift government bodies, allowing minorities an opportunity for representation on local boards.
Mims returned home to Tift County in 1980 to practice law. A native of Tifton, he had attended the public schools of Tift County, graduating from Tift County High School in 1972.
He had continued his education at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he graduated in 1976 with a BA in government. After working in state government for a year, he enrolled in the University of Georgia School of Law in 1977. He received his law degree in 1980 and passed the Georgia Bar exam in June of the same year.
In 1983, Emerson Henderson, David Walbert and Mims were the three attorneys who filed the lawsuit against the county and school board. The plaintiffs on the suit were Wasdon Graydon Jr., Dr. Homer Day, Roosevelt Russell Sr., Sharon Bryant, Betty Anderson and Mims.
Mims said they filed the lawsuit because they felt Black residents were unrepresented in local county politics.
"It goes against the idea of democracy when people are unable to be represented by leaders from their respective communities," Mims said. “So, we filed a lawsuit against the county and the board of education.”
At the time, Mims said it was difficult for Black people to run for office and get elected.
“At that time there was not a history of people voting outside of their race,” Mims said. “In other words, people tended to vote along racial lines, especially during that time.”
Because people tended to vote along racial lines then, Black residents felt discouraged and didn't run for office because there was little chance for them to win, Mims said. He remembers the county’s population only being about 30% African American.
Mims, the attorneys and plaintiffs went to the courts to find relief, Mims said, by establishing single-member districts to provide opportunities for Black voters to have leaders elected from their community and providing African Americans with a realistic chance to be elected into local office.
In a single member district, voters can only vote for their geographic district. The only at-large position on the boards would be for chairman.
Thankfully for everyone involved in the lawsuit, it was not a drawn-out process, Mims said.
The lawsuit ended with a consent decree and the school board and board of commissioners were provided single member districts for the six county board seats and six school board seats.
The consent decree also provided for at-large elections for the chairmen of the county commission and the school board.
“What single member voting districts have provided is the opportunity for African Americans to represent their communities, their districts and to be successful in winning those positions,” Mims said.
Reorganization of the Tift County election board was a byproduct of the lawsuit, Mims said.
At the time, there were many factors that made it difficult for Black people and other working-class residents to register to vote. Factors included one centralized downtown place for voter registration that had limited operating hours Monday through Friday. The lawsuit led to more Black residents serving on the Tift County Board of Elections.
“The lawsuit spoke to opening up the electoral process and giving everybody the opportunity to participate now the results and the change that we now see on our board of elections is diverse board members and we see the options to register in many different places, not just one, and at different times instead of the usual 8-5 slot.”
After the lawsuit was settled in 1985, Wasdon Graydon and Ronald Nixon were elected as the first Black county commissioners along with Leona Mott and Michael David Daniels as the first Black residents elected to the school board.
Today, the Tift County Board of Commissioners has two Black county commissioners, Melissa Hughes and Donnie Hester. The Rev. Brenda Iglehart was the first Black female to serve on the Tift County Board of Commissioners.
“Ending the at-large voting scheme not only saved my future but my granddaughter’s future and the people that look like us,” Hughes said.
Today, the school board in Tift County includes two Black women – Pat McKinnon and Marilyn Burks.
The Tift County Board of Elections supervisor is Leila Dollison, a Black woman.
Mims' son, M. Jay Hall, has also been affected by the lawsuit. He serves on Tifton City Council.
Hall also serves as executive director of Mims Kids, a nonprofit youth organization founded by his parents, Larry and Joyce Mims. It is a youth outreach organization that creates positive influences and experiences for children.