Some African Americans expressed disappointment with Gomillion’s choices. A gradualist with a long history of civil rights activity, Gomillion hoped that, by balancing African American candidates with experienced white incumbents, he could ease the transition from segregated to integrated political power. As he told reporters, he hoped that his slate, if successful, would “encourage whites elsewhere to be willing to appoint or elect qualified Negroes, even in places where Negroes were less numerous than in Macon County.” Paul Puryear, a young political scientist at Tuskegee Institute, formed a rival organization, the Non-Partisan Voters League of Macon County, and distributed an opposing slate of candidates. Puryear’s list included only African American candidates and a platform with specifi c plans for improving black communities across the county. Where Gomillion hoped that his moderate, interracial slate might provide a gradual transition to desegregated government, Puryear argued that gradualism failed to address the inequalities that plagued the black community—the strategy treated black voters like a “‘child-race’ unable to cope with the complexities of modern life.”
Gomillion’s strategy worked. In Macon County, two black candidates supported by the Democratic Club won seats in the county commission, another won the race for justice of the peace, and Gomillion won an uncontested seat on the board of education. The three white candidates backed by Gomillion’s club took county positions as well. In the city elections, eight black citizens qualifi ed to run for five seats on the Tuskegee city council (all of which were held by white incumbents). Th e club supported one white incumbent and two black challengers, Kenneth L. Buford and Stanley Smith. In city races Gomillion understood the need for white votes if his candidates were to be elected, and he used Puryear’s challenge to win over white moderates. He warned the electorate, “If white citizens do not cooperate…in the election of Reverend Buford and Dr. Smith…white officials and white citizens might as well expect…the beginning of an all-out eff ort to take over the government of the city and the county, in which Negroes are now willing to share.” On September 15, Smith and Buford managed to attract a number of white voters, and both took seats on the council.
The results of the 1964 Tuskegee elections were nothing short of remarkable. Thanks to the leadership of Gomillion and the Democratic Club, the city and county had interracial government for the first time since Reconstruction. The incoming mayor, a white politician named Charles Keever, stated that the election provided an “opportunity to establish with certainty that Southern civic government can function with the good of all its people in mind.” The new council seconded the sentiment, promising to “work for a community composed of citizens whose hearts are united in brotherly love.” Tuskegee officials began appointing black residents to a number of positions in the city government, a clear symbol of new directions in Macon County.
Yet the election of African Americans failed to address all of the inequalities left by decades of discrimination and segregation, a fact highlighted by Paul Puryear in the wake of the election. The young leader told a reporter that “everybody has been so busy obtaining the right to vote that we’ve all neglected to notice that time and again the drive for freedom has resulted in… a narrow leadership that presumes to speak for the mass of Negroes.” He explicitly criticized Gomillion in language similar to that used by SNCC members to describe the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC, saying that the Tuskegee activist’s leadership was “sterile and limited in its approach.” For Puryear, the election had ratified a strategy that traded true social and economic reform for limited political compromises. Th e results in Tuskegee may have allowed African Americans to access local power, but without an approach seeking to address the real needs of the black community, such a minor victory would prove fruitless. Puryear’s caveats proved prescient as young civil rights activists in SNCC and across the South began to address the numerous legacies of segregation in the South.