Joseph N. Langan

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Joseph N. Langan
Finance Commissioner of Mobile
In office
1953–1969
Preceded by Charles A. Baumhauer
Succeeded by Joseph A. Bailey
Personal details
Born (1912-03-11)March 11, 1912
Mobile, Alabama
Died November 4, 2004(2004-11-04) (aged 92)
Mobile, Alabama
Religion Roman Catholic

Joseph N. Langan (1912–2004) was a Mobile, Alabama-area community leader and politician who served four terms on the Mobile City Commission; during this period he also served several one-year terms as Mayor of Mobile. The office was rotated among the three commissioners and was co-extensive with the presidency of the City Commission. Mobile's largest municipal park was named after him.

Langan also served as a state senator, where he worked to extend voting rights for African Americans (who had been essentially disenfranchised since the turn of the century.) He opposed the Dixiecrat movement in the Democratic Party. As a Mobile commissioner, Langan expanded the size of the city through annexation to provide for growth and increase the tax base. He crafted a moderate approach to advancing the equality of African-American citizens in years of increasing civil rights activism.

Early life and education[edit]

Joseph Nicholas Langan was born in Mobile, Mobile County, on March 11, 1912. His father, David Langan, had served for several years 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 returned to Mobile and opened a grocery store on Espejo Street.

The Langans were devout Catholics. Joseph Langan and his siblings attended St. Mary's parochial school for their early education. He transferred to the public (white) Murphy High School, where he graduated in 1931. That same year, he joined the Alabama National Guard, while taking a clerk's apprentice job in his uncle's law firm. At night, he studied for the Alabama bar exam, which he passed in 1936.

Political career and military service[edit]

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.

During his wartime service Langan had an opportunity to work with black soldiers, which opened his eyes to their issues. Growing up in the segregated South, Langan had learned to observe 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 the growth and rapid industrialization of the shipbuilding industry, which had been devoted to war needs, and the expansion of the Army Air Force base at Brookley Field. The population had increased dramatically with the influx of defense workers, making Mobile one of the most crowded cities in America. Incidents of racial violence had increased during the war due to social tensions and competition. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration required defense contractors to hire and promote workers without discrimination. Upon his return, Langan began speaking out about the unequal treatment of blacks in Mobile, particularly on city buses, where they were forced to sit in the back rows and give up seats to whites.

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. At that time, the counties served as electoral districts and a branch of the state legislature. 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. He was an early supporter of equalizing the salaries of white and black public schoolteachers, who taught in a segregated system.

He supported 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 suppressing the black vote (already limited) by requiring new voters at registration to demonstrate understanding of the U.S. Constitution to a (white) registrar's satisfaction before being allowed to register. It was devised by legislators after the United States Supreme Court had ruled against use of the white primary, in Smith v. Allwright (1945).

The measure, Langan and others argued, allowed white registrars to deny subjectively the applications of new black voters, thus violating the US Constitution. Some segregationists in the Alabama Democratic Party were angered by Langan's position. But he earned the support of civil rights leaders such as John L. LeFlore, a US postman in Mobile 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 key to enabling 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, which was passed by a majority of state voters in 1946, although it was rejected by voters in Birmingham and Mobile.[1]

From his experience on the Board of Registrars, Gonzales later testified for the plaintiffs in a court case, Davis et al. v. Schnell et al. It was brought in 1948 by ten Mobile County African-American residents against the Board of Registrars for discrimination under the amendment. A three-judge panel in federal district court declared the Boswell Amendment unconstitutional, as it violated the Fifteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. This decision was upheld in appeals up to the US Supreme Court.[1]

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. It assigned him to Korea to serve with US forces during the Korean War. He served there until 1952.

In 1953, Langan had returned to Mobile and politics, running for city office. He won the position of Finance Commissioner, one of the three seats on the Mobile City Commission. The three commissioners were each elected at large to four-year terms to supervise specific city departments; they also took turns serving one-year terms as mayor during their terms. Langan was supported in this election by numerous 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 remained unpopular among some white Mobilians, however, even as activism rose in the black community in the postwar years.

In the 1957 election, Langan faced E. C. Barnard, leader of the local Ku Klux Klan. In this campaign season, the Non-Partisan Voters League (NPVL) introduced the use of "pink sheets," informational leaflets endorsing certain candidates. The NPVL was led by John LeFlore. The League's endorsement, combined with Langan's wide appeal among white voters, swept him to an easy victory over Barnard.

Throughout the early 1960s, as civil rights demonstrations erupted in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Mobile remained comparatively quiet. Langan continued to work with activists such as John LeFlore and Spring Hill College professor Father Albert Foley. At a time when the state law required racial segregation in public facilities, Langan achieved moderate concessions in the city, including the desegregation of downtown lunch counters, the public library, and the city-owned golf course.

During this period, Langan as a commissioner provided for the growth of Mobile, overseeing several large expansions of the city territory through annexation of suburban areas. This dramatically increased the size of Mobile and added to its tax base.

In 1964 and 1965 national civil rights legislation was passed, ending de jure segregation and enforcing constitutional voting rights through federal oversight and enforcement. African Americans were able to register and vote in Alabama in the ensuing years, as discriminatory barriers to voter registration were forced down.

Langan had been easily reelected in 1961, but in 1965 he faced his first real opposition, from local businessman Joseph Bailey. Bailey's ties in the white community threatened to undermine Lagan's white support. During that election, Langan won by fewer than 1,500 votes, but gained important support from the black community.

African Americans became more politically active after the Voting Rights Act was enforced. But after 1966, the political situation in Mobile changed dramatically when the Neighborhood Organized Workers (NOW) was founded. This civil and economic rights organization was run by a group of younger African-American activists, who had grown tired of the moderate politics of black leaders such as John LeFlore. NOW criticized Langan and the other Mobile commissioners for their slow response to problems in the black community. Its leaders pushed to have more blacks elected to and hired in government. They believed that the relationship between Langan and LeFlore was an outdated form of paternalism. When in 1966 Langan appointed LeFlore as the first black member of the Mobile Housing Board, the NOW activists felt confirmed in their views.

As the 1969 election neared, members of NOW organized a "no vote" campaign to protest the slow rate of social and economic progress for blacks. LeFlore attempted to fend off the boycott. Langan was challenged again by Joseph Bailey, who ran a series of ads with photos of Langan with John LeFlore to suggest 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 residents to city positions. He would never again hold public office.

Later years[edit]

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 in 1975 by the Non-Partisan Voters' League that challenged Mobile's at-large election system for City Commission as inherently discriminatory. Blacks comprised 36% of the city's population but, because candidates for each commission seat had to gain a majority of voters, the minority was prevented from ever electing a candidate of its choice.[2]

After a decade-long legal battle, the form of government was changed to a mayor-council system, in which the mayor is elected at-large and city council members are elected from single-member districts. The number of districts were seven, each with roughly equal populations.[2]

In a referendum in May 1985, Mobile voters chose a mayor-council form of government.[2] Elections were held in July 1985,[3] and Langan ran for the seat of the newly created District Two. It had a 70-percent African-American majority. He was defeated by Charles Tunstall, a local minister who was one of three African Americans elected that year to the city council, the first ever in city government.[3] The seven new city council members took office in October 1985.

Langan remained active in civic affairs 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.

Preceded by
Charles A. Baumhauer
Finance Commissioner of Mobile
1953–1969
Succeeded by
Joseph A. Bailey
Preceded by
Charles F. Hackmeyer
81st Mayor of Mobile
1955–1956
Succeeded by
Henry R. Luscher
Preceded by
Henry R. Luscher
83rd Mayor of Mobile
1957–1958
Succeeded by
Henry R. Luscher
Preceded by
Henry R. Luscher
85th Mayor of Mobile
1959–1960
Succeeded by
Henry R. Luscher
Preceded by
Charles S. Trimmier
89th Mayor of Mobile
1963–1964
Succeeded by
Charles S. Trimmier
Preceded by
Charles S. Trimmier
91st Mayor of Mobile
1965–1967
Succeeded by
Arthur R. Outlaw

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Scotty E. Kirkland, "Boswell Amendment", Encyclopedia of Alabama, 2011-2015; accessed 11 January 2017
  2. ^ a b c "HISTORY OF MOBILE'S MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT, 1814-1999", City of Mobile, Alabama
  3. ^ a b "Guide to the Non-Partisan Voting League Records", Doc Player

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Further reading[edit]

  • Foster, Vera Chandler. "‘Boswellianism:' A Technique in the Restriction of Negro Voting." Phylon Vol. 10, No. 1 (1st Quarter 1949): 26-37.
  • Frederickson, Kari. The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932-1968. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Kirkland, Scotty E. “Mobile and the Boswell Amendment.” Alabama Review 65 (July 2012): 205-49.

External links[edit]