Troy City Council member Dejerilyn Henderson died suddenly earlier this month, and the news stories about her public life defined her as an outspoken civic leader as well as an advocate for black students in the city school system in which she taught for more than 30 years.
What was not mentioned was the role that Henderson and her former husband Jerry played in a federal court ruling that led to the Alabama Democratic Party choosing then-Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley as its 1986 gubernatorial nominee, a move that angered voters and led to the election of longshot candidate Guy Hunt, the first Republican to become governor since Reconstruction.
“Obviously it is not possible to quantify the role Mrs. Henderson played but it was definitely significant,” said former University of Alabama political scientist Bill Stewart. “It is among the actions taken by the Alabama Democratic Party that caused thousands and thousands of white Democrats to leave it.”
Going into 1986, it was assumed among Alabama Democrats and Republicans alike that the Democrats would retain their century-long hold on the governor’s chair. The state GOP did not even make the governor’s race a priority. Its statewide priority, according to party chairman Emory Folmar, was the re-election of one-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Jeremiah Denton.
The Democratic gubernatorial field featured five candidates vying to succeed the retiring George C. Wallace, among them former Gov. Fob James and former Lt. Gov. George McMillan. But the top two contenders were Baxley, a former two-term attorney general, and the then-current occupant of the attorney general’s post, the tough-talking, former Mobile County District Attorney Charlie Graddick.
The contest between the two was not exactly friendly. It became even less so after Baxley finished first in the June 3 party gubernatorial primary and Graddick finished second. But Baxley’s failure to win a majority meant the two would compete in a June 24 runoff.
A looming issue in that runoff race was the possibility of “crossover” votes — ballots cast by people who had voted in the June 3 Republican primary. There were no statewide Republican runoff elections on June 24. Less than 30,000 had cast ballots in the two-candidate GOP gubernatorial nomination race, and Hunt had finished first.
Under the authority it had under Alabama law, the state Democratic Party in 1979 had established a rule against crossover votes, the measure stating in part that “any person who votes in the first primary election of another political party shall not be entitled to vote in the Democratic Party’s run-off Primary Election which follows such first primary election.” As a three-judge federal panel would subsequently note, the rule took effect after it was reviewed under Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act, and found to not have “had the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race.” (An historical reminder: The Voting Rights Act had been passed after the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.)
As Baxley and Graddick headed toward their June 24 showdown, a number of Republican officials said it would be permissible for GOP primary voters to cast ballots in that runoff election. Democratic Party officials sought to publicize the no-crossover rule, reminding the party’s county chairs of the rule’s existence, and suggesting a series of questions to ask runoff voters to determine if they were casting “crossover” ballots. Graddick weighed in, urging Republican primary voters to support him, and his office issued a letter to local election officials, warning them of legal consequences if they sought to enforce the crossover rule.
After the June 24 votes were counted, Graddick led Baxley by 8,756 votes. But the Baxley camp challenged that outcome, arguing that crossover votes gave Graddick the edge, and both camps prepared for what would be weeks of legal dueling. For the Baxley camp, an obvious step was a lawsuit alleging that Graddick had violated the federal Voting Rights Act. When the self-styled black wing of the party, the pro-Baxley Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), looked for plaintiffs for that lawsuit, it knew where to look: Pike County.
The Hendersons, both Pike County natives, had been out of Alabama for a while but had returned home, become politically active and had energized the ADC’s Pike chapter. Jerry Henderson had become one of the first two blacks on the county commission and also had become the county ADC chairman. Dejerilyn was not only teaching but serving in the Army Reserve.
“They weren’t scaredy cats and … they were probably the most active couple in ADC and younger than most of the ADC leadership at the time,” said Jerome Gray, the organization’s former field director.
When the lawsuit came before the three-judge federal panel, the judges had approved the Hendersons’ attorneys’ request that they be allowed to represent all black registered voters who had cast ballots in the Democratic primary and gubernatorial runoff. After taking testimony and other evidence, including that from voter survey experts such as Birmingham-Southern College’s Natalie Davis, the court ruled on August 1 that Graddick “made every effort to get voters to violate the anti-crossover rule.
“It appears that thousands of voters did violate the rule and affidavits and depositions admitted in evidence attest to the fact that the Attorney General was to a large degree successful in blocking election officials from attempting to enforce the rule,” the court stated.
In effect, the panel declared, Graddick had caused a change in voting procedures that had not been cleared under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The court enjoined the Democratic Party’s executive committee from certifying Graddick as its nominee, directed the party to order a new runoff election, but said that election would not be necessary if the party “determines pursuant to its procedures and the stringent rules under Alabama law … that Baxley received the majority of the legally cast votes in the June 24 runoff.”
That’s what a party subcommittee subsequently concluded after hearing several days of testimony in Birmingham. Before that subcommittee had even convened, however, Graddick voters around the state were already feeling that the deck was stacked against their candidate and were starting to shift their gaze to the former Cullman County probate judge and Primitive Baptist preacher, Guy Hunt.
“White majorities were not concerned about the niceties of party rules,” said political analyst Bill Stewart. “They didn’t like it a bit when the man who had the most votes was deposed in favor of the man who came in second.”
In the November 4 general election, Alabamians expressed their feelings at the polls, giving Hunt 56 percent of the votes cast and a clear victory over Baxley. Jeremiah Denton, the GOP’s original 1986 re-election priority, narrowly lost to Democratic U.S. Rep. Richard Shelby, who is still in the Senate but is part of its Republican majority.
Meanwhile, back in Alabama, only one Democratic candidate has won a gubernatorial election since 1986, and Republicans now have super majorities in the Alabama Legislature and hold every statewide office.
As for the Hendersons, Jerry went on to become director of elections in the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office and later a writer and an international consultant. In 1994, he was part of a United Nations team of observers that was on hand for South Africa’s first post-apartheid election, an election that led to a new National Assembly whose members subsequently chose Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president.
Dejerilyn remained active in Troy and Pike County politics, teaching in Troy schools. In 2013, according to news reports, she filed a lawsuit to end segregated classrooms in Troy Elementary School.
By that time, she and her husband had long been divorced.
But also by that time, they had, together, helped change the political landscape of Alabama.