First black Fort Valley council member recalls uphill struggle to move city forward

FORT VALLEY — Former Fort Valley Mayor Paul Reehling remembers the first day he encountered Claybon Edwards at the service shop of a local auto dealer.

Edwards was impeccably dressed in an expensive suit, and his demeanor emanated intelligence.

It was 1964 and Edwards, now 79, had just returned to his hometown from Chicago where he worked for a lucrative insurance company. His father was getting older and his brother had a large family to take care of. He had come home to help with the family business, Edwards Funeral Home.

“He hadn’t even moved his furniture yet, and I said, ‘You should really consider running for City Council one day,’ ” Reehling said.

Reehling had a feeling that Edwards was a man who could help move Fort Valley forward.

Never before had getting into politics crossed Edwards’ mind, but six years later, he found himself on the ballot to become a member of the Fort Valley City Council. However, it would be 15 months before he would take his seat as the city’s first black council member.

“The need was there,” Edwards said. “We needed equal representation.”

The time was right for diversity to appear on the City Council, Reehling said, adding that others had tried and failed before.

“Just because it was time for it doesn’t mean you could just grab a guy out of the bushes,” Reehling said.

But Edwards, by Reehling’s estimation, could be a barrier breaker. Edwards was respected by many in the community and left a good impression on virtually anybody he met, black or white, Reehling said.

Nevertheless, his supporters were prepared for an uphill campaign battle.

“At the time, you had three groups of people in Fort Valley,” Reehling said. “You had a group of black people screaming ‘now.’ You had a group of white people screaming ‘never.’ And then you had the group of people in the middle that you could deal with.”

Reehling went door-to-door assisting Edwards with getting that middle ground group’s support. A group of residents who had formed the Citizenship Education Commission also came to Edwards’ aid.

At the time, Isaac Crumbly was a member of the coalition and a young faculty member at Fort Valley State College, which is now a university.

“Claybon Edwards was an excellent candidate,” Crumbly said. “He was well-respected and free of blemish.”

Yet Edwards still found himself combating a political system aimed at stifling the black vote.

According to an opinion from 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a week prior to the April 1970 election, the city clerk mailed notices to 192 residents telling them they would be purged from the voter list because they had failed to pay city ad valorem taxes. Of those purged, 150 were black.

Those purged voters entered a class-action lawsuit and were allowed to vote on a special machine. The machine tallied 34 votes.

The race was close, and Edwards needed some of those disputed votes to count.

Two weeks later, the Superior Court of Peach County upheld the city charter’s provision that all taxes legally imposed by Fort Valley must be paid prior to any city election, prompting Edwards to file a lawsuit in a federal district court against the city’s officials on the grounds that the provision was unconstitutional.

Backed by financial and moral support from the Citizenship Education Commission, Edwards took the case all the way to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where Judge Griffin Bell wrote an opinion declaring the city’s voter-purging efforts unconstitutional. The contested votes were then counted with 31 going in Edwards’ favor.

He was finally a Fort Valley councilman.

“We were a very proud bunch when that happened,” Crumbly said.

When Edwards looks back on that time, he recalls his road to the City Council as long and drawn out. However, the Morris Brown College graduate knew the path had to be taken. While in college, he joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity in 1948 and became highly involved in voter registration drives in the black community. His ascent to political office, with its ups and downs, was an extension of that political awareness.

“We all were aware of the cause and the need,” Edwards said.

To Edwards, running for office was not about being the first black to serve on the Fort Valley City Council, but it was about getting things done.

Reehling recalls Edwards being a councilman who focused on public works projects, particularly improving streets across the city. He was a proponent of neighborhoods having parks for recreation. And he took seriously the beautification of the city, Reehling said. One time, Reehling remembered, Edwards hit the streets himself with a group of volunteers to paint houses.

“It’s not about black or white,” Edwards said. “It’s about doing what’s right.”

However, Crumbly said what Edwards did all those years ago played a part in President Barack Obama’s election in November.

“It was one of those stumbling blocks that got eliminated,” Crumbly said. “To go through all that and see what happened this past November brought tears to all of our eyes.”

Locally, Edwards still can be seen around town. He’s involved in everything from the Boys and Girls Club of the Georgia Heartlands to The Woolfolk Alliance group which focuses on a 31-acre site declared by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site. And that’s when he’s not working at the funeral home his father started in 1929.

“Wherever I’m called, I will go,” Edwards said.

To contact writer Natasha Smith, call 923-3109, extension 236.