Valdosta Daily Times

May 24, 2013

Hart served community in fight for fair voting

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Having served his country, Ralph Hart came home.

In the early 1950s, he joined the Army. He traveled the world, living in 26 nations, including Japan, Korea and Germany. He spent two years serving in Vietnam. At the time of his retirement in 1974, he was a first sergeant.

After 20 years in the Army, he felt he had performed his civic duty to God and country.

He wanted to come home, quietly work as a television repair man, and raise his family.

Instead, at home, he became involved in a different kind of service — one to his community. He was asked to participate in the effort to end the at-large election process for one that would more fairly represent the city’s black population.

At the time, no African-Americans served on Valdosta City Council or other locally elected governing boards. Then, whatever candidates received the most votes from the entire city became council members.

Hart recalls working on a customer’s television set in his 100 block North Ashley Street shop, Hart’s Radio & TV, on an afternoon in 1974. Willie Rayford entered the store and encouraged Hart to attend the next meeting of the Black Community Action Group. Rayford would not take no for an answer, and Hart eventually agreed to attend the meeting.

After 20 years of service, Hart felt he and his family had sacrificed enough time together. At the meeting, he encountered people seeking to peacefully make Valdosta a better, more equitable, place to live, work and raise a family.

“I considered those noble causes,” Hart says. “So I joined the BCAG.”

But his decision did not come lightly.

“One of the most heart-rending parts of my life was to get involved in that fight,” Hart says. “It was not a love-hate thing but an issue of fairness.”

He became chairman of Citizens for Progress, one of several organizations involved in ending the at-large system. As time passed and his commitment deepened, Hart became more involved in area politics.

“It consumed a lot of time,” Hart says. “I was not prepared for a leadership role.”

Some efforts were made to intimidate him, but Hart continued his efforts. He received some hate mail. Police detectives visited his shop without reason. His first wife, Dorothy, wanted him to let the matter drop.

“At the time, I was married and had young children,” Hart says. “It was the 1970s, too, so I was concerned about safety, but I was also a military man. In the military, when you get a mission, you proceed. I was on a mission.”

The marriage did not survive past the late 1970s, Hart says. He and Dorothy divorced. Hart later married Orean Williams. He had three children from his first marriage; Orean had two children. Hart considers all five kids as his children. He now has 16 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Though remarried, Hart remained close to his first wife out of friendship and mutual interest of their children.

In 2011, Hart was struck a double blow. Within three weeks of one another, his wife and ex-wife each died.

Thirty-plus years earlier, Hart continued the fight to end the at-large election city within Valdosta and Lowndes County. Maintaining correspondence with the U.S. Justice Department was only one of his duties.

In 1983, change came in the form of the area’s current election system, which divides the city and county into districts. Instead of citizens having the opportunity to stack the ballot box by voting for everyone, citizens voted specifically for representatives from their district, from their neighborhoods.

For the first time, Valdosta’s African-American communities had regular black representation, representatives directly from their communities, on City Council, the Lowndes County Commission and school boards.

Though he wished only to work in his shop and raise his family, it was important to him that his children realize that a man must face many duties in life. A lesson he believes his children, including son Anthony who also serves in the military, learned well.

“A man’s biggest responsibility is to take care of his family then he must take care of his community,” Hart says, “but it’s sometimes hard to keep that balance.”