To Frank “Butch” Ellis, the racist culture that defined Alabama 50 years ago is gone. Integrated neighborhoods are common, and blacks are winning local elections with white support, he says.
“It’s not an issue anymore with us here,” the white lawyer said from his office across the street from the Shelby County courthouse in Columbiana.
To Harry Jones, a black minister, the racism has just moved underground. “Shelby County has modernized the ‘good ole boy’ syndrome,” he said at his church in Calera, 10 miles away.
Those divergent views of Alabama and the American South are at the core of a U.S. Supreme Court fight over the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark law that did more than any civil rights-era measure to empower blacks at the ballot box. Which perspective the court adopts will determine the fate of a central prong of the law being challenged by Shelby County. The court hears arguments Feb. 27 and will probably rule by late June.
The dispute is one of two major race cases now before the justices, who are also considering whether to scale back university affirmative action programs. Together, the two clashes may mark a turning point for civil rights, ending decades-old legal protections for blacks and Hispanics.
At issue in the Shelby County case is the law’s requirement that all or parts of 16 states, including virtually the entire South, get federal approval before changing election districts, amending voting rules or even moving a polling place.
Critics say the rule was justified in an era of segregated schools, voter literacy tests, Ku Klux Klan marches and police brutality. Now, they say, it’s outdated.
“The Alabama of 2013 is not the Alabama of 1965,” said Luther Strange, the state’s Republican attorney general. Today, “Alabama is no different than any other state in the union.”
The Supreme Court has already hinted that a majority of the justices may agree with that assessment. In a 2009 Voting Rights Act ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “in part due to the success of that legislation, we are now a very different nation” than in 1965.
Roberts, writing for eight justices, said the so-called preclearance provision raised “serious constitutional questions” because it applied only to some parts of the country.
The court avoided the constitutional question in that 2009 decision, with the justices instead reaching a compromise that let more local governments seek an exemption from the preclearance rule.
This time, civil-rights activists are bracing for a much bigger ruling, one that would invalidate a provision that the Justice Department has invoked to block more than 2,400 voting changes as discriminatory since 1982.
The Obama administration last year used the preclearance requirement, known as Section 5, to stop Republican-backed voter-identification laws in Texas and South Carolina from going into effect.
Elimination of Section 5 would open the way for renewed efforts to suppress black votes, Jones said.
“If we lose it, we are going to go back, I can assure you of that,” said Jones, 49, from his office at New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church. “I can see things happening if Section 5 is removed, and it frightens me.”
By almost any measure, today’s Shelby County bears little resemblance to the 1965 version. Although the county experienced less turmoil in the 1960s than other parts of the state, Shelby sits just south of Birmingham, the city where police used water hoses and German Shepherds to disperse demonstrators and Ku Klux Klan members killed four girls in a church bombing.
Shelby has seen its population quintuple since 1970, to 195,000 from 38,000. What once was a collection of small towns separated by farmland now teems with strip malls and subdivisions. It’s a heavily Republican county, giving Mitt Romney 77 percent of the presidential vote in November.
It’s also overwhelmingly white. Long after legal barriers to integration disappeared, many neighborhoods and schools have only a handful of black faces. A person can walk the two blocks that make up the heart of Columbiana’s downtown without encountering a racial minority. Blacks constitute 11 percent of the county, compared with 27 percent statewide.
How much race relations have changed is a matter of opinion. The most blatant forms of Alabama discrimination, including violent intimidation of blacks, are mostly history even if memories remain seared in the minds of older residents.
Some residents still resist letting go of the Old South, as Bobby Joe Seales discovered when he took over as president of the Shelby County Historical Society in 1999. One of Seales’ first actions was to take down the Confederate flag that hung outside the society’s headquarters in an old courthouse in Columbiana, replacing it with an American banner.
The move drew angry phone calls from the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Seales says. “Boy, did I catch H-E-double-L,” he said.
The racial demographics also limit black political power in Shelby County, where the nine-member county commission is entirely white. Two recent clashes underscore the challenges blacks have securing even a single seat on some city councils -- and highlight the impact of the Voting Rights Act.
In 2008, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department objected when Calera changed its voting lines to eliminate the only majority-black district on its city council. At the time, Ernest Montgomery was the sole black on the five-person council. Blacks constitute 23 percent of the town’s 12,000 citizens.
The city ignored the objection and held the election anyway, causing Montgomery to lose his seat and prompting a Justice Department lawsuit. The city agreed to hold a new election, with all the candidates running citywide and the top six vote-getters obtaining spots on the council. Montgomery received the most votes of any candidate, reclaiming his seat.
Ellis, who serves as Calera’s city attorney, said the municipality’s increasingly integrated neighborhoods were making it harder to maintain a majority-black district.
“You couldn’t draw a line around the new black population,” he said. “It was mixed in with the white population, which I always thought was the objective.”
Montgomery, meeting with a reporter after a council meeting, said the most disturbing part of the redistricting episode was that fellow officials didn’t tell him about the Justice Department objection letter, which arrived just before Election Day.
“Many of the people whom I represent feel that it was a plot” to remove a black from the council, Montgomery said, adding that he has “a difficult time believing that.”
Even so, the lack of candor “made me feel like something was wrong with this picture,” said Montgomery, 56.
Federal intervention similarly kept Bobby Lee Harris in place as the only black on the seven-member Alabaster city council in 2000.
The Justice Department objected to the city’s plan to supplement Harris’ district with two newly annexed areas, both almost entirely white. The move would have dropped the minority share of registered voters from 51 percent to 46 percent, the federal officials said.
Faced with federal opposition, the city agreed not to count the votes from the annexed areas for the council race. That secured the victory for Harris, though he lost four years later to a white candidate.
Ellis, who represents both Shelby County and Calera and helped put together the lawsuit, said the city mishandled the redistricting that almost ousted Montgomery. At the same time, he said isolated incidents aren’t enough to justify a system that treats Alabama differently than other states.
“I’m sure that there’s still racism,” said Ellis, 72, a former state senator who has served as county attorney since 1964. “I’m sure it exists in Washington, D.C., New York.”
The Voting Rights Act was enacted to combat discrimination that kept black people away from Southern polling places for generations. A separate section of the law bars voting discrimination nationwide and isn’t affected by the court case.
Congress reauthorized the law in 2006, extending it for 25 years on lopsided votes: 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. Bush, a Republican, signed the measure into law.
In defending Section 5, the Obama administration says lawmakers had ample grounds to conclude that the covered jurisdictions remain the most problematic parts of the country. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli pointed to the number of lawsuits in those places leading to rulings or settlements that bolstered minority rights.
“That evidence,” Verrilli wrote, “showed that discrimination remains substantially more prevalent in covered jurisdictions.”
The case is Shelby County v. Holder, 12-96.
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