North of Selma, black leaders ‘fighting the same battle’

Published 8:47 am Saturday, March 7, 2015

MONTEVALLO, Ala. — There will be no party here this weekend. While thousands are gathering just an hour or so south in Selma to remember one of the high marks of the civil rights movement, black leaders say there is nothing to celebrate.

Political leaders, including President Barack Obama, and foot soldiers of the movement are in Selma to observe the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march that helped to propel the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

But this is Shelby County, a rural cluster of small towns, modest homes and farmland. It was here in 2013 that local officials won a major victory when the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the federal law that resulted from those historic marches in Selma, especially the first, on March 7, 1965, when peaceful protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge were beaten and tear-gassed.

“Shelby County has become the new Selma,” said the Rev. Kenneth Dukes, who has spent all 47 of his years in the county, leads the local NAACP branch and on weekdays drives a school bus for the Montevallo school district. “Not because of the brutality, we aren’t being beaten. But because we’re still here fighting for the same things, fighting the same battle.”

The Shelby County v. Holder decision struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states and local governments needed federal approval before changing voting procedures. Efforts by some in Congress to restore the requirement, meant as a safeguard against government practices that would disenfranchise minority voters, have seemingly stalled.

Even as Obama prepares Saturday to lead the faithful across the bridge, a fading gray structure that straddles the muddy waters of the Alabama River, there is little hope that the law’s preclearance provision will be restored anytime soon.

The Voting Rights Act required that nine states, including Alabama, be subject to additional scrutiny based on the fact that in November 1964 they had voting prerequisites, such as voter-registration tests, and less than 50 percent voter turnout or registration that year.

That meant that big changes — like redistricting — as well as small changes — like moving a polling location across the street — required federal approval that could sometimes take months to obtain.

Butch Ellis, the county attorney, declared to the Birmingham News in June 2013 that the ruling marked “a great day for Shelby County.”

But civil rights leaders locally and nationally were incensed. One of the movement’s biggest victories — won in no small part due to the blood shed and lives lost during the Selma marches — had been invalidated.

“We lost the bridge fight. We won it for 48 years, but now,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who has been convening meetings of pastors and national civil rights leaders in recent months aimed at refocusing efforts on restoring the preclearance provision.

Jackson hopes that a new round of protests and marches can pressure Congress into acting. “I’m concerned that that is not the emphasis. There are all of these great preparations for a raucous celebration this weekend, rather than a solemn protest,” he said.

For years, District 2 had been the black part of Calera, a town of 12,000 residents in Shelby County where as recently as 1999 a Confederate flag flew outside of the historical society.

And, since 2004, Ernest Montgomery had been its council member. In a city that is 20 percent black, he was the only African-American on the five-member council.

Then, in 2008, city officials decided to redraw the districts, plopping hundreds of new white voters into District 2. What was once a 69 percent black district, became a 70 percent white district. That August, Montgomery was voted out of office by the majority-white constituency.

But Shelby County, which is about 90 percent white and 7 percent black, was bound by the preclearance provision, and it had not consulted the Justice Department before the redistricting. The federal agency refused to certify the election results, and the city opted to scrap the election — and their district map altogether — and hold a new election in 2009 for six newly created at-large council seats. Montgomery, buoyed by the support of black voters from all parts of the city, secured one of those seats.

It was a victory as symbolic as it was short-lived.

Montgomery, 58, still holds his council seat. But the price? Black voters across the South lack the federal safeguard from redistrictings like the one that initially robbed him of his elected office.

In 2010, with the backing of a Washington-based conservative legal group, officials in Shelby County sued the Justice Department, arguing that voting participation and barriers to it that were in place in 1965 were no longer a fair way to gauge whether Southern municipalities should be required to seek federal approval for changes to voting laws.

Local black leaders were shocked, caught off-guard by the lawsuit and its potential implications. They said that after the Justice Department’s intervention in the 2009 election, relationships with many of their white elected colleagues soured.

“They never called any of us to the table; we had no idea this was coming,” recalled Earl Cunningham, an 83-old-year former Shelby County commissioner, who vividly remembers growing up as a black child in segregated Alabama. “I was thinking: What’s the next thing they’re going to try to undo? The Emancipation Proclamation?”

In June 2013, the nation’s highest court declared, in a 5-to-4 decision, that the formula used to choose which states required preclearance was out of date and, therefore, unfair as it was written.

The Voting Rights Act remained intact, but Section 4b, the formula that determined which states, counties and cities must get preclearance, had been tossed. In order for preclearance to again apply anywhere, a bitterly divided Congress would have to agree on a new formula.

“It’s sort of sad really. When that decision came down . . . I wanted to cry,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who as a 25-year-old civil rights activist was severely beaten on Bloody Sunday, said at an event in Washington last week. “Some of us almost lost our lives on that bridge. During that whole process, some people were murdered. . . . People gave their very lives, and for the Supreme Court to issue that type of decision, it is very sad and we’ve got to fix it.”

The impact of the decision was near-immediate, as Southern states now freed of their federal chaperone began rapidly upending their voting policies — passing new voter identification laws, and curbing early voting and same-day registration.

“It’s an undeniably sad irony that 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act we confront newfound efforts to make it harder to vote,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, a former civil rights attorney and outspoken opponent of voter ID laws, said as he sat in his Washington office last week. A photo of Lewis, whom he calls one of his personal heroes, rests on an end table a few feet away. “We’re having a pitched debate about the future of our nation right now. At the end of the day, we should do our level best to make it easier for eligible people to vote.”

For much of last year, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia — who in 2013 traveled to Selma on an annual trip organized by Lewis — was seen as the likely savior, the Republican lawmaker who could potentially shepherd a Voting Rights Act fix through the volatile House GOP caucus. But in a stunning electoral defeat, Cantor, the House’s second-ranking Republican, was defeated in the primary.

Nearly 100 members of Congress are expected in Selma this weekend. None of the Republican leadership had initially planned to attend, but House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California announced Friday evening that he would go to Selma.

“We don’t want to lay down. We don’t want to go back to where we used to be. We’re trying to move forward,” said the Rev. William Douglas Walker, one of the Shelby County clergy members who is planning a protest march this summer, to mark the second anniversary of the Shelby County v. Holder decision.

Dukes, of the local NAACP, said leaders are hoping that renewed, more intense pressure will force Congress to act.

“It’s been 50 years, and the nation has gotten better in a lot of ways,” he said before glancing down dejectedly at a stack of newspaper clippings that recall the 2013 Supreme Court decision. “So it’s going to get better here, too. It has to. Could it get worse?”