Alabama Divided As Court Prepares To Hear Voting Rights Challenge
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law's future is to be decided in a case from Alabama, the very place the statute was born.
Shelby County, Ala., is fighting a section of the law that requires states and localities with a history of discrimination to seek federal approval for any changes to election rules.
National support for the law galvanized in the wake of brutal scenes from the civil rights movement in Alabama, like when the police, on orders from the segregationist commissioner for public safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor, turned dogs and fire hoses on young marchers in Birmingham in 1963.
"You can never whip these birds if you don't keep you and them separate," Connor said in 1963. "I found that out in Birmingham. You've got to keep your white and the black separate."
Alabama was also the scene of "Bloody Sunday," when Alabama state troopers beat back marchers crossing Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge in a demonstration for African-American voting rights in March 1965.
But today, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says it's time to turn the page on that disturbing history and acknowledge that the state is now a different place.
'Alabama Has Changed'
"George Wallace is gone, Bull Connor is dead. He's not coming back," Strange says.
"Alabama and other states had a terrible record in terms of depriving people of their right to vote, making it difficult for them to vote, discriminating against people," he says. "I'm happy to say and proud to say that after many years — 50 years now as we celebrate 1963 and the great progress that was made in that historic year — that Alabama has changed."
On Wednesday , the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether there has been enough change that Alabama and 15 other states should no longer be subject to federal approval of any election rules. That approval is currently required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Strange likens the provision to asking, "Mother, may I?" He says it's outdated and unfair in the post-Jim Crow South.
"What Section 5 does is impose a burden on our states that really is unnecessary in 2013," Strange argues. He points to statistics that show Alabama is second in the nation, behind Mississippi, in the number of African-Americans holding public office.
For Act Supporters, A Bulwark Against 'The Old South'
One of those officeholders is Ernest Montgomery, the lone black city councilman in Calera, a small town near Birmingham. On most Wednesday nights you'll find him on the front pew of the New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
Montgomery is in his third term on the Calera City Council, a seat he lost when Shelby County officials redrew district lines in 2008, changing the makeup from about 70 percent minority to around 30 percent.
"And [of] course, we ran anyway," Montgomery says. "We didn't like those kind of numbers, but we thought that's the only way it could be."
Montgomery lost to a white candidate by two votes. But the redistricting had not gained pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department as required by the Voting Rights Act. That prompted a new election, which Montgomery won.
Now, the soft-spoken 56-year-old machinist finds himself at the heart of this Supreme Court case.
"I'm not here to air our laundry here in Shelby County, but I know the stories," he says. "I think we're getting better. But the removal of this legislation would definitely turn back the hands of time."
At about 10 percent of the population, blacks are very much the minority in Shelby County. Montgomery says trusting officials to do the right thing is still hard for African-Americans here.
Some people think the events that plagued Jim Crow-era Alabama "happened a million years ago," Montgomery says. "But it was just only less than 50 years ago. They think ... 'Well, we don't need this,' 'People don't even remember, that was so long ago.'
"You want to talk to my parents? They're right here in Calera also," Montgomery continues. "They very well remember when our church door was shot up just because the preacher was encouraging people to go to the polls and vote ... To bring fear and intimidation they shot up our church doors."
Those scars and the experiences of black voters are reason enough to retain protections under the Voting Rights Act, says Montgomery's pastor, the Rev. Harry Jones.
"I've seen a lot of things, and I don't want to see the Old South rise again," Jones says. "And I think that Section 5 prevents, to a certain extent, the Old South from rising again."
In 50 Years, A County Transformed
Election changes are common here because Shelby County has seen such dramatic growth. Back in the '60s, it was largely rural, with a tiny county seat surrounded by farms, fishing lakes and a few bedroom communities.
Today, you're more likely to find suburban sprawl and endless traffic here. The population has grown sixfold, from about 32,000 people to close to 200,000 now.
"I'm a good example of some of the changes," says Cam Ward, who represents the county in the Alabama Senate. "You've seen a huge migration of new people moving into Shelby County."
Ward, 41, is white, like all the members of the county's legislative delegation. Originally from Florida, he says people have moved here from all over the country and shouldn't be punished for government actions decades ago.
"We get penalized now ... every time we go through planning and zoning," Ward says. "Every single minute change, we have to go all the way to the Justice Department, which penalizes us for conduct now that doesn't exist in Shelby County. It just really doesn't. It's a very changed world."
Aubrey Miller, president of the Shelby County Board of Education, is proof of that change. He was elected countywide.
"I do not believe that I was elected because I was an African-American," Miller says. "And I do not believe that people voted for my opponent because she was a white female."
Even so, Miller is no advocate of Shelby County's case challenging federal oversight of elections.
"Much progress has been made," he says. "But we are not so far advanced that we should not pay attention to the potential that exists for pockets of — unintentional, even — discrimination."
Miller says the country needs the Voting Rights Act for at least another generation.
"Is it as relevant as it was in 1965? No, not at all," Miller says. "Will it be less relevant in 2030? My hope and prayer is that it won't be relevant at all."
The question of relevance now rests with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.