Our nation recently commemorated the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954. Brown ended legally enforced segregation in our country’s public schools and overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that segregated all aspects of American society.
Brown also breathed life into the movement that culminated a decade later in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. Both monumental pieces of legislation further helped to dismantle American apartheid in various arenas beyond the education context, including in employment, housing, and voting.
Specifically in the area of voting, Brown led to the creation of the Voting Rights Act, widely considered the greatest victory of the civil rights movement. That Act removed many barriers erected to prevent Black people from voting and enables non-English-speaking Americans to participate in the political process as well.
Despite the potential of increased, equal political participation by Black and other people color provided by the Voting Rights Act, its promises, like that of Brown, are still being fought for and realized.
Indeed, just days after commemorating Brown, Black voters in Fayette County, Georgia took to the polls during a May primary election to have, for the first time in history, the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice to the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. This November, during a general election, Black voters continued to have the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates of choice to these important local bodies.
Prior to these historic elections, Fayette County used at-large voting to maintain a racially segregated Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. Although Black voters comprise nearly 20 percent of Fayette County’s population, are geographically concentrated within the County, and consistently vote together to attempt to elect candidates of their choice, no Black candidate, prior to 2014, had ever been elected to either body under the at-large system of election. Indeed, because Black-preferred candidates are not meaningfully supported by white voters, who comprise 70 percent of Fayette County’s population, those candidates could not win a county-wide election under the at-large electoral scheme.
A Black candidate, for example, lost a Fayette County Board of Education election after receiving 99 percent of support from Black voters, but securing only 15 percent of the votes from white voters. In another election, three Republican candidates ran for a vacant seat on the Board of Commissioners, including two Black candidates and one white candidate. One of the Black candidates was an attorney and then vice-chairman of the Fayette County Republican party, and the other Black candidate was a certified public accountant. The white candidate, who was a political novice, but who ran to “preserve the heritage . . . in our county,” was a mechanic. Two other Black Democratic candidates also ran in that election. In the end, the white candidate defeated all four Black candidates without a runoff.
After two decades of unsuccessful advocacy by Black voters and the Fayette County Branch NAACP for a change in the method of election which produced such results, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) filed Georgia State Conference of the NAACP et al. v. Fayette County Board of Commissioners et al., a lawsuit challenging Fayette County’s at-large method of election under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This lawsuit seeks to bring greater inclusion and democratic legitimacy to Fayette County’s political process through district-based voting.
In February of this year, after nearly three years of litigating this case, a federal court, in an 81-page opinion, ruled that Fayette County’s at-large method of election violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it provided Black voters with less opportunity to elect their candidates of choice. To remedy the federal violation that it found, the court ordered Fayette County to implement district-based voting, commencing with this May’s primary election and continuing with the November 20 general election and all future elections. Black voters in Fayette County now represent the majority of the voting-age population in one of five single-member districts for the Board of Education and Board of Commissioners.
LDF’s voting team monitored the polls and interacted with voters during the 2014 primary and general elections to ensure that district voting was implemented fairly and without confusion. During the May 2014 primary, at one polling place, one of our clients, Mr. Henry Adams, a long-time resident of Fayette County, expressed great excitement about the possibility of finally electing his preferred candidate of choice. Mr. Adams was not alone. Our team interacted with numerous other Black voters who entered the polling places hopeful, and exited that they would finally have a voice and an ability to elect responsive representatives—representatives who may make decisions that make the promises of Brown real for Fayette County students. Several white community members also voiced optimism that district voting will bring more people into the political process in Fayette County so that more, rather than less perspectives, can help build Fayette County to the benefit all of its members.
During the November general election, these sentiments were even stronger. Black and white voters in the remedial district remarked that the change to district voting is fair and makes sense and represents progress in Fayette County Georgia.
As the polls closed on the primary and general election days, our clients, and other Black voters in Fayette County celebrated the opportunities to elect their candidates of choice for the County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. At the same time, their excitement was tempered by the reality that both boards have appealed the federal court’s ruling in an effort to stall progress in Fayette County.
Sixty years after Brown and nearly fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we thus are reminded that today there are new frontiers for the expansion of civil rights, and old battles, as in Fayette County, that remain unfinished.
In the spirit of Brown’s legacy and in the interest of a stronger, participatory democracy, the time is now to break down the walls of exclusion in Fayette County, Georgia, and in other places in our country where segregation still exists, that weaken the voting strength of voters of color.
Sixty years after Brown, we have important promises to keep and still others to make.
To learn more about district voting and how to prepare to vote in 2014 and beyond in Fayette County, Georgia, click here.