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Alabama Divided As Court Prepares To Hear Voting Rights Challenge

Feb 25, 2013
Originally published on February 25, 2013 7:23 pm

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Strange likens the provision to asking, "Mother, may I?" He says it's outdated and unfair in the post-Jim Crow South.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 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

First up this hour, the story behind a major case that goes before the Supreme Court this week. On Wednesday, the justices will hear a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Shelby County, Alabama, is fighting a section of the law that requires states and localities with a history of discrimination to get federal approval for election rules. NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us to Alabama.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The future of the Voting Rights Act is to be decided on a case from the very place the statute was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

ELLIOTT: National support for the law galvanized in the wake of brutal scenes like this of Alabama state troopers beating back protesters on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

ELLIOTT: And dogs and fire hoses turned on young marchers in Birmingham at the order of hardcore segregationist Police Commissioner Bull Connor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

EUGENE CONNOR: You can never whip these birds if you don't keep you and them separate. I found that out in Birmingham. You've got to keep your white and the blacks separate.

ELLIOTT: That was 1963. Today...

ATTORNEY GENERAL LUTHER STRANGE: George Wallace is gone. Bull Connor is dead. He's not coming back.

ELLIOTT: That's Luther Strange, Alabama's attorney general. He says it's time to turn the page on that disturbing history and acknowledge the state is now a different place.

STRANGE: Alabama had - 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. 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.

ELLIOTT: The U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, will consider whether that change is enough so that Alabama and 15 other states should no longer be subject to federal approval of any election rules, as called for under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Strange likens the provision to asking mother may I, and says it's outdated and unfair in the post-Jim Crow South.

STRANGE: What Section 5 does is impose a burden on our states that really is unnecessary in 2013.

ELLIOTT: He points to statistics that show Alabama is second in the nation, behind Mississippi, in the number of African-Americans holding public office. One of them 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing) I have a savior in that land.

ERNEST MONTGOMERY: (singing) I have a savior in that land.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing) I have a savior in that land.

MONTGOMERY: (singing) I have a savior in that land.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (singing) Oh, I have a savior in the land.

MONTGOMERY: (singing) I have a savior in that land.

ELLIOTT: 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.

MONTGOMERY: And, of course, we ran anyway. We didn't like those kind of numbers, but we thought that's the only way it could be.

ELLIOTT: Montgomery lost by two votes to a white candidate. But the redistricting had not gained pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department as called for under the Voting Rights Act, prompting a new election which he won. Now, the soft-spoken 56-year-old machinist finds himself at the heart of this Supreme Court case.

MONTGOMERY: I'm not here to air our laundry here in Shelby County, but I know the stories. I think we're getting better, but the removal of this legislation would definitely turn back the hands of time.

ELLIOTT: Blacks are very much the minority in Shelby County, about 10 percent of the population. Montgomery says trusting officials to do the right thing is still hard for African-Americans here.

MONTGOMERY: Because of what happened, like some people think, a million years ago, but it was just only less than 50 years ago. They think, oh. You know, people say, well, we don't need this. People don't even remember. That's so long ago.

You want to talk to my parents? They're right here in Calera also. 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. And to bring fear, intimidation, they shot up our church doors.

ELLIOTT: Those scars and the experiences of black voters are reason enough to retain protections under the Voting Rights Act, says Montgomery's pastor, Reverend Harry Jones.

REVEREND HARRY JONES: I've seen a lot of things, you know? And I don't want to see the Old South rise again. And I think that Section 5 prevents to a certain extent the Old South from rising again.

ELLIOTT: 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 to Birmingham. Today, you're more likely to find suburban sprawl and endless traffic. The population has grown six-fold from about 32,000 people to close to 200,000 now.

STATE SENATOR CAM WARD: I'm a good example of some of the changes. You've seen a huge migration of new people moving into Shelby County.

ELLIOTT: Cam Ward represents the county in the Alabama Senate. He's 41 and white, like all the members of the county's legislative delegation. He says people have moved here from all over the country - he's from Florida - and shouldn't be punished for government actions decades ago.

WARD: We get penalized now by having to go through - every time we do a planning and zoning. 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.

ELLIOTT: Aubrey Miller is proof of that change. He's president of the Shelby County Board of Education and was elected countywide.

AUBREY MILLER: I do not believe that I was elected because I was an African-American, and I do not believe that people voted for my opponent because she was a white female.

ELLIOTT: Even so, Miller is no advocate of Shelby County's case challenging federal oversight of elections.

MILLER: Much progress has been made, but we are not so far advanced that we should not pay attention to the potential that exists for pockets of - unintentional, even - discrimination.

ELLIOTT: Miller says the country needs the Voting Rights Act for at least another generation.

MILLER: Is it as relevant as it was in 1965? No, not at all. Will it be less relevant in 2030? My hope and prayer is that it will not be relevant at all.7

ELLIOTT: The question of relevance now rests with the U.S. Supreme Court. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.