Saturday, March 2

He challenged his all-white city council in Alabama. Now he’s on it | US voting rights

A few years ago, Eric Calhoun felt out of touch with his city council in Pleasant Grove, a small Alabama city of just under 10,000 people outside of Birmingham.

Calhoun, who is 71 and has lived in the city for nearly three decades, couldn’t find contact information for any of the five council members online. During the 2016 election, none of the white candidates running asked him for his vote. Voters in the city had never elected a Black person to the city council. Calhoun, like 61% of the cityis Black.

In 2018, Calhoun became a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that argued the racial makeup of the city council in Pleasant Grove was not an accident. The way the city was choosing its city council candidates made nearly impossible for a Black candidate to get elected. Essentially, the city allowed city council candidates to run citywide, instead of in districts, allowing blocs of white voters in the city to come together and defeat candidates preferred by Black voters.

The city eventually agreed to settle the lawsuit and change the way it held city council elections.

The results were immediate – in the first election under the new system last fall, the city elected three Black candidates to the five-member council. And on Monday, Calhoun became part of that majority. He was sworn in to fill a vacancy on the council after one of the council members resigned.

“Color is not the issue,” Calhoun said in an interview. “The issue is representation and to make sure that we have a diverse city.”

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Calhoun’s appointment cements a Black majority on the council, said Yolanda Lawson, another councilmember who was elected last year. The city’s white mayor has the option of voting with the council and had regularly been doing so, resulting in a 3-3 split. Calhoun is replacing a white council member.

“Not knowing what it was like prior to us being on the council, but I do notice more constiuents will begin with ‘I just never said anything because I didn’t think it would make a difference,’” Lawson said. “I personally feel that it is helping us to accomplish one of the things that I said myself I wanted to see, which is someone to represent me as a citizen. Not necessarily because I’m Black, but because it’s someone who’s willing to listen to my issues and my concerns.”

In his new role on the council, Calhoun wants to promote neighborhood associations, local businesses, and local parks. And he wants to make sure that anyone who calls him up with a concern feels heard.

Pleasant Grove has long not been welcoming to Black citizens – in 1985 a court observed it had “an astonishing hostility to the presence and the rights of black Americans”. But in recent years, the Black population has emerged.

After decades of being locked out from political power, the majority-Black city council showed the importance of having Black representation at the local level, said Deuel Ross, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which helped represent Calhoun in the suit .

“The City Council has a lot of power over the police force. Over distribution of municipal resources. All things that the Black community has felt like it was being ignored in the past. So it’s wonderful to see the Black community has not only representation but the majority of the board at this point,” he said.

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This fall, the US supreme court will hear a hugely-consequential redistricting case involving Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act – the part of the law that Calhoun sued Pleasant Grove under. The provision prohibits racial discrimination in voting practices, but the 6-3 conservative majority on the court has signaled deep skepticism of the provision and appears poised to narrow it.

Such a ruling could make it harder to bring future cases that challenge election systems, like the one that existed in Pleasant Grove, that prevent minority voters from exercising their full political power.

“[What] Alabama is arguing in the supreme court, is that any consideration of race in redistricting raises constitutional concerns. And I think that is an extreme position that the supreme court has never taken,” said Ross, who is also involved in that case. “If it did take that position, it would make it difficult not just in Pleasant Grove not just to have Black representation, but in Congress and county commissions and state legislatures all over the country.”

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