Virginia's capital city elected its first City Council in seven years today, writing an end to one of the nation's longest voting rights court cases and beginning to a Richmond city government closer to the people.
In moderate voting, on a cool winter day, the city chose nine Council members from a field of 50 candidates under a court-approved single-member district apportionment plan that gives blacks a chance to capture a majority of the Council. For nearly 30 years Richmond had elected its government at large, therby minimizing the black vote.
As early returns were counted tonight, four white incumbents and two black incumbents were leading in their races and three contests were too close to discern an advantage.
The apportionment plan grew out of a long and tangled court fight, laced with racial divisiveness and ironies in which a black civil rights activist with a fragmentary following set out to fight city hall and won - after a fashion.
But the cost of his battle was $763,550 in legal fees a six-years disenfranchisement for both blacks and whites in Richmond, the freezing in power of a City Council he was trying to evict, and the near atrophy of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, the most powerful black political organization in the state.
The story began in February, 1971, when the Rev. Curtis. Holt Sr., a 50-year-old black minister who had lost in his bid for a City Council seat the previous year, filed suit in U.S. District Court here. He sought to overturn Richmond's 13-month-old annexation of 23 square miles of land and 47,000 people - nearly all of them white - from suburban Chesterfield County.
The suit attracted little notice at the time: city officials called it frivilous.
But under the guidance of Holt's attorney, W .H. C. Venable, the suit mushroomed into years of litigation over three separate lawsuits, heard in five courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr., who heard the suit in its initial stages, called it the most legally complex case he had heard in his years on the federal bench.
The Holt suit questioned whether the absorption of some 44,000 whites by a city of 242,000 that was 48 per cent black could do anything but dilute the voting power of the inner city blacks.
But it went beyond that to charge retail and corporate interests, which have traditionally weilded considerable influence in the City Council, with "conspiracy to deprive plaintifs of due process in their rights to vote."
It charged that Richmond Forward, a nonpartisan political organization underwritten by downtown businessmen, " was organized, its officers and directors elected for the stated objective of adding additional white voters to the voter list of the city of Richmond to dilute, deny, and disenfranchise the voting power of Negro voters."
Ultimately the court ruled that while race had been a factor in the desire of city officials to annex part of Chesterfield, it was not the overriding factor. The final decision, handed down from a three-judge court last Aug. 10, found, among others benefits that the annexation would help Richmond "maintain a racially integrated school systems" by slowing or halting the flight of white children from the 75 per cent black city schools.
Since 1948, when Richmond abandoned its old ward system to adopt a city manager form of government its nine Council members had been elected at large. The system permitted the city's traditional business and political leaders to field several candidates from the same district of the city. It forced black voters, who before annexation made up 48 per cent of the city, to concentrate their votes on one or two candidates rather then challenge the entire nine-member slate.
The plan approved by the court provides ofr four predominantly black districts, four predominantly white districts and one "swing" district where the races are roughtly even.
But it provided no real personal relief for Curtis Holt, whose loss in the 1970 councilmanic race started the whole thing. Running for the Council once again, he was paired in the same district with Richmonds's popular black vice mayor, Henry L. Marsh III, and today Curtis Holt lost again.