Once again, Alabama is the battleground over Black voting rights

A mural in Montgomery, Ala. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Driving through downtown one misty, humid morning, Evan Milligan pointed out landmarks historic and personal. There once stood the Black barbershop where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. got his hair cut. There was the street corner where Rosa Parks boarded a city bus and, later, refused to give up her seat to a White passenger. There was the church where King organized a bus boycott after Parks’s arrest.

And there was the house where Milligan’s mother grew up, blocks from a Whites-only park that had a petting zoo and an ice-skating rink. His mother lived so close she could hear the animals at night, but she was not allowed in to see them.

He drove past neighborhood streets where vacant plots of grass replaced abandoned and blighted houses. Many homes still stood in disrepair, their lawns overgrown. At a corner rose a two-story brick building with boarded-up windows and graffiti: “John Lewis was here.”

Milligan is a descendant of enslaved Blacks, only six generations removed. Once freed, his ancestors moved from the rural Black Belt — so named for its rich topsoil — to neighborhoods in eastern Montgomery. Decades later, they would be foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, thrust into the nation’s most historic battles over segregation and voting rights in the Jim Crow South.

Now Milligan, 40, is on the front lines of the latest discrimination fight, lending his family name to what will be the marquee Supreme Court case over racial gerrymandering, centered on the invisible district line that divides the Black neighborhoods of eastern Montgomery. In Milligan v. Merrill — that’s Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) — the nation’s highest court will determine whether federal law requires states such as Alabama with large minority populations and racially polarized voting to take race into account in redistricting or whether they have free rein to squeeze minority voters into as few districts as possible — one, in Alabama’s case — giving White politicians dominance in all the others.

The decision could have sweeping implications across a huge swath of the South where the Black population and those of other minorities are growing at a faster rate than the White population but the power is disproportionality held by White politicians.

“These are Black people that come from the Black Belt communities. They move to Montgomery, have endured all of this, and then today aren’t able to elect a person they choose,” Milligan said. “They’re not able to have any influence on the outcome of the elections.”

At a recent town hall in Birmingham, Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D), the first Black woman elected to Congress in Alabama, stood before about three dozen constituents, nearly all of them Black, and took questions about sewage in their yards and affordable housing. But first, she spoke about voting rights and her work to preserve them.

Sewell is the lead sponsor on stalled voting-rights legislation named after Lewis, the civil rights icon and congressman who was bludgeoned by police in his youth while helping lead a march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights.

“Nothing is more sacrosanct to our district than the progress that was made on the backs of people from our district,” Sewell told them.

Alabama’s population is 27 percent Black, and many of those voters are packed into Sewell’s 7th District, which stretches along the western border of Alabama, grabbing parts of the Black Belt in its fist and extending two fingers into heavily Black Montgomery and Birmingham. The remaining Black communities are dispersed among the state’s six overwhelmingly White districts. The result, voting rights advocates argue, is a dilution of Black voting power.

Near the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, former attorney general Eric Holder approached Sewell and Lewis, who died in 2020, about his plans for a national Democratic redistricting organization to blunt Republican gerrymanders. He wanted their buy-in on an effort in Black Belt states to stop legislatures from concentrating Black voters into one district. Agreeing meant backing a legal quest to create additional Black districts even if it meant their own would be less Black; in Sewell’s case it probably would have meant giving up Selma and Montgomery.

Half of the voters in Alabama's 7th Congressional District are Black

Each dot represents 1 Black adult

Huntsville

Birmingham

Tuscaloosa

Phenix

City

7th District

Montgomery

Dothan

Mobile

Share of Black adults,

by congressional district

0

20

40

60%

50 MILES

53.5%

Half of the voters in Alabama's 7th

Congressional District are Black

Share of Black adults,

by congressional district

Each dot represents 1 Black adult

Huntsville

0

20

40

60%

Birmingham

53.5%

Tuscaloosa

Phenix

City

7th District

Montgomery

Dothan

Mobile

50 MILES

Half of the voters in Alabama's 7th Congressional District are Black

Share of Black adults,

by congressional district

Each dot represents 1 Black adult

0

20

40

60%

Huntsville

53.5%

Birmingham

Tuscaloosa

Phenix

City

Montgomery

7th District

Dothan

Mobile

50 MILES

“‘It will mean redrawing your districts. The numbers [of Black voters] will go down. But it’s the fair thing to do,’” Holder said he told Sewell and other Black Democrats. “What struck me was Sewell signed up right away. It’s not tactical — this is just about fairness, allowing a people who for too long have been marginalized and giving them a chance to be heard.”

Sewell’s current district is more than 50 percent Black — stacked so much in her favor that she has run unopposed in her past four elections. Now, Democrats are calling for the state to break up her district to create two seats that probably would each be over 40 percent Black.

“The reality is that when you pack all of the African Americans into my district, you’re allowing my Republican colleagues to not have to address the conditions and the voices, the concerns of the folks, the minorities that are in their districts,” Sewell said. It would be “heartbreaking” to lose a chunk of her current constituents, she said, but “what a small sacrifice for me to have to make in order for us to truly progress in our state.”

The overwhelmingly White, Republican state legislature did not agree, drawing its new map along the same lines as the one from the previous decade, with one Black district. A panel of three federal judges struck down those lines in January, agreeing with plaintiffs in the Milligan case that, given the state’s Black population, a section of the Voting Rights Act required a second district with enough Black voters to have the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. The Supreme Court, on appeal, stayed the lower-court ruling, saying that it was too close to the May 24 primary election and that the court needed more time to assess the question.

Advocates understand the high court taking this case may backfire — justices could water down the act or determine it does not apply to redistricting, erasing another layer of protection for Black voters. They worry about another decision like Shelby County v. Holder, which in 2013 gutted a section of the 1965 law that put a check on states with a history of racial discrimination.

“I have this feeling in the gut of my belly that we may have, you know, won a battle but we may end up ultimately losing the war. … It is a risk,” Sewell said. “But you know, it’s a risk worth taking, because the people of Alabama deserve to have more-effective representation. And God knows that having two of us at the table amplifies the needs and the voices of the people.”

Sitting in his closet-size office on the fifth floor of the Alabama State House office building, state Rep. Chris England (D), who is Black, had just come from a meeting with Sewell in which they discussed redistricting. Elsewhere in the capitol, a committee was voting on a bill to ban the teaching of critical race theory. The evening before, legislators passed a bill late in the night giving police more authority to deem a protest a riot.

“I think many people are trying to protect their old worldview for as long as possible to preserve it,” England said. “So as long as Black folks and other minorities are diluted to the point where their voices are minimized, then you can continue to pretend like they don’t matter.”

Representatives such as Sewell, he said, “carry the voices of those who are not heard in those districts where they have no representation. So Terri becomes the congresswoman for all of those laws and voices out there in wilderness.”

England sits on the redistricting committee but was not involved in the map-drawing. The lines were drawn in secret by Republicans and presented to the committee; six days later its members voted. England also serves as the state Democratic Party chairman — a difficult job in a state where the possible wins are so limited.

“You’ve got to be willing to, at times, redefine what success means,” he said. “You may be running to hold your opponent accountable and make them talk about issues that they’ve been ignoring for so long.”

In Alabama, the opportunity for aspiring Black politicians to reach federal office at all is relatively new. The 7th District as it is today was first formed in 1992 to comply with changes to the Voting Rights Act that required states to draw districts that were majority minority where possible. That next year, Alabama sent its first Black person to Congress since Reconstruction. In the three decades since, the seat has been held successively by three Black Democratic lawmakers who won easily.

On the question of whether that same law requires Alabama to draw a second Black district, five of the six Republicans in Alabama’s congressional delegation signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the redistricting case, arguing that it does not. Drawing lines to maximize Black voters’ influence is a racial gerrymander that violates the Constitution’s equal-protection clause, they wrote.

“A State cannot constitutionally be forced to adopt a plan that is premised on and would never exist absent unequal treatment based on race,” the Republicans wrote in the brief. “The only discrimination here is by the plaintiffs.”

Adam Kincaid, the president of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said Alabama Republicans will prove that a second Black district is not required under the Voting Rights Act section on which the Milligan suit was based.

“It’s not a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s, what does Section 2 require? They’re trying to use it to create Democratic districts … to shoehorn Section 2 into a partisan framework,” he said. “The argument is if the district is not required and you’re using race to justify the lines, that is unconstitutional.”

Voting rights advocates and Democrats insist that they can easily prove that the Black population is big enough and geographically compact enough to warrant a second district.

“The Black Belt in Alabama runs through the middle of the state and it’s where the majority of Black counties are, and there are horrendous health and education disparities there which can be traced back through slavery to post-Civil War,” said Deuel Ross, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing the plaintiffs. “No one in Congress is representing those interests.”

An hour’s drive east from Montgomery, Janet Sullen, 71, navigated from the passenger seat through Tuskegee, which is 96 percent Black with a median income of $28,000. The town square is eerily quiet, the storefronts frozen in time, boarded up and left vacant for decades. Black residents boycotted the White-owned stores in 1957 over an attempt by White legislators to change the town’s boundaries to suppress the growing Black electorate. The boycott continued for three years, forcing many White businesses to go bankrupt. The town never recovered.

The Supreme Court in 1960 sided with the Black residents, saying it was unconstitutional for the town to draw lines to ensure White people won elections. The landmark case was one of the underpinnings five years later for the Voting Rights Act, under which the current suit is being waged.

Tuskegee’s Black history is weighted by pride and horror — it was the home of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviators in the U.S. armed forces, as well as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that experimented on unknowing Black men. It is in Macon County, which is close to 80 percent Black and one of the most Democratic counties in the country but is outnumbered by White areas within the 3rd Congressional District, which for nearly two decades has been represented in the House by a White Republican, Rep. Mike D. Rogers.

Sullen has been a community leader in Tuskegee for decades, but says she has never met Rogers. Her son, Daniel Sullen, who works in youth community organizing, took a group of Black boys to Washington a few years ago. He made a point to have Sewell meet with them even though they do not live in her district.

“She made it possible for them to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, so they could see their own faces,” Janet Sullen said, “to show them there are people that look like them in Washington, because a lot of them feel that that’s not for us, that’s never going to happen.”

Adia Winfrey, a Black political activist, challenged Rogers in 2020, earning just 32 percent of the vote. Winfrey was originally a plaintiff in the Milligan case but said she has since pulled out, choosing to focus instead on turnout among Black voters. Although she knows firsthand that the 3rd District is drawn in a way that favors White voters, Winfrey said she believes the district could be competitive if more Black people voted.

“These counties are forgotten. We haven’t had anybody to really tap in and draw people out,” she said. Rogers “does what he does, which is stay invisible because he can, you know, he knows that he’s going to win. Like I told everybody, especially with everything that was going on in 2020, we will use my campaign as a tool for political education.”

Rogers’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Milligan is on a similar mission to educate people throughout the country about the redistricting case before the Supreme Court hears the arguments in the fall. He spoke in early March to a crowd along the famous march route from Selma to Montgomery.

“Redistricting and gerrymandering are probably not the issues that woke you all out of bed this morning,” he told them. “These are issues that are definitely connected to everything that shapes our lives. We need to bring as much attention to this case. … This is a really unique chance for us to really think about Black communities, race, the law and the purpose of democracy in our country.”

Then he rapped a few lines from a song he helped write about the case.

“It don’t work for you. The math works for me. Now let me vote in peace.”

Adrián Blanco contributed to this report.

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