Special to the Democrat by John Zippert, Co-Publisher
This past weekend, the Alabama State Conference of NAACP Branches and allied organizations held a three-day commemoration and celebration of Supreme Court actions affecting the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965.
On Friday there was a march and rally of 250 people in Columbiana, Alabama, county seat of Shelby County, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby vs. Holder decision which disqualified Section 4 and gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. These sections provided for the pre-clearance by the U. S. Justice Department of any state voting laws from states, with an unfavorable history of voter suppression, including Alabama, states of the old Confederacy and other jurisdictions that limited voting rights.
These pre-clearance provisions of the VRA made it possible to stop state laws, such as those restricting voter registration, closing polling places, limiting mail-in voting, redistricting in unfair ways, purging voter lists and other steps to limit or curtail voting before they were enacted and became operational.
The June 25, 2013, Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision in Shelby vs. Holder gutted the effectiveness of the 1965 VRA for the past ten years. Immediately after the Supreme Court decision, southern states adopted changes in voting laws to suppress the vote and make it more difficult for Black and People of Color voters to exercise their rights. In some states, the legislatures adopted laws saying you could not provide water and snacks to people waiting on a line to vote.
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court, headed by the same Chief Justice, John Roberts, voted 5 to 4, in the Alabama based case of Allen vs. Milligan, finding that the State of Alabama’s Congressional redistricting plan was unconstitutional and required drawing two districts that were majority Black instead of packing all Black voters into one district. The state has a 27% Black population and is now entitled to two Congressional seats, wherein a Black person can be elected. The Supreme Court sustained Section 2 of the VRA, which allows for correcting discriminatory voting rights laws and practices after they have been enacted and implemented.
Part of the weekend was a celebration of this legal victory while lamenting the losses in the past decade. Among the speakers at the Friday rally was Evan Milligan, Executive Director of Alabama Forward, chief plaintiff in the case, who thanked the other plaintiffs including NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries. He also said we cannot stop now but must put together the coalitions to put forward strong and accountable candidates for the two districts and win these elections in 2024.
Attorney Duell Ross with The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who argued the case in the Supreme Court said the victory in the Allen vs. Milligan case was a call to action for Alabama voters. “We hear too much from Black voters, who say they do not have anything to vote for in elections. This time we can vote for two Black Congress people and maybe change the control of Congress.” He said, we also need to call on Congress to restore the sections of the by the Voting Rights Act that have been stripped away.
Benard Simelton, President of the Alabama State NAACP, speaking at the rally, pulled out a check and said, “This is the check that Martin Luther King said at the 1963 March on Washington, was not cashable by Black people. The vaults of healthcare, education, criminal justice and voting in our great nation are closed to Black people. We have bad bankers in Congress. But we must open the vaults and restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
On Saturday. June 24, 2023, after a plenary session, there were a series of workshops at the University of Montevallo, a college located in Shelby County. This program was called the 2023 Shelby Democracy Restoration Summit.
A number of speakers including Pastor Dukes of the Shelby County NAACP, John W. Stewart, President of the University Montevallo, Cynthia Todd, Chair of the University of Montevallo Board of Trustees, the Mayor of Montevallo, State Senator Robert Stewart of District 23 in Selma, representatives of Black sororities and fraternities, ACLU, NOW, Southern Poverty Law Center and others spoke at the plenary session in support of restoration of voting rights.
Two lawyers representing the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Debo Adegbile, who argued the Shelby case and Janai Nelson, current Executive Director who participated in the Milligan case both spoke.
Attorney Nelson praised the plaintiffs in the Milligan case, saying, “it is no small thing to put your name on a Federal legal complaint, endure the attacks and threats against your life and the lives of your family members.”
She said, “The Shelby decision, ten years ago was unmoored from our basic Constitutional freedoms in the 13, 14, 15 Amendments; our freedom of expression, which comes through voting; and it is an assault on our dignity and humanity. It was illegal, resurrected bad laws within hours and days of its passage, diminished the views and voices of Black voters and made progress toward democracy more difficult, especially in the southern states.”
She continued, “Even when Milligan, was brought forward for the first time, nine months before the 2022 elections, the Supreme Court would not hear it despite the fact that three Trump appointed Federal judges on the 11th Circuit ruled against Alabama’s plan; allowed the election of Alabama representatives that are still in power; and allowed the undemocratic control of Congress by racially motivated Republicans from across the South.”
Nelson said the win in the Milligan Case was a win for democracy across the South. “We have cases in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, and Texas, which will follow this Alabama decision. We will win more seats and make our Congress more representative and democratic. By 2040, the United States will be a majority – minority country – this is inevitable and the direction of the demography of our population. We will not be vindictive; we will use our political power to build a better democracy and society through our votes”.
Saturday afternoon was filled with workshops on healthcare equity and disparities, Medicaid Expansion, reproductive autonomy, climate change, racial equity, truth in education, sensible gun policies, police, prison, and justice reform, voting rights restoration and impacts of 50 years of hip-hop. On Saturday evening there was a concert, featuring Peabo Bryson and other entertainers. On Sunday, there were church services.