Alabama’s Black representation tested before U.S. Supreme Court

Published 8:35 am Monday, October 3, 2022

The invisible line dividing two of Alabama’s congressional districts slices through Montgomery, near iconic sites from the civil rights movement as well as ones more personal to Evan Milligan.

There’s the house where his grandfather loaded people into his station wagon and drove them to their jobs during the Montgomery Bus Boycott as Black residents spurned city buses to protest segregation. It’s the same home where his mother lived as a child, just yards from a whites-only park and zoo she was not allowed to enter.

The spot downtown where Rosa Parks was arrested, igniting the boycott, sits on one side of the dividing line while the church pastored by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the protests, sits on the other.

The lines are at the center of a high-stakes redistricting case bearing Milligan’s name that will go before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, setting up a new test of the Voting Rights Act and the role of race in drawing congressional boundaries.

At the center of the case is a challenge by various groups arguing that the state violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the political power of Black voters when it failed to create a second district in which they make up a majority, or close to it. African Americans account for about 27% of the state’s population but are the majority in just one of the state’s seven congressional districts.

“Our congressional map is not reflective of the population that lives in Alabama,” said Milligan, 41, one of several voters who joined interest groups in filing the lawsuit.

The case the Supreme Court will take up Tuesday centers on whether congressional districts in Alabama were drawn to reduce the political influence of Black voters, but it’s also part of a much broader problem that undermines representative government in the U.S. Both major political parties have practiced gerrymandering — drawing congressional and state legislative boundaries to cement their hold on power — but Republicans have been in control of the process in far more states since after the 2010 elections. That has allowed them to win an outsized share of statehouse and U.S. House seats and means GOP policies — including on abortion restrictions — often don’t reflect the will of most voters.

An Associated Press analysis from 2017 showed that Alabama had one of the most gerrymandered congressional maps in the country.

Republicans dominate elected office in Alabama and are in charge of redistricting. They have been resistant to creating a second district with a Democratic-leaning Black majority that could send another Democrat to Congress.

A three-judge panel that included two appointees of President Donald Trump ruled unanimously in January that the Alabama Legislature likely violated the Voting Rights Act with the map. “Black voters have less opportunity than other Alabamians to elect candidates of their choice to Congress,” the panel said.

The judges ordered state lawmakers to draw new lines for this year’s election and create a second district where Black voters either made up a majority or near majority of the population. But on a 5-4 vote in February, the Supreme Court sided with Alabama to allow this year’s congressional elections to take place without adding a second predominantly Black district. Two justices suggested it was too close to spring primaries to make a change.

The lawsuit claims the Alabama congressional map dilutes the voting strength of Black residents by packing a large number of them into a single district — the 7th, where 55% of voters are Black — while fragmenting other communities. That includes the state’s Black Belt region and the city of Montgomery.

The current districts leave the vast majority of Black voters with no realistic chance to elect their preferred congressional candidates anywhere outside the 7th district, the lawsuit contends.

“This is just about getting Black voters, finally, in Alabama the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice. It’s not necessarily guaranteeing that they will have their candidate elected,” said Deuel Ross, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing the plaintiffs.

The groups contend that the state’s Black population is large enough and geographically compact enough to create a second district. Milligan, who is six generations removed from enslaved ancestors who lived in the Black Belt, ticked off the consequences for Black residents who are not able to have representation that aligns with their needs: addressing generational poverty, the lack of adequate internet service, Medicaid expansion and the desire for a broader array of health care services.

“In choosing not to do that, you’re denying the people of the Black Belt the opportunity to elect an additional person that can really go to the mat on their interests,” said Ross, who is one of the attorneys who will argue the case in a challenge backed by the Biden administration.