When Black voters in Fayette County, Georgia took to the polls during a primary election earlier this month, they experienced, for the first time in the county’s 191-year history, the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice to the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education.
It is more than just serendipity that this election took place almost exactly 60 years to the day that our nation celebrated the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954. Brown ended legally enforced segregation in our country’s public schools and overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine that segregated all aspects of American society. The Brown decision also breathed life into the Civil Rights movement, which in turn led to the creation of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, widely considered the movement’s greatest victory.
But for the voters of Fayette County, that victory was a long time coming. Prior to the historic election in May 2014, Fayette County used at-large voting to maintain a racially segregated Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. Although Black voters comprise nearly 20 percent of Fayette County’s population, are geographically concentrated within the County, and consistently vote together to attempt to elect candidates of their choice, no Black candidate has ever been elected to either body under the at-large system of election. Indeed, because Black-preferred candidates are not meaningfully supported by white voters, who comprise 70 percent of Fayette County’s population, those candidates cannot win a county-wide election under the at-large electoral scheme.
A Black candidate, for example, lost a Fayette County Board of Education election after receiving 99 percent of support from Black voters, but securing only 15 percent of the votes from white voters. In another election, three Republican candidates ran for a vacant seat on the Board of Commissioners, including two Black candidates and one white candidate. One of the Black candidates was an attorney and then vice-chairman of the Fayette County Republican party, and the other Black candidate was a certified public accountant. The white candidate, who was a political novice, but who ran to "preserve the heritage . . . in our county," was a mechanic. Two other Black Democratic candidates also ran in that election. In the end, the white candidate defeated all four Black candidates without a runoff.
After two decades of unsuccessful advocacy by Black voters and the Fayette County Branch NAACP for a change in the method of election which produced such results, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) filed Georgia State Conference of the NAACP et al. v. Fayette County Board of Commissioners et al., a lawsuit challenging Fayette County’s at-large method of election under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Our lawsuit sought to bring greater inclusion and democratic legitimacy to Fayette County’s political process through district-based voting.
In February of this year, after two-and-a-half years of litigation, a federal court ruled that Fayette County’s at-large method of election violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act because it provided Black voters with less opportunity to elect their candidates of choice. In an 81-page opinion, the court ordered Fayette County to implement district-based voting, commencing with the primary election in May and continuing with the November 20 general election and all future elections. Black voters in Fayette County now represent the majority of the voting-age population in one of five single-member districts for the Board of Education and Board of Commissioners.
On primary day, LDF’s voting team monitored the polls and interacted with voters to ensure that district voting was implemented fairly and without confusion. At one polling place, one of our clients, Henry Adams, a long-time resident of Fayette County, expressed great excitement about the possibility of finally electing his preferred candidate of choice. Mr. Adams was not alone. We met numerous other Black voters who entered the polling places filled with excitement that they would finally have the means to elect responsive representatives—including Board of Education members who can help make the promises of Brown real for Fayette County students. Several white community members also voiced optimism that district voting will bring more people into the political process in Fayette County so that more, rather than fewer, perspectives can help build Fayette County to the benefit all of it residents.
As the polls closed that day, our clients, and Black voters in Fayette County were one step closer to electing their candidates of choice for the County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education in the November general election. At the same time, their excitement was tempered by the reality that both boards have appealed the federal court’s ruling in an effort to stall progress in Fayette County.
And so today, 60 years after Brown and nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are continually reminded that there are new frontiers for the expansion of civil rights as well as old battles still to be fought. In the spirit of Brown’s legacy and in the interest of a stronger, participatory democracy, the time is now to break down the walls of exclusion in Fayette County, Georgia, and in other places in our country where segregation still exists, that weaken the voting strength of voters of color.
Sixty years after Brown, we have important promises to keep, and still others to make.