Friday, August 5, 2011

Richmond's Redistricting History

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As city redistricting meetings come to a close, city legislators prepare to present a redistricting plan to the Justice Department. The approved plan will take effect on January 1, 2012. The required approval from the Justice Department is a protective measure put in place by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But Richmond’s nine voting districts have their own controversial history, forcing redistricting plans to revisit a dark period in the River City’s Past

In1977, the Supreme Court ruled that the city of Richmond had violated the Voting Rights Act by illegally annexing 23 sq. miles of Chesterfield County to dilute the voting power of Richmond’s growing Black population.

On June 19th of this year, the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Redistricting held a meeting in City Hall to come to a resolution on city redistricting suggestions. Early in the meeting, David Hicks, Senior Policy Advisor to the mayor emphasized the importance of poverty distribution and racial balance. During the meeting the committee discussed plans that aimed to disperse poverty throughout more districts and address the continued disenfranchisement of people of color.

Hicks explained, “One of the fundamental questions is what is it that we can do a critical structure to engage the people and the process that can at least address the entrenched poverty. And another issue is whether or not, you know the continued existence of, you know a political system that’s based solely on a black-white distinction still has any place. And that’s not to say there’s still not a need for Voting Rights Act or there’s still not a need to protect the constitutional rights especially of historically disenfranchised people, but it is to say that there are many more considerations that people look at especially now today then they maybe looked at in the 60s when it comes to black-white race issues.”

Hicks was speaking to the 1977 Supreme Court ruling which called for the creation of four black districts, four white districts and one swing district to replace the city’s existing at-large elections. Although the council has yet to approve any redistricting plans, the committee’s discussions are vital in helping Richmond understand its history of politics based solely on racial lines and whether dispersing African American residents will in fact encourage equal representation in the future.

Professor emeritus of urban studies and planning, Dr. John Moeser describes the long history of white dominated politics in Richmond. The story of annexation began in 1948 when at-large elections were adopted. Affluent white Richmonders maintained an overwhelming influence on city and state politics.

Moeser said, “Race loomed large and the white power structure looked uneasily, particularly after 1950, at the growth of the black population. They were so concerned they began to think about how to maintain a white majority here in the capital city of Richmond Virginia.”

In the 1960s demographers predicted that the Black population of Richmond would reach 52% by 1970. In order to prevent an end to white dominated politics the top leaders of the city of Richmond and Chesterfield County met to discuss annexation in a series of secret meetings. Chesterfield County was predominately white, and its annexation would mean a solution to the increasing influence of African Americans in Richmond. Eventually a judge approved the annexation and Richmond gained 23 sq. miles of Chesterfield County.

Moeser said, “That annexation proved to be very effective. The black population which on December 31st was 52%, suddenly plummeted to 42%”

Black Richmonders would not accept this affront to their political power. In 1971 Curtis Holt, a Civil Rights activist, maintenance man and president of the Creighton Court Civic association sued to block the annexation on the grounds that it diluted black voting strength.

Moeser said, “He didn’t have a lot of education, but he knew instinctively that what happened was wrong. So a suit was filed in federal court challenging the annexation.”

The lawsuit gained notoriety and Holt found himself deeply involved in a complicated series of court cases. Holt argued for de-annexation based on the 14th amendment.However, when the case reached the Supreme Court in 1977 the justices’ ultimate ruling was based on 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Moeser explained, “What happened was the city had not gotten approval from the federal government when it annexed Chesterfield County, and so that was the point of law that really carried the day.”

Although the Supreme Court found the annexation constitutionally impermissible, they did not call for deannexation as Curtis Holt had hoped.

Moeser said, “The city was able to argue to the satisfaction of the Supreme Court that the annexation was important for economic reasons so the court said ok, in order to keep the annexation, your going to have to get rid of these at large elections and you are going to have to adopt a 9 ward system of representation.”

In 1977 the city held a special election to test district representation. Although the annexation remained, the city created, under extreme scrutiny, a nine district system that would equally represent both black and white interests. After elections, for the first time in Richmond’s history, a majority of city council seats were held by black politicians. Additionally, the council appointed the city’s first African American mayor, Henry Marsh III.

Dr. Edward Peeples is an emeritus professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an accomplished Civil Rights activist.

Peeples remembered, “But we did see a creeping power of black electorate and saw more and more people emerge as leaders in the Black community, and that was encouraging to us. Well, we had more black candidates and more blacks on council and in that period when there was a lot of hostility between Main Street and the black community.”

Born in 1935 and raised in South Richmond, Peeples remembers growing up surrounded by white supremacy and strict segregation. As Peeples experienced it, racism practiced by working class whites like himself was a result of careful manipulation by more powerful whites who most benefited from racial dominance. Racial tensions remained high after the first district elections, even with a Black Mayor.

Peeples explained, “A bitterness arose. It was always five to four or four to five on any issue that had race. Now people will say well good grief they agree on 80% on the stuff. But that was little things like zoning that didn’t have a racial component to it. Yea, there was a lot of agreement. But these were non consequential when it came to human rights. But when it came to human rights there was this bitterness that came between them.”

The African American population in Richmond today still remains underrepresented due to decreased voter participation in Richmond’s poorest neighborhoods. Additionally, the city council today holds a 6 to 3 white majority.

-Annie Brown

(Image One Courtesy of Richmond City Government, Image Two Courtesy of )

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