Last year, we joined with three other voting rights advocates to sue the state of Alabama over its recently adopted congressional map. And we won. Three federal judges—including two appointed by former President Donald Trump—unanimously agreed that Alabama’s map violates the Voting Rights Act, or VRA, by diluting the voting strength of Black Alabamians living in the Black Belt, a collection of 20 rural counties in the state’s central region.
With the exception of Montgomery, most Black Belt counties are rural. Like our co-plaintiffs, our careers have been shaped by opportunities to serve Black families in this region. Many of these families are ninth-generation descendants of the enslaved people who tilled this rich soil, building the foundation of Alabama’s commodity industry and the U.S. financial sector. Amid profound oppression and absent government infrastructure, they have created blues, soul, and gospel music traditions, elaborate textile designs, and effective grassroots organizing tactics that have expanded democratic values worldwide. Despite these contributions, white voters rarely support Black candidates, regardless of their political party. As a result, no Black Alabamian has ever won in a majority-white congressional district.
After reviewing our arguments, the three judges agreed that Alabama’s map discriminates by giving white voters—who are 63 percent of the population—total control over 86 percent of Alabama’s congressional seats. The judges ordered Alabama to adopt a new map that respects the state’s redistricting goals and contains two “opportunity districts” where Black voters’ preferred candidates have a fair chance to compete for votes. Many potential maps were shown to state officials to address this. But Alabama simply ignored them, instead appealing our win to the Supreme Court of the United States. SCOTUS then stayed the lower court’s decision without full briefing or argument, and without addressing the district court’s powerful finding of discrimination. This decision—which underscores the problematic nature of making such momentous decisions on the court’s “shadow docket”—means that these midterm elections will continue to be tainted by a discriminatory map that dilutes Black voting power.
On October 4, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case. Here is how Alabama plans to pursue victory in a case it could not win at home: First, Alabama claims that the VRA is unconstitutional as applied to congressional districts. Second, Alabama is arguing that any use of race in redistricting is per se unconstitutional. Alabama is calling our plans discriminatory merely because our experts set out to show it is possible to draw two majority-Black districts. The problem is that the Constitution does allow, and sometimes requires, legislatures to intentionally draw districts that recognize or protect communities of color.
Let’s be clear: A ruling that forces state and local governments to disregard race in map-drawing would have devastating effects on electoral representation. If the court sides with Alabama, states would be free to ignore and divide communities of color and could even eliminate many existing minority opportunity districts so long as a state could conjure up a purportedly nonracial excuse for its actions.
If this happens, political opportunities for people of color will disappear. The VRA opened doors for elected officials of color nationwide. Many of these officials have delivered an unprecedented expansion of services and infrastructure into communities in the Deep South that emerged from chattel slavery, the racial terror of lynching, and the funneling of Black tax dollars into segregated public services.
Elected representation is a unique and rare opportunity, both for the public servant elected to the seat and for the community of voters responsible for discerning the appropriate candidate for that office. The creation of an additional opportunity district in Alabama would expand avenues for developing new leaders—leaders who can help lead a new generation in the task of safeguarding democracy. This is vital to improving the responsiveness of our civic institutions.
Last year, we worked alongside a diverse coalition of advocates to help our neighbors understand the connection between redistricting and the quality of their public services. We used melody and metaphor to tell our redistricting story. Our song, “Narissa’s Home,” connects our policy work to the lives of the people living in our communities, especially the peers and mentors we have lost. We received many lessons from those loved ones. Our suit is an expression of our determination to ensure that their lives and lessons continue bearing fruit for our communities.
If the Supreme Court rejects Alabama’s responsibility to draw two opportunity districts, the court would be ruling against the right of Black people to self-determination. Alabamians in the Black Belt will continue to struggle for access to basic resources as elected officials fail to fully represent their interests.
The long struggle toward expanding voting rights in Alabama is not over. We hope the Supreme Court will renew its commitment to guarding personal and shared freedoms to participate in a fair political process. However the court rules, we will continue investing our deepest hope in the ability of our collective advocacy traditions to realize the fullest expression of democracy within our communities.