A Voting Rights Battle in a School Board ‘Coup’

AMERICUS, Ga. — One mother worked at Habitat for Humanity. The other helped teenagers who had run afoul of the law. Their sons played soccer together, and for a few years, the two women also sat on the county school board.

They were friendly on the sidelines until 2014, when different battle lines became clear.

That was when the Sumter County Board of Education got a new voting map. Donna Minich, who is white, had championed it. She said it was time to shrink the board for the small rural county, something state officials had urged for years.

But Carolyn Whitehead, who is African-American, saw the map as a potential threat. The board, which was predominantly Black, reflected the demographics of the student body. The new map eliminated some districts held by African-Americans. Two seats were created that Black candidates were unlikely to win.

“I felt like we were going to have problems getting elected because of how the lines were drawn,” Ms. Whitehead said of the board’s Black members.

And they did.

The map became a front in a decade-long struggle in this corner of the Deep South that began with schools but became about race; a fight that for African-Americans echoed the showdowns over voting rights of the 1960s, and for many white residents brought out the anxiety, made manifest by the Trump era, of keeping power over institutions while lacking the votes to do so.

Angered white parents packed meetings, declaring that their children were not wanted in the county’s schools.

Even the local newspapers were split on racial lines: The Black-owned broadsheet defended Ms. Whitehead, while the county’s largest paper, white-owned, backed Ms. Minich and called the African-American members of the school board “a gang.”

When the new map was installed, the Black majority that ran the school board vanished. The six seats controlled by African-Americans became a minority of two.

“We once had to count jelly beans in a jar to vote in this county,” said the Rev. Mathis Kearse Wright Jr., the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter, who filed a lawsuit in federal court saying that the map violated the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racially discriminatory voting practices. “Under this map, we are now fighting that same battle all over again, the one we were fighting when I was a young man in the 1960s.”

Not since the civil rights era has the way Americans vote been more contested during a presidential election. The pandemic has upended how Americans can cast ballots. President Trump has started a campaign to undermine confidence in the election unlike any seen in recent memory.

The Supreme Court is deciding questions of voting rights even as votes are being cast, issuing rulings allowing Pennsylvania more time to tally votes and Alabama to bar curbside voting.

Long before these cases reached the justices, another court decision set into motion a series of events that would come to engulf this small county where cotton fields still dot the landscape.

At the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a requirement that areas with a history of racial discrimination seek federal approval for any changes made to how people voted. Known as “preclearance,” the rules applied to nine states, largely in the South, and were meant to ensure that the region’s white supremacist history did not repeat itself.

In the 2013 case of Shelby County v. Holder, the court threw out the preclearance requirement. In the 5-to-4 ruling, conservative justices said the rules held the South to an unfair standard.

Almost immediately, officials in several states began to test the decision, making changes that would have previously required federal approval.

North Carolina and Alabama introduced new ID laws, and are among 36 states that now have them on the books. Texas began closing polling stations, shutting an estimated 750 of them since 2013.

And in Sumter County, where officials had not gotten federal approval for the map that Ms. Minich was supporting, the court’s decision suddenly made that blessing unnecessary.

“It was kind of a ‘Hallelujah’ moment,” said Ms. Minich, who added that the voting map never had anything to do with race.

Since 2014, that voting map stood as Rev. Wright’s lawsuit made its way through the courts. African-Americans remained in the minority running the district of 4,500, where Black students are nearly three-quarters of the student body.

In January, a federal judge ordered a new election for the entire board, having determined that the previous map was discriminatory. Next week, Sumter County will vote for school board members with a map that was yet again redrawn.

African-American candidates have now entered in every district — challenging not only white incumbents, but also the board’s two Black members. Campaign signs speck front yards along the highway as every seat is up for grabs.

E. Mark Braden, a lawyer for the county, argued that the old map was fair.

African-American politicians, including Barack Obama, had won Sumter County in the past, Mr. Braden said, and officials believed the court’s findings that Black voters had been discriminated against were based on a faulty statistical analysis of the population.

But for many in Sumter County, the math raised a more basic question: Should a school district that was 70 percent Black be governed by a board that was 70 percent white?

Two mothers, one board

The Sumter County of Ms. Whitehead’s youth was once a civil rights crossroads. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed there in 1961. And after the Voting Rights Act became law, county officials allowed Black residents to vote, but tried to keep them in segregated lines.

“It always seemed like there were racial issues and tensions in this county that stopped them from doing the right thing,” said Ms. Whitehead, who is now 58, recalling years where local leaders resisted integration.

Nearly as fierce a dispute was waged over the county’s public schools. As the federal government enforced classroom integration, a group of white families in Sumter County established an all-white private school. Southland Academy was opened in 1966 and became one of a fleet of so-called segregation academies that still dot the South.

Among Southland’s biggest boosters were the county school board and city officials, who transferred a public school building to the private upstart, then sold buses and furniture to it at a discount, according to Bobby L. Fuse, a local community leader. Officials lowered rates on taxes — which were used to fund the public schools — so white residents could more easily pay for private tuition, he said.

This left the public schools with predominantly Black enrollment.

“The building had been condemned, but the students were allowed to attend,” Ms. Whitehead said of her own high school.

By 1990, Ms. Whitehead had a son and wanted to make a difference in his education. The N.A.A.C.P. recruited her and another Black candidate to run for seats on the county school board. Both women won, becoming the first African-Americans to join the board.

Around that time, Ms. Minich settled with her family in Sumter County for a job with Habitat for Humanity, in the county seat of Americus. She came with memories of her own segregated youth, where she’d gone to an all-white high school in a part of Illinois. When a Black family moved in one town over, she said, they were told that firefighters might not come if someone set fire to their house.

“I knew things had to change for us,” Ms. Minich, 68, said.

In Sumter County, her son played soccer with Ms. Whitehead’s son Clayton, and both children attended the public schools. Ms. Minich’s husband was the coach. In the early 2000s, she decided to join Ms. Whitehead on the school board, so she ran for a seat and won.

Holding a political post left her surprised by how racial issues she thought society had overcome were still on the minds of African-Americans. She considered herself more liberal than the average Georgian — she voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 — but she said her views were discounted because of her race in the largely Black school district.

Sumter County, 130 miles south of Atlanta, was also undergoing a demographic shift. When the Voting Rights Act was passed, white families had been the majority in the area and handily won all of its political posts. But some white residents left in the early 2000s, and Black residents were beginning to overtake them among voters.

“When we look at elections there, they look very much like a racial census,” said Bernard Grofman, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who was appointed by the court to redraw the voting map.

New Black candidates arrived on the school board, often urged by the N.A.A.C.P. The group also encouraged protesters to attend meetings.

The complaints seemed less about specific school policies than the fact that there were too many white members on the board, Ms. Minich said. One man, she said, repeatedly arrived with a sign calling her a racist and would shout down white board members when they spoke with cries of “yes, Master.”

“I was afraid to walk to the parking lot” after meetings, she said. At one point, Ms. Minich called the district attorney to ask for help, fearing someone carried a gun.

Before long, her seat was up for grabs, and she became an election target. In 2010, Kelvin Pless, a Black educator at the technical college, challenged Ms. Minich and won. For the first time, the school board would be majority Black.

“I was viewed as a hero,” Mr. Pless said. “At the time, though, I didn’t think it was a big deal since it had been a fair fight.”

He added: “But when we got in, all hell broke loose.”

A ‘little coup’

Maurice King Jr., a lawyer, said he knew trouble was on the horizon. For years, Mr. King had represented school boards in other parts of the South that had become majority Black — and saw the fierce fights that followed. The battles often had to do with redrawing the voting map in a way that diluted the African-American vote, he said.

In fact, before leaving office, Ms. Minich had advanced a new voting map for the county that would end up doing exactly that.

“That was my parting shot, this little coup, before I went off the board,” she said.

Ms. Minich said that the map was not an effort to get rid of a Black majority. The size of the board was too costly for a rural county, she said, and it would be easier on voters if the number of school board districts was the same as the number of county commissioners.

The plan included five districts and two “at large” seats, to be voted countywide, shrinking the board from nine to seven seats. The countywide seats should have favored African-Americans, whose population in the area had risen to 52 percent in the last census, said Ms. Minich.

But Mr. King, who was recently hired as the board’s first Black attorney, warned that, in his view, Black voter turnout was far lower than white turnout in the South because of the long history of voter suppression. African-American candidates stood little chance to win countywide seats, he argued.

On Mr. King’s advice, the board discarded the voting map. The majority also began to steer a new path, replacing the board’s white chairman, Dr. Michael Busman, with Edith Green, a retired educator who is Black. They also fired the superintendent who had been hired by the previous board. Many of the votes were now split along racial lines.

The decisions angered Ms. Minich, especially the firing of the superintendent, who she believed was doing a good job. She asked what might be done now that she was no longer on the board.

“That’s why we formed ‘the group,’” she said.

In early 2012, a group describing itself as Sumter County’s “concerned citizens” rallied 200 attendees, mostly white, at a local elementary school. The parents aired grievances about the board and made plans to keep up pressure.

Mounting anxiety about race was soon apparent in public meetings. In one, a white mother told the board that while she believed in diversity, the board had made her children feel as if they “were less important” for being white. At one point, a parent accused Black board members of convening in secret to make decisions. One of the white board members suggested an investigation by the district attorney. Weeks later, the D.A. ordered a grand jury to look into the dealings of the board.

Around that time, Mr. Pless, a board member, said his supervisor at the college where he was employed received a letter from angered parents calling for him and two other Black board members to be fired from their teaching jobs at the technical school.

“These individuals are destructive and evil,” said the letter. “They are racists and should not be affiliated with the college.” Ms. Whitehead said her boss at the Department of Juvenile Justice received a similar letter.

The Americus Sumter Observer, the county’s Black-owned newspaper, began to vilify the board’s white members, at one point publishing complaints about Dr. Busman, the former chairman, from a patient who claimed he had mistreated her.

The Americus Times-Recorder, a white-owned broadsheet, attacked Ms. Green and Ms. Whitehead, referring to the other Black members as “their gang” in editorials.

“There is a movement afoot that must be crushed now,” read one editorial. “If it is not, it will continue to grow and fester and its evil tendrils will push into every crack and crevice of our school system.”

Ms. Whitehead saw racial undertones in the attacks, especially those calling her a gangster. “We were probably the most educated board Sumter County ever had, we all had college degrees,” she said.

In March 2012, Ms. Whitehead was called to testify before the grand jury. The board had become so divided at that point that its Black and white members arrived in separate groups to speak, she said. Of the 10 grand jury members listening to her testimony, only one was Black.

The grand jury returned a report urging the school board to adopt the new voting map. But ultimately, it didn’t matter. In the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which was decided in June 2013, the court removed federal preclearance for the voting maps.

For years, the Black board members had stopped the state from adopting the new map by refusing to submit it for federal approval. But after the Shelby decision, none was needed. Georgia’s legislature and Republican governor quickly signed the map into law.

Mr. Braden, the attorney now defending the map, noted that many Black legislators voted for the map at the time, undermining the theory that it was discriminatory. Among the Black lawmakers who voted for the changes was Stacey Abrams, who led Democrats in the Georgia House of Representatives and narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race by less than two percentage points.

Ms. Abrams said she regretted the vote. But she said that without federal review, there was no way for lawmakers to single-handedly vet voting maps for Georgia’s 159 counties.

“While ignorance is not a defense, it’s certainly an explanation,” she said.

Much more white

With the new map in place, the election in 2014 changed the Sumter County Board of Education again. This time, it was much more white: Only two Black incumbents still held their seats after the vote.

Ms. Whitehead had served more than two decades on the board, and after seeing her new district become packed with white voters, retired before the election. Mr. Pless’s district also had more white voters, and he chose instead to run for one of the at-large seats, where he was defeated.

“The first vote they took was to get rid of me,” said Mr. King, the attorney.

Some of the racial tensions were apparent to the white board members, too, like Sylvia Roland, a former teacher who won her seat under the new map. “There were five whites and two Blacks, and it took us months for us to jell as a board and get each other’s trust,” she said.

The agenda also included some polarizing items, among them an agreement with a proposed charter school to begin operating. Many parents had complained about stagnant test scores in the existing public schools.

“I saw what was going on in the high school, and I didn’t think kids were getting a quality education,” said Ms. Roland, who had taught there.

But charter schools — privately run schools that are funded with public money — were long controversial among Black residents in Sumter County. Many still remembered the creation of Southland Academy by white families, using buildings and buses that belonged to the public schools.

In 2015, approval was granted for the new Furlow Charter School, named after a Confederate colonel whose name had appeared on other buildings in town.

Furlow was run by an independent board that was nearly all white. And while any student in the county could apply, when classes began, Furlow’s student body was majority white. It was the first time in decades there had been a white-majority school in Sumter County that wasn’t Southland, according to state statistics.

“I think part of the reason some people opposed it was because it was seen as the ‘white flight school,’” said Ms. Minich, whose daughter-in-law is a board member. But Ms. Minich said the school had many Black students and was making efforts to become more diverse.

It was now Black parents who were making complaints to the school board that their children were being discriminated against in the public schools.

One incident that caused a stir involved Nacharlesia Floyd, the high school’s salutatorian in 2017, who planned to give a speech that described the struggles of African-American students in the school. A white teacher told her not to mention the Black students, according to Ms. Floyd’s mother, Ti’erra Snead-Floyd.

Ms. Floyd gave the speech anyway. Her microphone was cut off mid-speech and officials threatened disciplinary action. Among those who took note was John Lewis, the late congressman who protested in Sumter County in the 1960s. Mr. Lewis spoke to Ms. Snead-Floyd one day when they bumped into each other at the airport, she said.

“He said we’d gotten into ‘good trouble,’” said the mother, recalling a line Mr. Lewis used throughout his civil rights campaigns.

The judge’s map

This year, Judge Louis Sands of Georgia’s Middle District federal court ordered a new voting map to be drawn and voted on in November

The map, produced by Mr. Grofman, the university professor appointed by the court, signified a major reversal of the last one: Four of its seven seats would be in places where African-Americans were more than 60 percent of the population. It was the kind of map Mr. Wright, the head of the local N.A.A.C.P. branch, had long sought.

Ms. Roland, the school board member, was torn about the change. The new map eliminated her at-large seat, which she had won twice. Ms. Roland, who is white, now had to run in a district whose voting-age population is 61 percent African-American. Still, she said she wanted to run anyway, even if people would most likely split along racial lines.

The new map won’t permanently settle the matter. Next year, after the 2020 census, Georgia’s legislature will approve maps for its 159 counties based on the new data.

“It took years for this case to be won,” said Sean J. Young, the legal director of the Georgia American Civil Liberties Union. “And there’s nothing to stop them from drawing the same discriminatory map all over again.”

Ms. Whitehead, long retired from the board, still thinks of the two clashes that have haunted the county nearly all of her life — voting and schools — and wonders if she will ever see them resolved.

“It’s been a long struggle,” she said. “And my family members still talk about it from time to time; it’s been contentious from my school years up until now.”

Ms. Minich, the white former school board member, no longer follows the debate over the map like she used to. She said she was still confused and hurt over the fight that took place.

“For me, this was all mind-boggling,” she said. Ms. Minich said she missed the times when she and Ms. Whitehead talked as their children played soccer together.

The two women haven’t spoken in years.

“Things were under the surface all along, and they erupt in their own ways, like they did with the school board,” she said.

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