By Kent Willis, Executive Director
This is the story of the Voting Rights Act, George Smith, the ACLU, and the dramatic reshaping of Virginia’s racially-gerrymandered political landscape in the early 1990s. It takes a little time to tell this tale, but you’ll meet an intriguing character along the way, and I guarantee a happy ending.
Early Eighties: Making the Voting Rights Act Viable in Virginia
Let’s start with the Voting Rights Act, since it sets the stage for the extraordinary -- perhaps miraculous -- developments that follow.
Passed by Congress in 1965, the Voting Rights Act prohibited racially discriminatory election practices and quickly became an effective tool for advancing minority voting rights. But it was not until the 1980s that two important developments made the law into a true game changer in places like Virginia.
The first development occurred in 1982 when Congress amended the act by allowing legal challenges to discriminatory election plans based solely on the discriminatory effects of those plans. Before that, intent had to be proven to prevail in a lawsuit. Imagine the difference between having to prove what was in the minds of officials when they designed an election plan and presenting a court with hard data showing how an election plan dilutes minority voting strength.
The second came in 1986, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act could be used to compel state and local governments to draw single-member election districts in which minority voters had a fair opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.
This ruling applied to places where minority voters formed a cohesive voting force, where contiguous and compact districts could be drawn, and where white voters tended to vote as a bloc to defeat minority candidates-- in other words, most of the southeastern portion of Virginia, the heart of old plantation country, where white hegemony was complete even in towns and counties in which minorities were a majority of the population.
Mid-Eighties: Meet George Smith of Brunswick County
This is where we meet George R. “Billy” Smith of Brunswick County. Born in 1935, George grew up in a rural society gripped by racial segregation and discrimination. Blacks and whites lived separately. Blacks had to order food from the back door of the local restaurant and, of course, drank from separate water fountains. Whites dominated political offices, despite comprising less than half the population, and hired other whites to run the government.
The schools did not even pretend to be “separate but equal.” Because the public high school was for whites only, George and his friends attended classes in rooms the county rented from all-black St. Paul’s, a private black college located in the town of Lawrenceville. The “progress” Brunswick made during George’s high school years came when the county built a blacks-only high school before he graduated.
After high school George served in the Army for three years, came back to graduate from St. Paul’s College, received a Masters in Education from Virginia State University, and taught for much of his 30-year career in the Brunswick County public school system.
George’s soft voice and sly smile belie his fierce sense of justice and a perseverance that Job would admire. In Brunswick in the 1980s, he labored to bring about change by working on local political campaigns, speaking out at public events, and even running for public office.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, Brunswick County was changing somewhat. But George and his close friend and fellow advocate Charles White felt that as long as whites continued their near stranglehold over the county government, life in Brunswick would remain pretty much the same.
In the late 1980s, George and Charles were the perfect partners for the ACLU, which wanted to use the recharged Voting Rights Act to promote racial equality in Virginia politics. The two Brunswick County natives teamed up with the ACLU to bring two voting rights cases, aptly named Smith v. Brunswick County Board of Supervisors and White v. Raymond Daniel, Chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Supervisors.
These were complicated lawsuits that would take a book to explain, but suffice it to say, these two cases rearranged the political landscape of the county, forcing racially fair elections that ultimately led to an African-American majority on the Board of Supervisors.
Shortly after prevailing in his lawsuit in federal district court, George was quoted in a magazine as saying, “Equal access to the political system affects education, employment, and earning power. Now, all Brunswick residents can have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.”
Recently, he recalled how the changes to the Brunswick County Board of Supervisors have reverberated throughout the county. “It’s not just the Board of Supervisors that’s become more representative of the county’s racial diversity,” he said, “but members of the school board, educators, and county employees as well. You see the results everywhere you go.”
“The atmosphere is different here, now,” said George. “When you get political power, you also get respect, and that’s what we were looking for all along.”
George didn’t stop with Brunswick County. He and Charles became two of the ACLU go-to guys in Southside Virginia, introducing our lawyers to other people like themselves who wanted to bring change to their local governments. And those people introduced us to others, leading to more than a dozen lawsuits challenging discriminatory election plans in Virginia.
Early Nineties: The Political Landscape is Altered
These cases of the late eighties and early nineties were essential to the dramatic developments that followed in 1991 and 1992, when every political jurisdiction in Virginia was required by law to revisit -- and, if necessary, redraw -- its electoral plans after the release of the 1990 census data.
With the ACLU of Virginia threatening additional litigation and providing technical assistance to minority groups in more than 75 towns, cities and counties, a new Virginia political map began to emerge that would give minority voters a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.
The results speak for themselves: In the late eighties the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies estimated that there were 80 black local elected officials in Virginia. In 1993, just one election cycle after redistricting, there were 125, an increase of nearly 70%.
The ACLU worked at the state level as well. In the 1991 redistricting of the House of Delegates and the Senate, the ACLU teamed up with the NAACP to pressure the Virginia General Assembly draw a racially-fair state election plan.
It took a lot of technical expertise, some cajoling, and a few serious threats of litigation, but by the end of the redistricting session, state legislators had added five new majority African-American House districts and three new Senate seats, nearly doubling the number of districts in which minorities had a fair chance of election at the state level.
And, when legislators threw up their hands and announced that it was impossible to draw a majority minority congressional district in Virginia, the ACLU of Virginia drew one for them. It’s the Third Congressional District, and it led to Virginia’s first African-American representative in Congress since Reconstruction.
Today: Postscript on Redistricting in 2011
All this occurred before the U.S. Supreme Court began scaling back the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1990s.
But change had already come to Virginia by then, and a special provision in the Voting Rights Act prevented the state and local governments from rolling back improvements once they had been implemented. Thus, in 2001, when redistricting came around again, the advances made by minority voters in 1991 and 1992 remained intact.
Redistricting in 2011, on the other hand, will be different. The disproportionate increase in the Northern Virginia population, along with dramatic increases in the state’s Asian and Latino populations, presents today’s political mapmakers with a whole new set of challenges.
We promise to be there to keep them on the same course that began in 1991.
Tell your lawmakers to repeal marijuana prohibition!