Given its history of racial struggles, it was significant when African Americans finally won a majority on the Sumter County school board in South Georgia nine years ago.
Their ascent was short-lived.
A state law redrew school district boundaries in 2014, flipping the 6-3 black majority to a 2-5 minority and putting whites back in charge of the overwhelmingly black school system.
That disempowerment of black voters violated the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that prohibits racial discrimination in elections, according to a federal judge’s ruling last year.
But equal representation remains far from assured, even after the court approves new school board districts in the coming months. Whites may well retain majority control of the school board after next year’s elections, though they make up just 48% of voters who listed their race. About 50% of Sumter County voters are black.
“There is a great divide in the community between blacks and whites,” said Mathis Kearse Wright, an activist and Baptist preacher who filed the lawsuit over the school districts. “I’m not looking for a system where we are just in control. I want a system where everyone has equal opportunity for control.”
The roots of those divisions stretch back decades, he said.
During the civil rights movement, at least 14 girls were arrested during a nonviolent civil rights protest in Americus, the county seat, and held in the Leesburg Stockade for weeks. The girls, ages 12 to 15, were part of the Americus Movement, protests seeking to end segregation from 1963 to 1965.
Today, the legacy of racial separation persists in Sumter’s schools. African American students account for 71% of those attending public schools and about half of the population; many white students attend private schools.
“We’re still looking at things from one side of the railroad track to the other,” said Kelvin Pless, whose election in 2010 gave African American school board members a majority. “It’s all about control. I think it comes from the Old South, where white is right.”
One month after Pless won his election — but before he took office — the white-majority school board voted unanimously to create two voting districts that covered the entire county rather than distinct areas.
Those kind of at-large districts are often discriminatory because they can prevent voters of color from electing candidates who represent their communities, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Previously, each Sumter school board member repesented a different part of the county.
With little controversy, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill in 2011 to ratify the school board’s plan for two countywide at-large districts along with five smaller districts that matched existing county commission seats.
Once the majority African American school board was in place, it voted in 2012 to get rid of the at-large districts, but that decision didn’t stop them from later going into effect. The Georgia General Assembly had already approved the redistricting plan and reaffirmed it with another vote in 2014.
White candidates won both of the new at-large seats in 2014, putting an end to the African American majority on the school board. The redistricting has been fought in court ever since.
The school board chairman, Michael Busman, said redistricting wasn’t meant to disenfranchise black voters. It was intended to align school district boundaries with county commission districts and reduce confusion among voters, he said.
Busman said after years of legal fights, he’s ready for the case to be resolved. He said it doesn’t matter to him whether or not school board members are elected at-large or in districts.
“I just want to do what’s right and move on,” said Busman, who is white and won an at-large seat against Pless in 2014. “We’re just doing our thing, and other people are fighting this. We’re making a lot of progress, and test scores are increasing.”
Unlike some areas where at-large voting clearly reduces African American voting strength, Sumter County is different because black voters already make up a majority, said Mark Braden, an attorney representing the county elections board.
“This case is crazy,” Braden said. “There’s absolutely no reason to believe that with at-large districts, that the candidates in the black community can’t win. … The black community has more voting power by voting at-large than they probably do in any districts that can be drawn.”
If districts are redrawn to eliminate at-large voting and instead create seven single-member districts, black school board members will likely remain in the minority, according to court filings from the defendants.
The plaintiffs in the case are proposing at least three majority African American districts, which would still leave them with less than half of the seven seats on the school board. Because the African American population is concentrated in the city of Americus, it’s difficult to draw districts that divide the city and county in a way that allocates enough black voters to retake power, according to court documents.
Even if they don’t win a majority, black voters will benefit by gaining at least one seat in addition to the two they currently hold, said Bryan Sells, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
“Sumter County is still trying to overcome its legacy of white supremacy,” Sells said. “If you look at voting statistics, they’ve never caught up. It’s traceable in large measure to the system of segregation and total white domination that was in place for approximately 100 years in Sumter County, and with slavery before that.”
Changes to voting, such as the creation of at-large districts, used to be subject to federal review under the Voting Rights Act before they could go into effect. That oversight ended when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2013 that several states with a history of discriminatory practices, including Georgia, no longer had to obtain federal permission to alter how elections are conducted.
But U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands ruled last year that Sumter County’s school board districts violated another part of the Voting Rights Act that remained intact after the Supreme Court’s decision. The Voting Rights Act still prohibits discrimination on the basis of race.
Sands appointed a University of California, Irvine political science professor, Bernard Grofman, to help craft new district maps by the end of November. Then school board elections could be held next year.
For Wright, who filed the lawsuit more than five years ago, the outcome of the case will make a difference for African American students who he said deserve representatives from their community.
While the case has been pending, elections have been canceled since 2016, leaving four members on the board whose four-year terms have expired.
Meanwhile, the board has voted to build a new Sumter County High, hire a new superintendent and renew a charter school.
Wright said the county needs a school board that will more closely reflect the community and emphasize job skills at the new high school, scheduled to open in 2021. He said students need preparation for high-tech jobs in industries that will rely on drone delivery services and electric cars, for instance.
“They have no hope because they can’t get it in the school system, and they can’t get it at home,” Wright said as he surveyed a large field of dirt where Sumter High is being built. “I would want to have a black majority looking like me and making that decision about my welfare.”
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