Brown v. Board of Commissioners shifted form of government to boost minorities

Brown v. Board of Commissioners shifted form of government to boost minorities

October 13th, 2011 by Cliff Hightower and Todd South in News

State Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, speaks about her political life and influences while in front of the City Hall building. She was part of the legal challenge that changed Chattanooga's form of government.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

ABOUT TODAY'S EVENT

Originally scheduled for April 28 but delayed because of the tornados at that time, the seminar today on Brown v. Board of Commissioners of the City of Chattanooga will recognize U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar's role in the case and his legal service in Chattanooga. The U.S. District Court Historical Society, local and federal bar associations, the Brock-Cooper Inns of Court and the local chapter of the UT Alumni Association are sponsoring the event.

Participants in an event today will relive a 22-year-old courtroom decision that blew up Chattanooga's political landscape.

U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar's 1989 decision forced Chattanooga to change its at-large election system, establish districts that represented minorities, eliminate voting privileges for non-resident property owners and create the city's current mayor-council form of government.

"I think that this case probably was the most important case that I decided," Edgar said in a recent interview.

The federal judge, who began his judicial career here in 1985, still hears cases in Michigan.

At today's event, Edgar, plaintiffs and attorneys in the Brown v. Board of Commissioners of the City of Chattanooga will discuss the case, Edgar's ruling and how his decision changed the city's government.

The effects of the court decision continue to be felt today, from the makeup of the City Council and how the city's residents are represented in nine districts across Chattanooga to redistricting efforts now under way.

SIGNING ON

IF YOU GO

What: Seminar about the Brown v. Board of Commissioners of the City of Chattanooga

When: 4:30 p.m. today

Where: UTC University Center Auditorium

Cost: Free


Plaintiffs

* Tommie Brown

* Leamon Pierce

* Herbert H. Wright

* J.K. Brown

* Annie D. Thomas

* Johnny Holloway

* George A. Key

* Lorenzo Ervin

* Bobby Ward

* Norma Crowder

* Maxine B. Cousins

* Buford McElrath

Defendants

Board of Commissioners

* Gene Roberts

* Tom Kennedy

* John Franklin

* Pat Rose

* Ron Littlefield

Before Tennessee achieved statehood in 1796, some freed slaves could own property, testify in court and vote. But in 1834, those rights were revoked with changes to the state constitution.

During the Reconstruction years after the Civil War and even after Reconstruction's end, blacks in Chattanooga held positions as city aldermen, constables, sheriff's deputies, justices of the peace, in fire companies and on the board of education.

After multiple attempts to change the city charter through the state Legislature, supporters of white supremacy in 1911 installed an at-large commission government in Chattanooga. Five commissioners controlled city government.

No black was elected to the commission until John Franklin won a seat in 1971.

But change was brewing in Chattanooga.

Civil rights supporters and activists, including Lorenzo Ervin, Maxine Cousins, George Key and Herbert H. Wright, researched 4,000 documents related to election results, voter registration and population in the months leading up to filing the lawsuit that Edgar eventually ruled on.

They sought help from state Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, whose work for the city's black community began decades before.

She was drawn to work for the NAACP by local chapter president James Mapp. A longtime family friend of Brown's, Mapp reinforced her parents' admonition that blacks needed to seek education, then give back to their communities, Brown said in a recent interview.

When asked to add her name to the list of 11 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, she didn't hesitate. But many wouldn't have blamed her if she did.

"This was not a solidified group," she said. "These were individuals who stepped up to do this."

Brown said Ervin had approached local black groups to file the case. Many refused.

"This at-large government was no secret in the black community and in the majority community," Brown said. "It was no secret that they were operating outside of the law."

Edgar ultimately ruled that the at-large system of voting without districts diluted the black vote and prevented minority populations from electing a candidate of their choosing.

These challenges had swept the country in hundreds of lawsuits, changing an already declining form of government. Some cities, such as Tulsa, Okla., and Tallahassee, Fla., changed their government when faced with similar lawsuits but many fought the change.

In Chattanooga, on the night of the final meeting among attorneys, plaintiffs and supportive residents before the filing, Brown had worked late in her job as a social work professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her parents were sick and she decided not to go to the meeting.

But a friend told her she had to.

As the meeting progressed, Brown got up to leave, her mind on her work the next day. One of the attorneys rushed over and said she couldn't leave.

Brown assured her that the group had her support, but the woman said they couldn't count on her without a signature.

Brown thought of those who'd died in the struggle for the right to vote, thinking of her parents' lessons of serving the community, thinking of the campus where she taught but wouldn't have been able to attend as a student.

She signed the document with shaking hands.

"I bet you I would not recognize my signature on that petition," she laughed as she recalled the evening.

POLITICAL POWER

Laughlin McDonald, an attorney for the ACLU since the 1960s, served as lead counsel in the lawsuit. He'd participated in hundreds of lawsuits aimed at unfair election practices since Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made many state requirements, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, illegal.

The at-large system of voting for commission-style government was one form of government often used to disenfranchise blacks, he said.

"It would not matter if every single black was registered to vote and turned out to vote for a black candidate on election day if the white majority were not going to cast any of their votes for black candidates," McDonald said recently.

But, he said, simply passing the Voting Rights Act didn't prompt local and state governments to make the necessary changes.

Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Richard H. Dinkins worked as co-counsel in the Chattanooga lawsuit. He'd worked on voting rights cases and had recently won a similar case in Jackson, Tenn.

"There's a reason you had to file lawsuits to enforce civil rights," he said in a recent interview. "People just didn't say, 'OK let's be fair, let's be good and treat everyone right.'"

Both Dinkins and Brown made clear during interviews that race was a major factor in the lawsuit, but difficulties came down to power and the government officials with that power not wanting to relinquish it.

"You were dealing with the fundamental tenet of political power in America," Dinkins said. "You were going up against the structure by which government was being conducted."

THE JUDGE

Edgar had lived in Southeast Tennessee nearly all of his life by the time this lawsuit arrived on his desk. The Michigan native's father had moved to Athens, Tenn., to work at Bowater. Edgar left the area for school and military service, but returned to practice law and was later appointed a federal judge.

He'd seen elections in Chattanooga and knew many of the candidates. When the lawsuit was filed, he had served as a federal judge for less than two years.

And federal judges who had to enforce the U.S. Constitution during the Civil Rights era from the 1950s and into the 1970s were not highly regarded by many who opposed the changes that new laws brought to their communities.

By the time he heard the case, Edgar said, much of the animosity toward judges had died down, but people in the community and at local newspapers still held strong opinions about court involvement in local elections.

The year after plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, City Commissioners formed a charter study commission to see how the city's charter could be changed to abide by federal voting law.

Among Chattanoogans polled for the study, 70 percent wanted to keep the commission-style government and 30 percent wanted it changed. Those percentages were almost entirely divided between whites in support and blacks in opposition.

U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar

Edgar released a lengthy opinion, which drew deeply on the historical and voting records of Chattanooga. One portion of the lawsuit showed that non-city residents could vote in Chattanooga elections if they owned property inside city limits.

In two egregious examples, one parcel of property had 23 registered voters assigned to it. Fifteen non-resident voters had signed their names to another piece of land valued at $100 in order to vote in city elections.

Edgar echoed a plaintiff's observation in his opinion, writing, "As plaintiffs have pointed out, the law currently would permit Muammar el-Qaddafi to buy a parcel of land in Chattanooga and deed it to thousands of Libyans who would then be able to control the outcome of Chattanooga's elections."

EFFECTS

Changes brought by the lawsuit reverberate in ways that are hard to measure beyond the ballot box. The intangible benefits to having all of a community represented in elections go far beyond what law can state.

"When blacks participate in the political process and can elect candidates of their choice, it changes the way that people think and talk," McDonald said. "It means that the community's become closer together and the process becomes much more democratic. It's just a positive thing."

Chattanooga Councilman Andraé McGary knows the legacy he carries. The black councilman says he is indebted to those who in the 1980s "decided to make a stand." The result has been more representation for neighborhoods throughout the city and more accurate representation of the racial makeup of the city.

"I'm definitely a descendent of the legacy," he said. "It was a movement forward."

Mayor Ron Littlefield saw the changes personally. He was the last elected Public Works commissioner during the commission form of government. When the government changed in 1990, he was elected to the city's first City Council and became the first council chairman.

Even though he was a city commissioner during the last of its existence, he said he had never been a fan, calling himself a "critic."

But he said Mayor Gene Roberts, the city's last mayor under the commission form of government and its first mayor under the mayor-council form, set up an administration with institutional knowledge.

Some old commissioners became department heads, such as Ervin Dinsmore, who became head of Public Safety, and Pat Rose, who became administrator of Parks and Recreation.

Roberts himself said he was glad the changes happened.

"We didn't have a lot of problems," he said. "There were some people who didn't like it. But we got through."

The legacy of the Brown v. Board of Commissioners decision will be addressed by the City Council in the next few months through the redistricting process. The court decision created three majority minority districts within the city and a swing district.

Councilman Peter Murphy, chairman of the Legal and Legislative Committee, represents a district in which minorities are the majority. He is also leading the city's redistricting, which happens every 10 years after the U.S. Census is taken to draw new lines based on population shifts and minority concentration.

While the court order no longer dictates how the city is set up, federal laws prevent the city from regressing. Murphy said the council is dedicated to keeping the majority minority districts intact.

Councilman Russell Gilbert also represents a majority minority district. He said he values the results Edgar's decision had on minority candidates' ability to hold office. The way city held citywide elections before would make it "difficult for a person like me to win," he said.

"I think City Council represents the people better than the past," he said.

Edgar said others must determine the long-term implications of his decision.

"We'll leave it to others to make a decision on that, but I don't think it hurt race relations in the city," he said. "One of the great things about this job is that you have an opportunity to do things that are meaningful."

Timeline of historic events related to the 1989 Brown v. Board of Commissioners decision:

* 1834 -- Previous rights to hold property, vote and testify in court held by blacks removed with changes to the Tennessee Constitution

* 1860 -- Hamilton County population -- 13,258. Twelve percent are slaves and free blacks.

* 1866 -- During the latter part of the Civil War the Union Army occupied Chattanooga. Many slaves desiring freedom and the protection of the Union Army traveled to Chattanooga. Blacks number 2,657, or 46 percent of Chattanooga's population.

* 1860s -- Late in this decade, with the beginning of Reconstruction, the Republican Party secures for blacks the right to vote and hold public office.

* 1868 -- Blacks elected to the Chattanooga Board of Alderman, an early form of city government.

* 1870 -- White conservative Democrats regain control of state government.

* 1881 -- Seven of Chattanooga's 12 policemen are black. Former slaves serve in fire companies, the board of education, as constables, justices of the peace and deputy sheriffs.

* 1883 -- White political leaders make an effort to repeal Chattanooga's city charter to minimize black political strength by establishing a commission government. Until home rule in the 1970s, charter amendments had to be made by the state legislature, which declined to repeal the charter in this effort. Instead the legislature amends the charter to provide a poll tax and make the police commissioner a governor-appointed position.

* 1885 -- Chattanoogans again try to change the city charter with a purpose of "preserving white supremacy." This effort fails.

* 1889-1890 -- Legislature enacts statewide laws to disenfranchise blacks. These include advance registration requirements, literacy provisions and a poll tax. Chattanooga city charter again amended, increasing voting wards from five to eight, limiting Republican-black strength to three wards.

* 1901 -- The "Peak Bill" revises Chattanooga's city charter, creating a bicameral city government with eight aldermen and 16 councilmen. This eliminates all black aldermen after 1902. Blacks retain only two councilmen. The previous year's population estimates put blacks as 43.5 percent of the city's residents.

* 1907 -- First proposal advanced by white civic leaders to create the eventual commission form of government.

* 1909 -- Commission proposal not introduced by Hamilton County state legislative delegation, but further gerrymandering reduces black voting influence.

* 1911 -- Commission form of government begins in Chattanooga. Five commissioners, elected by at-large voting, control city government. The charter change also makes it illegal to pay someone's poll tax of $2.

* 1917 -- Commission form of government reaches its zenith; at least 500 cities nationwide use this style of city governing.

* 1957 -- Only major change to commission government until its elimination -- commission candidates must run for a designated post. Before this change commissioners decided among themselves what posts they would fill after the election.

* 1960 -- James Mapp files a desegregation lawsuit that leads to Chattanooga operating under a 26-year court-supervised plan to desegregate schools in a case known as Mapp v. the Board of Education of the City of Chattanooga.

* 1964 -- Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments hold a referendum on whether to become joint governments under a metropolitan charter. Voters reject the attempt.

* 1965 -- Voting Rights Act passed by Congress to ensure equal access to elections by all minorities. Act makes poll tax, literacy tests and other means of race-based disenfranchisement illegal. Commission form of government has fallen to less than 8 percent of U.S. cities with populations greater than 5,000.

* 1970 -- Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments hold a referendum on whether to become joint governments under a metropolitan charter. Voters reject the attempt.

* 1971 -- John Franklin is the first black elected to Chattanooga commission.

* 1972 -- Mayor Robert Kirk Walker attempts to change the commission form of government. This was due to government functionality, not out of concern for black voting power.

* 1975 -- Commission scuttles attempted change of government.

* 1984 -- Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments hold a referendum on whether to become joint governments under a metropolitan charter. Voters reject the attempt.

* Nov. 12, 1987 -- Black plaintiffs file a federal civil lawsuit claiming that Chattanooga's form of government and method of election violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

* 1988 -- The Chattanooga city commission appoints a charter study commission to recommend changes to the charter that would make it comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Part of the study polls city residents, of which 70 percent support keeping the commission form of government and 30 percent want it changed. The response is divided almost entirely along racial lines, with whites supporting and blacks opposing.

* Aug. 8, 1989 -- U.S. District Judge R. Allan Edgar rules that the commission form of government and method of election violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by diluting the black vote. Edgar orders the city to present a plan for the change of city government within 75 days.

* 1990 -- Citywide election held with new district voting system. Mayor-council form of government takes effect the following year.

Source: Federal Court ruling, Times Free Press archives