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Civic Leaders Urge Caution After Momentous Voting Rights Victory at U.S. Supreme Court

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From left: Jerome Dees, Alabama police director for the Southern Poverty Law Center; Marcia Johnson, co-director of the Voting Rights Project and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell; Evan Milligan, executive director of Alabama Forward; Terry Ao Minnis, vice president of Census and Voting Programs for Asian American Advancing Justice and Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter. (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

A decade after the U.S. Supreme Court crippled voting rights with the Shelby County v. Holder decision, there now appears to be some hope for activists that some of those rights remain in place following the High Court’s ruling this month that Alabama’s Republican-controlled Legislature came up with maps that did not allow for adequate representation of Black residents.

Evan Milligan, executive director of Alabama Forward and a plaintiff in the case, said he is usually “measured” in his response to the “pendulum of political power” in the U.S. but that he was encouraged by Allen v. Milligan decision.

He also compared the fight to the Greek myth of Sisyphus.

“[Sisyphus] has to roll the ball up the hill, and it rolls down. He rolls it back up, and that’s how he spends eternity, but he finds purpose in that, and he embraces his fate and then takes every effort with renewed energy …,” Milligan said.

He spoke during a symposium at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Wednesday titled “Shelby County a Decade Later: The Path Forward in Our Ongoing Fight for The Right to Vote” hosted by Congresswoman Terri Sewell.

During the symposium, there were two panel discussions, and Milligan spoke during the one titled “The Road Ahead: The Milligan Case and Beyond.”

In Allen v. Milligan, the High Court voted 5-4 in favor of Black voters in Alabama, saying the state must draw a new congressional map which is more representative of the state’s population.

Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Atlanta, Georgia-based Black Voters Matter, also said residents should be cautious in celebrating the Milligan decision.

While the Supreme Court ruled the Alabama Legislature has to redraw its congressional map by July 21, the demographic makeup of the newly-drawn district needs to be discussed, Albright said.

“In fact, we really need to have a conversation about what does that mean because we’ve got some folks … saying, ‘Oh, we don’t need majority Black. We just need Black opportunity.’…,” Albright said.

Jerome Dees, Alabama policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said “if we are truly trying to remedy the problem before us …I think it is important that any map that receives serious consideration to go forward needs to include at least two districts that are at 50%-plus [Black],” Dees said.

In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court found that a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional, meaning that states like Alabama, which were previously deemed to have a history of racial discrimination in voting access, were no longer required to get “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice before making changes to state voting law.

Sewell said the decision allowed states across the country to pass restrictive and discriminatory voting laws.

In Shelby, “the court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark civil rights law that, for decades, prohibited states from restricting the right to vote,” Sewell said.

Former U.S. Senator for Alabama Doug Jones said the state immediately placed stringent voting requirements after the Shelby decision in 2013 and pointed to voter ID laws and increasing restrictions on absentee voting.