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Whites Cite Voting Rights Act In Suit Over City Government

November 10, 1987

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ Voting rights cases that gave Alabama the nation’s highest percentage of black elected officials are now the basis of a lawsuit by whites who contend a black coalition has left them without representation in Birmingham’s government.

″This city is becoming more and more polarized as time goes on,″ said white City Councilman Russell Yarbrough, who filed the federal court suit along with former Mayor George Seibels, a white.

The suit contends that the at-large election of representatives gives the black voting majority in Birmingham a hammerlock on city politics.

The suit, a rare case pitting white voters against a powerful black political machine, asks U.S. District Judge Robert Propst to order the city to elect its council members by district.

At-large elections have been shelved in many cities and counties in recent years in favor of electing council members or commissioners by district. In Alabama, such revisions were pushed in federal courts by the state’s oldest black political caucus, the Alabama Democratic Conference.

Joe Reed, a black Montgomery city councilman who is the chairman of the conference, said Tuesday he had no comment on the merits of the lawsuit filed by whites in Birmingham, but his political philosophy favors ″equitable representation for everybody. I believe in single-member districts for everybody.″

All nine members of the Birmingham City Council, five of them elected this fall, received the endorsement of black Mayor Richard Arrington’s Jefferson County Citizens Coalition. Six are black, three white.

The city is 56 percent black. In recent elections, candidates endorsed by the coalition have received well above 90 percent of the black vote, while whites have voted more than 90 percent for candidates not backed by the coalition.

″It’s very obvious from the results of these recent elections what’s going on,″ Seibels said.

Yarbrough said the suit was not filed to benefit any one group, but for the benefit of the entire city.

″The question I have is ’Why now?″ asked Councilwoman Linda Coleman, who is black. ″To me it sounds like sour grapes. I still think all sections of Birmingham are being represented. No sections are being neglected.″

In the suit, Yarbrough and Seibels contend that voting ″is and has been racially polarized for the last several elections. Black electors vote generally as a bloc and usually defeat the minority’s preferred candidates. Minority votes are submerged into the majority electorate’s voting choices.″

They also said that ″white voters in the city have been denied the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice for these respective offices.″

Although the plaintiffs say the suit is not racially motivated, its language closely resembles a reverse discrimination voting rights action.

Blacks have used the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to challenge successfully at-large voting across the South. The act became a more potent weapon for civil rights groups after a 1982 amendment said plaintiffs no longer had to prove an intent to discriminate, but only that the elections resulted in discrimination. Many of the suits by blacks against at-large elections contended that they diluted black voting strength.

A recent survey by the Joint Center for Political Studies found that in Alabama, where blacks make up 22.9 percent of the population, blacks hold 10.8 percent of the elected local, state and federal posts, the highest percentage in the nation. The study said blacks nationally hold less than 1.5 percent of the elected posts while making up about 11 percent of the population.

Arrington, elected last month to his third term as mayor, is one of the top black political leaders in the South. He formed the highly successful coalition 10 years ago.

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