Alabama County May Change Voting Rights

Shelby, which is challenging Section 5, has changed, but voter advocates say work is still needed.

Alabamians stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court during arguments for Shelby County v. Holder. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Alabamians stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court during arguments for Shelby County v. Holder. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The concerns in Calera are found throughout other cities in Shelby County and in county government, advocates say. Currently, there are no blacks serving on the nine-member Shelby County Commission, which represents 201,000 people and has a population that is 85 percent white, 11 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic and other minorities.

One black man, Aubrey Miller, was elected to the Shelby County Board of Education in 2012 and currently serves as president. Miller, a minister and former state director of tourism, is a Republican. In 2010, Miller forced an incumbent into a runoff for the Republican nomination for the school board. He was successful in the runoff, and there was no Democratic opposition in the general election. Miller’s election, says Rodger Smitherman, a state senator who grew up in Shelby County but now represents Jefferson County, is the exception and not the norm.

“There are a lot of nice people in Shelby County — some of the nicest people you would ever want to meet,” said Smitherman, a lawyer who now lives in Birmingham. “When it comes to voting and representation in Shelby County, things change. I don’t believe I could have been elected to the state Senate if I still lived in Shelby County.”

Carolyn Shields, a black lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the county commission in 2008, says it is difficult to mount a strong challenge for political power in the county because those who hold the reins don’t loosen them. And she suspects that many of the blacks who move into the county don’t change their voting places.

“It’s like they die politically when they move out here,” Shields said. Census data have shown that middle- and upper-middle-class blacks and whites over the past two decades have migrated from Birmingham and Jefferson County to the suburbs of Shelby County. 

“The census demographics do not necessarily translate into registered voters in the suburbs,” said Angela Lewis, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. Whether they move to Shelby County or other suburban areas, Lewis said it is not unusual for blacks to maintain their voting location in the city.

Kenny Dukes, a Shelby County minister and school-bus driver, has his sights on a run for the Shelby County Commission in 2014.

“We need representation,” Dukes said. The last black to serve on the county commission was Earl Cunningham, a Republican. He was appointed by a Republican governor to fill the unexpired term of George Dailey, a black Republican who died while in office. When Cunningham ran for the spot, he was defeated in the primary election by a white Republican.

“We all have mutual respect here. We coexist well and have good rapport,” Dukes said. “But don’t try to be a commissioner.”

Sherrel Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama.

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