(The Root) — Drive beyond the tall iron gates of Highland Lakes in Shelby County, Ala., where homes range from $350,000 to a couple of million, and you'll see that change has come to the South. Children of different races play together outside, while adults tend the yard or jog along the roads and trails.
In the blue-collar Shelby County town of Calera, billboards downtown advertise black-owned businesses. At the Hardee's restaurant on the edge of downtown, blacks and whites, mostly sporting University of Alabama or Auburn paraphernalia, laugh and talk together over a morning biscuit and gravy with coffee on the side.
Shelby County is about 30 minutes away from the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed in 1963, after a bomb planted by KKK members exploded. Shelby County is also just over an hour's drive from Selma, the place where marchers were brutally beaten in 1965 as they attempted to march to Montgomery in a stand for voting rights.
Today, Shelby County is also the center of the challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that in certain states with a history of discrimination, changes to election procedures must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder on Feb. 27 and is expected to make a ruling soon.
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Shelby County maintains that the preclearance requirement is no longer needed and that vestiges of discrimination have been eliminated. They are backed in their challenge by Edward Blum and the conservative American Enterprise Institute. They argue that while Section 5 was necessary in 1965 to overcome the never-ending mischief that election officials employed to keep African Americans from registering and voting, those days are long gone.
In an article published in U.S. News & World Report, Blum said, "Today, in the states and jurisdictions still subject to the 'preclearance' requirement of Section 5 (which prohibits any changes in election laws or procedures before Washington's approval) minorities register to vote and turn out in elections at rates that exceed those of whites. It makes no sense today for Alaska, Arizona and Alabama to be subject to these requirements, but not Nevada, Arkansas or Tennessee."
But in Shelby County, black voters, potential candidates and voting-rights advocates say that without the protections guaranteed through Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, they don't have a chance of being elected or having blacks or browns in influential positions in government.
The case before the Supreme Court comes out of Calera, a Shelby County city of about 12,000 people. Ernest Montgomery is the only African American on the City Council in Calera. The other five members of the council are white men, and so is the mayor of the city, the population of which is nearly 23 percent African American. Montgomery possibly wouldn't be on the council at all had it not been for the U.S. Justice Department's objection to the redrawing of council district lines.
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.