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Section 5: The View From Here

Local politics here in West Feliciana Parish have been intense these past few years. I’ve deliberately not paid attention to them since returning, because I’ve had other things to do, and because opinions run very, very strong. Several years ago, frustration over the behavior of the Police Jury (the name for the county commission, the […]

Local politics here in West Feliciana Parish have been intense these past few years. I’ve deliberately not paid attention to them since returning, because I’ve had other things to do, and because opinions run very, very strong. Several years ago, frustration over the behavior of the Police Jury (the name for the county commission, the governing body of many Louisiana parishes) sparked a “Home Rule” movement to redesign the system of government. The idea seems to have been to create a structure of government that is both more efficient (by giving executive power to an elected parish manager) and more accountable to voters. They came up with a Home Rule Charter, which went before parish voters last November. Home Rule passed 53-47. It was strongly opposed by parish black leaders, who feared that it would dilute minority voting strength.

It has not yet been implemented for various reasons, the most important of which is that under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, no change of governmental system in our state can take place without “preclearance” of the US Justice Department. This is a lengthy and complex process, one that potentially gives a veto over Home Rule to the black community, even though the position black leaders favored lost in a free and fair election, one with high turnout.

Two nights ago, at the monthly Police Jury meeting, the seven member panel’s two black jurors tried to put on this October’s ballot a measure to repeal Home Rule. They had the support of at least one white juror. This sparked an uproar among Home Rule supporters, who were understandably angry that results of last fall’s election could be nullified by voters less than a year later. This move shocked me, not because I have a strong opinion about Home Rule, or an opinion about Home Rule at all, but because of what it said about the instability in local government. The parish’s tax base is declining, and the public school, the unifying institution and pride of the parish, just went through a round of layoffs, including eliminating arts programs, because of budget cuts. We desperately need economic development here, and the turmoil in local government doesn’t help the cause. It occurred to me that I’d better start paying more attention to this stuff.

So I went to the meeting the other night. It was eventful, but not especially inspiring. I started a blog on which to post news, opinion, and information about West Feliciana. Here’s my report from this week’s meeting.  I was surprised by the degree to which the Home Rule Charter issue is cast in racial terms. To my eyes — and I’m new to this issue — nearly everything seems to turn on whether or not it is possible for a black person to be elected to parishwide office, versus having special districts gerrymandered for minority candidates. A white juror pointed out to the redistricting specialist that one of the sitting jurors is a white man who won in a predominantly minority district, and one of the members of a previous jury was a black man who won in a predominantly white district. The specialist said that’s not the same thing as winning parishwide, and that fact will be important to the Justice Department.

More from my report:

Nearly 50 years ago, in the Old Courthouse next door to where the Police Jury met tonight, West Feliciana officials were compelled to register the first black voter who had been allowed to register in over six decades. You can read about it here.  To read of the hatred and abuse to which black citizens of this parish were subjected by whites, especially whites in power, as they tried to exercise their basic rights as American citizens — all this well within living memory — ought to occasion of shock and shame. This is our history, and it can’t be erased, and shouldn’t be.

On the other hand, times have changed. Must the law always treat West Feliciana as if it were forever the Jim Crow era? Are black residents who lost a free and fair election entitled to overturn results they don’t like, solely on the grounds that it reduces their political power? More to the point, in an era in which the United States is governed by a black president, and Louisiana is governed by a brown-skinned man of Indian heritage, is it really plausible, both morally and philosophically, to claim that people can only be properly represented by people of their own race? That one’s race determines one’s political identity?

At the meeting, the lawyer the Jury hired to help it navigate the redistricting concerns advised them strongly against putting Home Rule on the fall ballot in that meeting, absent a prior public hearing, on grounds that by doing so they would open themselves up to a lawsuit that would be expensive to defend against. That flipped the white juror’s vote for repeal; the two black jurors held their position. One of the black jurors was so angry at this advice that he said he didn’t care about a lawsuit. It became clear to me that this man, at least, cared little about the common good, or even basic prudence (after all, they could put it on the ballot later, after a public hearing), but only protecting his narrow interests.

It seems unjust to me that an open, democratic attempt to reform the parish’s governing structure could be torpedoed by a minority and the Justice Department, based on how things were here 50 years ago. Back then, schools were segregated. Black and white children here have been going to integrated schools for almost five decades. It is far from a racial utopia, but the world that my generation’s parents grew up in is hard for anybody aged 50 and under to comprehend. When will the South finally be allowed to get out from under Section 5? I’m not asking rhetorically; I really want to know how we will know that it is okay to allow people in the South to manage their own affairs like other Americans. I completely understand why Section 5 was necessary. But when does it end?

It may end next month, when the US Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of Section 5. It looks like SCOTUS might toss it out.  We’ll see. It’s interesting to me, though, to see this issue play out right here in my own backyard. Nota bene, I’ve heard today that the objections to Home Rule in West Feliciana are not only race-based. That may be, and I invited the reader who said so to explain the other objections. If she responds, I’ll put it on my blog. The white juror who was prepared to vote for repeal had explained to me earlier in the day that he thought reducing the number of jurors/commissioners from seven to five would make it harder to adequately represent the parish. At the meeting, thought, almost all the objections were stated in racial terms, and in a racial context, and that’s what the Justice Department will be looking at.