U.S. Charges Memphis With Voting-Rights Violations

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong — March 20, 1991 3 min read

Washington--The Bush Administration has filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Memphis school board and the city council for allegedly denying black voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.

The Justice Department claims that the use of at-large elections for school-board positions, among other local electoral practices, violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

To remedy the situation, the suit asks the federal court to demand that the city change its election methods and to prevent it from holding at-large elections.

School-board terms expire in 1992.

The government is also asking that the court monitor the city’s electoral practices for 15 years and prohibit further electoral-system changes, redistricting, or annexation of suburban areas without approval of the court or the Justice Department.

The election system for the city council and the school board “results in black citizens being denied an opportunity equal to that afforded white citizens to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice to office,” the suit asserts.

Willie W. Herenton, superintendent of schools in Memphis, declined to comment on the suit, which names the school-board members, not the superintendent, as defendants. Maxine Smith, president of the board, was not available for comment.

In addition to at-large elections, the suit contests a requirement that a winning candidate get a majority, not merely a plurality, of votes in multi-candidate competitions, and a requirement that an at-large candidate file for a specific “numbered post,” or slot, on the board.

Such practices, the Justice Department argues, were adopted to thwart black voters.

In addition to the school board and the city council, the suit, which was filed last month, names as defendants the city of Memphis, its mayor, and the Shelby County Election Commission.

The suit notes that, although seven of the nine school-board members are chosen from single-member districts, the remaining two members are picked in at-large elections.

“Voting in Memphis municipal elections is racially polarized,” the complaint claims.

Furthermore, it states, Memphis’s black citizens “have experienced a long history of discrimination ... in voting and other areas, such as education, housing, employment, and public accommodations.”

Black residents’ current depressed socioeconomic status “is related to the effects of past discrimination on account of race,” the complaint asserts. Such effects continue to “hinder the current ability of black citizens to participate effectively in the political process,” it adds.

The Justice Department concludes that “there is no overriding state policy or governmental interest favoring the use of an at-large system” or for requiring a majority vote and “numbered posts” in school-board elections.

Mr. Herenton, a member of the board of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, noted that, ironically, Ms. Smith, the school-board president, is the executive director of the local NAACP.

“Here in Memphis, the African-American community is somewhat divided” by the suit, which “has very much so” proved contentious, he said. “That’s a statement of fact.”

As of late last week, according to the court clerk’s office, no date for court action had been set and the school board had not filed a response to the suit.

In its formal response, the city argues that at-large council positions serve a “significant overriding” policy of electing councilors “who are specifically obligated, because their constituency is the entire city of Memphis, to view and vote upon each issue ... with such a [broad] constituency in mind.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as U.S. Charges Memphis With Voting-Rights Violations