Oct/Nov 2023  •   Nonfiction

Two Civil Rights Essays

by Hiya and Jiya D.

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Allen vs Milligan by Hiya D.

In June of 2023, Alabama's redistricting plan with only one majority black Congressional district in seven districts was denied by the US Supreme Court. The court ordered the state of Alabama to make two black districts to conform with the Voting Rights Act and the fact that the state is 27 percent African-American. Instead, the state continued to fight the order and insisted on redrawing its congressional districts with just one majority-black district.

Alabama's revised redistricting plan still likely violates the Voting Rights act, but the state refuses to acknowledge this. In its response, the state references "affirmative action," which has recently been deemed unconstitutional for college admissions by the Supreme Court. The state also claims the Court's order is racial gerrymandering and unfair to the people of Alabama. Alabama's Republican officials insisted on sending their second redistricting plan with a single black majority district, because they hoped to change one justice's vote (the original case was decided 5-4). With the current redistricting plan–as a practical matter–white majority districts are likely to elect Republicans and black majority districts are likely to elect Democrats, leaving blacks and the Democratic party underrepresented at the Congressional level. While prior case law does not consider party affiliation a forbidden factor in drawing districts, it explicitly prohibits drawing district maps based on race in violation of the 14th amendment's guarantee of equal protection. Because the Alabama plan was distorted to create fewer black majority Congressional districts, the Supreme Court ordered Alabama to redraw its district maps.

Selma, Alabama, has a special place in Civil Rights history in general and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in particular. The Edmund Pettus bridge to Selma was the site of the police riot known as "Bloody Sunday." In March of 1965, 600 marchers set out to Montgomery in a protest against African-Americans being deprived of their right to vote. After the protesters crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, they were attacked by police with batons and tear gas, leading to the name "Bloody Sunday." John Lewis, who later represented the State of Georgia in Congress for more than 35 years as a fierce advocate for voting rights, was at the time a student among those injured. Despite this bloody event, the people of Selma set out to march again on March 25. With more than 25,000 protesters set to march to Montgomery, this large event gathered national attention, and that year in the summer of 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress.

The Voting Rights Act allowed African-Americans multiple opportunities to participate in government and have their voices heard. Faya Touré, an activist for civil rights, became the first black female state judge in Alabama a few years after the act. Her husband Hank Sanders became an Alabama state senator 18 years later. With a redistricting plan that calls for a single black majority Congressional district, African Americans in Alabama are half as likely to have someone like Hank Sanders be elected in the future.

Allen v. Milligan, the Alabama redistricting case, reminds us that The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was not a complete solution to African-American underrepresentation in that state's political process. In the meantime, the results of the case will hold more significance for the future of voting rights for everyone in the US, not just the people of Alabama.


Faya Touré and Hank Sanders by Jiya D.

At 66, after 47 years in prison for crimes he possibly didn't commit, years spent hoping one day to be free after spending almost his entire adult life behind bars, Sekou Kambui (born Willim Turk) was finally released because just one person told the Alabama Parole Board Kambui had spent enough time in prison.

No texts, no emails, no calls, there was nothing to inform Kambui about who, if anyone, would represent him at his parole hearing. Hank Sanders came from Selma without ever updating Kambui, and he told the parole board, "He has been incarcerated for nearly 47 years. That's enough..."

So who is Hank Sanders? How did he acquire the kind of influence that got him to a point where the parole board didn't question his judgment? The short version is that Hank Sanders is currently an Alabama State Senator. The longer version starts in 1954 when Sanders was 12 and declared he wanted to become a lawyer after reading about Thurgood Marshall, then the attorney for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, the case that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. He went on to graduate top of his class, receive scholarships to Harvard law school, and become president of Harvard's black law students association.

Sanders first worked for Legal Services, representing low income clients in Huntsville, Alabama. He then helped to start a law firm that became the largest Black law firm in Alabama. In addition to winning a 2.2 billion dollar settlement against the US Department of Agriculture for discrimination against black farmers, the law firm helped protect citizens' voting rights.

After advocating for African-American voting rights for decades, Sanders was elected as a State Senator in 1983.

Sekou had asked Eve Goldberg to reach out to Faya Touré, an attorney, civil rights and education activist, songwriter, and playwright, in hopes of getting Touré to stand in for Kambui for the hearing. Touré and Kambui knew each other during the civil rights era, sharing the same purpose, the same goal.

Touré (born Rose Gaines in Salisbury, North Carolina) struggled as a young person to figure out what it was she wanted to pursue. Arguably, she never did narrow it down. Throughout her life, Touré has engaged in an amazing range of activities, promoting African-American Civil Rights and African-American heritage. Touré has also worked with her mother, Ora Lee Gaines, to run a private community school striving to increase children's reading levels.

Like her father, the Reverend D.A. Gaines, Touré has always followed her own drumbeat. She completed a law degree at Harvard (where she met her husband Hank Sanders) and was awarded the Herbert Smith Fellowship. She later helped to open the law firm of Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettaway & Campbell, LLC. She then became the first African-American female Judge in Alabama. Touré also founded the National Voting Rights Museum, the Black Belt Arts Center, and co-founded the Africans in America Renaissance Project. In addition, she writes songs and is working on the musical "Rise Up and Sing," about the struggle for Civil Rights.

In school you learn about a usual cast of people who have fought for Civil Rights, but we're not often told about individuals like Faya Touré and Hank Sanders, who have not only been influential in the fight for voting rights, but who are still very much alive and working for Civil Rights. As a high school sophomore, it's hard for me to understand why so many state legislatures would prefer not to have us learn about people who have devoted their lives to making people uncomfortable and challenging Alabama's long history of discrimination against African-Americans.