Say it with me, Montgomery: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung.” I know, it’s a long word, but we need to get it down, because Alabama needs “Vergangenheitsbewältigung.” The compound German word, which gained prominence as a concept after the Holocaust, translates approximately to “struggling to come to terms with the negatives of the past,” an idea about which Germany knows a lot, and the Heart of Dixie knows very little.
This month, Alabama’s NAACP filed sued against the state government for what it alleges is — and objectively seems to be — a statewide judicial election system that results in discrimination against all African-American Alabamians. The election system the lawsuit challenges, one that’s been ruled discriminatory and unconstitutional by courts in the past, is rooted in Alabama’s uncomfortable but unavoidable racial history, a history the state’s political leaders need to embrace and engage, not evade at all costs.
The suit filed earlier this month in federal court asks that the election system for Alabama’s appellate courts, which is at-large, be ruled unlawful and another system, possibly single-member districts, be implemented in its stead. The Alabama Supreme Court and the state’s two intermediate appeals courts, the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Court of Civil Appeals, are elected using the system being challenged in this case.
The lawsuit first points to the results of the at-large system used to elect judges to these three courts as evidence of the system’s discriminatory effect. The facts the lawsuit presents are staggering:
“Today, all nineteen judges on these three courts are white,” the lawsuit says. “Approximately one-quarter of Alabama’s population is African-American. No African-American has won election to any of the three courts … and no African-American has served on these court for the past fifteen years.”
In fact, the lawsuit goes on to point out, no African-American has ever been elected to or served on the Court of Civil Appeals or the Court of Criminal Appeals. Only three African-Americans have served on the Alabama Supreme Court, and all were first appointed to the position by the governor, not elected directly to office.
All of this, the lawsuit argues, is because at-large elections disadvantage minorities by allowing the majority of voters to easily choose all of their preferred candidates, leaving not even minimal representation for those on the margins. This isn’t the case in single-member district election systems, where minorities can more easily elect at least one candidate of their choice.
This isn’t a new battle in Alabama politics. Across Alabama and the rest of the South, at-large elections have been a tool used historically to dilute the power of the black vote.
In Mobile County, an at-large system set up in the 1910s for electing county commissioners gave whites an advantage in Mobile for more than 50 years, until in the early ‘80s it was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back down to a local court, which began dragging its feet.
The problem, though, ended up having a legislative solution when Mobile’s state senators and representatives passed the Zoghby Act in 1985 that switched Mobile to the single-member district still in use today. That move in 1985 opened up Mobile’s government to black representation like never before — and it’s a move that lawmakers in Montgomery today should consider. Justice doesn’t have to come with a court order.
Montgomery’s decision makers shouldn’t just address this issue because it’s the right thing to do, though. Alabama’s political leadership should also address this issue because it’s part of a history problem we need to grapple with. For the vast majority of the Yellowhammer State’s existence, African-Americans were part of a political underclass, unable to vote or even know to care about issues like election systems.
African-American Alabamians were subjected to chattel slavery for centuries, and then became victims of political, social and personal violence for over a century more. That’s a history, however, not lost on the present.
Today in Alabama, we’re far from the roots of slavery, but its branches still blow in the wind. Even today, if you were to randomly take a seat in a courtroom anywhere in the state, particularly in the most serious of cases, you’d be likely to find yourself in a scene from the pages of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A white judge, a white prosecutor and a black defendant — only a few decades after the last racial lynching took place, here in Mobile.
So take a step back. Think about “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” — “struggling to come to terms with the negatives of the past.” Think about it and tweak that scene in your mind. Don’t think about the white judge or the white prosecutor. Don’t think about the white jury or the black defendant. Instead, imagine it’s a German courtroom. A German judge, a German prosecutor and a Jewish defendant, just decades after the Holocaust. Put that Jew’s life in the hands of the Germans. Feel uncomfortable? Me too.
Alabama’s racial past and present aren’t comfortable, but they’re real, and that’s what Alabama’s politicos must address. It’s time our state’s leaders confront the history they’re a result of.
It’s difficult, but it’s “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” and it’s the right thing to do. Alabama shouldn’t have a system of criminal injustice. We can fix it, and Montgomery is the place to start.
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