The move to make county government white-only

In March 1977, a class action was filed on behalf of Escambia County’s Black voters that challenged the at-large system for electing county commissioners (McMillan v. Escambia County). Because all voters were allowed to vote on all five district positions, Black voters had no representation on the county commission and school board.

Whites ruled the county, and the Black community received few services.

The district court held the at-large system was unconstitutional pursuant to the 14th and 15th amendments and that it violated section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The county and city fought the ruling and had the decision reversed on appeal.

The Plaintiffs sought a rehearing, and the federal appellate court eventually vacated its decision and held that the at-large system for electing Escambia County commissioners violated the 14th amendment. The court later agreed section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was also violated.

In 1983, all five incumbent commissioners ran for election or reelection according to a single-member district plan ordered by the district court. Four of the incumbents were defeated. The new commissioners took office on Nov. 15, 1983.

The following month, the county commission voted 3-2 to direct the county’s attorneys to substitute the new commissioners into the litigation and to file motions to withdraw from the case. For the first time since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1800s, local government had Black representation.

Since 1983, Escambia County has had single-member districts for the commission, school board and ECUA board. The city of Pensacola also adopted single-member districts because of the court rulings.

That may change.

Inweekly hears an effort is being mounted to do away with single-member districts. The plan is to return to at-large districts, thereby diluting the Black vote and making it nearly impossible for people of color to get elected–similar to how Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties have all-white county commissions and school boards.

Once again, the local government in Escambia County will be for whites only.

I want to make it clear this newspaper will oppose any such move to stifle voices and votes. The diversity on our boards and city council is our strength, not a weakness as some may want us to believe.

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6 thoughts on “The move to make county government white-only

  1. First let me say I enjoy your “blog”. I live in a county with at large voting. I prefer it this way, as the Commissioners although representing a single district is accountable for action they vote on that effects the whole. The county I am from doesn’t have a minority population that would be considered a majority in any district so I can’t speak to fixing a district that would be a majority of people of color. With that said I can see single district voting being a negative because of the vote count. If there was a move to have industrial type businesses in a minority neighborhood and all but your Commissioner voted for it, who you holding accountable. I like at large voting and now if we can get rid of the party tags for local and state elections.

  2. Rick….All one has to do, is look east to Santo Rosa County. What is the chance of a person of color living in Milton ever being elect to their County Board??

  3. Just because you disagree with my assertion doesn’t make it incorrect.

    Mike Hill was elected by abandoning the needs of the Black community and sponsoring some of the most divisive bills in the Florida House.

    Put that aside, he didn’t run for a county office, which invalidates your argument.

    Because commissioners have to convince others to get anything passed, a Black commissioner must win support for his ideas. He must argue his case and look at issues from a county-wide view.

    Without diversity on the board, the needs of a significant part of the county would be overlooked.

  4. Rick,
    I must disagree with your incorrect assertion that “we’re color blind when a people of color are elected regularly to county-wide positions and Districts 1, 2, 4 or 5 seats.” Racial gerrymandering is political segregation. Do you really favor the government drawing lines and classifying people based on race alone? How is this not racist? How does this not assume people’s preferences and behavior based on the skin color or racial identification? As a white journalist or government official, how do we presume to understand the Black vote and Black interests as monolithic? The argument for racially-biased districts fosters an reality where only one commissioner needs to concern himself with Black issues. According to the Census Bureau, 23.3% of Escambia County’s population is Black. County-wide voting makes that a sizable voting block any successful candidate should lobby.

    As for being colorblind, Mike Hill is Black and was elected in Florida House districts one and two. How do you explain Mike’s elections? Is this not a colorblind election? If our goal is more Black representation in Government, shouldn’t we work extra hard to elect people like Mike Hill just like we work to see people like Lumon May elected?

  5. We will know that we’re color blind when a people of color are elected regularly to county-wide positions and Districts 1, 2, 4 or 5 seats.

    At-large seats don’t make a commissioner more mature, competent or accountable. Most large counties in Florida (63%) see the value in single-member districts because they make the commissioner more responsive to the voters.

    Under the current system in Escambia County, no one commissioner can have his/her way. They must convince at least two others to agree with their initiatives to pass anything. Commissioners have to work with each and consider how to improve the entire county. Minorities are assured they will have a voice at the table, even if they couldn’t vote for them because they lived in another district.

    The single-member districts make commissioners more accountable, not less.

  6. Rick,

    Your article assumes racist intent by those who propose at-large voting. We are to judge people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin, so why does it follow that only a commissioner of this race or that background can represent a district with similar demographics? Does not the fact that we have majority-minority districts automatically disenfranchise minorities who live in districts, such as 2 and 5?

    Can a Black commissioner not represent white voters or vice versa? 1977 was 45 years ago. Much has changed.

    The idea that a commissioner must be of same racial category as his/her district is racist in and of itself. When we have districts drawn as to ensure advantage for only one party or group, we reduce that group’s overall power elsewhere.

    Racial gerrymandering leads to Balkanization. Gerrymandering is racist in its intent and its effect. Perhaps, the goal of at-large districts has a more beneficial intent, such as bringing some degree of county-wide accountability, maturity and competence to government? If we are truly a colorblind society, we need to start behaving as such.

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