Small Alabama Town Wins Lawsuit Allowing Residents To Vote For First Time In Decades

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Residents in a small Alabama town will be able to vote in their own municipal elections for the first time in decades after a four-year legal battle.

A proposed settlement has been reached in the town’s voting rights case, allowing Newbern, a predominantly Black town with 133 residents, to hold its first legitimate elections in more than 60 years. The town’s next elections will be held in 2025.

The settlement was filed June 21 and must be approved by U.S. District Judge Kristi K. DuBose.

For decades, white officials appointed Newbern’s mayor and council members in lieu of holding elections. Most residents weren’t even aware that there were supposed to be elections for these positions.

“This is just one of many examples of the country’s longstanding racist practices that deny Black folks the right to vote,” said Leah Wong, a voting rights attorney with the Legal Defense Fund. “White folks in this town essentially handed down the positions of power to one another. Throughout the decades, there were never any municipal elections held for mayor or town council. Black folks weren’t even told how to get on the town council.”

Newbern is about an hour away from Selma, where civil rights activists were brutally attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while marching for voting rights in 1965.

The settlement will reinstate Patrick Braxton as the mayor of Newbern, the first Black person to hold the position in the town’s 170-year history.

Braxton was the only candidate who filed qualifying paperwork with the county clerk in 2020, so he won the mayoral race by default. The incumbent, Haywood “Woody” Stokes III, hadn’t even bothered to fill out the paperwork to run again. Haywood Stokes Jr., his father, had previously been mayor of the rural Black Belt town.

After Braxton assumed office, he faced several obstacles. He discovered the locks to the town hall had been changed, and that the town council had held a secret special election in which they simply reelected themselves. They then reappointed Stokes III as mayor of Newbern in 2021. He has been acting as mayor ever since.

There were no public notices announcing the special election, so the majority of residents didn’t know about it, as the Legal Defense Fund noted in its lawsuit.

“This case matters so much because, on its face, it sounds so absurd that this could happen, but we see it mirrored in different parts of society all the time,” said Wong, explaining the dynamics that can lead to the blatant racial disenfranchisement of an entire community, even in the digital age. “It’s not until we challenge those conditions do we realize how much work is being done from other folks to keep it that way.”

Braxton, who was born in Newbern and described himself as a “handyman for the community,” hasn’t been able to access town funds since Stokes was appointed as mayor four years ago. He has used his own money to provide residents with COVID-19 supplies, as well as to host food drives and other events, according to The Guardian.

“My heart goes out to the town and the people in the town,” he told HuffPost. “Whatever I can do to make sure everything goes on and goes smoothly, I would do it for the community.”

“Moving forward, my plans are trying to keep the community together and not be divided,” he said.