New Alabama congressional district might bring representation for Black voters Alabama could soon have a U.S. House delegation that more closely matches its diversity after a redistricting lawsuit. For Black voters, the change has greater significance than who holds the seat.

In new congressional district, Black voters weigh what representation really means

In new congressional district, Black voters weigh what representation really means

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Shalela Dowdy, a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Alabama's congressional districts, poses for a portrait on Government Street in Mobile, Ala., on April 1. Emily Kask for NPR hide caption

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Emily Kask for NPR

Shalela Dowdy, a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Alabama's congressional districts, poses for a portrait on Government Street in Mobile, Ala., on April 1.

Emily Kask for NPR

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling last year that affirmed Alabama's congressional map discriminated against Black voters, the remedy was straightforward: Draw new boundaries that add a second district where Black voters could elect a representative of their choice.

But what does that representation actually mean?

For Shalela Dowdy, a Black Mobile-based voting rights organizer, that's straightforward, too.

"It means a seat at the table, having individuals at the table that represent what everyone represents and not just one demographic," she said. "Representation can include ethnicity, backgrounds, race along with gender, and when you have those different makeups, you bring along different experiences, different viewpoints."

But more importantly than checking a certain box, representation "means that we can expect our needs and our wants to be taken into consideration when bills are being introduced and voted upon," she added.

Dowdy is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that challenged Alabama's congressional redistricting process, and saw a special master step in to create new lines after Republicans twice refused to make maps that complied with a ruling.

Now that the decision has come down, Dowdy has been working to educate voters on how the changed lines affect them. For starters, Alabama's new 2nd Congressional District is likely to elect a Democrat to represent it instead of a Republican.

And she's focused more on getting voters to show up in November to actually vote for their new member of Congress, and to not take things for granted.

"I'm not celebrating, because I know that there's work that still needs to be done," she explained.

For many Black voters in the newly drawn district, the stakes of a voting rights victory is something that does not need to be explained.

In Mobile's Toulminville neighborhood, Ollie Davison braved the rain in last month's primary election and said the new district lines creates opportunities for Black voters that their ancestors didn't have.

"I mean, people died for the right for African Americans to vote," he said.

"My own grandfather ... the first time he ever voted, he was 32 years old," he said. "The legal age to vote is 18, so there was a gap between his first vote and his right to vote, and folks fought for that."

After casting her ballot last month, LaTanya Stallworth said she understands the impact representation — or the lack thereof — can have.

"It means a lot to me because I feel like we need to have a voice in there," she said. "Somebody that stands up for our district, for us, you know, that knows our struggles and what we've been through."

For much of Alabama's history, Black people like Dowdy, Davison and Stallworth in places like Mobile had their voices silenced by racist voting laws and discriminatory practices that barred them from voting — or diluted their power when they could vote.

Alabama is also where another landmark Supreme Court ruling — Shelby v. Holder -- gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and eliminated the requirement that jurisdictions with that discriminatory history pre-clear voting changes with the federal government.

"We are a community of interest"

Getting better representation is more than just voting for someone who looks like you, Dowdy says. Having a stake in where you represent is important, too.

"I am content with whoever gets in the seat of the two runoff candidates because they're great people," she said. "But I am a resident of Alabama and I'm not that familiar with Huntsville. I don't know the ins and outs of Birmingham, so when you are of that community and you have those connections, you're able to, I feel, better serve those people."

Mobile, Ala., is one of the largest majority-Black cities in the country and could soon be represented by a Black member of Congress. Emily Kask for NPR hide caption

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Emily Kask for NPR

Mobile, Ala., is one of the largest majority-Black cities in the country and could soon be represented by a Black member of Congress.

Emily Kask for NPR

One of the two Democrats in the primary runoff Tuesday, state House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, lives in Huntsville in the northern part of the state. The new 2nd District sprawls across South Alabama from Mobile, where the other Democrat Shomari Figures lives, to Montgomery with the Black Belt in between.

On the surface, the wide array of people and places that make up the new district seem to have little in common save a near majority of Black people, but Georgia State University Perimeter College professor Joseph Bagley says that's not the case.

"When you look at the Black Belt and cities like Montgomery and Mobile, what we see is deep rooted historical connections of migration, of experiencing the fight for voting rights and for school desegregation," he said. "And today, vestiges of segregation we can see in socioeconomic terms in all three of those areas."

Mobile and Montgomery are two of the largest majority-Black cities in America. Dowdy says despite the geographic distance of the district, it's really a cohesive opportunity for Black voters in the region to have their voices heard and work towards similar political goals.

"A lot of people from Mobile and Montgomery have family members that live in the Black Belt counties that migrated to Mobile and Montgomery for better jobs throughout the years," Shalela Dowdy said. "So we have family, we call it, 'up the country' that live in those areas. So we are a community of interest."

The precedent set in the Alabama case has influenced representation for Black voters in other states, though the outcome is a mixed bag.

"What we're going to see moving forward is continuing attempts by Black plaintiffs and Brown plaintiffs throughout the country to remedy what they see as a violation of their ability to elect the candidates that they want," Bagley said. "And some courts are going to treat that differently."

In Louisiana, lawmakers have drawn an additional majority-Black congressional district that should see another Democrat elected. In Georgia, Republicans were able to drastically increase the number of Black districts on paper but keep the partisan makeup the same, while the inaction by the Supreme Court in a South Carolina lawsuit means that state will use a map that a lower court already ruled discriminated against Black voters.

The new 2nd Congressional District stretches from Mobile, pictured here, to Montgomery and includes areas with historic ties to fights over voting rights and desegregation. Emily Kask for NPR hide caption

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Emily Kask for NPR

The new 2nd Congressional District stretches from Mobile, pictured here, to Montgomery and includes areas with historic ties to fights over voting rights and desegregation.

Emily Kask for NPR

Even in Alabama, the years-long fight for representation isn't over, and isn't guaranteed to last, according to Dowdy.

"What people need to realize is that what you see as a win could be a win on a surface level, and that there's still people doing the work behind the scenes," she said.

That includes preparing for a full trial over the boundary lines next February. Before that though, it's about getting voters to the polls for the new district's primary runoffs on Tuesday. And to show up again in November.