Some voters in an east Georgia county say black students are paying the price for a voting system that favors whites.
Woodrow Billups, an Emanuel County voter and a longtime educator, is so concerned that he joined forces with other voters and the NAACP to file suit this week. They are backed by Washington, D.C. attorneys at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The change in the lawsuit's crosshairs -- according to the lawsuit, one that violates the Voting Rights Act -- is the district lines on the county's voting map. Deliberately or not, they're drawn so the vast majority of the county's black voters reside in one 81 percent black district, while the other six districts are solidly white. The suit alleges that that illegally dilutes the remaining black vote. Drawn more evenly, there would be at least two black districts, said Eileen O'Connor, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. The county's voting-age population is nearly one-third black.
Voting rights activists say unequal voting power trickles down to unequal opportunities at the student level.
When black students in the county system go to school, more than 40 percent of their peers are black. But, Billups said, they have few black role models to look up to, since fewer than 10 percent of the certified positions, like full-time teachers and coaches, are filled by blacks.
The suit cites research that black teachers have higher expectations of black students than white teachers do. And, moreover, that students respond to those expectations -- or the lack of them.
The board did hire a black superintendent, who served for six years. But Billups says her term was marred by pressure. Her replacement is white.
Some were so concerned about the hiring practices that a couple of years ago they went to the school board chairman, Frank Ellis. He responded, Billups says, with remarkable clarity.
In Billups' recollection, Ellis demanded to know: "We gave you all a black superintendent, what else do you want?"
Ellis says such a comment is not in his nature and though it's been two years he has no recollection of making it.
The suit and the anecdote anger Ellis, he said, because they pick a fight while the district is trying to make progress. "I am not a racist," he said. "I have roomed with black people. Some of my best friends are black people, people that I have dinner with."
In managing the district, Ellis added, "I think we do a fantastic job." Minority candidates are equally valued, he said: " If they're presented to us, we take them all in equal consideration. There's no pre-agenda. If everything's equal, we hire the best man, the best woman for the job."
The district's superintendent, Kevin Judy, took issue with the allegations.
"This is my second year in the county," he said, noting the district hired two minority administrators last year. "We have been very proactive."
To be fair, black educators are fewer and may not be as easy to hire as white ones. But Billups, who served in teacher recruitment in another county, says it's a matter of strategy -- going out, getting to good candidates earlier in the year -- but that Emanuel County is waiting out the hiring pool and starting when only qualified whites are left. Judy disagreed, saying positions had been posted early in the year and were already posted.
"Probably the one thing we have not done is go actively recruit at job fairs," he said, adding he intends to move toward that. He noted the district is small, with seven schools and just over 4,000 students, and has less pull than a district like one of metro Atlanta's.
Unfortunately, race matters.
A 2013 AJC analysis found that Georgians overwhelmingly vote for candidates of the same race that they are. The phenomenon was even more pronounced among white voters than among black voters. The AJC examined every commission district in Georgia's 159 counties, and found that 98 percent of solidly white districts were represented by a white commissioner. No county with a solid white majority had a majority black commission.
(Black districts also tended to vote for black commissioners, but a bit less so; many were willing to elect a majority-white commission.)
In Emmanuel County, the suit alleges, the school board has never held more than one black member. They've only come from the one black district. As near as they can tell, every black candidate in a white school board district has been defeated.
They are suing under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Part of the Act was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, but Section 2, which allows people to sue in court, is still intact. The plaintiffs will have to show that the voting population is distributed in a way that lends itself to drawing more equitable districts, and that people in the county tend to vote in racial ways.
Billups has seen the racial voting dynamic in his own life. He ran for county commissioner three times.
"And there were people that told me - white people - I'm going to vote for you, because I feel that you are the very best qualified of the candidates that's running," Billups said. "But I can't openly support you."
Especially in rural Georgia, race still dominates peoples' lives, from churchgoing to voting. The AJC has spoken to other candidates, voters and activists who played out similar scenes.
But it's not absolute. Billups believes the lone black board member in Emanuel County has white allies. Just not enough. One more black, he said, would be more significant than you might think.
"I think that would change, for lack of a better term, the attitude of the board," he said. "I think in all fairness that we have some board members that would agree that we have a problem and it needs to be addressed. And I think if you had another African American, a black board member to kind of push the issue along with the one that's presently on the board, it may sway the balance of power in the direction of what needs to be done."