Supreme Court ruling worries blacks in Ala county

COLUMBIANA, Ala. – Much has changed in Shelby County since Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect minority rights at the polls, but much hasn’t.

The county – which successfully challenged one of the law’s key provisions before the U.S. Supreme Court – has grown exponentially in the past five decades, yet its racial balance has remained roughly constant with whites constituting an overwhelming majority of the population.

Blacks have made electoral gains, but white conservatives remain in firm control of the sprawling marble courthouse and most of the county’s towns despite a smattering of black elected officials.

In 2010, Shelby County lawyers filed a lawsuit arguing that the standards of the 1960s aren’t relevant when it comes to which states and localities deserve strict federal oversight for any changes to election practices.

The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on Monday that a group of mostly southern states no longer had to seek Justice Department approval of such electoral changes.

Some black residents are now wary of what might come next, including the lone black holding a countywide office, Republican Aubrey Miller.

“It’s a premature burial of the Voting Rights Act,” said Miller, the county school board president. “This essentially kills the law.”

Lifelong black resident Ernest Montgomery said Shelby County has made tremendous progress in race relations since the 1960s, but he was still disheartened by the ruling.

“The reason progress has been made, and so much progress has been made, is because of that kind of legislation and those type of laws that have helped to level the playing field,” said Montgomery, 56.

The court’s decision hinged a municipal election involving Montgomery in the town of Calera in Shelby County, a bedroom community in metro Birmingham.

Shelby County – one of the wealthiest, best-educated counties in Alabama – has a population of about 197,000 that is 83 percent white. A mix of suburbs and hilly forests, it’s home to both Alabama’s largest shopping mall and its biggest state park; a Confederate cemetery and pricey bistros.

The county began booming as white residents fled Birmingham following the 1960s, a decade marked by racial strife in the city. The county’s population has increased five-fold since 1970, and what were once lazy two-lane roads are now highways clogged with rush-hour traffic.

Located about 33 miles south of Birmingham, Calera straddles Interstate 65 and is best known for its Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, which includes two restored depots and a collection of vintage rail cars. The town of about 11,700 is more than 71 percent white, according to Census Bureau statistics, but it’s also one of Shelby County’s more diverse cities with a population that is 23 percent black.