Ground zero for voting rights: Fayette County redistricting restricts Black representation

By: - December 2, 2021 5:00 am
A proposed map of Fayette County's commission districts. (Map: Tennessee Comptroller)

A proposed map of Fayette County’s commission districts. (Map: Tennessee Comptroller)

The Fayette County Board of Commissioners could face litigation from civil-rights advocates  after a controversial decision restricting the county’s large Black population from representation. 

Located in West Tennessee, Fayette County’s population experienced significant growth at a rate of more than 9% over the last decade. Specifically, families moved away from the rural east corner of the county and Shelby County into the suburban neighborhoods of west Fayette County. 

The county has a large number of Black residents, and although the county is 27% Black and could potentially house two districts with majority-minority populations, only one Black commissioner serves on the 19-member county commission. 

Initially one proposed a map created a separate district for each of the current 19 commissioners. Fayette County’s current map has eight districts with at least two commissioners in each.  

Terry Leggett, Fayette County Commission (Photo: University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Program)
“I’m a staunch Republican and what we are doing isn’t right.” –Terry Leggett, Fayette County Commission (Photo: University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Program)

A lawyer representing the cities of Piperton, Rossville and Oakland expressed concerns that civil-rights groups could threaten litigation if minority populations were not represented. In order to avoid this, county commissioners retained a different lawyer for guidance, who recommended two maps that increased the number of districts while making considerations for majority-minority populations. 

A 13-district map included two majority-minority districts and a 14-district map included three majority-minority districts were viewed favorably by both the county’s redistricting committee and the state comptroller. 

On Nov. 16, the recommended maps were up for a final vote during a special session, but at the last minute, commissioners reintroduced a map that created 10 districts by splitting District 7, an underpopulated rural area that deviated from the recommended 2,200 population per district. 

Without any discussion, the map was adopted by the county commission, shocking some commissioners. 

“They chose not to listen to the attorney that we paid $10,000 of taxpayer money to get advice, which should not have been necessary in the first place. But then after hiring an attorney, they didn’t listen and went against his advice to select this map that clearly discriminates against the African-American community,” said Terry Leggett, District 8 commissioner. “I’m a staunch conservative and Republican and what we’re doing is not right.”

“The bottom line is, we are all humans. We all live in Fayette County and we all deserve to have an equal say in what’s going on,” said Kevin Powers, District 4 commissioner and chairman of the Fayette County Republican Party. 

Behind this decision lies decades of Fayette County’s history in discriminating against Black voters. 

“Fayette has a long voting-rights history. It was ground zero for a major voting-rights dispute in the 1960s, called ‘Tent City,’” said Sekou Franklin, member of the Tennessee NAACP and a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.

A federal lawsuit was filed in 1959 against the Fayette County Democratic Executive Committee for denying Black residents the right to vote in the Democratic primary. Several officials resigned in an attempt to stall and prevent Black residents from registering to vote. 

In the meantime, from 1959 to 1970, Black residents found themselves evicted from their sharecropper housing after farmers learned that they had registered to vote. Many of these residents had lived on the farms for generations and found nowhere else to go besides makeshift “Tent Cities” propped up on donated lands by sympathizers. While some Black residents lived here for more than two years, they found themselves black-listed from purchasing goods among the white store owners, according to the University of Memphis.

The lawsuit led to a series of racial events over the next two decades, including a lawsuit led by the NAACP against the Fayette County Board of Education. A Black student, John McFerren, was suspended after accidentally bumping into a white teacher and slammed against a wall. The county board of education later ended McFerren’s suspension.

The bottom line is, we are all humans. We all live in Fayette County and we all deserve to have an equal say in what's going on.

– Kevin Powers, chair, Fayette County Republican Party

To this day, Fayette County schools are still under a 1965 desegregation order.

“Nothing has been done and from what I’ve seen nothing is being done,” said Powers.​​

The county commissioner’s final redistricting decision was also criticized by other county officials for failing to be transparent and allow public input. 

“It eliminates any majority-minority districts. African-American voters are getting overlooked. That’s the way this county has been since day one and it’s still being done now. It’s ridiculous,” said Henry Coats, mayor of Piperton. 

As of now, several civil rights groups are concerned about the county’s decision, including the League of Women Voters. The Tennessee NAACP is looking into the situation, said Franklin. 

“There’s no question about it, they have a case,” said Leggett.

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.