Fayette County Courthouse. (Photo: Somervilletn.org)
Civil Miller Watkins, a Black resident of Fayette County, made sure to attend as many redistricting meetings as possible, knowing the county had a penchant for disenfranchising her community.
As the vice-chair of the Fayette County School Board, Watkins was also well versed in the politics of a rural county.
Fayette County’s population has grown over the last 30 years, from 29,093 in 2000 to 41,990 in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite this growth, there were more Black commissioners in the 1990s than there are now. By 2000, what had been several seats held by Black commissioners had boiled down to one Black commissioner serving on the county board. And there’s been no change since then.
“Living in a rural community is not for the faint of heart if you’re a minority,” she said.
And while rural counties don’t often get the attention that big cities do, things were different this year. By 2020, Fayette County’s population had increased by 9%, primarily in Oakland, Rossville and Piperton. Residents were set to enjoy the benefits of Tennessee’s huge deal with Ford Motor Company, including a $5.6 billion campus to span several West Tennessee counties. Fayette County will house several hundred acres of Ford’s BlueOval City, and with the new campus will come several hundred jobs.
Knowing Black communities could be left out of this economic growth, Watkins became involved with redistricting sessions.
While redistricting commissions are normally organized by county commissions, in Fayette County, the county mayor, Rhea “Skip” Taylor vetted the five members who would oversee the redistricting process. The school board was allowed to send a representative, Alisa Logan, who would serve as the only Black member of the redistricting committee.
Taylor also serves as the chair of the county board of commissioners. Several requests for comment went unanswered by him.
During sessions, the committee was asked to keep in mind that the Tennessee Comptroller recommended guidelines to be followed, including following the state constitution, reflecting population numbers and having minority representation. If all three guidelines were followed, a redistricting map would accurately reflect the population.
Soon a 19-district map emerged that included two strong minority districts with a possible third, and Watkins viewed the map favorably.
Not everyone agreed, and some commissioners were unhappy that their positions would change as the county’s population shifted from rural to suburban communities. Other maps were introduced–including a 13-district and a 14-district map–that did not accurately represent majority-minority populations.
When Watkins voiced her concerns, a redistricting member retorted, “Well, why do we even have to consider minorities? We’ve never considered it before.”
Commissioners continued to hem and haw over adopting equitable maps, despite concerns that their preferred redistricting maps would leave them open to litigation from civil-rights groups. They eventually retained a lawyer, John Ryder from the Memphis law firm Harris Shelton, who told them to draw a new map.
The attorney approved a new 14-district map, which technically met all the guidelines.
Despite all these efforts, one commissioner, Claude Oglesby, would go against the lawyer’s recommendations, opting instead to introduce a map during a special session that kept commissioners in their districts but disregarded minority representation.
Juggling a school board meeting with the special session, Watkins rushed to witness the final vote, but she was too late. Commissioners voted 10-8, with one abstaining, in favor of a 10-district map that did not create minority districts. The commission meeting was over in 20 minutes.
“What it feels like is disenfranchisement of the Black voter over all here in Fayette County, and disenfranchisement is the thing we cannot stand for, and that’s what I’m fighting against,” she said.
Since then, the Tennessee Democratic Party has spoken out against redistricting in Fayette County, citing concerns of disingenuous maps stacked against Democrats across the state.
“Fayette County is one example of how malicious redistricting occurs,” said Hendrell Remus, chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
Criticism prompted the Fayette County Board of Commissioners to hold another special session on Dec. 14. to propose a new map, one that will consider minority representation.
According to Watkins, the new map only makes considerations for one minority district, and still does not reflect Black residents, who represent 27% of Fayette County’s population.
Once the county commission makes their final decision, the redistricting maps are nearly sealed in stone. While the state comptroller can set guidelines for redistricting, they have no authority to disapprove of a county’s final decision, even if civil-rights groups voice their concerns. The final maps are instead sent to the county election commission, which sets the voting precincts based on the commission’s district boundaries.
“The county will then send the approval resolution, including a map of sufficient detail, along with the revised voter precincts to the Comptroller’s Office. We then produce three maps that get sent back to the County for signature from County officials. Once signed, one map goes to the Secretary of State’s office, one to our Office, and one gets recorded locally in the County,” said John Dunn, spokesperson for the state comptroller.
This decision could have devastating consequences for the county’s Black population.
Rickey Hobson, a native of Fayette County, worries that the Black community’s concerns will go unheard for another 10 years, until the next census.
If we lay down and take this, everything is fair game. We can't wait 10 more years.
– Rickey Hobson, Fayette County voter. Hobson is Black.
Having few Black representatives belied the community’s efforts over the last 60 years to fight for the right to vote. Like other residents, Hobson had to spend a lifetime in Fayette County before learning about its past.
Between 1959 to 1970, Black sharecroppers were evicted from their generational homes by farmers after learning they had registered to vote. With nowhere else to go, Black residents were forced to live in makeshift housing for years as they continued to participate in the civil rights movement.
The county’s history is “a cloud that lingers,” because as the years passed, Fayette County residents had all but forgotten about their past, and were seemingly doomed to repeat history.
“For people to move here and see that we’re fighting about this, some people may not want to move here because this is still going on in 2021,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good look for the county.”
Another 10 years without a “voice at the table,” means the community’s needs will continue to be delayed. One pressing concern, said Hobson, is that school children lack access to broadband needed for school activities, which is an issue that has already been addressed in other counties statewide.
“If we lay down and take this, everything is fair game,” he said. “We can’t wait 10 more years.”
“It’s going to have to be litigated,” he added.
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