COMMENTARY: Will Voting Rights for Detroit Require Another Bloody Sunday?

By Sherry Gay-Dagnogo

The first Census of the United States was taken in 1792; the basis by which our State Legislature, U.S. House of Representatives and Senate districts are drawn based on population.  African Americans had not yet received the right to vote until the passage of the 15th Amendment on February 26, 1869, 155 years ago to date. However, it still took 5 African American votes to equal 3 votes of our white counterparts, and discriminatory practices limiting access to the ballot box persisted.

As African Americans many of our rights had to be gained through the power of legal battles that took time, tenacity, and a will to fight back against injustice.  Jim Crow laws forced segregation, and the doctrine of Separate but Equal, birthed through the historic Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling, and later Brown vs. Education, both became the bedrock of separate but equal policies.  It took the audaciousness Frederick Douglass, a man born into slavery, to become a spokesperson and abolitionist against the oppressive grips of bondage, traveling the U.S. and abroad forcing a national discussion.  It also took the diligence of leaders like Educator and Writer Ida B. Wells, and countless others which fought amidst lynchings, cross burnings, and church bombings, through protests and riots which helped to usher in the Civil Rights Movement.

Social Justice Advocates continued to fight for the right to vote, and many protests were led by the late Congressman John Lewis, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Reverend Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). They marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and found themselves facing attacks from state and county officers, being callously and brutally beaten until they bled.  Dr. King made it clear that “An unjust law is no law at all.” Organizing and leading boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, willing to endure the pain and trauma of a selfless act to empower others, led to the unparalleled passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The cost of freedom for fair voting rights was paid for by blood which drenched the streets of our nation, and the equal protections of the 14th Amendment provided the constitutional right to elect candidates from our communities to represent us in the halls of the U.S. Congress, Senate, and our State Legislative Assemblies throughout the United States.

Nearly 60 years later, Agee V. Benson is no different!  This case brought by 20 African American plaintiffs fighting for fair and equal representation and the ability to elect their preferred candidate as outlined by Section 2. of the Voting Rights Act ” Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 47 (1986).  Voting rights and fair representation are crucial to a people who have had to endure inhumane and social injustices. What’s needed are advocates who have shared experiences, more evolved and sophisticated perspectives, and a willingness to champion change for fair policies.

The aforementioned protections are important as there are a vast number of barriers that have impeded the advancement of true equity for African American residents in the state of Michigan.  The Kerner Commission released its report on the correlation of racial disparities and violence in 1968, and it’s primary finding was that the uprising of 1967 was the lack of economic opportunity, and the way blacks were treated by white society.  The predominant blame for the urban crisis was attributed to white institutions and white racism.  Fifty-five years later, poverty and institutional racism persist and this history of discrimination against African Americans that are systemically woven through policies stunt economic development, and equal access to enterprise and procurement for black businesses.

The first African American to join Michigan’s Legislature in 1876 was William Webb Ferguson, a Detroit Public Schools Graduate, and later graduate of Detroit College of Law.  Ferguson experienced discrimination firsthand in a local restaurant and won his case before the Michigan Supreme Court which served as a catalyst for his advocacy.  While he can be considered the father of the Detroit Caucus, the Detroit Caucus, wasn’t officially founded until Judge William McConnico’s tenure in Michigan’s legislature.  However, justice had been championed years prior by Former Legislator and Congressman Charles Diggs, the late Mayor Coleman A. Young, Teola P. Hunter, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Morris Hood Sr., Retired Judge Virgil Smith, Alma G. Stallworth, Senator Marth Scott, and many others.  They were able to vote as a block to bring resources home to Detroit.

As the first Woman and Former Chair of the Detroit Caucus, I know that the Hickory Map diluted that longstanding power, cracking Detroit into 22 pieces, which crossed several municipalities and multiple county lines, with only 7 Detroit representatives from Detroit had to be fought.

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC), established by a 2018 state referendum created a body of 13 Commissioners statewide tasked with drawing new legislative districts.  Through discovery, it was revealed that these individuals, regardless of well intentioned, were grossly misguided by their consulting expert Bruce Addleson and the Commission’s General Counsel Julianne Pastula, creating districts for which the Black Voting Age Population (BVAPs), fell woefully below the federal voting rights guidelines utilizing inaccurate election data; Presidential Elections, in lieu of August Primary Election Data.  The Three Panel Judges ruled in favor of the 20 plaintiffs that 7 State House Districts, and 6 State Senate districts violated the Equal Protections of the 14th Amendment, as the Hickory Maps were drawn based on race, and must be redrawn.

This lawsuit filed in March of 2022, took two years to ensure justice and many have remained silent or dismissed its findings as their priorities are more congruent with the partisan victory, and Democratic control to which our plaintiffs find shameful.  The subversion of inequality, constraining the will that causes the aftermath of Detroiters as second-class citizens aren’t deserving of the protections of the U.S Constitution, and should be satisfied with a 20% reduction in Black Caucus representation, voter dilution in Detroit, and no African American Congressman for the first time in 55 years is unfathomable.

The evidence in this case, the secret meetings, and the testimony of two former Detroit Caucus Members Former Senator Virgil K. Smith, and Former Representative Lamar Lemmons, made it clear to the Judges who returned a ruling December 21, 2023, after a 6-Day trial that Detroit deserved better.  The MICRC Commission voted to file a stay in the U.S. Supreme Court January 2024, to halt the redrawing of the Hickory Map, and shamefully Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, of which campaigned on Voting Rights, enjoined in their lawsuit to delay justice for Detroit Voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court rendered a unanimous ruling in favor of the 20 African American Agee v. Benson plaintiffs, which upheld The Three Panel Judges ruling that the maps violated the U.S. Constitution and must be redrawn and submitted to the 6th District Court, by March 1st.  Plaintiffs will have the final opportunity to object to any map that does not align with federal redistricting guidelines, thus denying preferred Black Representation one day after the Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, March 7. 1965.

I share this history as a former Michigan Legislator serving six years in the House of Representatives, as I realized one of the most significant aspects of advocating for justice for Detroit must be gained through education, and educating my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on the systemic racism which exists in our state’s history through policies which perpetuate egregious  inequalities; and as such, the inclusion of African American History in our K-12 schools is necessary.

I introduced legislation each term to ensure that a body of African American Studies experts, and organizations would become a part of a 2 year commission to establish the framework for which content and benchmarks would be established to ensure the education of all Michigan citizens as there is critical historical context that will provide insight and understanding to both the struggle, resilience, and contributions, made to our country by African Americans, and hence our story “African American History”  is rightfully named, American History.  I am grateful that my bill has been taken up by Representative Helena Scott and a companion bill with Representative Jason Hoskins.  I am hopeful that they will receive the hearing this bill deserves given a Democratic majority continues to be celebrated.

Given our history in the State of Michigan, given our commitment to the Democratic Party, I am disheartened that it had to come to these extremes to ensure that African American receive a measure of justice.  We’re on the eve of a Presidential Primary Election that will require the votes of African Americans to save the candidacy of President Joe Biden, and we should make it a priority to participate in this process.   However, it is my sincere hope that it doesn’t take another Bloody Sunday to ensure adequate representation for citizens in the city of Detroit, and predominately African American cities and communities throughout our state.  I call on the leaders of the Michigan Democratic Party and our allies to stand with our plaintiffs to ensure that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is upheld, and our priorities as African Americans become visible in our beloved party of choice.   We know that the work is not yet done, as The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2023 remains.  My refrain remains the same unequivocally: Black Leadership Matters!

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, M.Ed.
Agee v. Benson Plaintiff Agent & Spokesperson
Former State Representative
Detroit School Board Member

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