The Sides Have Switched in the Fight Over Majority-Minority Congressional Districts

On Sept. 26, the Supreme Court denied another attempt by Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature to avoid creating a second majority-Black congressional district. Earlier this year, the legislature made national news when it refused a lower court order to do so. But the Court has now seemingly rejected their last attempt to avoid having a map imposed upon them.

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The battle highlights the way that apportionment, districting, and mapmaking, while arcane, have always been crucially important tools for controlling politics and diluting the Black vote. Ironically, however, there was a time when that meant conservative white Republicans arguing for creating majority-minority districts in the South. This tactic helped Republicans gain power in the region—power that they now refuse to cede by drawing maps that maximize Black representation.

Majority-minority districts are meant to give political opportunity to those who have been historically barred from electing politicians of their choosing. These districts stem from changes to the landmark Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 that occurred as a result of the Supreme Court’s Mobile v. Bolden decision in 1980.

In that case, Black residents in Mobile, Ala., had argued that the city’s at-large voting system barred them from electing a candidate of their choosing. Since all voters cast their ballots for all candidates—with the top vote-getters elected—Black residents could never elect minority candidates so long as citizens voted along racial and party lines. And this was intentional: conservative white politicians had created this system explicitly to dilute the influence of Black voters.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of Mobile. The majority opinion suggested that since Black residents voted “without hinderance,” there was no discrimination in the city’s voting practice and procedures as defined by Section Two of the VRA.

Read More: Voter Suppression Is Still One of the Greatest Obstacles to a More Just America

This outcome prompted Congress to amend Section Two in 1982 to enable citizens, with evidence, to challenge voting law and procedures that resulted in discrimination against minority groups. This change opened the door for litigation challenging electoral districts and voting systems. 

Meanwhile a challenge to North Carolina’s multimember districts was winding through the courts, with the Black citizen plaintiffs arguing that these districts, too, would not allow Black people to elect a representative of their choosing. Again, the case made its way to the Supreme Court and in 1986, in Thornburg v. Gingles, the Court established criteria for creating majority-minority districts. 

What became known as the “Gingles test,” stipulated that three conditions must be met to prove that multimember or at-large districts diluted minority votes. First, minority communities needed to be large and geographically compact enough to constitute a majority single-member district. Second, they had to demonstrate political cohesiveness, and third, the plaintiffs needed evidence that racially polarized voting by white people guaranteed the defeat of minority candidates.

Lawmakers first tested the Gingles criteria during the reapportionment process after the 1990 Census.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was conservative white Republicans who advocated for the creation of majority-minority districts. They built unlikely alliances with civil rights groups and minority politicians through organizations such as Fairness for the 90s

Run by Bill Crump, a former aid to the late, racially divisive Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, Fairness for the 90s served as an intermediary between the RNC, conservative-oriented groups, and several civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, ACLU, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). The group raised funds to provide computer equipment to civil rights organizations and minority groups that wanted to create congressional and state legislative maps for consideration during reapportionment in their states. 

Several GOP-backed groups replicated this strategy on the state level. 

The GOP also worked to forge “unlikely alliances” with Black and Hispanic state lawmakers. 

Republicans needed these allies because Democrats still controlled the majority of the state legislatures. By working with Black and Hispanic lawmakers, Republican legislators could also push for federal court invention—where appointments by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush gave them an advantage—under the façade that they were concerned that Democrat-led legislatures were not working to uphold the VRA or ensuring minority communities could elect politicians of their choosing.

In truth, these Republicans understood that creating large majority-minority districts would pack Black Democrats into a few districts, which would increase the percentage of Republican voters in surrounding districts.

Black Democratic politicians and their supporters knew these districts would be bad for their party. Yet, they entered into this alliance with the conservative Republican opposition because creating majority-minority districts enabled them to achieve aspirations that their communities had been working toward for over a century. Several southern states had not elected a single Black congressperson in the century since Reconstruction ended. 

Additionally, some Black Democratic state lawmakers in the South were frustrated with what they felt was a lack of support from the party on the state and national level. They could not count on white Democrats to support or elect them—especially when they were running against white Democratic incumbents.

The unusual coalition proved incredibly successful. Many states worked to safeguard their maps from challenges under the VRA by creating majority-minority districts. In others, like Florida, independent experts drew such districts after the state legislature was unable to agree on a congressional map that included majority-minority districts. In the South, majority-Black districts increased from six to 20.

The 1992 election proved that the coalition between Black Democrats and conservative white Republicans delivered for both sides. After the creation of a majority-minority district in Alabama, Earl Hillard became the first Black congressperson from the state in over 115 years. In Florida, reapportionment of congressional districts sent the state’s first three Black representatives—Corrine Brown, Alcee Hastings, and Carrie Meeks—to Washington since 1877. In all, after the 1992 elections, Congress gained 16 new Black members, 13 of whom came from districts with large Black populations.

Yet, to some degree these victories proved pyrrhic—or at least as beneficial for conservative Republicans as Black legislators. In 1994, Republican regained control of the House for the first time in 40 years, in part thanks to massive gains in the South made possible by Democrats being packed into fewer districts. Their victory cost members of the Congressional Black Caucus the chairmanships of three committees and 17 subcommittees.

Read more: Republicans Log Wins in State Legislatures. Democrats in Congress Should Worry

And support from conservative Republicans did not mean that majority-minority districts avoided legal challenges. Instead, white plaintiffs pressed several court cases that led to two Supreme Court decisions, Shaw v. Reno in 1993 and Shaw v. Hunt in 1996, that created vague parameters for majority-minority districts.

The Court ruled race could be considered as a factor in redistricting. However, the justices’ vague language left much to be interpreted. They directed lower courts to apply strict scrutiny—the highest standard—when determining the validity of majority-minority districts. Furthermore, proponents of these districts had to prove they significantly advanced government interests.

These rulings prompted lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of majority-minority districts in several southern states, including Georgia and Texas. 

Yet, something surprising happened in the wake of these court challenges: even when maps got overturned and majority minority districts were eliminated, Black members of Congress often got reelected anyway. Their ability to win in redrawn districts vindicated those who objected to the creation of such districts without altering the political status quo these districts had created. Many of these Black congresspeople remained in districts with relatively large Black populations and Republicans held on to the political ground they had newly won. 

Flash forward a quarter century and conservative white Republicans no longer support majority-minority districts. Since the early 1990s, they have decimated the once-dominant Democratic Party in the South. Majority-minority districts—which enabled white conservative Republicans to get on the map in the South—now threaten their power.

And that’s the key to understanding both conservatives’ former support for majority-minority districts and their current resistance to obeying court orders to draw more of these districts. Conservative Republicans are primarily concerned with maintaining power for themselves by whatever means necessary. When they could use minorities’ political aspirations and the concept of racial representation to do so, they did. But they never had the interests of Black and Hispanic communities at heart.

Allison Mashell Mitchell is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia studying 20th-century African American political history. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.