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‘Powder keg’: Racism allegation, calls for decorum stir meeting ahead of Mobile redistricting vote

An accusation of racism, a call for decorum and a worry about the potentially explosive nature of a crucial vote on redistricting highlighted a tense Mobile City Council meeting on Tuesday.

“It feels like there is a powder keg in this room,” said Councilman William Carroll. “Everyone needs to take a deep breath.”


But the tension looms large seven days out from a vote that could be as racially divisive as a 2019 decision by three Black council members to forgo an annexation plan backed by the council’s four white members and Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration.

The decision next week will be on redistricting, and whether the council has enough votes to OK any of the three maps that will outline the seven council district boundaries for the next 10 years.

All three maps include a fourth majority-minority district, but two of them have Council District 7 listed with over 53% of its voting age population as Black. A map pitched by Stimpson’s administration in February lists the voting-age population for District 7 at slightly above 50%.

The final outcome will affect District 7, which has long been represented by Councilwoman Gina Gregory. She has remained quiet during much of the redistricting debate. Gregory was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

“One week from today, this council will act on the redistricting proposal,” said Darlene Martin, an Africatown community resident who spoke out Tuesday on the redistricting process. “It’s of the utmost importance that you get it right for the city’s sake.”

None of the maps have the five-vote supermajority needed to become law, Carroll said. Without five votes, the map pitched by the Stimpson administration automatically takes effect on August 12, the deadline for the redistricting process to end.

Redistricting elsewhere in Alabama has long been a settled matter. City councils from Birmingham to Montgomery and beyond voted on their council maps months ago.

“I don’t know how the votes are going to fall,” Carroll said after the meeting. “I hope consensus can be found in the next week on something that will allow some unheard voices to be heard if they choose to be heard. Hopefully, the council will do the right thing.”

Redistricting has dominated the attention of council members and community activists for months. The attention comes as Mobile looks at having a majority of minority council districts for the first time since the city’s current council-mayor form of government was created in 1985.

The council has long been made up of four white and three Black members even as the city’s racial demographics continue to become more diverse. Despite a loss of overall population, Mobile’s growing majority-minority status went from 50.4% Black-45.5% white in 2010 to 51.3% Black-40.8% white in 2020.

Racial tensions

Two maps have been under consideration since April – the mayor’s proposed map unveiled in February, and one called the “community” map that included a map with District 7 at 53%.

The third map was introduced last week as a “compromise” and has the backing of two council newcomers – Ben Reynolds and Cory Penn. That map also includes a District 7 over 53% Black, but it also keeps the Village of Spring Hill together in a single council district. The community map had splintered the village.

That proposal prompted Mobile resident Katie Herndon to accuse Spring Hill, a well-manicured Mobile community west of Interstate 65, of not wanting to be represented by a Black council member. She also accused Spring Hill of shunning the historic Sand Town neighborhood, in a reference to a heated discussion over the city’s new zoning codes.

“This is how racism operates,” said Herndon.

Councilman Joel Daves, who has declined to comment on the redistricting proposals, criticized Herndon for making statements he felt were slanderous.

“People can come down here and state opinion, but they don’t get to come down here and slander organizations,” said Daves.

Council President CJ Small then added that the council, next week, will issue a “statement of rules” defining decorum when speaking during a council meeting.

“This is a council meeting,” said Small. “We are here to handle council business. Let’s try to maintain decorum, please.”

The council’s attorney, Christopher Arledge, interjected, “This is a business meeting of the city council. This is not a public question and answer session, or a public debate. You don’t have to allow anyone to talk.”

He added, “There is a way to come down here and be passionate, but also be civil. I think everyone in here ought to take notice of that.”

The heated meeting follows months of passionate back-and-forth moments between residents – mostly activists and Black pastors – who have pushed the council to endorse the community map over Stimpson’s plan.

Reaction, at times, has been racially tense. For instance, Councilman Scott Jones – whose council district is over 65% white – said earlier this year that he felt “relationships” and not the racial makeup of the city council should matter most.

Carroll, in response, said there are “still rumblings of Jim Crow” that worry residents, and that redistricting the council’s districts to reflect Mobile’s changing demographics could place the city as an example on how to lead an otherwise complicated political process in statehouses and cities venues throughout the country.

The Rev. Trevor Woolridge, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Mobile – who held a rare prayer vigil inside the Government Plaza in April over redistricting – has called the decision a “major issue” for Mobile, and for the city’s leaders to redraw lines that best reflect the “constituencies that exist.”

“Look past the political win, who beat whom, and do the right thing for Mobile, Alabama, and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery is also keeping an eye on the proceedings, warning the city late last year not to dilute the voting strength of the city’s Black community, now a solid majority. Also, the SPLC is warning Mobile officials about rolling out an annexation plan that could also dilute Black voting strength.

Annexation lingers

The administration has not yet introduced an annexation plan, although one is in the works and is likely to be rolled out once the redistricting vote is over.

Jones has said he wanted to vote on an annexation plan at the same time as redistricting. He said he would likely abstain from a redistricting vote if there was not a corresponding annexation plan to vote on, a scenario that is unlikely to happen.

Annexation, in 2019, was the last time an issue before the council drew months of divisiveness and ended in a vote along racial lines.

The council, with a 4-3 vote in November 2019, voted against placing an annexation plan before voters for consideration. The decision required a supermajority of five votes to pass.

The council’s four white members voted in support of the annexation plan, pitched by Stimpson, that would have added 13,000 residents into the city, but would have altered the city’s racial balance from 50% Black-45.4% white at the time to 48.8% Black -46.7% white.

It is unclear how many people will be added in Mobile’s latest annexation plan, or when it will be released publicly. Stimpson has said he wants Mobile to grow to over 200,000 residents and rival the population size of the state’s largest city, Huntsville, which has over 215,000 residents.

Related: Could Mobile soon be Alabama’s second largest city? Annexation talks heat up

Mobile’s population, according to the latest Census numbers, is 187,041 residents, a 4.1% drop from the 2010 Census.

For now, city officials and the public are keeping their eyes on redistricting and are not discussing future population shifts in Mobile.

Martin, of Africatown, said the city should simply adopt a redistricting map with “no strings attached.”

“We are not asking for much,” she said, advocating for the passage of the community map. “We are fighting decades and decades and decades of being ignored and neglected that has taken generations (of Black voters) away from having a voice. We are asking for very little. It’s so disheartening that we have to come back here week after week.”