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franklin county times

Local NAACP caught off guard'by lawsuit seeking December elections

By By Steve Gillespie/The Meridian Star
May 13, 2001
The local chairman of the NAACP said Saturday he was surprised to learn of a federal lawsuit seeking a new round of municipal elections in December after cities redraw district lines to reflect shifts in population.
Meridian is one of 98 cities named in a lawsuit filed April 25 in U.S. District Court in Oxford by attorney Ellis Turnage of Cleveland, apparently on behalf of the state NAACP. The lawsuit contends black voters are disenfranchised because cities are using districts that were drawn after the 1990 Census. New figures from the 2000 Census were released after candidates' filing deadlines in cities that are having elections this year, and elections were allowed to proceed on schedule.
Primaries are over and party nominees will face independent candidates in the general election on June 5.
Obie Clark, president of the Meridian-Lauderdale County chapter of the NAACP, said he was not familiar with the lawsuit until he read about it in Saturday newspapers. He said he was surprised to see the story.
Clark said the local NAACP chapter had contemplated pre-primary legal action in Meridian to block voting until ward lines could be redrawn, but after seeing preliminary census data, it was felt legal action was not warranted.
The 2000 Census reported African-American residents make up 54 percent of Meridian's population.
Clark said small variances exist in population between Meridian's five wards, but nothing more than 10 percent.
Other east Mississippi municipalities named in the suit include DeKalb, Enterprise, Forest, Heidelberg, Laurel, Maben, Macon, Newton, Philadelphia, Quitman, Raleigh, Scooba and Waynesboro.
Jeanie Smith, director of the Mississippi Municipal League told the Associated Press that attorneys are examining the lawsuit. She said the league only learned of it late last week.
The suit claims existing city council districts or wards "dilute, minimize and cancel out black voting."
The state Legislature passed a bill in January allowing nine cities with a mayor-council form of government to hold elections in the council districts as they are now, to be redrawn in time for the 2005 city elections. The U.S. Justice Department, which must approve any changes in Mississippi voting procedures, approved the law.
Cities covered under that state law are Meridian, Laurel, Biloxi, Hattiesburg, Gulfport, Greenwood, Bay St. Louis, Tupelo and Jackson.
According to House Municipalities Committee Chairman Bill Denny, R-Jackson, state law already allows cities with mayor-alderman or commission governments to hold elections this year without 2000 Census information to redraw district or ward lines.
Denny said he wasn't surprised to learn about the NAACP suit.
There are people that make a living on these lawsuits and that's what it's all about,'' Denny said.
State NAACP president Eugene Bryant said he had heard of the suit but was unfamiliar with its details.
Steve Gillespie is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3233, or e-mail him at sgillespie@themeridianstar.com.