Citing History of Discrimination, ACLU of Virginia Asks Richmond City Council to Reject Appointed School Board

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
October 1, 2007 12:00 am

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Civil Liberties Organization Says Move Would Trigger Justice Department Review

RICHMOND, VA— The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia today is asking Richmond City Council to reject attempts by a group of local civic and business leaders to eliminate the city’s elected school board in favor of an appointed one.

In a letter being sent today to council members, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis notes that elected school boards are not only a more fundamentally democratic way of choosing school boards, but that they are also symbolic of a hard fought 100-year battle to establish racial equality in Virginia politics.

“This is one of those times when it is important to look at history before making any decisions,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Appointed school boards, along with poll taxes, literacy tests, and felon disenfranchisement, were all Jim Crow-era laws adopted solely for the purpose of keeping African-Americans from gaining political power in Virginia. The City of Richmond should not be headed back in that direction.”

In its letter, the ACLU shows that the delegates to Virginia’s 1901 Constitutional Convention opposed elected school board expressly to prevent African-Americans from being elected to public office. The ACLU also points out that state legislators perpetuated the ban on elected school through most of the 20th century, even when numerous state-commissioned reports strongly recommended the elimination of appointed boards.

The letter also reminds City Council members that any proposed change in the school board election plan in Richmond will come under the scrutiny of the Voting Rights Division of the Department of Justice, which will allow the change only if does not negatively affect minority voting strength. Virginia, like other southern states, comes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which subjects all changes in voting practices to Justice Department review.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in 1987 seeking to demonstrate that the state’s ban on elected school boards violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The case was unsuccessful, but it exposed the racially discriminatory motives behind appointed schools boards, and ultimately led to state legislation allowing localities to democratically select school board members.

In 1992, Virginia became the last state in the nation to allow elected school boards.

A copy of the letter to Richmond City Council can be found online at www.acluva.org

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