Shelby County is booming. The Birmingham suburb is lined with strip malls, subdivisions, and small factories, in what was once sleepy farmland. The population has grown fivefold since 1970 to about 200,000. Change is afoot in this bedroom community, at least on the surface. But the federal government thinks an underlying threat of discrimination remains throughout Alabama and other parts of the country in perhaps the most hard-fought franchise in the Constitution: the right to vote. Competing voices in this county, echoes of decades-long debates over equal access to the polls, now spill out in a 21st century fight, one that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I think they are looking at this situation through rose-colored glasses,” says the Rev. Dr. Harry Jones, a local civil rights leader, about the current majority white power structure in Shelby. “I think they have painted a picture to make the outside world believe that racism is no more. But if you dig beneath the surface I think you’ll find what you are looking for.”
A longtime county leader, however, says things truly have changed for the better. “Here, now, in this decade, we have black registered voters at a percentage that is equal, and at some occasions exceeding, the voting of the white population,” says County Attorney Frank “Butch” Ellis Jr. “It’s hard to find that there’s any discrimination here, and certainly there’s nothing in the congressional record.”