Minden’s city council districts are identified by letters. The Webster Parish Police Jury, the school board, the City of Springhill and all other municipalities in Webster Parish are identified by numbers. Why? What’s the difference?
Minden’s city council is comprised of five districts, A-E. When was the identification changed? When were the council districts established? Were they identified by numbers before?
To answer those questions, a trip back in time revealed a tumultuous yet voluntary change that exists today because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the early 1970s, Minden underwent an enormous change by establishing council districts. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as the NAACP, filed suit against the City of Minden claiming discrimination in the way townspeople voted for government officials.
At the time, Minden voted for its government officials by the “at-large” method, historian John Agan said. In the at-large system, the entire city voted for all five council seats.
“For most of our history, all the candidates filed, the people voted on election day and the top four or five candidates were elected,” Agan said. “The number elected varied from time to time…Then, in the 1960s, we switched to a commission form – rather than all candidates running for a job called ‘city councilman,’ there were specific jobs.”
At that time, Minden had a Commissioner of Sanitation, Commissioner of Streets and Parks, Commissioner of Public Safety, Commissioner of Finance and a Commissioner of Utilities.
“Candidates filed for the specific jobs and the whole town voted on each race,” he said. “Those types of elections began to be struck down by the federal courts after the passage of the Voting Rights Act because they (made) it nearly impossible for minority candidates to be elected in the south. In Minden, for example, during most of those years, the majority of the voting population was white and sadly, nearly all white voters would have never considered voting for a black candidate…the courts were simply not going to allow that old system to continue.”
By 1974, the NAACP had filed the suit – which also applied to the City of Shreveport and the City of Monroe that had the same voting system – seeking “redistricting of the Commissioners of the City of Minden ‘in a manner which complies with the one-man one-vote mandate of the United States Constitution.’”
“The suit claims that the defendant commissioners are elected at-large, city-wide, rather than individual districts and although the City of Minden is 41 percent black, no black has held an elective office in the city since Reconstruction,” according to the March 5, 1974 edition of the Press-Herald. “The plaintiffs want the courts to order redistricting of the commission…and which does not have the purpose or effect of diluting the voting strength of black citizens in the Town of Minden.”
By 1975, a stay had been ordered by Federal District Judge Ben C. Dawkins Jr. in the Minden case because he also had similar suits against the City of Shreveport and the City of Monroe to consider.
In 1976, Dawkins declared Shreveport’s form of government discriminatory and “therefore unconstitutional,” which led members of Minden’s city government to rethink their position in the case. By 1978, the city had a reapportionment plan ready “to head off a federal lawsuit by the Minden Chapter of the NAACP.”
In August of that year, the city council ordered their attorney at the time, Bob White, members of the NAACP, along with Demographer Ken Selle to draw up the plan that would suit both sides, “based on five single-member city council election districts.”
Interesting to note, Agan said, is that the city had already filed for the old commission seats when they had to go back, scrap that filing and file a second time for the single-member districts.
“Before that change, we had not had an African-American on the board of aldermen, council or whatever it was called at the time since the middle 1880s,” he said. “Since that change, we have nearly always had a majority ‘minority’ council.”
Thus, each district was numbered one through five. In 1980, Minden’s total population was 15,084, with 6,855 black voters and 8,191 white voters. (Source, 1980 U.S. Census)
And in 1982, the council, led under the late Jack Batton, sent a letter of recommendation to the Louisiana Secretary of State to request the districts be changed from numbers to letter identification.
A copy of the recommendation letter could not be produced by officials at Minden City Hall. Records dating that far back are archived in storage, but the minutes from the Jan. 4, 1982 meeting were produced.
“Mr. (John) McCowen requested of the Council [sic] that a letter of recommendation be written to ask the City [sic] to change the Charter [sic] and ask the registered voters at the next election to change their districts from 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 to A, B, C, D and E. The motion was seconded by Mr. (Robert) Tobin and carried unanimously,” the minutes report.
“This helps keep Minden’s districts separate from the parish and school board districts, which are numbered,” explained then-Registrar of Voters Clint Brewer, in a 1983 edition of the Minden Press-Herald.
Some 4,000 voters were affected by the line changes, the article reports. At that time, Brewer was waiting for word from the U.S. Department of Justice on approval for the plan that would change Webster Parish based on the 1980 Census.
The total population of Webster Parish in 1980 was 43,631. In 2010, the total population of the parish was 41,207.