In 1953, I integrated Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. My admission, as the first black student on a campus today serving more than 30,000 students, was possible after my father and namesake, civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud Sr., successfully challenged LSU’s discriminatory admissions policies.
That lawsuit and more filed by my father, alongside Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights advocates, paved the way for the end of legally sanctioned American apartheid in many public institutions in Louisiana. Regrettably, more than 50 years after we fought to dismantle racial segregation in my home state, another challenge has to be waged to bring racial inclusion to another Louisiana public institution — the 32nd Judicial District Court, which serves Terrebonne Parish.
The Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP and black voters from Terrebonne head to a trial this March to ensure that Terrebonne’s black community has a voice in electing judges on a state court that adjudicates their cases.
Until 2014, when plaintiffs filed this lawsuit, no black person had ever served on the 32nd JDC. Only white men held seats on it, similar to how LSU, in 1953, maintained a “whites only” student body. This “whites only” reality was guaranteed by the use of “at-large” voting to elect judges to the court. At-large voting, in which everyone in the parish votes for judges, is a discriminatory practice in Terrebonne because it ensures that white voters, who constitute the majority (70 percent), drown out the voices of black voters, who constitute a minority (20 percent). Under at-large voting, black voters can never elect their preferred candidates to the 32nd JDC unless white voters support the same candidate.
Because voting is deeply polarized along racial lines, candidates preferred by the black community have been defeated in contested at-large elections regardless of whether they have run for judicial or non-judicial office or as Republicans, Democrats, or otherwise. In a 2014 at-large election for the Houma City Court, a black lawyer ran against two white lawyers. All were Republicans. While the black candidate received 85 percent of black voter support, she lost because only 8 percent of white voters supported her. Similar voting patterns were present across six other elections conducted in Terrebonne over more than 20 years.
In 2008, at-large voting enabled a white judge to win reelection without opposition to the 32nd JDC after the Louisiana Supreme Court suspended him for wearing blackface, an afro wig, and an orange prison jumpsuit at a Halloween party. Despite the judge’s deplorable conduct, no challenger supported by the black community would have had a realistic chance of unseating him in an at-large election. Under the current system, black voters are effectively disenfranchised in elections for the 32nd JDC.
Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to prohibit this type of practice because it deprives minority citizens of the equal opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.
Just as I sought an equal educational opportunity 60 years ago, today plaintiffs are fighting for an equal electoral opportunity. They seek a voice in the voting process for electing 32nd JDC members, just as they have had in single-member districts for electing parish council and school board members since the 1970s, and other Louisiana voters have had for state court judges, including the Louisiana Supreme Court, since the 1990s. Having each of the five members of the 32nd JDC be elected from a single-member district, including one in which black voters would comprise the majority of voters, would empower black voters, for the first time in Terrebonne’s history, to elect their preferred judicial candidates.
In the 1950s, Louisiana expended great costs to prevent me from enrolling at LSU. Today, the state faces a budget crisis leading to cuts in state funding for the TOPS scholarship program to the detriment of LSU students. Yet Louisiana is spending tens of thousands of dollars defending this discriminatory practice before trial — and the state stands to be on the hook for hundreds of thousands of additional dollars as a losing party afterward.
Louisiana must turn the page on this racially discriminatory voting practice. Neither history nor the Constitution is on the side of the opposition, and the costliness of resistance to racial and democratic progress harms all Louisianans.
After suing to become the first black undergraduate student to enroll at LSU, and having a lifelong career as an educator, A.P. Tureaud Jr. was awarded an honorary doctorate by LSU in 2011. He currently resides in Connecticut.