Federal Court in Alabama Hears Black Mayor’s Challenge to White Town Leaders Blocking Him From Office

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The first Black mayor in Newbern, Alabama filed a lawsuit against white town leaders because he claims they are preventing him from taking office, and today a federal district court held a hearing in the case about a preliminary injunction filed by the plaintiffs.

Patrick Braxton claims in his November 2022 complaint that after he was lawfully selected as mayor, the outgoing mayor and his town council changed the locks to the town hall, removed or destroyed town documents and denied Braxton access to the town’s mailbox and bank account. 

Newbern, a small majority-Black town, has not had a mayoral election since the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed in 1965. Instead, the town’s practice was to have the current mayor appoint the next mayor. That continued until April 2020 when Braxton decided he wanted to run for mayor to create change for the town’s Black residents, according to his complaint. 

He asked the sitting mayor Haywood Stokes for the candidacy documents he needed, but alleges that Stokes falsely told him the town could not have elections. The complaint argues that Stokes told this lie so that Braxton would not submit his paperwork in time for the candidate deadline.

However, after consulting with the Alabama Conference of Black Mayors, Braxton did end up filing properly, according to an amended complaint submitted in March 2023.

Since no one else filed for office, Braxton became mayor-elect on July 22, 2020, which is the protocol under Alabama law. The amended complaint argues that Stokes did not file for candidacy because he “knew or reasonably believed that he would not prevail in an election for the office of Mayor against Braxton.” 

Braxton was told that since no one ran for city council, he could appoint council members, so he selected five Black Newbern residents, who joined his lawsuit as plaintiffs.

Then, without notifying any of the town residents, Stokes and his council members decided to hold a special election on Oct. 6, 2020, resulting in the all-white group being elected. 

Despite Braxton and his council members being sworn into office in November 2020, Stokes and the other defendants prevented them from accessing information about the town and entering the Town Hall, stopping them from taking power.

Braxton and the five council members he appointed filed their lawsuit in November 2022, arguing that the defendants engaged in intentional racial discrimination by refusing to let Black residents participate in local elections or hold local office, violating the 14th Amendment. 

They also argued that Stokes and the town council participated in a conspiracy to deny Braxton and his town council their constitutional rights by holding an illegal secret special election. 

Braxton and his five council members also claimed that these actions and Newbern’s practice of refusing to hold mayoral elections violates Section 2 of the VRA, which bans voting laws, practices or maps that curtail or take away someone’s right to vote due to their race. This section is often used to challenge laws that have a discriminatory impact.

In March 2024, around a year and a half after the case began, the plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to allow Braxton, the lawful mayor, to hold office while the case is being litigated. They also asked the court to order Stokes and his council members to hold and fully publicize new, lawful special elections for the town council seats by Nov. 5.

In the motion, the plaintiffs said that the “defendants cannot go another year violating the constitutional rights of Newbern’s residents in overt violation of the bedrock tenets of our democratic system.”

In their response to the motion for a preliminary injunction, Stokes and the town council argued that the plaintiffs waited more than a year and four months to file the motion after their first complaint, so they can’t show they’ll “suffer imminent, irreparable harm” if the court doesn’t grant the motion.

The defendants also argued that Braxton and the Black council members cannot prove that Stokes and his town council racially discriminated against them or conspired to deny their rights based on their race.

After today’s hearing in court on the motion for the preliminary injunction, the court must issue a ruling, but did not specify when that will occur.  

Read more about the case here.