Redistricting challenger Smith selected for historic marker

Published on Sunday, 6 October 2013 23:00 - Written by BETTY WATERS blw@tylerpaper.com

PALESTINE — In the 1970s, Timothy Stephen Smith and two other interested citizens filed civil lawsuits challenging voting precinct boundary lines in Anderson County and the city of Palestine.

The action led to court decisions that made a profound effect on the city and county, said Reggie Browne, Anderson County historical marker chairman.

The Texas Historical Commission has approved a Texas Historical Marker recognizing Smith’s role in the political issue and his “untold story.”

Smith and two others went to court after the Anderson County Commissioners and the city of Palestine redrew voting precinct voting lines in 1969 in a way that divided black voters, diluting black voting power, Browne said.

The first African-American to run for elective office in the county and city, Jerome Davis, had come in fifth in an effort to win a place on the city council in 1965 in at-large voting. The second African-American to run for city council, the Rev. John H. Saunders, finished fourth in 1967, and the third African-American to run for city office, the Rev. Abraham E. Campbell, finished fourth in 1968.

Smith and two others filed civil action challenging voting precinct lines against the county in 1973 and against the city in 1976 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

Judge William Wayne Justice later issued his opinion that the county’s precinct lines constituted a “racially motivated gerrymander” and that the lines were intended to minimize or cancel out the voting strength of the black community.

Even though the county had modified its 1969 redistricting, the voting precincts still preserved the fragmentation of black voters, the judge stated. He required Anderson County to switch from at-large voting districts to single-member voting districts for the election of county commissioners, constables and justices of the peace.

He ordered the new voting plan for county elections to go into effect in November 1974.

Although county commissioners appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Justice’s decision was upheld on appeal.

Smith and two others won a second lawsuit against the city of Palestine charging that precinct boundary lines diluted black voting lines. In that case, the federal court ordered the city in 1976 to switch from four at-large voting districts to six single-member voting districts for the city council.

“Smith’s effort in the mid-1970s continues to have a significant political, social and cultural impact on the African American community,” Browne said. “Because of his tireless struggle for equality in voting rights, many African-American citizens have been elected as county commissioners, justice of the peace, constables, county treasurer and city council members, serving as outstanding leaders in their respective positions.”

Smith was considered to be one of the most influential figures in Anderson County and in local African-American history, Browne said, describing Smith as a proponent of equal rights.

The historical and cultural significance of Smith and his two friends in filing their civil lawsuits can be measured by the fact that before the legal action, no African-Americans were elected to a political position in Anderson County and Palestine and since the legal action, numerous African-Americans have been elected, Browne said.

Several African-Americans have been elected from Precinct 2 as county commissioner, justice of the peace and constable and one was elected treasurer three times. Also, several African-Americans have been elected to the Palestine City County representing either District 2 or District 3.

The first elected African-American county commissioner was Regonald O. Browne Sr., elected in 1978. The first African-American constable was Herman Bell, elected in 1980, and the first African-American justice of the peace was O’Neal Hunt, elected in 1982.

Smith was named Man of the Year in 1978 by Palestine Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club, and he received a Special Service Award from the East Texas Leadership Forum.

Smith was a vocational agriculture teacher. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Prairie View A&M College and did graduate study at Iowa State University.

He served as chairman and election judge for Precinct 2 Voting Box 8 for 10 years. He was elected to the Anderson County Democratic Party Executive Committee in 1969 and again in 1978. He was elected in 1970 as a delegate to the Democratic Party State Convention in Austin. He also served as president of Anderson County Voter’s League. He was a charter member of the Anderson County Civic League

Smith died on April 29, 2000, at the age of 98.