Challenged to do right

When Barnwell County Councilman Freddie Houston filed a lawsuit to change the county's election laws -- he never thought he would one day sit on the institution he helped transform.

Houston was the main plaintiff in a 1988 lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina against Barnwell County by the Barnwell County Voters League. The lawsuit sought to end the at-large method of electing council members and change the county to seven single-member districts with a member from each district running for office.

"There were no districts in the county and we thought 'Let's do something about it,'" said Houston. "We believed in order to have fair representation on the County Council there should be minority representation."

Houston's lawsuit led Barnwell County Council to change its election process and put an end to what federal courts had called "a racially biased method of election" in 1980. In 1990, the method was changed from electing members from anywhere in the county (at-large) -- to electing members from seven districts (single-member) within the county.

Houston, a lifelong Williston resident, just began his third term on the Barnwell County Council, representing District 1 this past January.

"When you help others, you sometimes help yourself," said Houston. "I never dreamed I'd someday run for Council."

The at-large method of electing could make it difficult for minorities to have fair representation in county government, said Houston. A court document of Houston's -- based on 1980 census figures -- shows Barnwell County's population at 58.5 percent white and 41.5 percent black. Houston and the league believed if the county were split into districts, elections would be more demographically fair and give African-Americans a voice. According to Houston's court document, three of the proposed districts (1,2 and 6) had double or nearly double the African-American population (60 percent) than Caucasian.

"Looking at the seven districts, we thought there would be more be more of an opportunity for African-Americans to get elected," said Houston. In 1986, when Houston was then the head of the Barnwell County Voters League, he approached Barnwell County Council. He had concerns that African-Americans might not be getting fair representation and proposed single-member districts.

Council members "didn't see anything wrong with it (the at-large method)," said Houston.

So Houston Ñ along with Katherine Walker and Clyde Reed of the Barnwell County Voters League -- decided to take legal action. After speaking with Neil Bradley, a lawyer in Atlanta, Ga. from the American Civil Liberties Union, Houston believed a lawsuit might be the answer to the problem.

"He (Bradley) thought we had a good chance of winning and he thought it would also be fairly easy to win," said Houston.

During a recent telephone interview, Bradley said he had represented several hundred of those types of cases in the South during his career. Bradley said amendments to the 1982 Voting Rights Act caused many cities and counties in the South to change from at-large to single-member districts voluntarily because they would be open to lawsuits otherwise. Those amendments said when election results are analyzed, and voters vote on racial lines -- if the majority is usually able to defeat the minority candidate, then voting laws have been violated, said Bradley.

"If no one is pointing a finger at you -- you sit still," said Bradley on localities which took longer to change than others. When the lawsuit was filed in 1988, there was positive support for it within the black community, said Houston.

"Back at that time -- racism being what it was -- it (lawsuit) wasn't too popular," said Houston of the lawsuit. "But it (lawsuit) wasn't a long drawn out process; I think they (Council) were pretty embarassed by the lawsuit."

The lawsuit never went to trial -- the parties reached a mutual agreement in August 1989 that was approved by the U.S. Justice Department in a consent agreement. Ò

"It had the potential to be political because Sol Blatt Jr. was the judge who was assigned the case," said Bradley.

In 1990, the first single-member district elections were held in Barnwell County and three African-Americans ran -- and won -- in Districts 1, 2 and 6, Houston said.

Houston thinks black and whites have made strides in race relations since the 1980s.

"I think it's different now. There could be some tension with the older guard, but with younger people it doesn't seem to matter as much," said Houston on racism.

He recalled that as a member of the Williston-Elko school board he was instrumental in putting an end to separate black and white proms in 1990. He also remembered an event in the mid-1980s that displayed the racial tensions lurking under the surface of small town America. The Williston-Elko football team played an away game and vandalized the opposing team's locker room, he said.

The punishment for the team was suspension.

"But the black kids got 10 days and the white kids got five days. These were people who were on the same team and did the same thing. If all the team did it -- how can you differentiate between the players?" asked Houston.

But Houston said he thinks race relations between blacks and whites will continue to improve.

"It has dramatically improved from where we were then -- to where we are now," he said.

He also believes that people will usually do the right things and make the right choices.

"There always has to be people in the community who will willingly step up to the plate -- and usually, people will do what is right when challenged."