The map of Knoxville City Council’s sixth district looks like a cartoon drawing of a long-nosed, pointy-headed man stretched out on an east/west axis from Burlington to Lonsdale, nose pointed south. The district was drawn to encompass Knoxville’s African-American neighborhoods and business districts in 1969 with one clear objective in mind:
“So that a black person would stand a chance,” said Knoxville historian and longtime political activist Bob Booker, who, thanks to a similar redistricting in 1966, was serving in the state Legislature when the city redistricting took place.
“To give us a seat at the table,” said Rick Staples, who occupies the state House seat that Booker pioneered.
Same thing happened when the old County Court morphed into the modern day County Commission a few years later, and minority citizens have been electing minority officeholders ever since. The few African-Americans who have sought other seats have had no luck, to date.
But now, Booker and other East Knoxville community leaders are growing apprehensive, as shifting populations and evolving voting patterns are changing the district’s makeup. Downtown is booming and Parkridge is growing. In last year’s elections, turnout in those precincts swamped that of the traditional black wards.
“We are in danger of losing our representation,” Booker said. “I’ve said that some time ago about all of our seats. All of those positions (the sixth district council seat, the first district commission seat and the 15th district state House seat) are in danger. And there are several reasons for this:
“Number one, black people don’t vote. Number two, the population is changing. I look at all these new apartment buildings downtown – the White Lily Building, Marble Alley – everywhere I look there are new apartments, and not one percent of them will have black occupants.”
And with the deadline to turn in qualifying petitions to run for city council still two months away, all signs point to an old-fashioned throwdown in District 6, where 10 aspiring candidates – three white and seven black – had picked up petitions by St. Patrick’s Day, with rumors of many more waiting in the wings.
Knox County Administrator of Elections Cliff Rodgers is elated with the heightened candidate interest and hopes that it will translate into increased voter participation. He is frustrated, however, that turnout will be depressed because the 12,458 voters registered in the city’s fifth district (Mark Campen) won’t be voting in the primary – their representative runs in off-year elections with the three at-large council members. Add this anomaly to the district-only primaries and citywide general elections, and Rodgers is not the only one with concerns.
“I never did like the way it was done – nominated in the district, voted on citywide. Better than nothing, I guess,” Booker said, pointing out the void in black representation on city council between 1912 when Dr. Henry Morgan Green left office and 1969 when Theotis Robinson Jr. took office.