The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, along with its national voting rights division, has sued the Ferguson-Florissant School District over the way members of the school board are elected.
"Every community has the right to representation in their government," said Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. "Unfortunately for too long, African-Americans in the Ferguson-Florissant school district have been denied that opportunity."
The lawsuit alleges that the current method of electing school board members at large, rather than from individual districts, violates section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act because it prevents African-Americans from having a say in how the schools are run. Even though African-Americans are a minority of the voting-age population in the district, the suit says, more than 75 percent of the students are black.
"Section 2 protects not only the right to cast a ballot, but to participate meaningfully in the political process," Ho said.
A Divided Community
Divisions in the Ferguson-Florissant school district were evident long before Michael Brown was shot and killed on Aug. 9.
Redditt Hudson, a parent with children in the Ferguson-Florissant schools, noted the lawsuit was filed almost exactly one year after the school board—which, at the time, had no African American members—issued still-unknown charges against former superintendent Art McCoy, who is African American. He had been placed on administrative leave in November 2013, and later resigned.
"That was a tremendous blow to the community," Hudson said. "When the question was asked, 'Why was this done?' there was an ever-evolving, ever-shifting set of reasons, and we had no ability to advocate for our own interests and we saw no one on the board who would."
The ACLU was careful not to draw a direct connection between McCoy's controversial departure and the filing of the lawsuit. In fact, Dale Ho of the voting rights division, said it was more closely connected to Brown's death.
"It's kind of hard not to look at the Ferguson area after recent events and ask yourself, are there problems of racial polarization," Ho said.
Brown's death laid bare the flaws in the entire system, said ACLU-Missouri's executive director Jeffrey Mittman.
"We need to be part of moving the solution forward," he said. "We believe that this lawsuit, engaging in a conversation, changing how the African-American community and all voters in the St. Louis area and Missouri, take part in the democratic process is an important piece of that solution."
The ACLU's voting rights division has challenged at-large elections for local elected bodies in several southern states, Ho said. He did not rule out additional lawsuits locally. He said the organizations' track record at forcing reform is pretty good.
A spokeswoman for the Ferguson-Florissant schools said the district is reviewing the lawsuit and would issue a statement at a later date.