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LEXINGTON, KY – In 1971, civil rights activist Curtis Holt Sr. walked into a federal office in Richmond, Virginia, and filed a suit against the city under the authority of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. According to Holt, the white leaders of Richmond had purposefully diluted the power of the city’s black voters by annexing primarily white and affluent portions of Chesterfield County. Holt charged that this vote dilution had cost him a seat on the city council. Although the U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld the annexation, it demanded the implementation of an electoral system that allowed African Americans to vote within almost exclusively black districts. This racial redistricting led to the election of a black-majority council and the appointment of a nationally-renowned civil rights lawyer as mayor of Richmond. Holt’s lawsuit, which had a profound impact on the political power dynamic of Virginia’s capital, was part of a much larger voting rights revolution that changed the landscape of representative democracy in America.
In The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia, historian Julian Maxwell Hayter examines over thirty years of local and national politics and explores the political transformation of a city that played a critical role in the historic oppression of African Americans. Hayter demonstrates how middle-class African Americans, like Holt, used politics to empower their communities and how localized urban politics helped influence national voting rights policy during the civil rights movement. He goes further than most civil rights historians, however, outlining how Richmond’s black majority council struggled to meet the challenges of economic issues beyond the sphere of politics.
Hayter examines Richmond as a city steeped in the history of American racial politics. Driven by tobacco production in the Tidewater Region, the city was fundamental to the early American slave trade, and segregation and Jim Crow laws shaped Richmond’s development well into the twentieth century. Hayter relates how a local organization of black professionals called the Richmond Crusade for Voters mobilized African Americans and sought to secure the voting rights of black Richmonders nearly a decade before the Voting Rights Act. The Crusade registered thousands of black voters during the 1960s and, in the process, raised political consciousness in black communities across the nation. With the help of Curtis Holt’s lawsuit, the majority-minority district system was implemented in the late 1970s, and African American politicians achieved a historic city council majority.
Beyond recognizing the local and national achievements of the Crusade in the service of black empowerment, Hayter challenges the prevailing narrative about the triumph of the civil rights movement. He presents the struggles of Richmond’s black majority council in the 1980s as a cautionary tale about the inability of political power alone to bring about full racial equality.
While black Richmonders were dedicated to the political aspects of the freedom struggle, their rise to power coincided with a series of demographic and economic crises that began to undermine civic life in cities with high black populations. Despite holding a council majority, black elected officials lacked the economic and business connections to overcome intensifying poverty, sustained white resistance, and urban retrenchment.
In the end, Hayter demonstrates that the racial transformation of Richmond’s political power dynamic—brought about in part by Curtis Holt’s lawsuit—was doomed by the very factors that had helped to make it possible. Through his study of grassroots voter mobilization and his exploration of the unintended consequences of political reformation, Hayter offers a unique view of the post-civil rights era. The Dream Is Lost is a vibrant urban history that illuminates the ongoing challenges to achieving true equality in America.
Julian Maxwell Hayter is a historian and assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.