Upholding voting rights in Richmond

When one thinks of genuinely historic cities in the United States, Richmond, Va., would have to come high on the list. Richmond is more than just the capital of the Old Dominion, with its magnificent statehouse building designed by Thomas Jefferson. It was the principal capital of the Confederacy and is a university and manufacturing center. Richmond occupies a special place in American affairs.

For these reasons alone there are significant dimensions to the decision this week by the US Justice Department. Justice has upheld a redistricting plan drawn by the present black majority of Richmond's nine-member city council that will likely ensure black rule (by a margin of five to four) well into the 1990s. The white minority sought to have Justice approve a separate redistricting plan that would have ensured a four-to-four black-white split with a ninth "swing district" for the city, which has a 51 percent black population.

It would be premature to comment on the redistricting plans since litigation could occur. But what is noteworthy is that whites used the review provision of the Voting Rights Act to make their case for greater representation. Will whites in other localities follow suit?

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Whatever happens, most Americans would surely want the city on the James River to put its current racial divisions behind it and carry on with governance. It is ironic that the capital of the Old South should now have a black mayor and a black council majority. But Richmond's strength has always been its people. The people of Richmond, black and white, have an opportunity to forge out of the present turmoil a city greater than any Richmond of the past.

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