FOR black Americans wondering what the Reagan administration has done for them lately, one answer can be found in the history made last month in Selma, the seat of Dallas County in Alabama's black belt. In March 1965, police violence against demonstrators in Selma spawned the Voting Rights Act. In February of this year, the combination of the US Justice Department and Brevard Hand, a conservative district court judge, used that law to overturn an electoral system that had effectively excluded blacks from participation in county government. Blacks lacked the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, because all members of governing bodies were selected at-large from the entire jurisdiction. Under at-large elections, an economically and numerically dominant white community can unite to defeat black aspirants for each position. Blacks in Dallas County constitute just under half the voting-age population, but not a single black has ever been elected to the five-member commission that controls county government.
Ignored by the news media, Judge Hand's decision that replaced at-large contests with district-by-district elections marks a quiet revolution that has altered the electoral systems of local jurisdictions throughout the South. In many communities, this change has enabled blacks to serve in government for the first time since Reconstruction.
Ironically, the Dallas County experience also belies the critique of activist civil rights policy that is fashionable within the Reagan administration. It shows that civil rights must encompass the rules of the political (or economic) game as well as the experience of individual players, and that federal enforce ment efforts complement rather than contradict black self-help initiatives.
Critics seeking to curtail the scope of civil rights laws now contend that their reach extends only to overt discrimination against particular individuals. They fail to realize that, as in Dallas County, the system may itself be loaded against minority groups burdened with a history of discrimination. Under the theory that discrimination applied only to individuals, there would have been no remedy for the exclusion of blacks from Dallas County governance, since, as individuals, blacks could register and vote. As a group, however, the ground rules of electoral politics barred them from effective participation in the selection of public officials.
Critics have also attacked civil rights enforcement as a new form of paternalism that kills individual initiative. In Dallas County, however, federal intervention and grass-roots struggle reinforced each other. Extraordinary black efforts to surmount the racially stacked politics of Dallas County strengthened the government's case, while in turn the federal litigation created opportunities that blacks could not gain through their own efforts. Despite repeated defeats, blacks continued to mount candidates for public office. They pressed for black representation on the Board of Registrars and for the appointment of black poll officials and deputy registrars. In their efforts to elect black candidates, they achieved levels of voter turnout far greater than what would be expected from a minority group with fewer than 40 percent holding high school diplomas and more than 50 percent living below the poverty line.
Without such black activism, Judge Hand might well have sustained his earlier ruling against the Justice Department's position. ``There are many heroes in this case,'' observed attorney Gerald Hebert, leader of the Justice Department team in Dallas County. ``They are the black people whose efforts never wavered during the eight years of litigation.''
Despite the Justice Department's success in Dallas County, there remain scores of jurisdictions in which electoral systems bar blacks from the opportunity to participate effectively in politics. Despite opposition to affirmative action and busing, the Reagan administration has professed a commitment to enforcing the Voting Rights Act. The speed and vigor with which it moves to challenge the remaining discriminatory voting system should provide a litmus test of the sincerity of the administration's commitment.
Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history of the American University, Washington, D.C., testified as an expert witness on political analysis and voting behavior in the Dallas County case.