Newbern is a Black-majority town in rural Alabama that, according to residents, has never had an election. Patrick Braxton ran to become its first Black mayor in 2020. With no opponent, he ascended into the office by default, but you’d never know it. The previous mayor, Haywood "Woody" Stokes III, is still serving as mayor, despite the fact that he failed to submit the necessary paperwork to even run for the role. Before Braxton, the position of mayor in this town had always been passed down from white friend to white friend.
Stokes initially tried to dissuade Braxton from running because he said the town of 245 people couldn’t support an election. After all, Stokes said, they “don’t have ballots or machines to do it.” So Braxton headed to the county seat of Greensboro and got all the paperwork he needed, following the rules to the letter, and shelling out the funds for the filing fee. Stokes didn’t bother to do any of that. Braxton assumed office and was advised that he should appoint the town council members, marking the first time the Black-majority council truly represented the majority-Black town. In November 2020, the council and Braxton were all sworn into office together.
But it appears a conspiracy to hold power by the former council was created soon after the swearing-in. Former members of the predominantly white town council, all of whom failed to file their own required paperwork, held an undisclosed and illegal meeting to arrange a special election to fill their own seats.
Their first order of business was to hold another meeting—with no public notice—and reappoint the former mayor, Stokes, as the new mayor.
These “council members,” Gary Broussard, Jesse Leverett, Voncille Thomas, and Willie Tucker, claimed they were informed that council membership must be chosen through an election, contradicting the town's long-standing practice. They themselves had not been elected. They never said who told them about this supposed rule. Braxton maintains that neither he nor the town's residents were notified of this special election, and none of the residents interviewed by a reporter from Tread were aware of the special election, either.
As a result, since November 2020, Braxton has been locked out of the town hall and unable to carry out his mayoral duties. Confused? So are the square-mile town’s residents:
Everyone in town knows the question, but they all have a different answer. Who is the mayor of Newbern, Alabama?
Todd McGilberry, owner of the Newbern Mercantile, one of the only businesses in town, answered the question Friday afternoon.
“I think Woody Stokes or Pat Braxton,” he said. “I don’t really know which one.”
He’s not alone.
Aside from Newbern Mercantile’s owner, who said he prefers to remain “neutral” on the issue, no white citizen of Newbern approached by Tread would comment for this story.
On Friday, a half dozen white residents sat on the porch of a plantation-style home on the Newbern’s main drag. Several young people sat in chairs and a bearded, older white man stood guard at the stairs. The subject of the story at hand was simple, Tread explained: “Who’s the mayor of Newbern?”
A young woman sitting on the porch couldn’t help herself.
“That’s a great question,” she blurted out.
The minority leader of the Alabama state Senate, Bobby Singleton, is outraged. However, the Alabama Secretary of State’s office and the Alabama League of Municipalities have so far taken no action to help.
In fact, Mayor Braxton claims, the League of Municipalities had a lawyer who “coached” Stokes on how to oust Braxton from office. Lori Lein, the league’s general counsel, did not deny that in response to questions from Tread reporter Lee Hedgepeth:
To the extent that we can we educate the public on the nuances of municipal law, we are happy to do so. The Newbern situation presents a very complicated set of facts involving many layers of Alabama’s municipal laws from election laws, laws regarding automatic removal from office and laws relating to the proper steps for filling vacancies.
However, because we are not a state agency but rather an association made up of our member municipalities, including Newbern, I am not able to comment on the current status of the litigation that has been filed.
Since his June 5 Tread story on the mess in Newbern, Hedgepeth tells Daily Kos he has had no further responses from either the Alabama secretary of state or the Alabama League of Municipalities. That’s disappointing.
It’s almost three years into his term, and Mayor Braxton is still unable to fulfill his duties as mayor. In a federal civil rights lawsuit that Braxton recently filed, he claims that Stokes and others have conspired to prevent him from governing. Braxton argues that this conspiracy violates federal law. The case is tentatively scheduled for trial in 2024, and I plan to follow closely.
Stokes and the alleged council members deny any wrongdoing in response to the lawsuit. They claim that no one will be able to prove the existence of a conspiracy, and that they are immune from lawsuits just because Alabama law in these situations isn’t clear.
If Mayor Braxton was seated, this could’ve have been a great opportunity to celebrate a historic event, and may have even helped this dying town get some much-needed good press. Remember Earle, Arkansas, which elected the youngest Black mayor in U.S. history in 2022? The defeated opponent praised the 18-year-old for his victory and offered to help. The story made national news and gave the town a much-needed boost.
Newbern’s mayoral crisis, however, is a disgusting story of white supremacy and entitlement that needs more attention than it's been getting. There might be an inclination to ignore this place because it’s so small, so rural (25 miles to the nearest Walmart), so Black, so deeply affected by poverty; yet it’s criminal to allow unelected white leaders to dominate this Black town just because that’s the way it’s always been.
Certain people will always believe they should rule despite the wishes of the people, which was the same mentality that caused the violence on Jan. 6. This attitude needs to be challenged everywhere, even the backwaters of rural Alabama. If there’s injustice in one place, there’s no justice anywhere.
I’m glad Braxton is fighting back. I hope he knows we have his back as well.
If you’d like to help, contact the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. I’m doubtful that Alabama officials will do anything, but the DOJ might be more inclined if enough people complain and ensure the issue on the radar.
This shouldn’t be happening in 2023—not in our smallest towns, in our statehouses, or at the national level.
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Enough is enough!
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