How a Prominent Civil Rights Leader, Acie Belton, Set in Motion St. George

 People in Baton Rouge should open their minds to the idea of incorporating the new City of St. George, especially when we realize how it all got started.

In Louisiana, any community of 300 or more people anywhere in the state outside an incorporated municipality has the right to file a petition calling for an election to form a new city.  But it hasn’t always been that way.

In 1971, the federal courts ordered that the Louisiana House of Representatives and Senate should be reapportioned into single-member districts.  In the elections that year, both blacks and Republicans were elected in significant numbers for the first time since Reconstruction.  I was 23 years old and ran for the new House seat from North Baton Rouge — north of Choctaw, east of Scenic, and inside the Airline Highway. It was a vigorous campaign, and I was elected, as was Edwin Edwards, the new governor.

During the 1972 regular session of the legislature, Gov. Edwards proposed and the legislature approved calling a constitutional convention to consider drafting a replacement for the Louisiana Constitution of 1921.  I ran and was elected a delegate. Our deliberations began in early 1973.

Soon after my election as a delegate, I got a call from Mr. Acie Belton, the president of the Second Ward Voters League. He was one of the most respected civil rights leaders in our parish and indeed in the state.

He was a big, imposing man, who might bring fear to anyone who didn’t know him. In person, he was more like a teddy bear, warm and kind.  I had only met Mr. Belton a couple of times before he called me. “Rep. Jenkins,” he said, “I have a favor to ask. There’s a provision of the Constitution I’d like you to try to change.”

He said, “There’s a provision of the 1921 Constitution that forbids Scotlandville from incorporating, and we would like the right to incorporate.”  

I was incredulous.  “Mr. Belton, how does the Constitution prevent Scotlandville from incorporating?” I asked.

He said, “The Plan of Government for East Baton Rouge Parish provides that there shall only be three municipalities in the parish. It forbids any others.  Some years ago, Mayor Woody Dumas had a provision placed in the Constitution of 1921 that ratifies that part of the Plan of Government and elevates it to the constitutional level.  This convention may be our only chance in our lifetime to change it!”

Mr. Belton said, “I believe the people of any area should be able to incorporate themselves into a new city and provide protection of their city and services to enhance life. The people of Scotlandville should not be discriminated against in this way!”

I told Mr. Belton I would research the matter and call him back, which I did the next day. In that conversation I pledged my support. Soon George Dewey Hayes, the delegate from Scotlandville, and Delegate Mary Wisham were on board. We went to the Committee that was drafting the Local Government provisions of the new constitution and were met with a stone wall.  There was no way to pass it in committee.  We would have to go to the floor of the convention and have a floor fight.

Delegate Gary O’Neill from Central contacted me and said some people in Central also wanted the right to form a city someday.

I drafted the amendment to provide that the right of incorporation in East Baton Rouge Parish would be the same as in the rest of the state. We introduced the amendment and began lobbying the delegates of the convention to support it.  Mayor-President Woody Dumas came to the convention, which was meeting at Independence Hall near the State Capitol.  He was on a tear! He was lobbying hard against the proposal.  He found me and told me if I didn’t withdraw it, he would defeat me in the next election.

When the proposal came to the floor, I offered the amendment and spoke in favor of it.  The transcript of that debate is online in the archives of the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1973, or CC/73.  Our coalition of delegates worked hard and prevailed. The convention voted for the amendment, meaning that municipalities could be incorporated anywhere in the state.

Mayor-President Dumas was so angry that he went to Gov. Edwards and threatened to oppose the entire constitution unless that provision were removed.  However, Gov. Edwards refused to try to remove it.

When the proposed Louisiana Constitution of 1975 went before the voters of the state, the amendment allowing the people of East Baton Rouge Parish to incorpo

rate new cities, if they choose, was intact.  The constitution was approved by the voters, and today it remains the law of our state. The late Rep. Johnny Jackson of New Orleans, who served as a delegate and worked tirelessly for the Scotlandville amendment, said on the 40th anniversary of the new constitution that the passage of our amendment on incorporation was his proudest moment in the Constitutional Convention.

He said, “One of our biggest victories of the Constitutional Convention for African American delegates was protecting the right of local governments to incorporate. It was the biggest fight I personally had, and we were able to expand the right of certain areas such as Scotlandville to incorporate!”

The reason it was such an important issue across the state was that there had been efforts to stop the incorporation of some majority black cities in such diverse areas as Plaquemines and Caddo parishes.

Ironically, despite the passage of the new constitution, the Plan of Government of East Baton Rouge Parish remained unchanged, still saying that there will only be three municipalities in the parish.

When the people of Central voted to incorporate their new city in 2004, attorney Bob Raborn filed suit to challenge the incorporation of the city. One of his legal arguments against incorporation was the fact that the Plan of Government article limiting to three the number of municipalities in the parish was still on the books.

On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the incorporation of the City of Central. Among other things, it ruled that the Plan of Government provision was repealed by the new constitution.  That was obvious, but their ruling nevertheless removed that argument from the table in the future.

It is ironic that the opponents of the incorporation of the City of St. George have repeatedly alleged that the incorporation is a racist act designed to discriminate against African Americans.

In reality, the right to have additional cities in East Baton Rouge Parish came directly from civil rights leader Acie Belton who believed that “…Any area should be able to incorporate themselves into a new city and provide protection of their citizens and services to enhance life. The people of Scotlandville should not be discriminated against in this way!”

The truth is that incorporation is a normal function of government in Louisiana.  The people of St. George have the legal right to propose a new city.  If they can get the required number of signatures and win the referendum, then it is right and proper to recognize and respect the new City of St. George and the people it will serve.  

Of course, that is exactly what happened.  Now, five years after the people voted to form the new City of St. George, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ratified their actions.  Justice is slow, but in this case at least, the system worked!

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