Alabama: Seventh District|
Rep. Earl Hilliard (D)
Last Updated May 12, 1999
Alabama celebrates its black heritage more than any other state, building striking memorials to the civil rights movement in Montgomery and Birmingham, promoting tourism to these and other black history sites, commemorating with dignified restraint a history that was full of raucous hatred and moving sacrifice. Blacks first came here as slaves; the last slave ship to the United States, the Clotilde, docked in Mobile in 1859, where its cargo was then set free. Blacks were part of the great migration into the cottonlands after the Jacksonians swept the Indians out of the Southeast and sent them on their Trail of Tears to what is now Oklahoma. Today, Alabama's rural blacks are still clustered in the Black Belt of fertile dark soil across the center of the state: around Montgomery, where Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus in 1955 and a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. led a bus boycott; around Selma, founded by Alabama's one vice president, William Rufus King, and where Sheriff Jim Clark's troops beat up peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in demonstrations that led to the march on Montgomery and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. All 10 of Alabama's majority-black counties are in the rich farm country of the Black Belt. But most Alabama blacks now live in urban areas, one-quarter in metropolitan Birmingham.
The 7th Congressional District, with its convoluted boundaries, was created as a black-majority district. Some 45% of its people live in the narrow valley of Birmingham and Jefferson County where the population is 75% black; another 13% are in an 80% black portion of west Montgomery County. The rest of the district includes Black Belt counties where the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers flow past old plantations, plus part of Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, and nearby Vance, site of the much sought-after new Mercedes factory. It thus combines the remnants of Alabama's old cotton economy with neighborhoods built in the shadows of Birmingham's once booming steel mills. A 1997 lawsuit challenged the boundaries as racially motivated, but all parties agreed to drop the matter in March 1998.
The congressman from the 7th District is Earl Hilliard, the first black representative from Alabama since Republican Jeremiah Haralson retired in 1876. Hilliard grew up in segregated Birmingham and was educated in historically black schools--Morehouse, Howard, Atlanta University. In 1974, at 32, he was elected to the Alabama legislature, one of the first blacks there; 10 years later he became a committee chairman. He pushed for horse racing in Birmingham and sponsored tax abatement bills. In 1992 he outmaneuvered others and became the main Birmingham-based candidate for the new 7th District seat. The decisive Democratic primary was a ''friends and neighbors'' contest reminiscent of the old days of Southern white politics. Hilliard led in the primary with 31%, winning 58% in Jefferson County but running far behind elsewhere. The runoff was a contest with state Senator Hank Sanders, who won in his base, the Black Belt, and narrowly in Montgomery; but Hilliard's 71% in Jefferson County was enough for a 50.5%-49.5% victory.
In the House Hilliard has a largely liberal voting record. He voted for school prayer and flag amendments but against the religious freedom amendment and the Ten Commandments resolution in the 105th Congress. He pays much attention to local projects--establishing Enterprise Zones for Sumter and Greene counties and Smithfield-West End in Birmingham; re-installing the Gee's Bend Ferry Boat in Wilcox County, which was closed in 1962; authorizing the Selma-to-Montgomery Historic Trail. In August 1997 Hilliard visited Libya, despite its designation as a terrorist state, and was soon sharply criticized by the 6th District's Spencer Bachus. But the Treasury ruled that he didn't engage in financial transactions and the House ethics committee noted that he did not stamp his passport, both declaring that he did not violate U.S. sanctions. Hilliard complained to the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights division that racism is still rampant in Alabama, citing a Fob James flier, the number of blacks in state government and the Montgomery City Council redistricting. In May 1997 he called for a national commission to apologize for slavery and to decide on reparations: ''It's often said that you can't fault the offspring of slaveholders. I would say that's incorrect because [some of] the offspring are still living off the wealth created by the labor of my ancestors. They are still benefiting from the work of my forefathers.''
Hilliard has won re-election easily. In 1998 it was found that he got 90% of his campaign funds outside his district, the third highest of any congressional candidate. He was also criticized for failing to disclose ties to numerous corporate and non-profit organizations to which he gave more than $100,000, and because his office expenses, with large payments to temporary employees who are the children of local politicians or Hilliard staffers, were among the highest in the House.
Safe. With a 67.5% black population, this is one of the 50 most Democratic districts in the country. The Voting Rights Act virtually precludes any changes making this district less Democratic.
- Pop. 1990: 577,430
- 27.3% rural;
14.6% age 65+;
- 32.1% White,
0.1% Amer. Indian,
0.4% Hispanic origin;
42.8% married couple families;
21.7% married couple fams. w. children;
31.7% college educ.;
median household income: $16,560;
per capita income: $8,135;
median gross rent: $170;
median house value: $40,700.
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