While Montgomery, Alabama recently made headlines for the “riverfront brawl” when a group of enraged White men surrounded and physically attacked a Black boat co-captain asking them to move their private boat that was blocking the riverboat with over 200 passengers he and his crew were trying to dock—in a small town less than two hours away, Whites are reportedly attacking another Black man, politically. What has transpired has been an ongoing three-year battle.
Newbern, Alabama’s Black mayor, Patrick Braxton, has reportedly been ousted and blocked by his White predecessor. The case has sparked outrage and debate. Newbern is a predominantly Black town where 85 percent of the population of 275 is Black and nearly 30 percent of Black residents live below the poverty line.
Mr. Braxton, a volunteer fireman, ran for mayor in 2020 to serve residents of Newbern and when there were no other declared candidates, he won by default. However, shortly after his win and before taking office, Mr. Braxton alleges he was ousted by the town’s previous majority-White leadership because they did not want a Black mayor who could also appoint Black members to the city council.
“The situation I’m about to describe is a clear example of hypocrisy within our democracy,” said Reverend Michael Malcolm, founder of The Peoples Justice Council in Selma, Alabama, as he shared his perspective on the situation in Newbern. Selma is located about 45 minutes from Newbern.
“First off, let’s address the fact that this town has never elected a mayor before. It’s not like there have been elections and the White population has always won. No! The same White family has been running this town for generations without any challenge,” Reverend Malcolm told The Final Call. Mayor Braxton has encountered many obstacles since being elected, the reverend explained.
“He was denied access to government mail, and he was even locked out of city hall. This all happened during the pandemic when relief money was being distributed. It’s uncertain if Mayor Braxton was able to access any of it because he couldn’t fill out the necessary paperwork,” said Rev. Malcolm.
In Newbern, a town with a history deeply rooted in slavery, White leaders have held on to political control by avoiding elections altogether for at least six decades. And there has never been a Black mayor. According to Capital B, a nonprofit local and national news organization that focuses on issues impacting Black communities, the mayoral mantle “has been treated as a ‘hand me down’ by the small percentage of White residents.”
“It wasn’t until a lawsuit was filed that this situation gained attention. But let’s be clear, this is not just a threat to our democracy, it’s an actual violation that is happening before our eyes. And it’s not an isolated incident. It reflects the reality faced by many rural southern communities,” Reverend Malcom argued.
The Final Call received copies of lawsuits filed by Mayor Braxton and former Mayor Haywood “Woody” Stokes III, who is White, as the situation has spiraled into a legal dispute. Mayor Braxton filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the White former mayor and majority-White former city council members violated the Constitution when they locked him out of the town hall and barred him from office.
Mr. Stokes III and his council—which consists of three White people and one Black person deny any wrongdoing in their response to an amended complaint they filed and claimed qualified immunity, which protects state and local officials from individual liability from civil lawsuits, reported Capital B. The nonprofit also reported that rather than concede, the former mayor and his council members reappointed themselves to their positions after ordering a special election that no one knew about.
Below is a summary of some of the information contained in the lawsuits.
• Former Mayor Haywood “Woody” Stokes III and the city council actively conspired to prevent elections due to the potential outcome in favor of the majority Black population. The city council has assigned the duties of the mayor to Mr. Stokes who has been acting as mayor instead of Mr. Braxton.
• Mayor Stokes intentionally provided false information to Mr. Braxton to obstruct him from becoming the city’s first Black mayor.
• Mr. Braxton was declared mayor of Newbern in 2020 as no other candidate had filed paperwork in time.
• Mr. Braxton’s transition into office has been obstructed since he holds no access to resources or budget, official mail, banking information, legal matters or town business due to former Mayor Stokes and his allies conspiring to undermine him in his position as mayor.
• Despite this obstruction, Mr. Braxton sourced and distributed COVID-19 supplies throughout Newbern and posted signs about safety precautions throughout the town.
• In response, former Mayor Stokes set these signs ablaze and changed the city hall locks, preventing access by Mayor Braxton, leading to personal losses including professional reputation damage and emotional distress for Mr. Braxton.
• In July 2023, a counter-lawsuit was filed claiming the defendants acted in accordance with Alabama law and asserting that Mr. Braxton’s lawsuit lacked merit due to false allegations.
Laquenna Lewis is the director of Love Is What Love Does, a community-based organization and she has played a key role in trying to help Mayor Braxton.
“I reside in Dallas County and had the pleasure of meeting Mayor Braxton in Newbern. As the founder of a community services organization, my goal is to provide assistance to those in need. Originally from Hill County, I spent my formative years in Los Angeles, but upon returning home, I felt a strong desire to establish my organization here and embrace my roots,” she told The Final Call.
“The poverty rates in this community are alarmingly high, and I saw a unique opportunity to make a difference. Thanks to a recommendation from a mutual acquaintance, Mayor Braxton graciously allowed me to use his church’s life center building to offer various services. This includes distributing 15 to 30,000 pounds of food each month, as well as youth programs, elderly and utility assistance, and disaster relief. Mayor Braxton expressed his frustration with not being able to fully utilize his role as mayor, prompting me to assist him.”
“I took the initiative to help him in writing letters to various city institutions such as the bank, post office, and town attorney to seek acknowledgment and support. Unfortunately, these efforts were met with rejection and a lack of assistance,” she said.
“Despite the challenges, we persevered and eventually found a lawyer to advocate for our cause. However, we faced another setback when my home in Selma was completely destroyed by a fire in October,” Ms. Lewis continued.
“My home burned down while I was taking my kids out to a movie. When we returned, it was completely destroyed. Shortly after, I started receiving hate mail, including threats to my children. It was a shocking and disturbing experience,” she added. “The hate mail also referenced the house fire, indicating a direct connection. This made me realize that these acts of hatred were intentional, not just random events.”
She states that despite the challenges, they are committed to serving the community and have partnered with Mayor Braxton to create a platform that allows them to continue providing food security to residents and also offers voter education and registration services.
In an interview with The Final Call, Mayor Braxton refrained from discussing the details of his lawsuit. However, he expressed his frustration over the lack of support he has received and shed light on the challenges he has faced.
“Over the past three years, I have faced limited assistance in my efforts,” he said. But he credits Esther Calhoun and Ms. Lewis for their ongoing support. “Unfortunately, the most frustrating aspect of this journey has been the hindrance to my ability to serve the people and pursue my vision of improving Newbern through community service, food distribution, and creating a space for the elderly to gather,” he said.
“One of my goals is to strengthen the tax base and bring more revenue to the city. While I have taken on a few responsibilities, I have not been able to fully carry out my plans. Nonetheless, I have still managed to contribute in small ways, such as getting a road fixed near the church recently.”
“I am grateful for the support of the community, who encourages me to continue pushing for justice. While the support from the White community is limited, I still have friends on that side. We are currently working on registering voters and forming coalitions with groups like the Alabama Association for the Arts. We aim to provide voter registration and transportation services during elections. Recently, we organized a school supply distribution event where voter registration forms were made available,” said the mayor.
“I remain committed to fighting for what is right and plan to seek reelection in 2025.”
Final Call staff contributed to this report.