Brown v. City of Chattanooga Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

August 8, 1989

Case Description 

Brown v. City of Chattanooga is one of CCR’s municipal at-large cases, which consist of several cases filed on behalf of voters of color to challenge the at-large electoral system for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the Fifteenth, Fourteenth, Thirteenth, and First Amendments.

The municipal at-large cases consist of several cases the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed on behalf of voters of color throughout the country challenging the at-large electoral system. The lawsuit alleged that the system diminished the voting power of people of color in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the Fifteenth, Fourteenth, Thirteenth, and First Amendments.

At-large elections are perhaps the single most effective impediment to the election of Black, Latino, Asian American, and progressive candidates, who must gain votes city-wide in order to win. Even with the overwhelming support of voters of color, a candidate of color in an at-large context will still lose the election because whites, usually a majority of the voters, customarily cast their votes as a bloc for only white candidates. This results in the total exclusion, or, at best, minimal Black representation on municipal governing boards in communities where they are not a voting majority.

Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, CCR filed lawsuits against these at-large systems of elections in cities and communities in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and New York, with Mississippi bearing the lion’s share. The lawsuits – most of them successful – challenged at-large systems and sought to replace them with court-ordered voting systems that divide their respective cities into single-member districts.

In Brown v. City of Chattanooga, CCR successfully challenged the use of at-large elections for selection of the city’s five-member governing commission. CCR’s victory brought sweeping changes to the election system of Chattanooga, Tennessee. New districts were established for commission elections and were also used in upcoming school board elections.