Alabama town's first Black mayor, who had been locked out of office, will return under settlement

NEWBERN, Ala. (AP) — The first Black mayor of a small Alabama town, who said white officials locked him out of town hall, will return to the role under the terms of a proposed settlement agreement.

Patrick Braxton will be recognized as the lawful mayor of the town of Newbern, under the terms of a proposed agreement to settle a lawsuit between Braxton and the town of Newbern. The settlement was filed Friday and, if approved by U.S. District Judge Kristi K. DuBose, will end the long-running dispute over control of the town government, pave the way for Braxton to take over as the town’s first Black mayor and allow the seating of a new city council.

“I’m pleased with the outcome and the community is pleased. I think they are more pleased that they can voice their opinion and vote,” Braxton, 57, said Monday.

Newbern, a tiny town of 133 people about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Selma, has a mayor-council government but has not held elections for six decades. Instead, town officials were “hand-me-down” positions with the mayor appointing a successor and the successor appointing council members, according to the lawsuit filed by Braxton and others. That practice resulted in an overwhelmingly white government in a town where Black residents outnumber white residents by a 2-1 margin.

Braxton, a Black volunteer firefighter, in 2020 qualified to run for the non-partisan position of mayor. Since he was the only person to run, he became the town’s mayor elect. He appointed a town council as other mayors have done. But Braxton said he faced a series of obstacles when trying to take office.

Braxton and others alleged in a lawsuit against Newbern that town officials “conspired to prevent the first Black mayor from exercising the duties and powers of his new job” and to thwart the town's first majority-Black council from being seated. They said the locks were changed on town hall and officials refused to give Braxton access to town bank accounts. The lawsuit alleged the outgoing council held a secret meeting to set up a special election and “fraudulently re-appointed themselves as the town council.”

Town officials had denied wrongdoing. Before agreeing to settle the case, the defendants maintained in court filings that Braxton’s claim to be mayor was “invalid” and the special election was proper.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Braxton will return as the town’s major and will be immediately granted access to town hall. All other “individuals holding themselves out as town officials will effectively resign and/or cease all responsibilities with respect to serving in any town position or maintaining any town property or accounts," according to the proposal.

The Newbern city council positions will be filled either by appointment or special election. Braxton will submit names for Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, to appoint. If the appointments are not made, a special election will be held to fill the positions.

The town will hold municipal elections in 2025.

The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, which represents Braxton and his council appointees, declined to comment. An email sent to a lawyer representing the defendant in the lawsuit was not immediately returned.

The Associated Press