Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Houston's Third Ward braces for state redistricting plans


The Justice Department is accusing Texas Republicans of drawing a congressional map that illegally discriminates against non-white voters. The state's population has grown since the last census, and a lot of that growth is because of brown and Black people, who tend to vote Democratic. Yet the new congressional districts create more safe seats for House Republicans. One neighborhood that's felt the brunt of this is Houston's Third Ward a historically Black neighborhood where Reverend Don Odom Jr. is social justice ministry leader of the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Reverend Odom, thanks for being here.

DON ODOM JR: Thank you, Ari. Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: First, describe the Third Ward for people who've never been there. What's it like?

ODOM: So Third Ward is a historic community. It is on the outside of downtown Houston. And downtown Houston is broken up and surrounded by urban wards. So at one time, Fifth Ward and Third Ward were the cultural epicenters of Black Houston. And it is the congressional seat of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. So we are the picture of the Black backbone of the Democratic Party, so to speak, from a voting bloc standpoint.

SHAPIRO: And how would that change under the new map that the Texas Republicans want to implement and the Justice Department has challenged?

ODOM: So that they made a deliberate effort to break up Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's seat, and the attempt is to pit her against Al Green, who is another Black African American congressman from the city. And it guts the pockets of voters that would, you know, carry the day. It looks like they sat and had a plan to say, OK, let's take these voters and move them here. And it essentially almost waters down the vote and it takes away the voice. It disenfranchises a majority of the people in our community. Now, there's been a big pushback about this particular district, and so people are angry. You know, we've feared this moment, and it has come upon us, so to speak.

ODOM: I think on a national level, people might think about this in terms of the raw numbers of Democrats versus Republicans in Congress. On a local level, what would it mean for this to change?

ODOM: Well, I think that the fear was that, you know, it seeks to take away the voice. It seeks to take away the opportunity for us to speak with our vote. And in order to push through legislature - that the need is to take away any kind of opposition as opposed to how democracy is supposed to work, which is you listen to your constituents. And the check and balance in our country is if you are in public office and you run rampant and you pass laws that don't benefit the people or you are scandalous in office, we as citizens who put you there can vote you out. So the feeling is we're being silenced so that there is no accountability.

SHAPIRO: This is now being fought in the courts. What does the fight look like in the neighborhoods, the churches, the streets of Houston?

ODOM: You know, we focus on these things because it affects us. And then there's a history of just knowing that it's the right thing and playing defense. And I feel that there are people that are afraid, you know. They're nervous when there continues to be this effort to prevent us from voting. And the attitude has been, OK, this is what they've done. Let's figure out, you know, what the changes are, what the parameters are, what our dates are, what our deadlines are. And historically, Ari, Black people have always had to jump on one leg and, you know, and hold another in the air and pat our stomach. You know, just to get by, we've always had to check every box, cross every T, dot every I. And that's what we have to do now. And I continue to say that what makes this country the greatest in the world is as mad as they will be and as many court cases as they'll throw, elections have consequences, at least for now in this country. And so as long as that's the case, we have a voice and an opportunity to say enough is enough.

SHAPIRO: Reverend Don Odom Jr. is social justice ministry leader of the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston. Thank you for talking with us.

ODOM: Thank you, Ari. And thank you for including this side of the story. Very grateful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ayen Bior
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.