The epic victory of Doug Jones against Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race is proof once again that Black voters are the Democratic Party’s most reliable, enthusiastic and loyal voting bloc.
For his upset win, Jones owes Black Alabama big-time, in a state steeped in civil rights history, yet one in dire need of racial justice and redemption.
Mobilized and enthusiastic, the base of the Democratic Party in Alabama demonstrated what can happen when voters of color unite with millennials, women and woke white folks to decide that a dirty old man who had staked out his claim to the legacy of white supremacy will not have a seat in the U.S. Senate–this time.
Black turnout was high, with Black voters exceeding their numbers in the general population and clocking in at 29 percent of voters, just like the 2012 and 2008 elections when President Obama was on the ballot. And 96 percent of African Americans cast their ballot for Jones, in line with their 95 percent support for Obama in 2012.
Jones marketed himself to Black folks based on his role as a federal prosecutor who came for two Klansmen responsible for the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, also known as Bombingham. That 1963 domestic terror attack left four little Black girls dead. The tragic event was a flashpoint in the civil rights movement and helped usher in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Alabama holds a special place in the history of the civil rights movement. This is where the Montgomery Bus Boycott took place, the march from Selma to Montgomery and the police and Klan assault on peaceful protesters known as “Bloody Sunday.” Civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was gunned down like a dog by the Klan on her way from Montgomery to Selma in 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he articulated nonviolent civil disobedience, spoke of the moral duty to break unjust laws, and the moderate white clergy who insisted that he slow things down.
Alabama gave birth to George Wallace, who as governor was a stalwart guardian of white supremacy and segregation; Bull Connor, the Birmingham police commissioner who used fire hoses and police dogs on Black children, and Jim Clark, the sheriff in Selma known for violent confrontations with civil rights demonstrators.
That’s a lot of history in Alabama, with heroes and villains playing their respective roles. This recent special election is proof that there is a battle between the old South and the new South, the Alabama of slavery and Jim Cow segregation against the Alabama of the twenty-first century.
Only one of them can win.
Charles Barkley, who while stumping for Jones told Alabama to “stop looking like idiots to the nation,” reflected positively on the Jones win, but with a warning. “I’m so proud of my state. I love my state. We got some amazing people here. Yeah, we got a bunch of rednecks and a bunch of ignorant people, but we got some amazing people here and they rose up today,” Barkley said on CNN.
Barkley also took Democrats to task for taking Black voters for granted “for a long time,” adding, “it’s time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for Black folks and people who are poor.”
The Equal Justice Initiative is opening a lynching memorial and a museum exploring African-American history from enslavement to mass incarceration in Montgomery next year, a reflection of past demons and the evils of excessive punishment and police violence that simply won’t go away.
Alabama has the highest incarceration rate in America and the fifth highest in the world. It is no surprise that whites are underrepresented in Alabama prisons, and Black people are overrepresented and make up the majority of those incarcerated.
And although the historic civil rights legislation was enacted over fifty years ago–due in no small measure to the martyrs who shed blood for racial justice and equal rights in Alabama–the voting rights of Black Alabamans are still under assault.
The state enacted a strict voter ID law designed to depress turnout among “’aborigines’ and ‘illiterates’ who would ride ‘H.U.D.-financed buses ‘ to the polls” and had closed 31 DMV locations, mostly in Black communities, to make it harder for them to obtain the necessary government-issued identification.
Despite the Doug Jones win, voter suppression still took place on Election Day, with long lines, sometimes as much as a two-hour wait, and some eligible voters erroneously turned away from the polls.
Alabama is taking a leadership role in voter suppression of Black folks. John Merrill, Alabama’s secretary of state who was a co-sponsor of the Alabama voter-ID law and defended the DMV closings, has tried to restrict voting rights. He has not promoted early voting, and has failed to inform ex-felons of their right to vote.
“If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege,” Merrill said, showing anger toward those who “think they deserve the right because they’ve turned 18.”
“As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state,” Merrill pledged.
Moreover, racial gerrymandering has ensured that Alabama has six white Republican members of Congress in bright red districts, and only one Black Democrat, and a supermajority in the state legislature.
This is the redneck foolishness still going on in Alabama. And this is why Doug Jones was elected.
Some pundits have urged the newly-minted senator to go the moderate-to-conservative route, and play nice with Trump and the Republicans if he wants to get reelected. But that is a tactic in the old failed Democratic Party playbook of ignoring the base, especially voters of color, for the purposes of chasing after the elusive white Republican votes.
An autopsy of the 2016 election cited Dems for its self-inflicted wounds, of not addressing the needs of voters of color, turning off Black women, and not standing up against institutionalized racism and economic injustice because “they’re afraid to alienate big funders or to harm future job or consulting prospects.”
This mentality gave Trump an opening in 2016 with his fake economic populism.
The November election results across the country, and the diversity of candidates who won, is a testament to what can happen when inspiring candidates run with a bold, progressive agenda and grassroots organizing, rather than run as GOP-lite. This is why Doug Jones won in Alabama, as he was a part of this new wave.
The Doug Jones victory was not supposed to happen in the reddest of red states, and yet here we are. Black voters brought him to this place, and he can’t forget how he got here.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove.