I was amazed by Doug Jones’ victory over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race Tuesday. I should not have been. I had put on my blinders and forgotten not only how appalling Moore’s story was, but how powerful Jones’ biography would be with a full third of the Alabama electorate – African-Americans ― whose votes powered him to victory.
I date myself when I say that I had just started college when the horrifying news of the bomb blast at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church hit the front pages in September 1963. We simply didn’t have domestic bombings in the United States. And one that killed four young girls in a church? Unthinkable. For years thereafter I was reminded of the events by Joan’s Baez’s haunting song, “Birmingham Sunday.” But I didn’t think of it as my story, in the way that someone from Alabama might.
I accepted as the way things were that those who planted the bomb would not be brought to justice – for there was no justice in the deep south in 1963 for African Americans who struggled for their rights and the promise of our democracy. I was angry, but I didn’t expect any better. I didn’t know that the FBI knew all along who had committed the crime – they had wiretapped an apartment where one of the bombers had told his wife about the plot. But I would not have been surprised.
Fourteen years later, more than a decade after African-Americans began voting in Alabama for the first time since Reconstruction, but before the state elected its first modern African-American member of Congress, Alabama’s Attorney General, Bill Baxley, brought the first of the Birmingham bombers, Bob Chambliss, to justice. (As a young man, Jones was in the courtroom for Baxley’s closing argument.) Baxley obtained a conviction, but the FBI still refused to release most of its evidence. In the 1986 Alabama gubernatorial race to replace George Wallace, Baxley garnered an overwhelming African-American vote in the primary, was awarded the nomination by a court, but lost the general election to Republican Guy Hunt. Baxley’s primary vote underscored the sustaining emotional power of Birmingham Sunday for Alabamans. Justice still remained undone.
More than 20 years later, as a U.S. Attorney, Jones reopened the case against the remaining Birmingham bombers, Klan members Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., and Bobby Frank Cherry. For the first time the FBI tapes and documents which had remained sealed were released; Jones obtained the convictions that finally did justice to the Birmingham victims.
The media coverage of Jones’ campaign for the Senate unfailingly acknowledged his role in bringing justice to the Birmingham bombers. But neither the media nor I remembered how powerfully those events had resonated in Alabama, or how likely they were to set up a very large African-American turnout – especially once Moore’s catastrophic scandals made the race close, and leaders like Senator Corey Booker and Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham energized Alabama’s African American community until, to quote Martin Luther King “justice rolled down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Jones is the newest member of the U.S. Senate ― the first Democrat in over 20 years to win that office in Alabama. And he did so because African-Americans put him there. Exit polls showed that 94-97 percent of the black vote went for Jones. At the polls, Alabama African-Americans outvoted the white majority as a percentage of the electorate. In one heavily black county, Greene, off-year, special election turnout was 78 percent of that in the 2016 presidential race. In heavily white counties that broke for Moore, turnout was only half what it had been in 2016. This turn out took place in the face of intense voter suppression efforts addressed at African-Americans, in the absence of a top of the ticket face like Barack Obama, and on behalf a white Senate candidate.
If there is a lesson here, it may be that yes, issues matter. But people are ultimately creatures of story, and story matters more – especially when the story has the emotional power of Birmingham Sunday. We should remember this when we assume that redemption is no longer available.