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Something’s Cooking Down in Alabama

There’s a stew of social change starting to bubble, and things are about to get interesting.

In early April, a cheeky Alabama anti-racist activist group threatened to shit on the Confederacy—almost literally.

The anonymous organization, calling themselves White Lies Matter, pilfered a Jefferson Davis Memorial Chair from a cemetery in Selma, Alabama. They then attempted to ransom the Confederate artifact from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the group who owns it. White Lies Matter demanded the UDC hang a banner bearing a quote from Black radical (and Tupac’s godmother) Assata Shakur outside its Richmond, Virginia headquarters that reads: “The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives.”

If the UDC didn’t play ball, White Lies Matter said they’d use the ex-Confederacy president’s faux throne as a toilet. “Jefferson Davis doesn’t need it anymore. He’s long dead,” the group wrote in their ransom email. “Like most Confederate monuments, it mostly exists to remind those (whose) freedom had to be purchased in blood that there still exists a portion of our country that is more than willing to continue to spill blood to avoid paying that debt down.”

Besides the hilarious stunt, White Lies Matter isn’t wrong. The Confederacy may be long gone, but reactionary conservatism continues to permeate the fabric of life here in the Deep South like the humidity that soaks your clothes every summer. The systems of oppression have simply disguised themselves with new symbols to keep pace with the times: from the Confederate battle flag to the Alabama state flag to the MAGA flag.

Yet Alabama also has a proud history of resistance from the left—from the ex-slaves who established Union Leagues during Reconstruction to the Black Communists fighting for the emancipation of labor during the Great Depression to the radicals that made the state the capital of the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s. In the months since racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder spread across the country, that agitation is reaching new heights again. This moment feels like an inflection point in the Southern state’s history, a moment where the inextricably bound twin powers of white supremacy and class exploitation are being contested.

Alabama’s Blue State Blues

Because politics tends to be reduced to the two-colored prism of party identification, that’s the question the media has posed since Georgia swung toward Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats in 2020 after being shaded red for decades. The thinking goes something like this: Alabama’s demographics are changing. The Black population (26.8 percent) is double that of the U.S. as a whole, and it’s growing. Plus the number of non-white immigrants is on the rise, doubling over the last decade.

There’s regional precedent to consider as well. If Georgia could capitalize on political organizing and demographic changes to break the GOP’s vise-like grip on the Deep South, why can’t their neighbor to the west follow suit?  “Georgia going blue gives Alabama hope,” State Rep. Merika Coleman told AL.com. “We’re right next door—close enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Not so fast. 

Democrat Doug Jones lost his Senate bid in November 2020, and Donald Trump handily won the state with 62 percent of the vote, a margin essentially unchanged from 2016. Parts of the state are still solidly Trump country, though he was voted out of office months ago. When I drive to suburban Baldwin County from my home in Mobile, I see plenty of MAGA flags still stubbornly flying high.

And while everyone’s attention has been laser-focused on Georgia’s retrograde voting law proposal, the GOP-dominated Alabama legislature seems intent on one-upping them. They’ve spent the first few months of 2021 banning curbside voting and passing an amendment to the state constitution that prevents election laws from changing within six months of a general election. In other words, they’re tying their own hands behind their back to keep voting difficult in case of, say, a global pandemic or something. 

Also on the docket: criminalizing street protests, arresting doctors who treat transgender teens, and cracking down on cities that try to decrease local police budgets. There’s also a proposal to strengthen a three-year-old law punishing cities for taking down old monuments to preserve Confederate statues. Another bill would make it illegal to add contextualizing text to any memorial, blocking historians from (for example) adding a placard to a Robert E. Lee statue clarifying that he was a racist asshole. No wonder the ACLU is sounding the alarm bells; this is Trump’s culture war agenda retrofitted into state law. 

Perhaps the only consolation prize from the last year of Alabama electoral politics was Jeff Sessions’ teary-eyed concession speech, delivered in an empty downtown Mobile hotel after losing the Republican primary to Tommy Tuberville in Sessions’ bid to reclaim his old Senate seat. No one represented the previous generation of austerity-minded bigots like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Trump’s former attorney general, who boasted a Congressional voting record that would make Barry Goldwater blush. Considering that Sessions has been making life here worse since Reagan appointed him as a U.S. Attorney 40 years ago, it was good to see him go.

But Sessions didn’t get the boot because most voters saw him as too right-wing; they perceived him as insufficiently pro-Trump. Trump even planned a fuck-you campaign stop in Sessions’ hometown last July to endorse Tuberville, just to spite his former cabinet member-turned-pariah. But after the president’s much-hyped Omaha event resulted in Trump ranting to a lot of empty seats he scrapped it, blaming it on the COVID surge at the time.

In the end, Alabama traded one reactionary senator for another, this time in the form of a lugheaded former football coach who mostly campaigned on the credentials of being the biggest Trump fanboy ever. On deck is Congressman Mo Brooks, a Fox News fave who—in the days before the Capitol riot— hyped it as the sequel to the Alamo where the Stop the Steal rally goers would stand in for Davy Crockett and crew. 

Don’t look for the Democratic Party to put up much of a fight against Brooks. The Alabama Democratic Party (ADP) has had just one statewide victory since 2008, and that was in no small part because Doug Jones, a moderate Democrat, was running against an accused child molester. Structurally, the party apparatus is a shitshow. In recent years, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) withheld the $10,000-a-month in funding it typically sends to every state party because they missed deadlines to hold new leadership elections and bring party bylaws into compliance. Chairman Tom Perez described the ADP as “chronically underperforming in virtually every aspect of operation.” 

Even if the ADP managed to straighten up, Alabama still lacks the Peach State’s blue wave potential because of its lack of Democrat-friendly urban areas and—by proxy—suburbs. Georgia’s political transformation didn’t happen just because Stacey Abrams waved a magic wand. One of the top factors, says FiveThirtyEight, was that Atlanta’s rapidly growing population of college-educated suburban moderates swung hard toward the Democrats in 2020.

In the 2020 election, the urban-rural divide that’s defined the last generation of politics only intensified. Cities and suburbs overwhelmingly went for Joe Biden and exurbs and rural areas opted for Trump. Alabama’s four biggest cities—Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and Huntsville—aren’t exactly major metropolises. “Alabama doesn’t have a major city like Atlanta,” Timothy Lombardo, an assistant professor of history at the University of South Alabama, told me. But that doesn’t mean the state is ready to sit back on its ass and wait for long-term demographic change or the beneficence of elected officials.

A Revolution That Won’t Fire a Shot

In Alabama, like always, the pressure is coming from below. It began in earnest last summer, as street protests that burst out of Minneapolis soon engulfed the whole country. Starting on Memorial Day, long-standing Confederate monuments that survived the Civil Rights Movement toppled like dominos.

In Birmingham, demonstrators pulled down a statue of a Confederate blockade runner in Linn Park. A day later, the city removed another Confederate monument that had been standing since 1905. When the Attorney General demanded the city pay a $25,000 fine for violating the Memorial Preservation Act, a multiracial grassroots organization of Birmingham clergy raised more than $60,000 on GoFundMe to pay for it.

That’s remarkable considering this was the city once nicknamed “Bombingham” for the racially motivated bombings of Black homes. 60 years ago, Alabama governor George Wallace threw himself in a Birmingham doorway to protest the University of Alabama’s first Black students’ enrollment. His wife, Governor Lurleen Wallace, who succeeded George as governor in 1967, issued an executive order forcing the school to play “Dixie” and to display the Confederate flag at all home football games. 

Likewise, a Robert E. Lee monument disappeared in Montgomery, Alabama—the Confederacy’s original capital and the site for Wallace’s pledge of “segregation forever” in 1963. In Mobile, a Confederate admiral who’d stood atop a pedestal downtown for 120 years was stuffed away into a history museum following a demonstration that was cut short by tear gas thrown by police. Now the city is busy constructing a visitor center in nearby Africatown to turn the remains of the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have brought captured Africans to America in 1860, into a tourist attraction that shines a bright light on a long obscured part of Alabama’s past.

This kind of social revolt is not just happening in the big cities. In the small town of Albertville, Alabama, a group of protesters calling themselves Reclaiming Our Time have opposed the display of Confederate iconography at the Marshall County Courthouse. In December 2020, they placed fake body bags on the courthouse lawn to evoke the slaves owned by John Marshall, the former U.S. Chief Justice who the county is named after. They recently purchased a billboard on a street that runs through Albertville that reads: “Take Down the Rebel Flag. White supremacy deserves no honor.”

Nor is the resistance limited just to symbols of the past. For years, local environmental advocacy groups have opposed rural Alabama being a prime stop for the so-called “poop train”— imported sewage from New York. Others are organizing against Alabama Power Company’s plans to store toxic coal ash alongside Alabama’s rivers. 

Steelworkers in Muscle Shoals went on strike for four weeks starting in December 2020 before settling on a new five-year collective bargaining deal. About 1,100 coal mine workers in West Alabama followed suit in mid-April, striking over claims of unfair labor practices for several days before reaching a tentative agreement with Warrior Met Coal. Montgomery teachers formed a rank-and-file safety committee in January to oppose schools’ unsafe reopening and demand more access to vaccines. “Why are nonessential workers, including teachers, forced to work to feed the insatiable demands of Wall Street?” the committee wrote. 

And perhaps most famously, for months the center of the labor organizing universe wasn’t Chicago or Atlanta—it was Bessemer, Alabama. Around 5,000 Amazon workers in the Black-majority suburb of Birmingham attempted to unionize one of the tech giant’s factories for the first time ever. The vote failed, sadly, but the organizers aren’t ready to lay down quite yet. The union is working to get the results thrown out, filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board saying that Amazon illegally interfered with the process.

It’s too soon to count Bessemer—or anywhere in Alabama—out completely.

Not a Lost Cause

To describe the backward politics of the southern tip of the Land of Lincoln, Chicago Magazine once concocted the term “Illibama” as in a portmanteau of Illinois and Alabama. Rural, poor, evangelical, Trump-loving Republican—that’s Alabama, right? 

“All I know from Alabama is what I see in the movies,” British comedian Gina Yashere joked on a recent episode of Netflix’s Standups. “I treated Alabama the way white people treat Africa the first time. Wow, they have electricity and teeth.”

But the problem with liberals relying on negative stereotypes about the people who live here is that they implicitly agree with Jeff Sessions’ assessment of it. It’s all “churchgoing, hardworking Republicans,” as he described in that concession speech mentioned above. However, it’s not as if all the Black people or anti-racist or anti-capitalist political struggles died in Alabama with Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. Rev. Gregory Bentley, president of Huntsville’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter, recently described the Bessemer union battle as a continuation of the broader fight for equality.

“This is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” Bentley said, noting Martin Luther King’s support of Memphis’ striking sanitation workers. “We thank God for those who came before us and who paved the way and carved out some space for us to maneuver in. But we have to serve the present age, to make sure it comes to full expression.”

In other words, Alabama is emerging as an unexpected capital of the American struggle against capitalism and white supremacy, just as it was a half-century ago. Indeed, the old regime continues to flex its muscles and exercise its massive power in electoral politics. Stand in the right place, however, and you can see cracks widening in its foundation. 

And if White Lies Matter has their way, maybe a bit of shit as well.

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