A Black Victory: Organizing in Alabama and What’s Possible in New Jersey

This morning, I dropped in on a couple of conversations among very smart New Jerseyans about how awful Alabama still is. Scorn for ‘Alabama apologists who say things like this: “This proves that Alabama isn’t about Roy Moore and his bigotry.” Yes, nearly half the state (48.4%) voted for Moore, a bigoted asshole banned from the local mall for preying on teenage girls. A fair point. But it’s an uncritical one; it confirms our blue-state,giver-state, Northeastern conceit (which I have as bad as anybody). But it doesn’t move us forward.

What does move us forward? I would argue both the lessons of the Alabama win, and the inspiration of what happened yesterday there. We don’t know yet if Moore can force a recount (I doubt it, though he refuses to concede). But this is a day to let Alabama wash over us, to take the lessons where we can find them, and to revel in the fact that what black people did there last night is magnificent. Let’s be grateful.

How did they do it? Yesterday, in a readable Twitter thread, Al Giordano walked through Mobile, Alabama NAACP’s breathtaking ground game; what got done that just didn’t in 2016. Massive outreach to every voter who didn’t vote in 2016. Canvassers everywhere. Well-organized rides to the polls. Registering incarcerated people. Close work with Alabama’s faith community. Damn fine coalition building, in readable Tweet form. In NJ, for 2018, we’re called on to raise up our expectations. We’re called to imagine how faith-based organizing with the NAACP can center black voices, while also asking how progressivism can adapt and be accessible to rural voters. That’s what Stephen Danley’s ongoing Rural Progressivism series is about, looking for ways to build progressive coalitions, led by local people on the issues that matter to them, in areas where progressives can feel isolated. And it’s how Democratic candidate Laura Shaw helped fuel a progressive groundswell in crimson LD23. Read her Lessons for Flipping Congress … From a Rural Area in New Jersey. It’s great.

Yes, Alabama is still Alabama. But don’t underestimate this: By exit polls, 96% of blacks in Alabama voted for Jones  – and 98% of black women. And blacks are 31% of the population. I agree there is still so much awful – and Moore is a throwback to the old, awful South. But he was rejected.

Part of the great news of last night is black people seizing an election.

Think of the CYCLE of it: 

Fifty-four years ago, the last century’s worst murders in Alabama, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing – which killed Carol (11), Addie Mae, Cynthia and Carole (all 14) and injured 22 others, including dismemberments.

Birmingham Children’s Crusade 1963

That church – That’s where the civil rights meetings were, the safe place where people could meet, and bring their families along, and organize the things that used to get you killed in Alabama, like registering people to vote. Where SCLC trained the Children’s Crusade students, who met police firehoses, batons and dogs with powerful non-violent resistance. When he was in Birmingham, this is where Dr. King was; don’t forget the bombing was just 18 days after the March on Washington. Where the trainings were to get black people registered, to vote their own futures. In 1963, hardly any black people in Birmingham could vote. So many attempts to intimidate, threaten and harm black people organizing to vote, the city was called Bombingham. But this was the first that killed people.

The murder of those girls changed everything. Within 2 years, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, making literacy tests and poll taxes illegal. Providing a policy underpinning for so much of what the civil rights movements was about. Not that it fixed it all; voter suppression continues. Six years ago, Alabama began requiring photo ID at the polls, same time it closed the drivers license bureaus in 8 of the 10 counties where the highest percentage of black people live. NAACP said that one act disenfranchised more than 100,000 people – mostly black and Latino.

Back to the church: 40 years after the crime, the bad old South is aware the KKK mostly got away with what they did in the 1960s. But – the FBI reopens the case. And Doug Jones sends two Klanners to prison, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., and Bobby Frank Cherry.

And last night, nearly every black person in Alabama used their vote – that vote the KKK tried to steal from them – to reject Moore, a racist who smells like the bad old South. Who did they use that vote for? The guy who sent Klanners to jail, for killing little girls, and trying to stop them from voting.

Vote they did. I think this is incredibly significant, in terms of history. Alabama’s in my blood today. History is. And things are looking up. But only if we, like Alabama, do things we didn’t do in 2016. What I mean, take it easy, but take it. 

Oh, and this. And, oh my, also: THIS.


Photo credits: Cory Booker, Doug Jones & Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama (Jim Watson). Doug Jones victory party (John Bazemore/AP)




Comment (1)

  1. Stephen Danley

    I’ve been thinking about this — and the PICO reorganization in New Jersey. I was familiar with the former PICO affiliate (Camden Churches Organized for People) but am less familiar with the newer efforts to organize through faith-based communities. Could be really important in 2018 and beyond.


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