The political event of the season in the land of George Wallace, Selma and Bull Connor this year is a meeting of blacks - the Alabama Democratic Conference.
It was held over the weekend in a Baptist church on the edge of town that belonged to a white congregation until a few years ago. But the church and the neighborhood around it have changed.
So, belatedly, has the politics of race in Alabama. Scores of white politicians - many of whom wouldn't have been caught dead in such a meeting 15 years ago - climbed over one another unabashedly courting the favor of blacks.
Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley proudly passed out "Jere Beasley's Record on Black Involvement" pamphlets fresh off the press. It was the first time anyone remembered a white politician here doing that.
Howell Heflin, a distinguished former judge who is running for the Senate, and a half dozen other pols served up free booze in hospitality suites at the Downtowner Hotel. And candidates for every major state office snapped up $25-a-head seats to the Kennedy-Johnson-King dinner like they were tickets on the last train to salvation.
The same thing has happened in almost every state in the Old South during the last decade. But for Alabama, it was a watershed event, symbolic of the passing of the George Wallace era.
The reason was pure and simple. With Wallace off the political stage for the first time in two decades and every major state office up for grabs, Alabama's black voters are in the catbird's seat for the first time.
The leaders of the ADC, the state's black political caucus, know it. The politicians know it.
"There are a lot of careers that are going to be made or broken here," public service commission candidate Jim Folsom Jr., the 29-year-old son of former governor "Big Jim" Folsom, said as he waited in a steamy hallway at the Beulah Baptist Church. "Endorsements here will decide who makes the runoff and who doesn't."
Even those without a prayer of winning a formal nod didn't dare stay away. "I don't have any illusions that this group will endorse me," one gubernatorial candidate said. "But I want to at least demonstrate the courtesy of asking."
ADC Chairman Joe Reed, who like many of the 500 blacks at the meeting was arrested during lunch counter sit ins in the 1960s, couldn't have been more pleased with his role as power broker.
"What we're seeing is a lot of people getting political religion," he said. "There's one thing politicians love and that's votes. And they don't count color in the ballot box."
The ADC was formed in 1960 to rally black votes for the Kennedy-Johnson presidential ticket. But at that time only 14 percent of the state's blacks, effectively disenfranchised by the state constitution, were registered to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 changed that. Today more than 300,000 blacks are registered to vote, about 24 percent of the state's total, forming Alabama's largest voting bloc. Reed claims his organization can deliver about 80 percent of them to the candidates of its choice.
The ADC has endorsed candidates before. But it did so in semisecret, rarely announcing its choices. "The candidates didn't want us to tell anyone," Reed said. "They thought it would be the kiss of death for them."
Indeed, when the ADC quietly got behind then-governor Albert Brewer in the 1970 gubernatorial campaign, the Wallace campaign took out newspaper ads proclaiming:
"If you want to save Alabama as we know Alabama, remember the bloc vote [Negroes and their white friends] nearly nominated Gov. Brewer on May 5. This black and white social alliance must not dominate the people of Alabama. This spotted alliance must be stopped."
Wallace narrowly won that election, keeping his presidential hopes alive. "When you boil it down, it was the rednecks versus the niggers and the Jaycees," a Brewer aide told one reporter at the time. "Even in 1970, there are still more of them than us."
Brewer is back this year as a candidate for governor. But things are different. Wallace, for the first time in 20 years, is not a candidate, setting the stage for a new kind of politics in the state.
With the death of Sen. James B. Allen and the retirement of Sen. John J. Sparkman, who has represented Alabama in the Senate or the House since 1937, two Senate seats are open as well as the governorship and seven other statewide offices.
Sixty-five candidates are battling for the Democratic nominations in the Sept. 5 primary. There's hardly an incumbent among them, giving the state its most wide-open political year in history.
Voters have responded with collective boredom.
"When I entered the race I had the notion that Alabama would say to itself. 'We're ready for a big change and we want to be careful about it,'" says state Sen. Sid McDonald, one of the five top candidates in the governor's race. "But I discovered that after all of us were out there campaigning that the public was yawning at us."
"At first I blamed this on apathy and the summer heat," he continued. "But a big part of it is cymicism about the whole system of government. People think government is going to go its own and nobody is going to change it."
This may make the black vote all the more crucial in the governor's race, which is expected to go into a runoff on Sept. 26.
Brewer, who became governor when Lurleen Wallace died of cancer, entered the race as the early favorite, followed by Attorney General Bill Baxley, a colorful populist, and Lt. Gov. Beasley. Two millionaire businessmen, McDonald and Fob James, a former Auburn All-America football hero who made a fortune in the barbell industry, were given an outside chance.
Cornelia Wallace initially entered the race but withdrew, saying she had been unable to raise enough money for a credible campaign because her former husband refused to endorse her.
Gov. Wallace's name seldom, if ever, comes up on the campaign trail. Candidates talk about him only in code words, fearing a direct attack on the still popular governor might damage them. Beasley, for instance, tells crowds, "This election is the most important one in our liftetime. While other states around us are moving forward, Alabama is treading water."
But when pressed on what he thinks about the governor, he softens."Wallace was just the best politician to come along in a long time," he says.
Beasley and Baxley are making the most overt pitch for the black vote. Both appeared before the national convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. formed out of the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s.
"I'm not going to tell you I'm perfect," Beasley said. "I say to you, 'Let he without sin cast the first stone.There isn't a white politician in this state without sin when it comes to blacks."
Baxley, a fiery orator, appeared in a polo shirt. He talked to the SCLC meeting about hiring more black profesionals in his office than any state attorney general in the country, cementing an alliance between poor whites and poor blacks and how Alabama had "made more progress in the 13 years since the Voting Rights Act than in the previous 200 years." But he didn't mention his best entree into the black community - his successful prosecution of a former Ku Klux Klansman in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four schoolchildren.
The ADC came up with its endorsement of Baxley three days later. It also backed former state Supreme Court Judge Heflin for Sparkman's Senate seat, and gave a dual endorsement for Allen's Senate seat to his wife, now Sen. Maryon Allen, and state Sen. Donald Stewart.
"It's an important endorsement . . . In a crowded field like this, the endorsement could very well put someone in the runoff," Brewer said earlier.
"It wasn't this way a few years ago. I remember the first big decision we had to make in the 1970 race [against Wallace]," he said. "My staff came to me all worried and asked, 'Are we going to put bumper stickers on the cars of blacks?' I said, 'Go ahead.' But I guess we were the first even to do that."