The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The battle for Alabama’s soul

Alabama’s flag is a giant crimson X — the St. Andrew’s cross, that’s almost a pentimento of the Confederate flag. (Rob Dobi/For The Washington Post)

FLORENCE, Ala. — This handsome north Alabama town, population 40,428, boasts two nationally acclaimed fashion designers of luxury togs, two boutique hotels, two hipster coffee shops, a regional state university, a Frank Lloyd Wright house, a sustainably sourced restaurant with a celebrated bourbon program, and an annual Shindig cultural festival in late August drawing Jack White and other artistic and artisanal talents near the verdant banks of the Tennessee River.

Florence voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in the 2017 special election, in a county that went Republican both times. The town holds an annual Pride parade and, this year, painted downtown crosswalks in rainbow hues. For a Juneteenth celebration, activists projected images of Dred and Harriet Scott onto the Lauderdale County courthouse near the Confederate war statue. They hope to erect a permanent “monument to justice,” not eradicating the past but amending it.

On a Monday night — Monday night! — downtown is packed with the young and inked. Several residents describe Florence as “a slice of Brooklyn” — that is, if Brooklyn was plunked in a Southern state dominated by evangelical Christians, where almost two-thirds of the electorate supported Donald Trump.

Some Alabamians yearn to craft a fresh portrait of their state of almost 4.9 million as it observes its bicentennial year, one that moves beyond the tired Heart of Dixie tropes, crimson-red college football zealotry and antiquated tendencies mired in its bloody past.

Yet, there’s plenty that inhabitants are less inclined to promote. Alabama has been in the news of late. Indeed, Alabama can’t stop being in the news.

The impending abortion ban, a state prison system in crisis, persistent inequality and, last month, the return of embattled former chief justice Roy Moore in another potential doozy of a Senate race. These developments, liberals argue, are hurtling Alabama back toward its heritage of hurt and injustice. They’re embarrassed for the home they love, one that they’ve worked so hard to fix.

“There’s such a creative energy in the state,” says fashion designer Billy Reid, the Shindig’s genial host, sitting in his natty store on North Court Street. “How can we bring it back to that narrative?”

Invariably, liberals mention the space pioneers of Huntsville, the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, the musical legacy of Muscle Shoals and the searing National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial, which confronts the trauma and legacy of lynching, opened in Montgomery in April 2018 and welcomed 400,000 visitors in its first year.

A powerful memorial in Montgomery remembers the victims of lynching

See, they tell you, technological advances, industrial progress, a joyful legacy, a reckoning.

What they don’t tend to share is the weight of history, the resistance to change, the cross that it bears — literally. Alabama’s flag is a giant crimson X, Saint Andrew’s Cross, that’s almost a pentimento of the Confederate flag. It’s like the wrong answer on a school test.

“A place that echoes with national wounds,” writes Princeton scholar and Alabama native Imani Perry.

“A kind of smog in the air that’s created by the history of slavery and lynching and segregation,” Bryan Stevenson, the peace memorial founder and the Equal Justice Initiative’s executive director, says in a new HBO documentary.

In May, the state passed the nation’s most comprehensive abortion ban, with no exceptions in cases of rape and incest, and up to 99 years imprisonment for doctors performing the procedure.

The bill, surely headed for a legal challenge, is so restrictive that it earned the censure of abortion foes televangelist Pat Robertson and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Twenty-five white, male Republican senators — the majority of the state chamber — voted for it. While the Republican governor, Kay Ivey, is female, there are only four women in the 35-member Senate — and only nine have served in its 200-year history.

Laws and court decisions can hark back to an earlier century. Alabama has been one of only two states that protect parental rights of convicted rapists. (The legislature recently decided that those rights would terminate starting in September.) Last week, a pregnant Birmingham woman was charged with manslaughter for the shooting of her fetus, while the woman who pulled the trigger went free.

“It is not easy being progressive in Alabama,” says activist KC Vick, a tattoo of the state on her left upper arm. Vick is a co-founder of Hometown Action, a power-building organization concentrated on small towns.

Many liberals feel the national Democratic Party has abandoned them — although Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala D. Harris recently campaigned in the state.

There’s little talk of an entertainment industry boycott in Alabama, as there is in Georgia, because, frankly, relatively few movies or television are made here.

Over the past two years, a tense political climate, abortion rights advocacy and Hulu's marketing have made the iconic red cape a symbol of protest. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

For nearly a century, Alabama was ruled by Democrats, most infamously George Wallace, the bantamweight pugilist of Barbour County who reigned as supreme governor for 16 years and a day.

Since 2010, Republicans have held a supermajority in both legislative chambers, and they control everything else, too, although not always well. In a year of unrelenting scandal, Gov. Robert Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Moore were suspended or forced out of their jobs.

The state government is centralized and byzantine by design. Its constitution requires the legislature to approve local laws and is believed to be the world’s lengthiest — more than 388,800 words, which is longer than “Bleak House.”

Last month, the state approved “chemical castration” for paroled sex offenders whose victims have been minors. Alabama has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates. Its prison system is among the most violent, with two dozen murders in two years; it was cited in a scathing Justice Department report for dangerous and unconstitutional conditions; and it faces potential federal takeover.

The House postponed voting on a bill that would have overhauled Alabama’s antiquated sex education curriculum, which teaches homosexuality is “not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public” and homosexual conduct is “a criminal offense.”

Alabama Public Television declined to air the same-sex rat-and-aardvark wedding episode of the animated PBS show “Arthur” — one of several gay-themed television programs banned from state airwaves during more than two decades. In protest, residents reenacted the nuptials at a Birmingham Methodist church, an effort to show the state and the nation that Alabama can accept change. But for many residents it’s a constant challenge, the damage inflicted almost weekly.

"They think we're a bunch of dumb rednecks. It's the story they're getting. It's not the truth," says David Hood, of how outsiders view Alabamians. Hood is a pioneer of the Muscle Shoals sound who played with Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones and provided the propulsive bass line on the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There."

“We have a lot of racism, but that’s true of the whole country,” Hood says in the tiny stone building at 3614 Jackson Highway visited by 50,000 people since the 2013 “Muscle Shoals” documentary. “There are crazy people, and there are ugly people everywhere.” The 2017 “S-Town” podcast, about a miserable eccentric, a burglary and sexual repression in Woodstock, Ala., did little to burnish the state’s image.

Alabama’s metrics are brutal. Among the nation’s worst for diabetes, obesity, infant mortality, literacy and the mother of all problems, poverty.

For decades, the state’s unofficial motto was “Thank God for Mississippi,” as in, at least we’re not doing as poorly as Mississippi.

Mention the lack of improvement in health, education and income to Alabamians, and smiles collapse, conversation fizzles.

“As far as actual change, the numbers don’t lie,” acknowledges Florence activist Camille Bennett, who helped organize the Juneteenth event that drew about 350 residents.

West Florence remains largely poor and black, filled with one-way streets that mysteriously dead-end. Crossing town to the more affluent white side is an obstacle course. A sparkling new apartment complex features a comically long driveway, two-thirds of a mile, separating it from the community.

Speaking out, voicing a dissenting opinion, is not always prudent. “A lot of black people live in fear,” says Airon Shaw, 25, who is black, a University of North Alabama graduate, legal secretary and activist with Florence’s racial justice organization Project Say Something. “They say, ‘You’re being too loud.’ They worry about the safety issues.”

In Alabama, Shaw says, “it’s ten steps backward, two steps forward. People are trying to work toward progress. To tell people, ‘No, we’re not all the same.’ ”

Patterson Hood of the band Drive-By Truckers, who’s David’s son, has written of “the duality of the Southern thing” and of “The Three Great Alabama Icons”: Wallace, Bear Bryant and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant, who’s actually from Florida but co-wrote the earworm “Sweet Home Alabama.”

“The thing about Alabama that people forget and don’t realize is there have always been people like me there. I’m not the only angry liberal from Alabama,” he says. “It’s one thing to be a liberal in a place where that’s considered cool. It’s another thing to be a lifelong liberal in a place like Florence, Alabama. You’ve got to mean it.”

Then again, Hood is an angry liberal from Alabama who lives in Portland, Ore.

“I fought leaving so hard for so long,” he says. But he left.

The Alabama Senate approved the nation’s toughest abortion ban May 14, outlawing virtually all abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post, Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/The Washington Post)

Linda Coleman-Madison is enough of an optimist to have served 12 years in the state Senate as a Democrat. There's always time to fix something. At age 69, she wears braces.

In May, she gained international attention as one of two female senators — and six overall — to oppose the abortion ban. “This bill is not about pro-life or the right to life,” she said from the Senate floor. “This bill is about control.”

The bill is also about how outsiders view Alabama, how Alabamians view themselves, as a place eliminating reproductive choice for women, as determined by white men. “It is about the women who have been constantly disenfranchised and devalued,” she says.

Coleman-Madison had just finished an interview with a Swedish television crew when we met in Kelly Ingram Park, a crucible of the civil rights movement in her home city of Birmingham. It is the square where public safety commissioner Bull Connor ordered cops to hose and unleash dogs on black protesters, where a German shepherd attacked black high school student Walter Gadsden. It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth preached civil disobedience against racial injustice. Sacred ground. Behind Coleman-Madison is the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls were murdered in a 1963 bombing, and which has become a top tourist destination.

“Alabama, as a whole, is not doing well,” Coleman-Madison says.

“You just put on your armor. You can’t take it personally,” she adds. “A lot has to do with keeping down people who are different. I want to learn from it. I don’t want to repeat it.”

In 2019, these things are happening because of the past, she says. “We haven’t still dealt with who we are and where we’ve come from.”

Birmingham, Alabamians revel, has become a hidden gem. Selma, not so much.

U.S. Highway 80 crosses into Selma via the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the white-arched span named for a Confederate brigadier general and grand dragon of the state Ku Klux Klan. The bridge is the site of the 1965 march on Bloody Sunday, when police billy-clubbed and gassed voting rights activists as they began their 54-mile march to Montgomery.

An annual “commemorative jubilee” crossing draws tourists, activists and presidential hopefuls. The bridge remains the town’s most famous attraction. Alabama is rich in monuments of its savage past.

Selma is poor, 80 percent black and largely unchanged since Bloody Sunday, devoid of hipster coffee shops or boutique hotels. It’s dead at midday.

Hank Sanders and Faya Ora Rose Touré moved here after Harvard Law School, a young, idealistic black couple bent on changing the ways of their home state.

Sanders told his wife they would stay five years, make a difference for poor black people, then move north to Harlem, where she wanted to live.

Forty-eight years later, they remain in Selma, running a law firm brimming in Afrocentric furnishings.

“We still haven’t made enough of a difference to leave,” says Sanders, who served in the state Senate for 35 years as a Democrat. “We’re just fighting the same battles one way or another. Transformation does not start at the top. It starts at the bottom.”

For almost two hours, in their massive conference space, Touré shares stories of her clients, mostly young black men, charged for questionable crimes and held in jail with staggering bonds of $1 million or more. She’s furious about the abortion bill but even more upset about the state’s poor children, “their lives aborted through broken dreams, broken promises, an inability to get a decent education, a decent job, a decent home.”

Touré’s been jailed for civil disobedience four or five times. She’s not sure. “Most of my arrests came post-civil rights because people stopped fighting,” she says.

She routinely plucks Confederate flags from Selma’s Old Live Oak Cemetery, which drips with Spanish moss. Touré was almost arrested for removing flags from the bust of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Klan’s first grand wizard, which reads, “Defender of Selma, Wizard of the Saddle, Untutored Genius, The First with the Most . . . One of the South’s finest heroes.”

The Forrest memorial was unveiled not in 1950 but 2000, 35 years after Bloody Sunday.

“These are people who committed treason, traitors to this country, and we can’t get memorials to people who fought in Selma for voting rights,” Touré says, leaning on her cane.

“I’m hopeful by nature. I believe that freedom is in the fight and victory is in the struggle,” she says. “As long as I’m fighting, I’m winning.”

Back in Florence, Kayla Sloan, a political activist with the Alabama Young Democrats and the LGBTQ advocacy organization Equity Shoals, sits in a cafe across from the neoclassical federal building where she organized a protest of the abortion bill.

Democrats experienced a rare victory in 2017 when Jones defeated Moore for the U.S. Senate after the former chief justice was embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. It was a slim victory. Jones won by 21,924 votes. Last year’s legislative election went poorly for Sloan’s party.

“Oh, God, we actually lost seats,” she says, though, with a wisp of hope, “the candidates I worked for had the smallest margins of loss.”

Perhaps, Sloan says, she’ll run for office one day. She’s encouraged by Florence’s response to Pride events, and the Juneteenth gathering.

Big steps in a small town. As an Alabamian, Sloan takes little for granted: “We have a long history of having to fight a lot longer than anyone else.”

This article mischaracterized the number of movies and television shows produced in Alabama as being almost none. The state’s film production business is relatively small in comparison to Georgia’s but has grown with 53 projects receiving nearly $40 million in state tax incentives between 2009 and 2015. The story has been corrected.

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