The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black voters in Selma put Doug Jones over the top. The symbolism wasn’t lost on activists.

Doug Jones, flanked by Selma Mayor Darrio Melton, left, and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, right, speaks with the media outside the historic Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala. on Dec. 9, 2017. (Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP)
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Democrat Doug Jones's victory in the U.S. Senate race in Alabam was the latest chapter in a decades-long fight for black residents in that state to be heard at the polls — and specifically in Selma.

During the final days of the race, Jones appeared with African American leaders at the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began the 1965 civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was there that Jones tried to convince black voters that he would propose policies on health care and economic revitalization that Selma residents for years have asked their representatives to support.

And these voters responded. Black voters turned out at rates higher than in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, when Barack Obama was on the presidential ballot, days after Jones made his final push in a city whose history is intimately linked with the civil rights movement.

Doug Jones (D) clinched a win in the Alabama Senate race. He was propelled by overwhelming support from black voters, including 98 percent of black women voters. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

In the end, it was Selma that put Jones over the top. In Dallas County, where African Americans make up 70 percent of the population, nearly 75 percent of the vote went to Jones.

The Nation reported:

“When the votes from Selma and surrounding Dallas County came in just a little after 10 p.m., Moore’s lead began to evaporate. ... That brought the Democrat 7,000 votes closer to victory. And as more votes from more predominately African-American counties came in, Jones moved into the lead. Within a half hour, the networks were announcing that a Democrat had won an Alabama Senate contest for the first time in almost a quarter-century.”

These stats were not lost on activists who have a connection to voters' rights issues.

The Rev. Bernice King, whose father helped lead the march, reminded people of the Americans who were brutally beaten in Selma during the civil rights movement while protesting laws that kept black people from voting.

Former Obama aide Joshua DuBois recognized Hosea Williams, a minister who was severely beaten during the march, and Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old deacon who was killed by an Alabama state trooper while protesting in Selma.

Ava DuVernay, director of the Academy Award-winning film “Selma,” tweeted that many of the elders who paid mightily so that black people in Selma would have the right to vote were looking down at residents of the city favorably after the election.

And Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who suffered a skull fracture when he was beaten by troopers while marching in Selma, expressed his eagerness to work with Jones, for whom he campaigned in Alabama.

And even Jones, who prosecuted the 1963 Birmingham church bombers, seemed to realize that he owed his win in part to the civil rights leaders who came decades before him. And in his victory speech, he said:

“We have work to do in this state. To build those bridges within this state. To reach across with those that didn't vote for us to try to find that common ground. I'm pledging to do that tonight, but I will tell you, tonight is a night for rejoicing because as Dr. King said, as Dr. King liked to quote, 'The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.' Tonight, tonight, ladies and gentlemen, tonight, tonight in this time, in this place, you helped bend that moral arc a little closer to that justice, and you did it, not only was it bent more, not only was its aim truer, but you sent it right through the heart of the great state of Alabama in doing so.”

Treva Killian, a chief inspector of a Birmingham polling site, was not surprised at black voters' eagerness to participate in this race, given Alabama's past and President Trump's endorsement of Republican candidate Roy Moore, a man repeatedly criticized for discriminatory views.

“This is a community filled with people who remember people who fought for their right to vote — and it’s just not something older black Alabamians take for granted,” she told The Fix.

But to win future elections, Democrats will need to mobilize voters too young to remember the civil rights movement. Whatever victory was experienced Tuesday does not overshadow the work that activists believe still needs to be done, wrote the Atlantic's Vann Newkirk:

“Officials have steadfastly refused to implement the kind of reforms that have continued the work of the Voting Rights Act and continually expanded black turnout over the years. Early voting, which has been a key factor for other states in increasing black turnout, is not permitted in Alabama. The state also doesn’t have no-fault absentee voting, preregistration for teens, or same-day registration. In all, it’s harder to vote in Alabama than just about anywhere else, a dynamic that should tend towards cooling the turnout of people who’ve only been allowed to vote in the state for 50 years.”

Most black Alabama voters who spoke with The Fix see Jones’s victory not as a point of arrival but as a continuation of a quest for proper representation in Washington. They very likely expect Jones to work to make voting increasingly accessible for the people who sent him to Washington.