The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Black voters in Alabama saw Roy Moore as the local Trump

Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) says the wide support that black women gave to Democrat Doug Jones’s is “the real story” of his victory in Alabama. (Video: Rhonda Colvin, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It was below 50 degrees Tuesday, a cold morning by Alabama standards, but that didn’t keep nearly 50 voters from waiting outside Brown Elementary School before 7 a.m. to cast their vote in the special Senate election.

Most of the voters that arrived early were older African Americans who lived in the Five Points West neighborhood. Treva Killian, chief inspector of the polling site, was worried about keeping them warm, but she was not surprised at their willingness to participate in this important race.

“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 said.

But it wasn't always so clear, at least to national Democrats, that black voters would turn out for Doug Jones and fuel his upset of Republican Roy Moore on Tuesday night. Days earlier, the party mobilized rising stars such as Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick for a final campaign push for Jones.

Those high-profile voices may not have mattered, though. More than two dozen black voters here said they did not feel inspired to show up for a candidate who they felt did not aggressively pursue their vote. They were moved to wait in line — some people for hours — with the goal of keeping Moore from winning.

Moore, a President Trump-backed Republican accused of sexually assaulting teenage girls, has repeatedly made controversial remarks about minorities and the LGBT community that many liberal Alabamians view as a microcosm of many of their issues with the White House. He reportedly said at a September rally that America was “great” during the era of slavery.

It was Moore's discriminatory views, before the sexual assault allegations made headlines, that led black voters not to consider the Republican who some deemed a local version of Trump.

African Americans made up about 3 in 10 Alabama voters Tuesday, according to preliminary exit polls, slightly higher than the 28 percent of the electorate in the 2012 presidential election and 29 percent in 2008, when Barack Obama was on the ballot. Part of that turnout may have been because some voters said Moore reminds them of an Alabama that the community has worked so hard to escape.

On Tuesday afternoon, community organizer T. Marie King brought her mother to Brown Elementary School to vote for Jones.

King regularly spoke out during the race about how Jones failed to connect with black voters on specific policy issues that were important to them. When talking to The Fix, she struggled to identify a key policy issue of Jones' that targeted black voters.

“I obviously know what he did to prosecute white supremacists years ago, but I don't know what he has done for the black community lately,” she said after dropping her mother off at a polling place.

Despite that, King still wanted Jones to win because she was certain that he would be a better choice for black Alabamians than Moore, who she said, like Trump, wants to move the state in reverse. While many of the black voters she spoke with said they had not personally met someone from the Jones campaign, no one from the Moore campaign had pursued them either, she said.

But what these black voters knew was that Moore had adopted Trump's “Make America Great Again” slogan — and for residents of a state that has deep-rooted racial tensions running through its veins, some moments of America's past are not among the state's finest.

Writer William C. Anderson said he voted for Jones despite feeling the candidate "disrespected the Black community."

"I don’t support Jones or his liberal apologist campaign, I voted for him because my community needed me to do so due to the extremely terrible circumstances we’re up against," he told the Fix. "Much of his campaign was insulting to Black people and pandered to white bigotry. He tried to play both sides."

"He ran a confederate campaign and commodified the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing deaths and I don't appreciate it," Anderson added.

Tuesday's election was the first nonpresidential election for 23-year-old Alabama native Alex Moore. The Lyft driver cruised north on I-20 discussing how his family and friends felt a unique responsibility to turnout in this special election.

“My main motivation was making sure that Moore would not become the national face of Alabama,” he said.  “I've traveled a lot out of state ... and I just wanted to show the world that we're better than this.”

While Birmingham-Southern College student Robyn Gulley said Jones could have done more to convince black voters that he would advocate for them if elected, she said she's hopeful he would stand for voters in Washington. Unlike others, her support for Jones wasn't only a vote against Moore. Gulley genuinely believes Jones is the best person to represent black Alabamians in a Republican-controlled Congress.

“I trust that if Jones wins this election, he will remember the groups that helped him win it — and black voters will be one of those main groups,” she said.

If Jones's victory speech is any indication, Gulley may be correct. Black voters were the first identity group the newly elected senator thanked for their support:

“You know, I keep hearing about the different communities in this state. The African American community, thank you. My friends — my friends in the Latino community, thank you. To all my Jewish friends, happy Hanukkah.”