Home » Alabama’s Black voters seek chance to be heard after years of being silenced

Alabama’s Black voters seek chance to be heard after years of being silenced

by John Jefferson
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Montgomery, Alabama is the birthplace of the Confederacy and of the civil rights movement. Its history speaks volumes about the state of American democracy. It is perhaps ironic, then, how the last generation of its voters have largely been silenced.

For decades, Alabama’s capital city has been split between two or three different congressional districts – a deliberate effort by state leaders to prevent power from accreting to Black voters. Recently the region has been represented by a white Freedom Caucus Republican. But last year a bruising court battle forced Alabama to redraw its district lines, finally placing the entire city and a wide swath of Alabama’s Black Belt of African American residents in the same congressional district.

The runoff for the newly drawn congressional district is Tuesday. Now Montgomery – and Alabama’s Black voters – have to be heard by anyone who wants to serve them in Congress.

“We want somebody who is philosophically aligned with the city,” said Steven Reed, the mayor of Montgomery. “On issues around voting rights, on issues around healthcare, Medicaid expansion and access to healthcare, we would like to have an advocate.”

“From our standpoint, there’s a tremendous need for the congressman to be able to leverage their position in the United States House of Representatives to bring resources back.”

Dexter Avenue in Montgomery is a living monument to civil rights leaders. Stand at the bottom of the hill next to a bronze statue of Rosa Parks and look up, past the first church Martin Luther King led – a church founded on the site of a slave trader’s pen – and you will see the marble of Alabama’s capitol building a half mile away.

The city vibrates with history. But the old paint has cracks.

Hip coffee shops and startup incubator space have sprung up. But nearby empty buildings are more reminiscent of the half-abandoned small town main streets in the parts of the south that are losing population.

Alabama is relatively poor, and a net recipient of federal spending. The Bureau of Economic Analysis rated Alabama’s $50,637 per capita income in 2022 as third from the bottom among the states. The disparities between white Alabama and Black Alabama are among the widest in America.

Alabama is accustomed to getting more from the federal government than it gives. Just not necessarily here, in the state’s redrawn second congressional district.

“Sometimes I feel like the capital city sometimes gets … I’m not going to say neglected. But we don’t get our fair share,” said Doug Singleton, chairman of the Montgomery county commission. “A lot of the time, a lot of the support and the money goes up north. I realize the population in north Alabama is greater than it is in south Alabama. But the main thing with me is I want to make sure that they’re representing this district.”

In June last year, the US supreme court ordered Alabama lawmakers to redraw its seven congressional districts, noting that more than a quarter of Alabama’s residents are Black but only one of its districts might be expected to elect a Black representative. Alabama’s voters are starkly polarized by race.

With Republican control of Congress on a knife’s edge, Alabama legislators responded in shades of defiance reminiscent of civil rights era battles. They returned a map that only increased the portion of Black voters in the second district from 30% to 40%, then played for time in court. Federal judges had none of it. The court ordered a special master to redraw it for them.

Alabama’s newly drawn second congressional district now stretches 200 miles across the state from the Columbus suburbs and Montgomery to the north-western suburbs of Mobile, through farmland where the legacy of enslavement echoes in its demography. Just under half the district’s registered voters are African American.

“The vestiges of that history persist to this day,” said Shomari Figures, one of two Democratic candidates vying for the seat in the runoff. “There are a lot of Black parts of this state that lack intentional economic investment.”

Figures, a Black attorney from Mobile, is an Obama White House veteran who served as a personnel director and in the US justice department. His family is prominent in Alabama politics; his father Michael Figures famously bankrupted the Alabama Ku Klux Klan with a lawsuit in the 80s, while his mother Vivian Figures serves in the Alabama State Senate.

He rattles off rural Black counties in and out of the district as he talks about disinvestment. “Perry county, parts of Clark county, Monroe county; these are areas where you have significantly high Black populations, or fairly high Black populations, where you don’t see the factories, where you have seen the factories that were there dry up and have not been replaced,” Figures said.

“I think, you know, as a member of Congress, one of your jobs is to make sure that you’re actually taking your role as the lobbyist in chief and advocate and chief for your district front and center. And that has to be one of your primary responsibilities.”

Figures faces state representative Anthony Daniels, the youngest Black man to be named minority leader of the Democratic party in Alabama’s house of representatives. An educator, Daniels represents Huntsville at the capitol, but he grew up in Bullock county, in a rural Black town that’s now part of the district. “I grew up in poverty. So, I know all about poverty. During my 10 years here serving in the legislature, I’ve focused my attention squarely on reducing or trying to create pathways out of poverty for people.”

Even in the waning days before the runoff, Daniels bustles between committee meetings and the campaign trail, contemplating the problems of poverty in the district.

“In Bullock county, the small county that I’m from, the hospital is basically on the verge of closing,” he said. “The same thing in Monroe county, where their maternal care unit is no longer there.” An expecting mother would have to drive a hundred miles to Mobile or Montgomery to give birth now, Daniels said.

The political answer to these problems for many Black Alabamans has been to vote with their feet. Montgomery, Mobile and much of the Black Belt has been bleeding population away to Huntsville or out of state entirely.

Standing on Dexter Avenue, two 23-year-olds – Leon King and Kentarious McNeil – talked about the blight, just a few streets over from the capitol. “This is the capitol. Martin Luther King. Rosa Parks. Everything is closed. Abandoned houses. Foreclosed houses. Folks are giving up,” King said. “Folks are leaving Alabama. It’s the youth.”

McNeil thinks about leaving for Atlanta, he said. “It’s sad. I don’t even want to be at home.”

The eastern half of Alabama’s Black Belt has been in a congressional district controlled by conservatives for decades. Most of Montgomery had been in Alabama’s first district, currently held by Barry Moore, a Republican.

Moore is a Freedom Caucus stalwart who rejects the use of earmarks – line-item spending in bills targeted at one district or another – as a sign of government waste and political corruption. He was one of a handful of Republicans to vote against the $886bn National Defense Authorization Act in December, in part because it lacked “language prohibiting tax dollars from being used to fund abortion travel pay, sex reassignment surgeries, and drag queen shows on base,” Moore wrote in comments to his newsletter after the vote.

Moore is Alabama’s only veteran serving in Congress, and major military bases such as Fort Novosel (formerly Fort Rucker) underpin the economy in much of his former district.

Rather than compete in the newly drawn second district, Moore challenged a comparatively moderate Republican congressman, Jerry Carl of Mobile in the first, and defeated him in the March primary.

The Cook Political Report rates Alabama’s second district as a likely Democratic pick-up, with a +4 Democratic partisan lean. But it is no slam dunk, said Dick Brewbaker, a former Republican state senator from Montgomery and one of two candidates in the Republican runoff.

“If you look at voting-age people, it’s 50-50,” he said. Brewbaker says voter concerns about immigration and particularly the rising cost of living create a competitive opening for a Republican. But there’s no space for Moore’s ideological approach. “I haven’t talked to anybody that wants a congressman for the new district to be a no earmarks type of congressman,” he said. “They are very concerned about getting their share of federal help, in Mobile even more so because there’s so many infrastructure projects that surround the port.”

Brewbaker faces Montgomery attorney Caroleene Dobson, a political newcomer trying to flank the experienced campaigner on his right, with a harder line on immigration, arguing that all undocumented immigrants – including those protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) – should be immediately deported. The race between the two has been contentious and both have put a million dollars or more of their own money into their campaigns.

“I do believe that there are true infrastructure needs in this district,” Dobson said.

Even if a Republican holds on to the seat, the redistricting fundamentally shifts the nature of representation for the region. The effect is already visible to political observers who are seeing candidates courting their vote in new ways.

Figures worked the crowd Friday at Prevail Union, a fashionable coffee shop in Montgomery’s historic Kress Building. As he chatted, Ritha Menon, an Indian American community leader, approached him to set up a meeting. They had met before.

“Listening to the people. Yeah, that’s what democracy is, right?” she said. “Listening to the people and being available and being there and responding with the right team of people.”

Menon said getting attention for causes has been a struggle, a sentiment that others also expressed.

James Tatum is probate judge in Bullock county, where the local hospital is shedding its psychiatric services and 90 jobs in an effort to keep services like its emergency room running. As probate court judge, he is often called upon to order psychiatric evaluations. The closure complicates things, he said.

“For years, I feel like growing up as a child up until now, we’ve been getting crumbs instead of a piece of the pie, or the whole pie,” Tatum said.

To Tatum, Daniels is what it looks like when rural communities have that kind of access, he said. Daniels’ campaign is trading on his statewide connections as minority leader, providing a relationship for Black legislators across the state to federal power.

For Thurmun Dinkins, a real estate agent in Montgomery, it looks like a mixer at Baristas & Barristers, a coffee shop where Figures held an event last month. Figures’ campaign says his relationships in Washington provide superior access to people who have been locked out, disregarded or ignored.

“That was my first political event, ever,” Dinkins said. “If that’s what they are like, then I like that. You get to see them on a personable level, in a more relaxed environment. It’s an intimate setting.”

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