Alabama's Lessons for the Democrats
The unexpected victory of Democrat Doug Jones in the special U.S. Senate election in Alabama has been described as a political earthquake. The seismic rumblings began decades ago, though, during the civil-rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, with echoes that reach as far back as the U.S. Civil War and the long, violent era of slavery. Jones’ road to the Senate might have started on the early evening of Dec. 1, 1955, at a bus stop in Montgomery, Alabama, when an African-American woman named Rosa Parks sat down in one of the 10 front rows reserved for white passengers. The driver ordered her to the back of the bus. When she refused, the police were summoned, she was arrested, and the modern civil-rights era was launched.
When she died, one of the cable news networks called her “a tired seamstress, no troublemaker.” In fact, Rosa Parks was a first-class troublemaker. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was secretary of the local NAACP. After her arrest, organizing in the African-American community began immediately, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, launched on Dec. 5, led by Martin Luther King Jr. They knew that overcoming segregation and institutional racism would require dedicated organizing. Their historic achievements laid the foundation for Doug Jones’ victory. It was modern-day grass-roots mobilization and movement-building, especially among African-American women, that won him his Senate seat.
It’s important to recognize just how profoundly flawed Roy Moore was as the Republican candidate. First were the shocking allegations from at least nine women who accused Moore of sexually harassing or assaulting them when they were teenagers, one as young as 14. Coming in the midst of the national, and increasingly global, #MeToo movement to end sexual harassment and abuse of women, the numerous accounts of predatory sexual stalking by Moore became a flashpoint, with numerous senators pledging that, if he were to win the election, they would expel him from the U.S. Senate. That is, until another self-described sexual assaulter, President Donald Trump, decided to give his unequivocal support for Moore, and began aggressively campaigning for him.
But even if serial child molestation is not enough to disqualify a Senate candidate, many of Moore’s statements and actions as an Alabama judge should have. He was twice removed from the elected position of chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing federal court orders. In 2003, he refused to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse property. In 2016, he was again suspended, for refusing to implement the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
When recently asked, by one of the only African-Americans at an event, at what point in the past he thought America was great, Roy Moore referred to slavery time, “when families were united — even though we had slavery — our families were strong, our country had a direction.” He claims that Muslims, like Keith Ellison, should not be allowed to serve in Congress, likening the Quran to “Mein Kampf.” He supports the repeal of all U.S. constitutional amendments after the original 10, including those outlawing slavery and granting women and African-Americans the right to vote. When assuring the public at the last campaign rally before Tuesday’s election that her husband is not anti-Semitic, Moore’s wife emphatically stated, “One of our attorneys is a Jew.”
The results of the Alabama special election should not only serve as a lesson for the Republican Party, but for the Democratic Party. Success lies in activating the public, motivating people to become engaged, and fighting against the increasing number of restrictions on voting — not in tailoring a message in the vain attempt to woo “undecided” voters.
Jones won through voter registration, grass-roots mobilization and the enormous get-out-the-vote effort in the African-American community. According to CNN exit polls, Doug Jones received 98 percent of the votes cast by African-American women, and 93 percent of votes by African-American men. In contrast, 63 percent of white women voted for the accused child molester Roy Moore, as did 72 percent of white male voters. A larger percentage of the African-American electorate in Alabama turned out for Jones than for Barack Obama in either 2008 or 2012.
Doug Jones won by just 1.5 percent of the vote, a large enough margin to avoid a recount, but still very slim. He would not have won without the hard work of Alabama-based grass-roots groups, working for years with scant support from the national Democratic Party, registering poor people and African-Americans to vote. Social movements build power and make change, and the Democrats would be wise to heed the lessons of Alabama, from resistance to slavery, to the civil-rights era, to the unexpected victory of Doug Jones.