BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On a cold December day, as gray as the steel that used to roll out of the smoky mills in this formerly industrial city, Jimmy Lee Shields, a 50-something man who lives on disability payments, walked downtown and took a seat on a stone wall in front of Birmingham’s civil rights landmark, the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were killed in a 1963 explosion triggered by the Ku Klux Klan.
Unlike the carloads that come from out of state to look at the church and then visit the impressive Civil Rights Institute across the street, Shields — born the year after the killings — was just looking for a spot to rest his feet. And he didn’t want to talk too much about the hottest topic in Alabama this week — the neck-and-neck Senate race between the GOP’s Roy Moore, battered by sexual-predator allegations, and Doug Jones, a Democrat looking for an upset in one of America’s reddest states.
But when pressed, Shields — an African American man wearing a black hat that read “Jesus Is My King, Amen” — said he was planning to vote for the Democrat because of the one thing he knows about him — that Jones was the U.S. attorney who won convictions of two KKK members involved in the church bombings in the early 2000s, after a gap of nearly four decades.
“Because of what he did for those four little girls,” Shields said.
If Jones has any chance of winning on Tuesday, he’s going to need tens of thousands more voters like Shields — African Americans who are now the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in Alabama and across the Deep South, and who have the ability to tip the scales in what’s expected, despite all the national publicity, to be a low-turnout election.
In a state that forged its reputation for many modern Americans with its pitched battles over civil rights, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, in the schoolhouse door where George Wallace stood in Tuscaloosa, and in the streets near the 16th Street church, where marchers led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were met by fire hoses and police dogs, there’s a weird dynamic around race and the Senate race.
Black voters make up roughly 29 percent of the Alabama electorate, but in a December election where experts think just 20 percent to 25 percent of those eligible might go to the polls, a surge in African American turnout could make the difference. Yet Jones probably can’t win without also gaining white votes, particularly from upscale Republicans, especially women, more likely to be offended by Moore and his alleged molestations.
That means that Jones has generally avoided grand gestures to call attention to his black support, not bringing in former President Barack Obama, who recently campaigned for Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia but was deeply unpopular with white voters in the South. When I saw Jones campaign in Huntsville last week, he did appear with a leading local African American politician, Anthony Daniels, the new minority leader in the state House. But he spoke longer about matters that might appeal to wavering Republicans, like veterans affairs and his support, as a hunter, for the Second Amendment, than about bread-and-butter issues.
The danger of this strategy is an enthusiasm gap in the black community, even after recent reports that the GOP’s Moore told a black questioner in September that families were stronger and America was better in the slavery era. Last month, a New York Times reporter visited a strip mall outside of Selma and found six of 10 black voters chosen randomly didn’t even know about the election. A Washington Post poll suggested the problem isn’t quite that bad, but it did find that white voters were following the election more closely than blacks.
When I asked Daniels about the seeming lack of energy in the black community, he insisted that Alabama’s African American voters aren’t an enthusiastic lot until Election Day arrives. “I don’t know if you saw energy even with Obama until they got out to the polls,” he said. In this final weekend of the campaign, the Jones campaign did bring in prominent outsiders, like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — seemingly a belated acknowledgement that more work needed to be done in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Even though the election has been portrayed as hanging on how voters perceive the allegations against Moore, or Jones’ controversial support for abortion rights, black voters say the biggest factor in the Senate election, as in most contests here, is driven by the tribal loyalty that whites have shown to the GOP that began evolving in 1964, when then-Democratic President Lyndon Johnson embraced civil rights legislation.
A sense of bitterness is palpable along Fourth Avenue South in Birmingham, home to a small block of black-owned stores and restaurants, as well as Jones’ statewide campaign office. At the Yeh-man restaurant, serving up Caribbean food next door to Jones’ headquarters, there’s a “Your Vote Matters” poster, seen at many black-owned businesses, but the counter man — who didn’t want his name used — voiced cynicism.
“It’s a matter of black and white,” he told me. “Doug Jones is the black candidate, and Roy Moore is the white candidate. That’s just the way it is.”
The hard-won black voting rights have meant some impressive results on the local level, like Birmingham’s new progressive mayor, Randall Woodfin, but have done little for African Americans on the state level, as Alabama moved to the extreme. That outcome feels particularly fraught in the shadow of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the civil rights museum, where visitors see a replica of the Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus that was burned by white vigilantes in 1961, and the actual shoe that was blown off 11-year-old victim Denise McNair two years later. On Fourth Avenue, at the Talk of the Town barber shop, the husband of a woman whose sister died in the bombing still gets his hair cut every week.
But “it’s still Alabama, it’s still a red state,” shrugged Charles Hicks, 55, one of the two barbers at the shop, a center for grooming and political gossip since the early 1970s. Republicans like Moore remain a mystery, he said, because they never bother to campaign for black votes. “He’s scared to come to the neighborhood,” Hicks said.
But Hicks and his fellow barber Eugene Jones — who wears a T-shirt saying he’s a “Birmingham 1963 Foot Soldier — are genuinely enthusiastic about Doug Jones, who’s dropped by their shop a couple of times. “The change he is for is a powerful change,” said Jones, citing his courage in prosecuting members of the Klan. “Those people will come after you,” he said.
Behind the barber as he shaved the back of a customer’s head, a large white placard declared “Register to vote. Here. Now.” Eugene Jones said the sign was carried in a Selma voting-rights march and has been in the barber shop since the day it opened. It served as a stark reminder of what remains at stake in Tuesday’s election — the stakes that too many folks don’t talk about often enough.