In the aftermath of Doug Jones’ stunning victory, Alabama stands once more where the South has stood since my time as a girl growing up during Jim Crow: at the crossroads between the country we are and the country we want to be. Through the defeat of Roy Moore, every day Alabamans from all backgrounds raised their voices to enact a vision for the state and the nation that said yes to health care access, yes to inclusiveness, and yes to an Alabama that works for all. The possibilities for growth and for betterment in Alabama are enormous, but so too are the responsibilities that flow from that victory. A Democrat has won the state; it remains up to us to determine what that means for the groups that have gone underserved and neglected by the political process.
Alabama is still the sixth-poorest state in the nation, with a minimum wage that’s locked by the state government at the bare minimum. Public education, which was once the pride of the nation, has been compromised by divestment from our schools, and the unequal segregation of resources. The lack of Medicaid and health care has meant a high maternal mortality rate, and high rates of sickness with insufficient or nonexistent coverage. The weakening of labor unions has meant that workers in Alabama end up being paid less than workers in other states. And suffusing all else we still face the dark legacy of forced intergenerational poverty — most visibly in Alabama’s Black Belt — that, alongside voter suppression and incarceration, morphs our black and poor population into an underclass whose invisibility is systemically encouraged.
The focus on the black vote, and particularly on the tireless phonebanking, canvassing, leadership and turnout that came from black women, has been one of the highlights of the attention paid to Doug Jones’ victory. Less attention has been paid to the needs that motivated black turnout. We are dying. Our communities are dying. In poor neighborhoods that are isolated from the rest of Alabama, we see the toll that being locked up and locked out of the political process by racial polarization and negligence has taken. Despite the wonder of Jones’ win and what it means for a resurgent Democratic party, the question posed to us by this moment is whether that will translate to representation for those African Americans who have long and often thanklessly labored as organizers and foot soldiers.
Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair and Cyntheia Wesley’s murders haunted this election, and stood as a testament to the decency of one candidate, and the horror of the other. Their place in the memory of the Civil Rights Movement, and in the minds and lived experiences of people who grew up when Birmingham was called “Bombingham,” is still raw, and still fresh. That memory strengthens our voices, and forever connects us to the urgency of the moment. Our response to those who braved voter suppression and intimidation to vote should be vigilant against taking their vote for granted. As progressives, we have a responsibility to ensure that our institutions not only acknowledge their work, but that we have leadership structures in our political institutions and in who we support for office that reflects the value of black women. Enacting a future that represents justice necessitates seeing the injustice of black exclusion from progressive leadership and agenda-setting.
To create an Alabama and an America that acknowledges both black women’s contributions to the political process — and contributes to their standing in kind — must mean that truth and not political convenience has to govern what we say and how we say it. It must mean that having a prison population that’s almost 60% black in a state where black people only make up 26% of the population requires a policy response beyond guaranteeing more jobs. It must mean that when we talk about increased wages, we have to talk about how wage gaps and income gaps are gendered as well as racial. It must mean understanding how the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery establishes where we’re concentrated, and how much access to capital some Alabamans have. It must mean remembering how, even in high turnout elections, black citizens turned out despite voter suppression efforts, and did not and could not overcome them.
Alabamans have a shared future, inseparably tied to the fates of all its residents, but we do not have shared access to the political power used to affect it. The work of democracy and equality rests on confronting that challenge directly. Black women can do more than save us: they can lead us. They can shape our priorities, just as surely as they can form the core of coalitions that ignore theirs. With the election of Doug Jones we’ve seen the power of a coalition formed around the least of these. It’s a power that can guarantee the protection of Medicare and Social Security, just as it can guarantee an emphasis on workers over corporations. It’s a power that can turn a red state blue. But the legacy left by black women like Rosa Parks, like Coretta Scott King, and like my mentor, Amelia Boynton Robinson also shows us it’s a power that can be turned to shape and expand who our politics and, by extension, who America exists to serve.
Audri Scott Williams is a progressive Democratic candidate for Congress in 2018 for Alabama’s 2nd District.