The victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama was not a fluke, but rather was a testament to the power of the Black vote in the South. This latest election result highlights the role that Black people as a whole have played and will continue to play in forming a progressive coalition in the South.
African-Americans — who viewed Moore as a “masquerade for white supremacy” — provide the base of Doug Jones’ support. Although they are 26 percent of the population in Alabama, they were 29 percent of the electorate in the special election. according to exit polls, with 96 percent of Black voters supporting Jones. This is comparable to the levels of support President Obama enjoyed among Black voters. There was a surge in turnout in the predominantly Black areas of the Alabama Black Belt, and in cities with a large African-American population, where signs reading “vote or die” littered the landscape.
According to exit poll data on the demographics of the December 12 election results, Black women were 17 percent of Alabama voters, and 98 percent voted for Jones. However, Black men, who comprised 11 percent of the state electorate, supported the Democratic candidate at a rate of 93 percent. Although Jones garnered 57 percent of women voters (to Moore’s 41 percent) and 42 percent of men (compared to 56 percent for Moore), the breakdown of the white vote underscores the importance of Black leadership in denying Republicans a victory in this deepest red state.
Moore enjoyed 68 percent of the white vote. He received 63 percent of the votes of white women — despite the allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against underage girls — and 72 percent of white men. Moore won the majority of whites with and without a college degree — with Moore having a slight lead among college-educated white women, while Jones won the lion’s share of nonwhites, regardless of educational level.
White born-again Christians supported Moore at a rate of 80 percent, and 76 percent of everyone else went for Jones. Meanwhile, most younger voters voted for Jones (60 percent of people age 18 to 29, and 61 percent of those age 30-44) and a majority of older voters for Moore (51 percent of the 45-64 demographic, and 59 percent of those 65 years and older).
One of the takeaways from the Alabama election is that a large number of whites in the South are problematic, still clinging to regressive politics and policies of white supremacy, and opting for a candidate despite — or perhaps because of — troubling sexual allegations against him and his longing for the days of slavery according to Time. This is nothing new, as the Republican Southern strategy has positioned the GOP as the party of white resentment, causing white voters to oppose government programs and vote against their self-interests — if not their very lives — by painting social welfare as handouts for Black folks. Another lesson from the defeat of Roy Moore is that the Black electorate — the most enthusiastic Democratic constituency — can lead the way in forming a progressive coalition in the South to bring down a white conservative political agenda.
Black people have experience in fighting for interracial democracy as white conservatives fought to maintain an antidemocratic, segregationist regime. Alabama, for example, sent three Black men to Congress during Reconstruction. Organizing by Black activists such as Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon and others in coalition with white liberals ushered in the end of Jim Crow segregation and the second reconstruction, and the Black Belt gave birth to racial justice activism such as the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the original Back Panthers.
Today, Black organizations on the ground are energizing Black voters. Alabama-based organizations such as the Vote or Die Campaign are responding to past years of low voter turnout and mobilizing voters, and the Woke Vote Campaign is organizing on college campuses and getting young people to register to vote and go to the polls. Rose Sanders, coordinator of the Vote or Die Campaign, has faced intimidation and suppression tactics, even death threats for organizing Black people to vote in Alabama today.
Project South, founded in the legacy of the Southern Freedom Movement, is creating a new Southern movement by organizing locally and regionally against poverty, racism, and violence, and cultivating youth leadership. Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, director of The Ordinary Peoples Society, has fought for the voting rights of people with a felony record, and has registered thousands of people in jails in prisons.
The promises of liberating the South are evident. Grassroots progressive mobilization in Virginia — a once deeply red state that turned blue in the Obama era — facilitated a blowout for Democrats in the November general election. Boosted by a surge in post-Charlottesville Black turnout, Democrats clinched the races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, and while some races are still in recounts, reduced if not eliminated the Republican majority in the House of Delegates. Some of the winners in the House of Delegates include Jennifer Carroll Foy, the first African-American woman to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute and the mother of premature twins; Elizabeth Guzmán and Hala Ayala, that body’s first two Latina lawmakers; Danica Roem, the state’s first openly transgender elected official, who unseated homophobic delegate Bob Marshall; Kathy Tran, a Vietnamese refugee and the state’s first Asian-American delegate, and Chris Hurst, whose fiancée was killed while reporting on TV and who won against an NRA-backed Republican.
Other Southern states are well poised for a shift from red to blue. For example, Texas is a red state that Trump only won with 52 percent of the vote, and its population is 42.6 percent non-Hispanic white. The Doug Jones win in Alabama has increased hopes for Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who hopes to unseat Senator Ted Cruz by appealing to Latinos, Blacks and whites. For other states with a large proportion of nonwhite voters such as Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi — the blackest state in the nation, and home to a young, dynamic and revolutionary mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba — the ingredients for change are there. Further, in states such as South Carolina, activists are ready to build from the Alabama victory by getting more Black organizers and candidates involved in the Democratic Party. However, this must involve more than simply rounding up Black voters at election time, as the party must engage with people, bring in nonvoters and devote resources to such efforts. In an autopsy of the 2016 election, the Clinton campaign and the DNC were criticized for failing to devote resources to the Black community. In recent election cycles, minority contractors accounted for only 1.7 percent of Democratic Party contractors. Contractors include political consultants, including vendors, suppliers and businesses that run the conventions and produce convention paraphernalia, provide services such as housing, construction, insurance, and transportation, and provide support to campaigns.
Nationwide, progressive candidates from diverse backgrounds made big gains with grassroots organizing and a bold, inspiring message. Seven cities elected their first Black mayor, including Wilmot Collins, a former Liberian refugee who will now run Helena, Montana. Charlotte elected its first Black woman mayor, and a Black Lives Matter activist was sent to the city council. In New Jersey, where strong Black support helped Democrats retake the governor’s mansion, a Black woman named Ashley Bennett unseated Republican freeholder (a county legislator) John Carman in Atlantic County. Bennett decided to run after the incumbent, an admirer of the Confederate flag, posted a meme on social media that he wondered if the Women’s March participants would be home in time to cook dinner.
The Democratic Party must take lessons from these grassroots victories and use them as a blueprint if it wants to win in 2018, 2020 and beyond. According to Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, candidates matter and message matters. She believes the key to a Democratic control of Congress in 2018 is “to field inspiring and diverse candidates with their own, authentic voices” to challenge Republicans in every race.
“Let’s be clear about what happened: Inspiring people decided to run for office as their act of resistance. And they beat Republicans by running as bold progressives, weaving their powerful personal stories into their campaign narratives. We had reverse coattails. Statewide candidates were boosted by the energy around inspiring down-ballot candidates,” Taylor said in a post-election conference call in November. “Democrats nationally need to learn by following the example of these candidates. And that means investing heavily to make sure the best candidates — the boldest, most courageous, most authentic candidates — are stepping up and challenging Republicans everywhere, in every race.”
“In New Jersey and across the nation, we elected more minorities, more members of the LGBT community, and more women than ever before. This is a watershed moment for us in this country,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).
“People will turn out if they are inspired by a candidate. And we energize more parts of our democracy when we get diverse candidate running and talking about their bold progressive message,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), first vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Progressive ideas, diverse candidates and grassroots organizing is ultimately what wins.”
Black voters, in a multiracial coalition with Latinos, Asians, woke white liberals, millennials and others, are the key to a progressive liberation of the South and beyond. This is not about doing white America a favor and saving it from its self-inflicted wounds, its harmful policies of greed, inequality and white supremacy, although that is certainly a result. Rather, this is a matter of acting in a spirit of democracy, justice and enlightened self-interest. Black voters are voting to save their lives, and others are welcome to join.