Making Sense of the Alabama “Awakening”: What’s New & Not so New for Black Women in Alabama Politics

June 4, 2018

By now in the primary season, we are all convinced that the unprecedented numbers of women running in the 2018 primaries are shaking up the political scene and stand to have long reaching effects on how we talk about women and politics, as Gender Watch expert Kelly Dittmar argues. Nationwide, women are taking a new look at politics and asserting that they too want a voice at the table.

The upcoming primary in Alabama is a ‘must- see’ political primary because it not only features an unprecedented number of women candidates on the ballot, but also due to the high number Black women running for office throughout the state. According to Glamour, at least seventy women have launched campaigns at every level of government from local school boards to the US House. A few are incumbents, but a remarkable number are first time candidates. Some may ask, why Alabama? Is this something new? A breakthrough for Black women? A reaction to the Trump presidency? A response to the #MeToo/#TimesUp movements?

Alabama’s surge in Black women running as candidates for public office is not an “out of the blue” phenomenon, nor is it reactionary politics. Black women’s emergence as candidates is reflective of their long-term political investments and civic participation in Alabama and states like it where Black women have traditions of engaging formal politics as a vehicle for societal change. Their emergence this primary season is the result of concerted efforts by Black women to act politically on behalf of their communities and reflects their resolve to not only mobilize voters, but to also emerge as candidates in their own right.

Long-term Organizing & Building Political Networks: Not so New for Black Women

According to Melissa Michelson and Lisa Garcia Bedolla’s research on get out the vote campaigns, building long-term sustained relationships with potential voters is key to mobilizing people to turn out to vote. I argue that the same is true for moving people from engaged voters into candidates for public office.

At a conference I sponsored at The Ohio State University, The New American Electorate Beyond the Voting Booth: Building an Inclusive Democracywe explored the building blocks for deepening citizens’ engagement with politics. Our speakers all underscored the need to build interventions that mitigate the structural and cultural barriers for women, people of color, and millennials to become more engaged in politics. The researchers overwhelmingly concluded that building community infrastructures that cultivate strong political networks and promoting a sense of political efficacy – the sheer belief that voting matters and can lead to changes in public policy – were both critically necessary to sustain voter turnout among women, communities of color, and new immigrant voters—all groups that comprise the New American Electorate. We also identified these same factors as critical for transforming reliable voters into candidates for public office.

In the case of Alabama, Black women’s sustained activism and increasing comfort with formal electoral politics as a mechanism for social change accounts for much of the surge in Black women running for office for the first time this year. But this did not happen overnight.

Black women in Alabama and across the nation mobilized for Obama and were his earliest supporters in 2008, offering the little-known candidate with the self-described ‘funny name’ substantial legitimacy when his viability was most in question. Black women’s support in early primary states turned the tide for Obama’s campaign and they were the critical voice to move his campaign ahead.

Their mobilization expertise and well-tested turnout strategies in Alabama were also essential to Doug Jones’ victory as Alabama’s first Democratic senator in 25 years. Black women supported Jones in greater numbers than any other group, stopping the campaign aspirations of Roy Moore, an alleged sexual predator preying on young women. Black women did in that campaign what they have done for many campaigns, they organized, particularly in communities of color, to increase voter turnout and get more people to the polls. They decided to support a candidate and then they brought a friend, a colleague, sorority sisters and church congregations to the polls. As Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights – a non-profit dedicated to getting more Black women into public office – is legendary for saying, “Black women turn up and then turnout!” That level of activism and engagement has long sustaining roots in Black women’s community activism through their churches, missionary groups, sororities, civic clubs and neighborhood associations where Black women’s leadership has always been central to delivering and caring for their communities.

Michelson and Bedolla’s research shows that maintaining established relationships matter for getting out the vote and for sustaining voter participation across election cycles. Black women who mobilized for Obama and who deployed strategies to increase turnout for Jones are all still out there, and they have a sense that their voices can change things. As I shared with a reporter for Glamour magazine recently, “There was this robust energy, and once energy like that has been released, it doesn’t go away,” …. once women learn [how to] get a candidate elected into office, a lightbulb comes on and they say, ‘This isn’t that hard after all. I too can do this.’”  This primary season underscores that Black women’s political groups have remained active, engaged and strategic.

Black Women in Alabama Electoral Politics: Again, Not so New

Black women running and winning in the state of Alabama is well-charted territory. In fact, while Alabama ranks 45th in the number of women elected to the legislature, it ranks 5th in the number of Black women serving in the state legislature, a three way tie shared among other southern states MS, NC and AL. In fact, of the 17 women in the Alabama House, 10 are Black women and 3 out of the 4 women in the Alabama Senate are Black. Black women are not new to Alabama politics.

In part, this is a reflection of Black Democrats’ growing success in gaining access to state legislatures despite the ever-stronger Republican Party strongholds within them. But for the Black women gaining access to these offices, their power is constrained within a minority, non-competitive party. Perhaps most notably, these Black women do not have access to state legislative leadership positions that are dictated by party control and hold the power to create the state’s legislative calendars and set policy agendas. In other words, they occupy seats that have significantly less power than they once had. However, the presence of their voices in the political process is still necessary for articulating the interests of the minority party, which in this case overlaps significantly with racial minorities as well.

The uptick in Black women running this year, mostly Democrats, also means new energies for a Democratic Party that has experienced a decline in significance in Alabama and across the South. Alabama is a state that is as red as they come, but Black women are working to change that.

Recy Taylor

Black women’s presence in formal politics in Alabama is part of their legacies of civic involvement and participation in Alabama. One of the most under-valued, overlooked and under-appreciated stories of the modern civil rights movement is the role women of the Women’s Political Caucus of Montgomery, Alabama played in making the 1955 bus boycott a reality and sustaining its success.  We are becoming more familiar with the long-standing political activism of Black women in Alabama thanks to books like Danielle McGuire’s At The Dark End of the Street, which paints a multi-dimensional portrait of the anti-rape activism and investigations of Rosa Parks across the state of Alabama prior to igniting the bus boycotts. Likewise, the 2017 film The Rape of Recy Taylor shows that long before the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, Black women in Alabama dared to stand in solidarity against sexual violence. The film tells the story of rape survivor Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by white men in 1944 Alabama and sought justice in the midst of the Jim Crow society that so often denied Black women’s rights to bodily integrity. Black women’s support of Doug Jones and their emergence as candidates in this primary season continue this historic tradition of using their voices to stand against sexual violence.

What Could be New? The Democratic Party Supporting and Sustaining Black Women as Voters and Candidates—Now that’s Something New!

For Black women in politics, the non-viable label has always been a moniker and most have run as insurgent candidates in their initial run. Party officials, largely Democratic Party officials, seldom have faith that Black women candidates are capable of winning. In far too many cases, Black women are labeled as non-viable candidates and do not garner the critical support of their party. Perhaps one of the most famous of those extended the “non-viable” marker was Congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. However, like Chisholm, many Black women candidates are famous for proving wrong those who count them out.

If the Democratic Party chooses to pay attention during this contemporary moment – in Alabama and nationwide, they will see that Black women voters and candidates are bringing the energy that a party coming fresh off the loss of a presidential election can use. We need only to point to the overwhelming gubernatorial primary victory of Stacey Abrams in the neighboring state of Georgia. Abrams and others credit much of her primary victory to the Black women who mobilized their networks nationally in support of her candidacy. The next phase of her campaign, like the fate of the women of Alabama, rests in large part on the party supporting these candidates as if they are not only viable, but also highly favored by the party. This translates into backing a ground game that invests in a broad array of diverse communities; offering support for voter education; mobilizing voters in communities of color; and making long-term investments in identifying, recruiting, and training the next generation of Black women candidates.

Nothing says it better than two hashtags that are taking the internet by storm: #BlackWomenLead and #TrustBlackWomen.

Wendy G. Smooth is an Associate Professor of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Political Science at The Ohio State University.