Politics

How black women helped Doug Jones to victory in Alabama

The black vote was crucial in electing Jones to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. He was the first Democrat to be elected to the Senate from Alabama in 25 years. Black voters felt empowered by Jones, who reached out to them across the state in an effort activists say Democrats can learn from.
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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama.- On Tuesday morning, LaShundra Pinkard, 38, was running an errand at Walmart when she overheard a cashier and a customer having a conversation about the day's U.S. Senate election.

The customer, a young black man in his early 30s, was explaining he didn’t plan to vote. He knew about the election between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones, but he’d voted in the past and nothing had changed, he said.

Pinkard, who is from Trussville, outside of Birmingham, decided to join the conversation. She’d spent the last few months campaigning for Jones, making phone calls, knocking on doors and engaging in casual conversations just like this one. She had focused her outreach on the black community, hearing about people's hopes and frustrations. She ended up talking to the man for 45 minutes.

“I ended up having a long conversation with him about the importance of voting,” says Pinkard, who works at a boutique management consulting firm. “It wasn’t about Jones versus Moore. I was just giving him information about why it was important to vote. And guess what? That young brother went to the polls and voted.”

The African American vote was one of the keys to Tuesday's upset unexpected outcome of Tuesday's special race, when Jones became the first Democrat to be elected to the Senate in Alabama in 25 years. A scandal over allegations of sexual misconduct by Moore involving young girls also turned off some white voters who stayed home or cast 23,000 invalid ballots with the names of imaginary write-in candidates.

Polls show that the support of black women gave Jones the extra push he needed to defeat Moore, who was still able to carry most white voters.

“As African American women, we are very strong on moral values," said Pinkard. "We show our pride by being family members, mothers, members of the community. We show up to vote because we understand what is important.”

African American women voters, who made up 17% of the electorate in Alabama, favored Jones by a staggering 98%, according to an exit poll. By comparison, black men voted 93% for Jones, while only 32% of white women and 23% of white men cast their ballots for him.

That support was crucial in a close race that was decided by about 20,000 votes (or 1.5% of the total votes) throughout Alabama.

Black history

While much of the media focused coverage of the campaign on the allegations against Moore, black voters in the state felt an affinity for Jones, who has a special relationship with the African American community.

As a district attorney, Jones indicted two white supremacists in 2000 for their role in a notorious bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham in 1963, which resulted in the deaths of four black girls.

That attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church served as an important catalyst for the movement for racial equality in the United States, helping to push for the eventual passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination. But it took years for the members of the Ku Klux Klan who perpetrated the attack to face consequences.

Jones, who managed to convict the two attackers in 2001 and 2002, struck up a close friendship with the relatives of the victims, including Lisa McNair, the sister of the youngest of the deceased girls.

McNair, 53, was present at Jones' victory party in Birmingham.

"Black folks are tired of the racism here. It needs to end," she said Wednesday. "Plus, we are not the same black folks from the 60s. We have seen some significant victories and especially with the election of President Obama. We feel empowered. But we also see how if we aren’t, people like our current president can get elected. We have to always stay engaged," she added.

She also credited his campaign's ground game, despite the lack of a strong Democratic party infrastructure in Alabama. "Doug's folks were amazing. They really hit all areas. They worked ridiculously hard. They touched every corner of this state," she said.

Moore angered many voters in September when he was asked what period in American history was "great," a reference to Trump's slogan of 'Make America Great Again.' Moore replied: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another,” he said. “Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

Ground game

Jones was aided by groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Alabama Democratic Conference, the largest Democratic and black organization in Alabama, which mounted a strong get-out-the-vote campaign, including barbecues and fish frys outside polling stations, as well as transportation to take people to the polls.

African American leaders say Jones won over voters by campaigning for issues that affect them, such as access to health services, jobs and education.

"When Doug came to visit the African American community, he visited our churches, our restaurants," said Audri Scott Williams, a black activist who is running for Congress in 2018. "Everyone knew who Doug Jones was and everyone was very excited."

The Democrat visited black churches for several Sundays before the special election. At churches in Selma, he was accompanied by Representative Terri Sewell, an African American congresswoman. On the Monday before the election, he stopped at Martha's, a famous Montgomery restaurant frequented by African Americans, which only hires those "down on their luck."

A lot of Jones' efforts in the final campaign stretch were targeted specifically at the black community, especially in the state's "black belt" region. He outspent Moore by two on television and radio ads.

On Tuesday, black voters arrived in a steady stream at Legion Field in Birmingham, one of the state's most frequented black precincts. Twana Dunagan, 56, said that the enthusiasm she saw among voters reminded her of the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.

"I think this election will be very good for Doug Jones," she predicted several hours before voting ended.

Half a century after leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. marched in the streets of Alabama to fight for the right to vote, the state continues to be marked by racial inequality. Black voters in the state only earned full voting rights in the late 1960s, after the federal Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests, poll taxes and other barriers.

"Somebody paid a big price so I could come and vote," said Linda Ellington, a 50-year-old African-American woman who works at a church in the city of Birmingham and went to the polls on Tuesday.

“There were people who has the hoses turned on them. There were people who had the dogs turn on them.”

Even today Alabama does not allow early voting on weekends before the election, which is popular with black churches who organize transport to take worshippers to vote after morning service, dubbed 'Souls to the polls.'

Some activists say there were lessons for the Democratic Party in Tuesday's vote. "This is a wakeup call for Democrats," said former NBA basketball star Charles Barkley, who is from Alabama and campaigned with Jones.

"They’ve taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time. It’s time for them to get off their arse and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor. They’ve always had our votes and they’ve abused our votes.”

Additional reporting by Melvin Felix and David Adams in Miami.