Perched atop Goat Hill in Montgomery, the Alabama capitol is the sort of backdrop local TV news stations use for political stories when they don’t have a better visual. It’s cut from a Greek Revival template, with a dome and the Corinthian columns, and not all that distinct from other state capitols. But as Alabama government buildings go, it’s the showpiece. Even the traffic lights out front are hung awkwardly at the sides of the road as to not obstruct the view coming up Dexter Avenue.
Let’s take a walk around. But don’t touch anything. Messing with the stuff here can get you into trouble.
Except for the yearly State of the State addresses, the Alabama Legislature doesn’t meet here anymore. They get together in a repurposed Department of Transportation building across the street. They moved over there in the 1980s — temporarily — and then never came back. But for the governor’s suite and a few other state offices, the capitol is essentially a museum.
Which isn’t to say it’s unimportant.
It’s here that Alabama governors take their oaths of office. It’s here that George Wallace declared “Segregation forever!” It’s here that Black civil rights activists, including John Lewis, finished their march from Selma. It’s here that Martin Luther King Jr. demanded America fulfill its obligation to secure voting rights for all.
And it’s here that tourists, not to mention thousands of schoolchildren on field trips each year, come to see what Alabama is about.
They’d be forgiven for thinking it’s mostly about the Confederacy.
This was the Confederacy’s first capital, a distinction Montgomery held for only three months, but a fact literally written in stone throughout the grounds.
The first visage you see while ascending the marble steps out front is not that of King or even Wallace, but of a man from Mississippi.
This is where Jefferson Davis took the oath as the first and only Confederate president, and there’s a little brass star to mark the spot. To the left of the steps is the statue of Davis, a cloak over his shoulders, his hands resting on a slab of pink granite, donated by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1940.
The statue is not some misplaced relic that’s outlived its welcome. Alabama still observes Davis’ birthday as a state holiday, in addition to Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee Day. The latter it observes simultaneously with the MLK federal holiday.
Alabama has not moved on. But let’s move on with our tour.
Outside the governor’s office on the north side of the building stands a monument to the Confederate soldiers and sailors Davis got killed. It’s 88 feet tall.
At the southeast corner, there’s an eternal “Flame of Freedom” left by the American Legion to honor those who served and remember the lives lost in the other American wars. That monument is about six feet tall.
Also, the eternal flame has gone out. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing it lit.
Three trees have markers memorializing their historical importance. “Washington took command of the American Army under grandparents of this elm,” says one. The marker evidently outlived its elm. There’s no tree there anymore.
Trees get markers here, but you won’t find many Black people memorialized on the grounds. And those few are hard to find.
Inside the capitol entrance, there’s a framed display on an easel giving a brief, sanitized story of Horace King, an enslaved architect who designed the cantilevered staircase to the rotunda.
Up those stairs, inside the old House and Senate chambers, there are two markers, put there about a decade ago. They name the Black lawmakers who served during Reconstruction. The plaques break down the names by years elected, with lists getting shorter each election cycle.
And then ending abruptly.
Nothing here explains why or how Black representation ended then. And that’s what I brought you here to see.
The scandal here isn’t only that more Black people aren’t honored. The sin is what else has been ignored, and the silence exposes the guilty. This building is where the rights of generations of Black people were stolen, not once but twice.
First, when the Confederacy organized itself.
And again — in 1901.
Among all those statues and markers, portraits and plaques, there’s none to document when white south Alabama planters and north Alabama industrialists gathered here in 1901 — when they tried to bring the Confederacy back to life, but this time within the confines of the federal government.
The mementos here tell a story, but it’s counterfeit history. If you want history, you have to find it across the street, at the state Archives.
In the minutes of that convention, you’ll see that it was right up there, on that old House dais, that John B. Knox, a lawyer from Anniston, accepted the chairmanship of the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention, where he opened his remarks with a racist joke about “a well authenticated story from Kentucky, of an old darkey” and then explained how they would end what he called “the menace of negro domination.”
It was here they unreconstructed Alabama. It was here that they proudly, explicitly embedded “White Supremacy by Law” — an actual sub-head in the minutes — into Alabama government. It was here they consolidated political power in the Legislature — and away from city and county governments where Black majorities might decide their own affairs. It was here they disenfranchised Black voters for most of the 20th century. It was here they opened the door for Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, convict leasing and all sorts of oppression.
It was here they drafted the Alabama Constitution of 1901, the foundational document of state government — now amended 977 times and the longest constitution of any state or nation in the world — that still affects and afflicts Alabama. After the birth of the Confederacy, it might be the most consequential act of Alabama history, but good luck finding a trace of it here.
But this place doesn’t need another statue or one more bronze plaque on a wall. It needs ribbons of yellow tape.
This building is a crime scene.
Monuments and monsters
We’ll leave the creepy old portrait of Robert E. Lee for another tour, but before we leave the capitol, I want to show you one more monument.
The Jefferson Davis monument is one of five statues for individuals, but for anyone ill at ease with Confederate symbols, it might be the second-most disgusting thing here. To the right of the marble steps outside, partly obscured by an impressively ancient and massive laurel oak, is the shrine to James Marion Sims, a physician from Montgomery, which the plinth calls the “Father of Modern Gynecology.”
He could also be called the Doctor Mengele of the Confederacy.
To the extent Sims founded the science of women’s health, he did so by conducting involuntary medical experiments on slaves. One of Sims’ test subjects, an enslaved woman named Anarcha, underwent more than 30 surgeries by his hands, without consent. And without anesthesia.
These are not disputed facts. They come from Sims’ notes, but you will find no mention of that here. People who have tried to bring attention to Sims’ misdeeds have gone unheard here, and one has been arrested. In 2018, Montgomery activist Jon Broadway was jailed after he poured ketchup on the statue during a protest.
Earlier last year, Montgomery artist Michelle Browder unveiled a memorial to three of Sims’ test subjects across downtown. But the Sims monument, like the Alabama capitol, stands stubbornly frozen in place and time.
Whether Sims deserves this place of honor is largely moot. Nor is changing it. The Sims monument is protected by the law.
In 2017, the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. The law makes it illegal to rename, remove or otherwise disturb any historical monument, building or dedicated street older than 40 years.
The bill followed efforts, primarily in majority-Black cities, to move Confederate monuments and rename public buildings and spaces that honored slaveowners and segregationists.
The sponsor, state Sen. Gerald Allen, said the bill protected history, which Allen must consider with greater regard than books. In 2005, Allen sponsored another bill to ban books with LGBTQ authors or characters from school libraries. When asked whether the books should be burned, he said, “I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them.”
The new law worked exactly how the 1901 framers designed the system to work. It took power from Black people in majority-Black cities and counties and gave it to whites in the Legislature.
When the monuments bill passed in 2017, every Black member of the Alabama Legislature voted against it, in addition to two white lawmakers. Every lawmaker who voted for it was white.
The City of Birmingham was the first to challenge the law and built a plywood wall around its Confederate monument until the city could decide what to do with it. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sued and threatened to fine Birmingham $25,000 a day.
The city argued the law violated its free speech rights and said it gave more influence to dead Confederate sympathizers than living people.
The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in the state’s favor, but with one key exception: The state could fine a city or county $25,000 only once, not daily and not into perpetuity.
Lawmakers had accidentally left a loophole.
“The legislature felt like Confederate monuments were priceless,” state Rep. Chris England said. “The Supreme court felt like they were worth $25,000.”
It’s a nice line, but not entirely accurate. One justice, Mike Bolin, urged the Legislature to make the law more punitive.
“Indeed, the deterrent effect of a fine derives from its pinch on the purse,” he wrote.
In 2021, one lawmaker tried just that.
A meaner monuments law
On the wall of Rep. Mike Holmes’s office hangs a certificate that would be politically toxic in many places outside of his district. Below an emblem bearing a Confederate flag, the document says Holmes is descended from a Confederate soldier and qualified for membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The monuments, he says, are history.
Holmes takes pride in his Confederate roots. He’s traced his family tree back to five relatives who fought for the South in the war, but none on the Union side. In the course of our conversation, he uses the pronoun “we” when referring to the Confederacy.
Holmes says none of his relatives owned slaves but fought in the war for other reasons. When I ask him why he thinks the war happened, he attributes the South’s rebellion to one thing — taxes.
“We were at a terrible disadvantage here in the South for trade for that reason, because our costs were jacked up so high by those implements,” he says. “That, to me, was the cause of secession — well then, of course, the secession caused the Civil War.”
I asked Holmes whether he’d read Alexander Stephens “Cornerstone Speech,” but Holmes said he was unfamiliar with it.
Stephens was the vice president of the Confederacy and considered by many to be its intellectual lodestar, similar to the role Thomas Jefferson played in the American revolution. If the cause of the Civil War is a mystery to be solved, then the Cornerstone Speech is one of many smoking guns — a racist screed arguing all men were in no way created equal.
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said in 1861. “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
But Holmes, who says he cares deeply about history, was unpersuaded.
“I would say he’s wrong,” Holmes says. “When you study it thoroughly, it was pretty clear what it was about.”
The monuments, he says, are history.
In the last regular legislative session, Holmes sponsored a bill to toughen Alabama’s monuments law further, increasing penalties to $10,000 a day and expanding the acts prohibited.
“No monument that is located on public property may be relocated; removed; altered; renamed; dishonored, disparaged, or reinterpreted with competing signage, wording, symbols, objects, or other types or means of communication located at the site of the monument; or otherwise disturbed,” the bill said.
If Holmes seems unclear what was in his bill, it’s also unclear who wrote it. In February, the Southern Cultural Center said in a Facebook post that it had contributed to the drafting of the bill.
“For the past 8 months the Southern Cultural Center has been a member of a special team of our people to rewrite the disastrously and disappointing Monument 2017 law,” the organization said on its page. “This was requested by Representative Mike Holmes District 31.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified the Southern Cultural Center as a neo-Confederate hate group and the facility it owns near Holmes’ hometown of Wetumpka was, until 2018, the headquarters for another SPLC-labled hate group, the League of the South. The two organizations diverged after the League supported violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., leaving the property vulnerable to seizure in the lawsuits that followed.
In February, Holmes told reporters that the group didn’t draft the bill but two members of the group had helped him with it. When I asked him about it, Holmes said he had help from about 12 people but declined to identify any of them.
Holmes’ monuments law rewrite stalled last year in committee.
Holmes told me he would not be sponsoring the bill in the upcoming legislative session. When I asked why, he said he still supported the bill and would vote for it, but he thought it would stand a better chance of passage if someone else carried it. The supporters of the bill believe they have found another sponsor, he told me, but again he declined to name the sponsor or the supporters shopping the bill to lawmakers.
If Holmes is vague when discussing the future of the monuments bill, he’s clear about one thing — he believes the Legislature should have say over monuments, buildings and streets, not counties, cities, school boards or other local governments, and he’s opposed to compromises, such as moving the monuments to Confederate cemeteries.
“To move them off into some obscure parks, somewhere where 10 people they might walk by, and then that’s that kind of defeats the purpose,” he says.
I try to get Holmes to look at the monuments issue from another angle. I bring up a civil rights monument in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park that has been questioned for its faithfulness to facts and history, but we quickly hit a dead end.
“I have no idea where Kelly Ingram Park is,” he says.
Artifacts, not history
Rep. Juandalynn Givan knows where Kelly Ingram Park is. The Civil Rights battleground is in her Alabama House district. Like Holmes, she can trace her roots back to the Civil War era, too — when her ancestors were held as slaves in Wetumpka, Holmes’ hometown.
She is not fine with the way things are.
Givan doesn’t withhold her opinions. More than once, that’s gotten her into trouble. In 2017, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon stripped her of a committee assignment after she called a former lawmaker racist and threatened to “take him out” if he ever came to her committee again. Once, on the House floor, McCutcheon cut off her microphone during a debate and Givan responded with a torrent of obscenities for which she later apologized.
But for the most part, she’s a Black woman sick of the status quo.
When Holmes brought his bill before the State Government Committee last year, Givan spoke out against it. She stood at the committee room podium but turned her face to Holmes.
“Take your foot off my neck,” she said at the hearing last April.
Holmes’ bill was atrocious, she says, and punitive for the sake of being punitive.
Several members of the public spoke in favor of Holmes’ proposal and similarly made arguments the Civil War hadn’t been about slavery but tariffs and taxes.
“That war was about the fact that certain states did not want to do away with or to abolish slavery,” she says when I speak with her later. “And you still have members in that party who do not want to accept that realization and how one can come before a committee and say that that’s not true. It’s beyond reasoning.”
When I ask Givan if she’s given up on persuading her opponents, she says yes, but then she recounts members of the majority she’s caused to question their beliefs. She even speaks fondly of Rep. Will Dismukes — “my buddy,” she calls him — who was rebuked last year by the Alabama Republican Party after he attended a celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s birthday the same weekend as John Lewis’s state funeral.
Last year, Givan brought her own bill to revise the monuments law. But despite her sharp tongue and sharper elbows, the law she proposed would not have ground the monuments into the sand. Instead, Givan proposed narrowing the law to apply to monuments only — not streets and buildings — and would have allowed cities and counties to move the monuments they don’t want to somewhere they could be preserved and protected.
In short, Givan’s bill would have treated the state’s sundry monuments as historical artifacts, not history itself, and would have sent the relics no one wanted to the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
“Municipalities should be able to control those things for which they have the responsibility of taking care of and managing and cultivating,” Givan says. “That should be their role and responsibility.”
Givan managed to win over a couple of Republican lawmakers but not enough to make it past the committee.
She said she will try again and when I spoke with her she said she recently had a Republican colleague express interest in sponsoring the bill with her.
“We’ll see,” she said.
The scene of the crime
On a sunny day in late October, I park my car beneath a rumbling overpass and walk toward the thrum of drums and trombones a couple of blocks away. I-65 doesn’t bisect this Montgomery neighborhood so much as dominate it. The interstate’s course through this neighborhood was no mistake, Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed says. It was part of what he calls the “weaponization” of the federal highway system — drawing lines through majority-Black communities, including this one where many civil rights leaders lived.
And where one grew up.
After Reed won election as Montgomery’s first Black mayor, he says he wanted to do something to honor Fred Gray. Now 91 years old, the Alabama attorney began defending civil rights leaders in the courtroom when he was just 24, including his most famous client, Rosa Parks.
“It was important for me to do that for attorney Gray and his family now,” Reed says. “I’m really big on giving people their flowers while they’re on this side of the sun, as opposed to after they have gone.”
Reed asked Gray how he’d like to be memorialized. Gray said he’d like his name on the street where he was raised — Jefferson Davis Avenue.
In a field beside an empty schoolhouse, the city has set up a 50-ft wide stage with a tent for shade. In front of it are about 300 folding chairs which quickly fill. The Alabama State University marching band plays the National Anthem before the university’s concert choir sings the Black National Hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Most of the folks in the crowd are Black, but not all.
Around the edges of the gathering, standing in dress uniforms, are firefighters and police officers, in addition to about a dozen patrol cars blocking traffic on the adjacent streets — which is significant.
In full view of at least two dozen police officers, we’re about to witness a crime.
There’s poetic justice, as Reed puts it, replacing the name of a slaveowner and insurrectionist with a civil rights hero.
“When you think about that community and those that are traversing those streets, I think that Fred Gray represents a much more appropriate role model, not just for his neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama, but I would say even the state and the nation,” Reed says.
But the act itself shows that history isn’t over, that — as partisans on all sides of this fight love to say — those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.
And Reed is and the city are about to repeat it again — as Civil Rights protestors did when Gray was a young man defending them in court — by violating an unjust law.
If the state fines the city, Reed says he’s had numerous business leaders and philanthropists offer to pick up the cost. The city will follow Birmingham, Mobile and Madison County, which already cut their checks after defying the monuments law.
It’s tempting to see the streets, buildings and monuments as symbols, only — but with the monuments law protecting them, they stand for something else, too — reminders of the 1901 constitution. They show how the system withholds power from city and county leaders, and denies their constituents any say in their own affairs.
And as Reed says when I speak with him later, it’s not just street names and Confederate relics the state constitution affects — it’s taxes, zoning laws and education. Recently the city wanted to raise $700,000 a year more for schools through property taxes, which it did, but only after clearing constitutional hurdles cities in other states never face.
Under Alabama’s archaic, racist Constitution, cities and counties are denied control of their own affairs. These are not the unintended consequences. This effect was intentional. This is how the 1901 Constitution was designed to work.
But on this sunny day in October, Reed, with the backing of residents and the city council, put those old men who met 120 years ago at the state capitol behind them. After about an hour of remarks and praise for Gray, Reed walks with him to the corner where a short vinyl curtain covers the street sign. Gray and his wife tug on the rope and the covering drops away.
“W. Fred D. Gray Ave,” it says.
The crowd cheers. Family and friends pose for photos with Gray and his wife by the signpost. The mayor gives interviews to the press. The music plays again below a bright blue sky.
It’s a beautiful day to break the law.
An initiative through 2022, “State of Denial” will explore the connections between Alabama’s past and present — and how they might affect our future.
State Rep. Chris England is prone to wander. It’s something he enjoys doing, exploring backroads and forgotten sites in a state that still confounds him.
It’s not always the safest pastime.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” he says.
Not long after he was first elected in 2006, England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa and now state party chairman, toured Alabama’s Emergency Management headquarters near Clanton. After the stop at EMA, he meandered.
“I also visited the — you know the big flag on 65?” he says.
If you’ve driven the interstate between Birmingham and Montgomery, you know the big flag. It’s impossible to miss. Raised there by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, it might be the state’s most unsightly roadside distraction.
Hoisted on a 100-foot pole, the 600 square foot Confederate banner flies over private property, so England moseyed further until he came to a cemetery where much smaller battle flags flapped from wooden sticks by the graves of long-dead soldiers. He got out to look around.
“I walked through it, and I just looked at some of the names, just to kind of get a feel for what this is about, why we struggle for this. Right?” he says. “I never got an answer.”
That’s when the men in two pickup trucks pulled up. They didn’t get out at first, but they stopped and stared at him, he says.
“What can I do? I’m out here in the middle of the woods, by myself, at a Confederate cemetery, essentially,” England says. “So I did the only thing I knew to do — I tried to make sure that I humanized the situation, let them know that I wasn’t here to kick over tombstones and knock stuff down.”
There are still places and situations where it’s unsafe for a Black man to go. And if that seems like an exaggeration, look one state over, to Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbery lost his life for exploring a house under construction. Or to Florida, where Trayvon Martin was killed on his way home from buying a pack of Skittles.
England waved at the men. They waved back. Then one of the men got out of his truck and asked him what he was doing.
“I said, ‘I’m just trying to get a better appreciation for Alabama’s history,’” England says.
The men laughed and England smiled back at them. They chatted a bit more before they got back in their trucks and left. “I was scared shitless though,” he says.
Even in 2022, Black people must live with the fear that there are places where they could be killed before they might explain what it is that they’re doing there. What a lifetime of living with that pressure will do to a person is something England wants his white colleagues in the Legislature to understand.
It’s a struggle he seems to be losing.
In successive legislative sessions, Black lawmakers have grown increasingly weary of serving as political tackling dummies, run over repeatedly by an increasingly dismissive majority.
It’s a struggle that, months after England told me this story, would lead to several Black lawmakers telling their white colleagues they’d never be able to look at them the same way again.
England was one of them.
Same turning point, different year
In 2019, the Alabama State Senate was debating yet another abortion bill when something curious happened. The text of the bill compared abortion to a handful of crimes against humanity.
“It is estimated that 6,000,000 Jewish people were murdered in German concentration camps during World War II; 3,000,000 people were executed by Joseph Stalin’s regime in Soviet gulags; 2,500,000 people were murdered during the Chinese ‘Great Leap Forward’ …”
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, noticed something missing. He proposed an amendment to include the transatlantic slave trade among the atrocities. After all, it’s estimated that at least 2 million enslaved Africans died crossing the Atlantic in what’s called the Middle Passage.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, opposed the amendment, which failed on a party-line vote. The Senate chambers grew quiet and uncomfortable. The abortion bill debate had been tense already, but after Smitherman’s amendment died, there was a sense that something much more personal had happened and the tone carried through the rest of that session.
Similar inflection points have become a mid-session phenomenon in Montgomery.
On paper, Alabama has a two-party system, and in the Alabama Legislature, there are Republicans and Democrats. But were someone wholly unfamiliar with Alabama to walk into the Statehouse there’s one thing they’d notice immediately.
All but two of Alabama’s Democratic lawmakers are Black. All but one of Alabama’s Republican lawmakers are white.
And the white ones are firmly in the majority.
It’s a political divide that sometimes expresses itself in unexpected moments — when gambling legislation threatens to close casinos in majority Black counties, or when Medicaid expansion, which could have brought billions into Alabama, is ignored.
“You have to take things issue by issue,” Smitherman, who has served in the Senate since 1994, told me later. “You can’t take things personally, because I might disagree with you on one bill and need your support for another.”
This sort of emotional compartmentalization is more common among older Black lawmakers. Some younger Black lawmakers have found the nothing-personal approach harder to maintain.
The 2021 regular session saw tempers flare over a bill to raise criminal penalties over rioting. Among other things, the bill increased penalties for blocking highways during protests, and Democrats asked how the bill would have applied to Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marchers. Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, speaking on the House floor, called the bill’s sponsor, Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, a racist. The two exchanged words.
In another exchange, Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, lashed out at Rep. Charlotte Meadows, R-Montgomery, who had been needling her and other Democrats throughout a late-night session.
“I will not take it,” a frustrated Coleman told Meadows. “We, as a body, shouldn’t take it. And just because you’re a white woman doesn’t mean you know more than I do as a Black woman.”
Meadows laughed at Coleman, making Coleman even angrier as lawmakers, white and black, squirmed.
Throughout the session, England and House minority leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, pulled their colleagues aside, talking to them in the aisles, counseling them on keeping cool.
“Folks like to say that this is like professional wrestling, that what you see isn’t real,” England told me after the 2021 session. “Well, now people are starting to get hurt.”
The riot bill passed the House but died upstairs in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Smitherman pushed through a bill to create a police brutality database so bad-apple law enforcement officers could no longer quietly evade accountability by jumping from one department to another. It was the only one of six bills Democrats introduced in the wake of George Floyd’s murder that passed.
England counted both as victories, however fleeting.
“I also know that same spirit will reappear in 2022,” England predicted last year. “Not just in a riot bill, but in a CRT bill, too.”
Telling one CRT from another
This is the part in stories like this where I’m supposed to turn down the lights and turn on the overhead projector and explain what critical race theory is and what it isn’t.
Critical race theory is confined mostly to higher-level graduate courses and to law schools. An esoteric framework, critical race theory examines how bias in law and social structures disadvantages minorities more than white people. Critical race theory is not taught, nor has it ever been taught, in Alabama K-12 schools …
Only, nobody gives a damn about any of that.
Because CRT has become something different now. To understand what this other CRT is, it helps to watch a few campaign ads.
In her latest TV spot, Gov. Kay Ivey stands in front of a classroom. She begins by briefly mentioning her time as a teacher decades ago.
“When I taught school, we said a prayer, pledged allegiance and taught the basics,” she says.
Then Ivey takes an aggressive turn.
“Today the left teaches kids to hate America, ” she growls like a substitute teacher who might smack a kid with a ruler. “But not here! Biden’s critical race theory — racist, wrong and dead as a doornail.”
I should have mentioned during the classroom lecture, Joe Biden did not invent critical race theory, nor has he advocated using it in schools.
The ad is the latest among Ivey’s claims to have “banned” critical race theory from schools, which is curious since Ivey has done no such thing.
Ivey hasn’t yet signed any anti-CRT bills into law, although she could soon have the opportunity.
Ivey hasn’t issued any executive orders banning CRT in the classroom, either.
The closest Ivey has come to restricting CRT was an administrative resolution, passed by the Alabama State Board of Education, on which Ivey serves as president.
That resolution, titled “Declaring the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom and Non-Discrimination in Alabama’s Public Schools” doesn’t mention CRT, nor does it ban it from classrooms. Instead, it prohibits “divisive concepts,” a euphemism that often stands in the place of CRT throughout the country.
But something important must not be lost amid the misdirection: The Alabama school board’s CRT ban does not, in fact, ban CRT.
So what’s going on here?
Mostly, it appears to have been fodder for Ivey’s ad.
The so-called CRT ban gives Ivey a hook — however small — on which to hang her claim.
And it allows Republicans, such as her, to accuse Democrats of something they never did.
Democrats — which in Alabama politics, means mostly Black people.
CRT is the mechanism Republican candidates can use to accuse Black people of being the real racists. And it has become an essential tool for Republicans going into the 2022 primaries.
The trouble in Alabama, though, is that Ivey has a CRT claim she can make, however specious — but Republican lawmakers can’t say the same. The issue is still so new that no one thought to drop an anti-CRT bill in the 2021 Legislative session.
But in 2022, just as England predicted, the Alabama Republican supermajority brought a bill to ban a thing that their governor is on TV saying has already been banned.
And just as CRT is something different for Republicans than the critical race theory taught in higher education and law schools, the issue has become something different for Democrats, too.
For Black lawmakers in Alabama, it’s a struggle for respect.
Three times in a committee
When the Alabama House’s State Government Committee first took up HB 312, committee chairman Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, made a promise to his Democratic colleague, Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham.
“I promise you, I’m going to give you all the time to debate this bill that you want,” Pringle said.
We’ll be coming back to that. The Republicans’ vehicle for a legislative CRT ban, HB312, would go before the committee three times.
The first was for a public hearing, when concerned constituents may speak their mind about a bill. Eleven people spoke before the committee, including a lawyer, several teachers and the state director of Archives and History, Steve Murray.
All of them opposed the bill.
In the second meeting, committee members debated the bill among themselves. Several Black lawmakers quizzed the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, about what his bill actually does. Oliver struggled to give examples of the divisive concepts he opposes.
“With all due respect,” Oliver said, a retired ambulance helicopter pilot. “I’m trying to protect students in this day …”
“From?” asked Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham.
“From different ideologies I do not think are appropriate,” he said.
“Like?” she asked.
“From socialism or communism or anything else,” he said.
By this point in the legislative process, Oliver’s bill had become so watered down that even he said it read more like the Civil Rights Act than a groundbreaking new law. In the second committee meeting, Oliver removed language calling slavery a deviation from the founders’ principles since the Constitution’s three-fifths compromise pretty much nullified any such argument.
The important thing here was that they pass something.
What the bill would actually do after the inevitable press release it was meant to generate seemed almost irrelevant.
But Oliver and the bill’s supporters had reason to know what the side effects of this bill might be. Earlier in the session, Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey told lawmakers, including Oliver, that the school board’s existing anti-CRT resolution had already triggered complaints about Black history being taught in schools.
“There are people out there who don’t understand what CRT is, and so in their misunderstanding of it, they make a report but it’s not actually CRT,” Mackey said then. “I had two calls in the last week that they’re having a Black History Month program and they consider having a Black history program CRT. Having a Black history program is not CRT.”
Alabama Archives and History Director Steve Murray gave the State Government Committee a similar warning.
“It will lead to teachers spending more time trying to determine where the mines are in the minefield, so they don’t step on them and inadvertently get themselves or their school in trouble, than they will spend time preparing good lessons in history education and civics,” Murray said.
Only one Republican on the State Government Committee seemed to care. Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, seemed to catch his Republican colleagues off guard.
“You mean to do well, but this isn’t going to do it, because the hard work of addressing where all this started and where we can go together — we haven’t gotten there,” Ball said after calling the racial divide a spiritual problem. “And you can’t do it in an adversarial environment. You have to do it in a spirit of love, and not this side overpowering that side.”
Ball’s objections gave the bill’s opponents an unexpected momentum. Hollis spoke one more time. Whatever she had left bottled up — she pulled the cork.
“This is gonna create more problems,” Hollis said. “We already have problems and I’m tired of problems. I’m tired of racism. I’m tired of this shit.”
With the committee meeting spiraling out of control, the chairman, Chris Pringle, called for a voice vote, and the committee carried the bill over.
For most other bills in most other sessions, that would mean it was dead. But not this one.
When governing gets boring
The day after his plea to his Republican colleagues, I called Ball, who informed me the bill would be back next week.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn where Ball’s independent streak comes from. Ball is not running for reelection.
“I’m going to go play music,” he told me of his post-politics plans.
A retired highway patrolman and ABI hostage negotiator from Madison, Ball says he’s proud of what his party accomplished immediately after taking control of the Legislature in 2010, but he’s disheartened by what he sees today.
“Whether you like it or not, we did a lot of substance, meaningful things, in that first quadrennium,” Ball says.
Those changes included ethics reforms and an education trust fund policy called the rolling reserve which has effectively ended sudden job cuts due to proration in public schools.
“Once you get your initial things done, then you got to govern and that’s boring,” he says. “Republicans, we keep trying to gin up the base when the base doesn’t need ginning up.”
That’s what the CRT bill is, he says.
When I ask him why the partisan division in the Legislature has become so raw, Ball brings up a point other lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, have shared with me — the number of Republican lawmakers who can remember what it was like to be in the legislative minority is dwindling.
As that number dwindles, the hubris of the new generation of Republicans grows.
“If a Democrat would’ve introduced that same bill, but we were in the minority, we would have called them the thought police,” Ball says.
Ball let me know he would not be there for the next committee meeting. It was clear what his Republican colleagues would do.
“When the train is coming down the tracks, ain’t no need standing there to get run over,” he says.
And the train was moving fast.
The State Government Committee met again the following Tuesday, just as Ball said. Only two Black lawmakers, including Hollis, made it to the committee room before the chairman called the members to order.
From roll call to adjournment, the meeting lasted less than 60 seconds. HB312 received a favorable report on a voice vote, over the objections of Rep. Hollis and Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, D-Hayneville.
“We discussed this in two other meetings,” Rep. Pringle, the committee chairman, said when the lawmakers demanded to know why they couldn’t speak.
Rep. Rogers walked into the meeting two minutes late, holding amendments in his hand.
“It’s over already?” he asked.
He didn’t get the time he’d been promised to speak.
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Kay Ivey’s short memory
In 2019, Kay Ivey needed a Black friend.
An archivist at Auburn University discovered a 1967 interview with Ivey and her ex-husband. In the interview, Ivey described how, when she was a student at the university, she had participated in a skit called “Cigar Butts.”
The recording proved a rumor Ivey had denied only a year before when running for election. Ivey claimed she hadn’t lied, but rather hadn’t remembered it.
In an attempt to get ahead of the story, her chief of staff reached out to Black lawmakers first, told them what was coming and asked their forgiveness. In a public statement, she promised to do better in the future.
“While we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go, specifically in the area of racial tolerance and mutual respect,” Ivey said in a video published online. “I assure each of you that I will continue exhausting every effort to meet the unmet needs of this state.”
Some Black lawmakers, including Smitherman, accepted her apology. Others, including Rogers and Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, said the governor should resign.
Regardless, Ivey stayed in office, and two years later, she was campaigning against CRT.
In a quote often repeated, the Republican political strategist Lee Atwater once traced the history of Southern white politicians using race to their advantage — from shouting the n-word on the stump to more abstract policy positions like tax cuts.
“Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites,” he said.
Curiously, Atwater intended that off-the-record confession, published after his death, as a defense of the GOP’s “Southern strategy.” By moving further and further into abstraction, he argued, the party would eventually migrate so far from race that it wouldn’t matter anymore. Economic issues would take the front seat, he said.
Only it doesn’t seem to be working out that way.
From laws to protect Confederate monuments to anti-CRT bills, Alabama is regressing — away from the abstract and back toward the overt.
And when a governor goes from promising to work harder for racial tolerance to ignoring the concerns of Black lawmakers and Black school board members, you can begin to see why lawmakers, such as Hollis, have grown so tired.
For Black Alabamians, Alabama history is a series of broken promises, and it’s only rational to be concerned that hard-won gains are always at risk of being lost.
History is not, as it’s sometimes taught, a slow-but-steady progression from the imperfect toward the more perfect, but a series of leaps forward among stumbles backward.
We’re stumbling again.
And this time, history itself is at stake.
When HB312 reached the floor of the Alabama House, Rep. Givan of Birmingham quizzed the Republican sponsor on what history he wanted to protect.
“Are you familiar with the Middle Passage?” she asked Rep. Oliver.
“I’m sorry?” he said.
“Are you familiar with the Middle Passage?” she repeated.
“From 1619, maybe?” asked Oliver, at a loss for what she was asking.
“I just asked you if you were familiar with the Middle Passage,” she said.
“No, ma’am,” Oliver conceded.
As many as 2 million Africans, at least, are believed to have died crossing the Atlantic on slave ships bound for the Americas, but when asked about it, Oliver grasped instead for the title of the 1619 Project — The New York Times project led by Pulitzer winner Nikole Hannah-Jones that has also animated so many CRT opponents.
Under later questioning from England, Oliver denied that HB312 was an anti-CRT bill but he left the door open for it banning CRT. England asked which it was.
“It’s not a critical race theory bill. It’s a divisive language bill,” Oliver said. “Critical race theory could certainly be included in the things that we would try to address.”
“So it is?” England asked again.
“It could be,” Oliver answered.
The debate lasted for two hours, the maximum allowed under House rules. Black lawmakers lined up, one after another, to plead with white colleagues to reconsider what they were doing.
As it had in previous sessions, the tone turned personal.
“I’m realizing, when you talk to me and tell me, ‘Oh man, you’re a good guy and I like you,’ you don’t,” said Rep. Daniels, the House minority leader.
The bill would change how he saw everyone in the chamber who voted for it, he warned.
Daniels’ argument became a refrain for the Democrats, who began telling their Republican colleagues directly that HB312 was a personal attack. Rogers called it a knife at his throat and England decried how many of his white colleagues had called him “articulate” as some sort of compliment.
“You can’t tell me these things and believe them but then not want to talk about what created me or how I got here or why I think the way that I think,” England said. “It really bothers me to know that we are debating a piece of legislation and passing a law to try to protect the sensibilities of white Americans, because this is not about anything else but that.”
As he had in committee, Ball alone crossed the aisle. While being empathetic toward his Republican colleagues’ intentions, he warned that the bill would backfire and inflame divisions.
“A lot of the problems that we are facing in our country and in our state — these are spiritual problems,” Ball said. “And you can’t pass a law that’s going to fix these spiritual problems.”
Black lawmakers shouted “Preach!” and “Amen!” to their new ally. But seconds later, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Huntsville, called for the vote.
But for three votes, it split down party lines.
Ball voted against.
But there were other curious departures from the expected split. Speaker McCutcheon voted “no,” as well. Rep. Joe Faust, R-Fairhope, and Rep. Allen Farley, R- McCalla, did too.
As the Republicans moved to the next bill on the calendar — to place new restrictions on absentee voting — state Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, sang “Ain’t No One Going to Turn Me Around” over the sponsor’s opening remarks, seemingly explaining the bill’s intent.
Other Democrats met with reporters in the small media area near the entrance of the House chambers.
“They talk about standing strong for Alabama, but goddammit, they’re standing wrong for Alabama,” Daniels said.
As he spoke, the House clerk reported small but significant changes to the HB312 vote count.
Speaker McCutcheon had intended to vote “yes,” the clerk reported.
That glimmer of independence minutes before —it had been mostly a clerical error. Only Ball and Farley had crossed party lines.
Regardless, the legislation would go to the Senate, where a similar anti-CRT bill had already passed out of committee.
As Ball said, the train was speeding down the tracks, no matter who tried to step in its way.
To England, the fast-moving bill is not only about Alabama history, but about controlling its future. In Alabama, he said, we run from things that provoke thought and we shun those who take a different view of history than the one approved by the state.
“It is designed to socially engineer a particular person, and if you can’t get along with it, you don’t have a place here,” England said of the bill. “And if you can’t accept what the history that we want to give you is, you don’t have a place here, you don’t belong here, you’re not valued like the folks in charge.”
Without confronting the past’s impact on the present, Alabama would never grow, he warned.
“This legislation,” he said, “will continue to allow the dead to bury the living in the state for eternity.”