Alabama is a beautiful state, full of beautiful places and millions of beautiful people. And for whatever perverse and tragic reasons, it has spent a galling amount of its time, its energy and its history showcasing the ugliest of itself, and of humanity.
It is a history of roads not taken, of near misses that have meant the difference between greatness and disgrace. At the dawn of the 20th century, Alabama took a stubborn lurch back into the worst of the 19th by ratifying the most retrograde, regressive and racist state constitution in the nation, one that keeps power in Montgomery and the powerless in poverty to this day. (Section 256 still includes this: “Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”)
On the same day in January 1963 that Carl Sanders was being sworn in as Georgia’s first New South governor in Atlanta, a defiant George Wallace was in Montgomery vowing eternal commitment to “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
In 2003, rookie Gov. Bob Riley, formerly a Republican congressman, idealistically if naively proposed a modest-to-negligible increase in Alabama’s spectacularly low property taxes to raise hundreds of millions for education. A disinformation campaign that would have shamed Goebbels helped crush it at the polls.
Ask Americans who and what they think about (other than football) when they hear “Alabama,” and names like Ralph Abernathy, Hugo Black, Rosa Parks, Richmond Flowers, Fannie Flagg, Truman Capote, Frank Johnson, Helen Keller or Martin Luther King Jr. probably won’t be in the answer; nor will reference to the state’s gorgeous beaches, mountains, streams and forests.
But they know about George Wallace and Bull Connor. They know about fire hoses and police dogs and a 1963 bombing at an African-American church in Birmingham that killed four little girls.
And for all the drearily familiar usual-suspect scapegoats, Alabama has nobody to blame for its miserable image but Alabama. It’s not just that the state repeatedly earns the disdain of the world; it’s that so many Alabamians seem to take so much pride in that fact.
Which brings us to Roy Moore.
The current face of Alabama is a ludicrous caricature standing (of course) in front of an American flag, holding up a pistol and wearing a cowboy hat. This supposed emblem of gun-totin’ American manhood resembles nothing so much as Steve Martin at his kid’s birthday party in “Parenthood,” wearing bathmats for chaps and eggbeaters for spurs.
Judge Roy Moore disqualified himself from legitimacy on the bench long before he ever got near the Alabama Supreme Court, from which he has now been ousted not once but twice. He answers to no law but God’s, as he himself interprets it, which of course has drawn him the passionate and unwavering support of that misbegotten wing of American “Christianity” that long ago abandoned any pretense of doctrinal integrity for the more mundane realm of politics.
This political bloc bears about as much connection to the teachings and spirit of Christ as a Times Square hooker. Less, actually – Jesus forgave the prostitute; His most withering scorn was directed at the Pharisees, whose public displays of piety He found, let us say, unconvincing.
But any attack on Moore, of course, is an attack on Christianity itself. (“They Falsely Accused Jesus! Vote Roy Moore” said the sign in front of Living Way Ministries in Opelika, which raises the question of whether tax-exempt status should apply to political organizations. But that might be a moot consideration: The current occupant of the White House has pledged to “totally destroy” the constitutionally based ban on political activism by religious organizations.)
Moore, who doesn’t think Americans of Muslim faith should be allowed to serve in Congress, and has referred to American Indians as “reds and yellows,” said in answer to a question at a campaign rally a few months ago that the last time America was “great” was “at the time when families were united – even though we had slavery – they cared for one another … our families were strong, our country had a direction.”
The questioner, an African-American, must surely have wondered about just how “united” those families were after various members got sold off, and just what “direction” the man who would be Alabama’s next United States senator had in mind.
In 1995, when he was a circuit court judge, Moore addressed a national conference of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist organization directly descended from those infamous “White Citizen Councils” of segregation days.
In 2004, when the aforementioned Gov. Riley led a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in trying to eliminate the Jim Crow language from the aforementioned state constitution, opposition coalesced around … Roy Moore. That effort, he told the Birmingham News, was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” that would “open the door to an enormous tax increase.”
None of this has even touched on the multiple sexual impropriety accusations against Moore by women who say the encounters happened when they were in their teens and Moore was in his 30s – accusations many of Moore’s fellow Republicans have acknowledged are credible. A Decatur Daily editorial accorded the moral high ground to none other than First Daughter Ivanka Trump: “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children. I’ve yet to see a valid explanation and I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.”
Meanwhile, the same editorial noted, the president himself “is holding his nose and saying, ‘Vote for him anyways.’ ”
Many Moore backers, needless to say, including an appalling horde of alleged “Christians,” have hardly risen to Ms. Trump’s level. To them, the accusers are just a collection of Jezebels out to bring down a man of God. The treatment some of these women have endured proves once more that shame is simply beyond some people’s moral capacity.
Moore has repeatedly refused to debate senatorial opponent Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney nominated in 1997 by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by a Republican-majority Senate, who successfully prosecuted 1963 Birmingham church bombers Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry. (This is the guy Trump warns will be “soft on crime.”) The Moore campaign’s ostensible reason for refusing Jones’ repeated invitations to debate, in any format, is the attorney’s “liberal stance on transgenderism.” That’s an issue you’d think would be a fertile topic for … well, debate.
There’s a lot more in play here than Roy Moore vs. Doug Jones; but in Alabama, there always is.
For starters we, all Americans, have to — we simply have to — get past this bleak and barren place where almost literally anybody can get elected to public office on the cynically vacuous platform of “I’m a Christian, I stand up for the National Anthem, and I say Merry Christmas,” no matter what kind of useless mediocrity, or the vilest of scoundrels, he or she might be. Closer to home, Alabama needs to stop basking in the deserved scorn its embrace of the likes of Roy Moore brings; stop wearing it as a badge of honor.
The symbolism in this election is profound: A state whose infamous history includes the racist murders of four children in church could show the world a new face — not just another in a long line of low-road demagogues, but that of a man who helped bring the murderers to justice.
That’s unlikely to happen. If not, it will be yet another right road not taken.
Dusty Nix, 706-571-8528; firstname.lastname@example.org