Editor’s Note: Second in an occasional series from CNN Politics and CNN Money examining the political anthropology of the United States and how demographic and social shifts are changing the political landscape
Nearly 44 years after Hillary Clinton visited this state as a law student, the cruel injustices of its past still lingering, she walked onto the campus of historically black Miles College and delivered a message: I haven’t forgotten.
“Among the common barriers we still have to knock down is systemic racism,” Clinton told rallygoers on February 27.
Her pitch worked: Three days later, on primary day, Alabama delivered Clinton her second-biggest margin of victory in the 2016 primaries — 78% of the vote. Her biggest margin of victory in a primary was in nearby Mississippi, another state with a large African-American population. She has no chance of winning either state in November.
But if she is to win the White House, she’ll need to rely on the same coalition of voters – many of them minorities – that put President Barack Obama in office.
In this year, as the first black president is preparing to leave office and when race factors so heavily into the political discussion, much of the conversation around crime and justice, Clinton’s Alabama background could be an asset. The New York Times detailed the time in 1972 that then-Hillary Rodham spent in Dothan, a small city in the southeastern corner of the state.
Clinton went undercover on assignment for the Washington Research Project, Marian Wright Edelman’s advocacy group, which later became the Children’s Defense Fund. She posed as a parent looking for a school for her son, according to The Times. In reality, she was trying to determine whether so-called segregation academies were receiving tax-exempt status, which would have violated federal law.
“This is the place where she probably really got a chance to see some of the inequities in the education system in regards to black people,” said Ahmad Ward, vice president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Bill Clinton has touted his wife’s work in Alabama decades ago in speeches.
“The gutsiest thing she did was to go to Alabama, to a small town in Northern Alabama, pretend to be a white housewife,” he said this year during a speech in Sacramento.
But it is not something Hillary Clinton discusses a great deal. Rather, she focuses on her husband’s economic record. While both Clintons have admitted his legacy on criminal justice reform could use some work and she has promised to work to end racial profiling and mass incarceration, they like to point to his record on the economy – an issue that hits home in Alabama.
“I thought my husband did a pretty good job,” Clinton said at that February rally, describing his time in office. “The median income for African-American income went up 33%.”
Indeed, many African-Americans remember Bill Clinton’s time as a southern governor and then as president as a time of prosperity. Hillary Clinton was accepted by association.
“A lot of people gained their love for her really based upon Bill Clinton,” said Crystal Peterson, the co-owner of Yo Mama’s restaurant in downtown Birmingham. “That’s when you first saw her.”
Ward also pointed back to Bill Clinton to explain her dominance in the Alabama primary.
“There’s some members of my community that remember what their wallets looked like when (Bill Clinton) was in office, and that’s what they’re going by” when they support Hillary, according to Ward.
The Clinton’s dominance here was interrupted by Obama. Obama bested Hillary Clinton 84% to 15% in the Alabama primaries. This time around Hillary Clinton worked to win those voters back and she won by a much greater margin – 91% to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 6% among black Democratic voters in Alabama.
“He (Sanders) really hasn’t been in the party for the decades that the Clinton Family has,” said Dr. George French Jr., President of Miles College. “I think that made the difference. I think that the former president proved his interest in all people and to include the African-American community and their interest. I think that was a spillover from what he proved,” he said.
Tradition holds fast in the south, according to Peterson.
“I think tradition down here is probably what keeps the south the south,” Peterson said. “You’re going to be an Alabama fan. You’re going to be an Auburn fan. You’re going to be a conservative. You’re going to be a liberal.”
“You’re taught this growing up in the south probably more so than you are in the northern states because I think parents in the south, they try to guide you where they want you to go. … If you’ve had 15 years of somebody telling you something, it’s hard to un-believe what you’ve already believed in.”