Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
On Tuesday night, civil rights leader Bernice King, daughter of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., took to Twitter with what amounted to the digital version of a prayerlike sigh of relief. Democrat Doug Jones had just pulled off an unlikely victory in the election to fill the Alabama Senate seat left vacant by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. King wrote:
“Selma, Lord, Selma. It’s no coincidence that Selma, where blood was shed in the struggle for voting rights for Black people, pushed #DougJones ahead for good. #Alabama”
Hers is more than a sentimental observation. At a time when the Democratic Party has drastically scaled back operations nationwide in conservative bastions like Alabama, it fell to civil rights leaders – including activists and ministers, attorneys and businessmen – to organize and energize black voters to vote for Doug Jones.
The numbers show they got the job done well. As the vote totals rolled in, Selma – the site of storied civil rights and county seat – supplied the coup de grace, delivering nearly 75% of Dallas County’s votes to Jones.
This is the place where, in March 1965, peaceful marchers were teargassed and beaten mercilessly by state troopers while the news cameras rolled. The demonstrators were attempting a symbolic 54-mile march to the state capital to demand full voting rights for blacks. National outraged followed the televised brutality, and later that month, the marchers – backed by a federal court order – arrived at the capital 25,000 strong.
The demonstration was seen as a turning point in a national debate that led to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in August 1965.
The mobilization of black voters across Alabama in the run-up to this week’s election shows Democrats that it’s time to invest more in – and follow the lead of – civil rights leaders.
In Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Tuskegee, the state’s NAACP chapters hosted get-out-the-vote drives that included rallies, social media outreach and radio ads. “We’re trying to work all angles,” Patricia Mokola, a spokeswoman for the Alabama NAACP, told USA Today before the election. “We’re trying to reach not only African-Americans, we’re trying to reach millennials as well. They will be instrumental in this election.”
The strategy worked. Exit polls show that 96% of black voters supported Jones, as did more than 61% of voters under 45 years old.
You could see the movement’s force in Greene County, near the state’s western edge. The area was a hotbed of civil rights activism in the 1960s, when Dr. King and his top lieutenants paid multiple visits.
The torch later passed to local leaders like John and Carol Zippert, who have spent decades running programs for an organization, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, that helps black farmers get access to credit and land. The Zipperts also publish a newspaper, the Greene County Democrat, that urged voters to the polls.
The county seat, Eutaw, features a casino, Greenetrack, whose CEO is Luther Winn, a politically active businessman who supports the local NAACP and the National Action Network, the organization run by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Thanks in part to the efforts of Winn, the Zipperts and NAACP activists, Jones carried Greene with an overwhelming 87% of the vote, a larger margin than Moore won in any county.
The victory in Alabama proves there is no substitute for prayer, preparation and believing it’s possible to prevail against seemingly impossible odds. Leaders in the national party would do well to heed the lessons local Alabama leaders taught them Tuesday night.