Most of my life, I’ve felt some degree of embarrassment or shame when I’ve said those words. That shame is framed by a series of horrible images from my long life living in Alabama or reading or watching about it once I left: Governor “Big Jim” Folsom plastered on the cover of Time magazine, passed out drunk on the capitol steps in Montgomery; groups of black men dressed in gray and black striped uniforms and attached to each other by strong ropes or chains as they worked along highways picking up debris; white guards on very large horses and holding very large rifles ready to fire at any of those chained black men; Governor George Wallace standing defiantly (legs spread, arms akimbo) in front of a building on the University of Alabama campus declaring that no “colored people” would attend; the main street of that campus lined two or three deep with angry white laborers from the Tuscaloosa paper mill and rubber plant holding bricks/bats/boards as Arthurene Lucy was driven to class by our new white Dean of Women who was a “Yankee” from Michigan; black parents and children trying to escape many police dogs who had been told to “sic ’em” by their white handlers in uniform; black people being fire-hosed into streets or against brick walls or onto park grass by police led by Chief Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor; streets of Birmingham deserted and department stores closed because a “Negro” had been elected mayor and all white people who could have fled to suburbs some of which were being created to house such people.
So when the child molester running for the U.S. Senate to replace Jeff Sessions was accused of sexual abuse of very young girls and women, I once again felt embarrassed and ashamed. Knowing absolutely nothing about Doug Jones, I knew well enough that his opponent would win because too many Alabamians connect Democrats with all manner of dangerous and even supernaturally evil beings. My college roommate who has returned to Huntsville to be closer to her family told me she might have to move is the abusive man won–something we both predicted. But we were, thankfully, wrong. Doug Jones won because a lot of people worked long and hard talking about his positive qualities and his opponent’s unspeakable qualities. And Tuesday, December 12th, in his cogent and heartening acceptance speech, Mr. Jones told the significant truth that he could not have won without the huge turn-out by black voters in the state. He also said in a later interview that his successful prosecution of the two men who boasted to friends of helping bomb a church and kill four precious little girls was “the best work I’ve done.”
It turns out that Doug Jones isn’t just a fellow Alabamian, but he grew up in Fairfield, a near suburb of Birmingham and home to TCI (Tennessee Coal and Iron Company), the southern steel mill run by U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh. I grew up in that same Fairfield, a generation before him, so we share all sorts of local souvenirs. What his election has done for me that is a gift of the greatest magnitude is this: Watching him speak in a municipal building in Birmingham, with a young black woman and an old black man right behind him, both laughing and crying in equal measure has given me a new image to set beside all the frozen ones I began this blog by listing. This moment of transformation can’t erase or even replace all the sickening memories, but it can sit beside them, nudging them ever so slightly to the periphery of my vision.