Sixty million years ago, what is now south-central Alabama was the shore of an ocean. Over time, the continents shifted, sea levels receded, and the nutrient-rich mud deposited by those waves eventually became nutrient-rich black dirt perfect for planting crops like cotton.
Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of textile manufacturing made cotton an increasingly vital part of the Southern – and the American – economy. The children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans, kidnapped and brought over the ocean to harvest tobacco in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, were torn from their families, chained together and marched southwest to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to expend their bodies scooping bowls of cotton from thousands upon thousands of plants growing in that ancient shoreline. The modern American economy, from which some of us benefit more than others, was built on their backs.
War. Emancipation. Reconstruction. Segregation. The well worn story, still somehow not told often enough or understood well enough. When I visited Alabama to do thesis research two years ago, I was struck by the extent to which the history of those slaves and their descendants has simply been ignored. Jefferson Davis, traitor to his country, has his statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Montgomery. Down the street, where men and women and children were chained and sold like animals – where their descendants were beaten and brutalized and ghettoized – no marker stands.
At the risk of generalizing too much, Alabama seems to have a knack for ignoring. Forty years after KKK members bombed a Baptist church, killing four black girls, it took a prosecutor named Doug Jones to finally bring them to justice; their identities had long been known to authorities. They were just … ignored. That bombing, in Birmingham in 1963, occurred as the South convulsed with marches and demands. Martin Luther King Jr., a young preacher in the first capital of the Confederacy who every Sunday delivered sermons extolling the need for equality almost literally in the shadow of the statue of the man who led a war to deny that equality to men like King. By 1965, King led a march for voting rights up the same steps where Davis had delivered his inaugural address as president of the nation founded explicitly on the denial of humanity to dark-skinned people.
For decades, the descendants of the enslaved had been denied their voice. In a nation that preaches the power of the vote and the principle of democracy, black men and women had been stripped of that power, and with it their place as true citizens of a country they had been forced to inhabit. Even after the march from Selma to Montgomery left bloodstains in the 60-million-year-old dirt, African Americans found themselves struggling to make themselves heard. Restrictions on voting for convicted felons. Voter ID laws. No early voting. No online registration. Police intimidation at polling places. Voting, the one measure of power granted to every person born in the United States, the primary tool of self-governance, was granted only reluctantly to those who arguably needed it most desperately.
Ignore it or dismiss it how you will, history is always there. That long chain of events leads directly to yesterday’s election of a new senator from Alabama. Yesterday, people of color – many of them residents of that “Black Belt” of south-central Alabama that once was a seashore – overcame obstacles, waited in line for hours and cast provisional ballots after being wrongly classified as “inactive voters.” They did so because, for the first time, the established power structures of the state – which for so long had domineered and silenced them – were vulnerable. That power structure long had said they were unfit to vote because they were black, or because they were female, or both. Today, they told the power structure it was unfit to represent them on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Against a candidate who embodied everything wrong about the current American political moment – a likely serial sexual abuser of teen girls who, according to his spokesman, “probably” believes homosexuality should be illegal and rejects the rights of Muslims to hold political office, who just this week pined for the days of slavery – people of color, and especially women of color, rose up. As they have been doing for the past year. As they have been doing for generations.
They rose up to take one of the most powerful actions any person in our society can take – an action so consequential its potential use by African Americans sparked dread among white Alabamians for more than a century: They voted. And in so doing, they pulled down a bastion of power that said they should stay in their place, the place carved out for them as women, as people of color.
By all accounts, it wasn’t easy. Progress never is. It takes a long time for that sea to deposit its grains on the beach, imperceptibly building a fertile land in which freedom and equality can eventually take root, even if only after violence and oppression trample it first. It takes persistence, against long odds, against a bloody history too often whitewashed and denied. It takes being assaulted and insulted and gaslighted by monsters who claim the backing of God and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” while you dismantle their corrupt edifices.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends – with difficulty – toward justice. Nevertheless, they persisted.