Alabama’s history can be used as an indicator of the importance of local politics.
Many are familiar with the state’s long history with anti-Blackness and civil rights injustices. Alabama, as a southern, historically conserative state, has a history of slavery, displacement of Black Americans, segragation, and police brutality. However, Black Alabamians have used their voices to fight against the hatred being used against them. Many of that progress can be attributed to the work of Black political leaders in Alabama that has existed for over 150 years.
Benjamin Turner was the first Black American to serve as a Representative in Alabama. Turner was sold to slave owners in Selma, Alabama and remained enslaved there until the city was liberated by the Union during the American Civil War in 1865. He worked for his owner’s business where he received payment while enslaved, so when Selma was liberated and the business was destroyed, he had to find new work. This is when Turner started his work in Republican politics. The Republican party of this time favored more liberal ideals, like social justice for Black Americans. Turner successfully won a seat for Alabama in the US House of Representatives 42nd Congress. The platform he ran with focussed on voting rights and human rights protections for all. He also advocated for financial aid for Alabama after experiencing loss first hand during the Civil War. However, Turner was considered to be quite conservative.
“I have no coals of fiery reproach to heap upon them now. Rather would I extend the olive branch of peace, and say to them, let the past be forgotten,” Turner said, according to the US House of Representatives archives.
Turner believed in human rights protections for confederate southerners as well. Turner’s political career ended in 1872 when Black voters were split between himself, and another Black candidate named Philip Joseph. Joseph and many others did not support his moderate views. However, both Turner and Joseph lost the seat to a Democratic candidate because of the divide between Black voters.
Turner was just the beginning of Black political leaders in Alabama. A Black man named James Rapier was born in Florence, Alabama and served in the 43rd Congress as a representative in the House for Alabama from 1873 to 1875. He spent his time in congress with a record of six other Black representatives of the time advocating for The Civil Rights Act of 1875. The goal of this bill was to outlaw discrimination in public places. Rapier and the Republican party were successful in passing the bill after he and the six other Black representatives recounted their experiences with discrimination on The House debate floor.
“Every day my life and property are exposed, are left to the mercy of others, and will be so long as every hotel-keeper, railroad conductor, and steamboat captain can refuse me with impunity,” said Rapier from the US House of Representatives archives.
The bill had little effect as the Republican party had to amend it many times to make it acceptable to the Democrats. Rapier still remains an important figure in Alabama’s political history.
In a more local context, Black politicians in Alabama have shown the importance of mayoral elections. These Black political leaders struggled to gain mayoral power for years because of discrimination and anti-Blackness that prevented them from running for office. That is why it was not until 1979 that Alabama had its first Black mayor.
Richard Arrington Jr. became the first Black mayor of the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Arrington is an Alabama native, born in Livingston, Alabama, and served for 20 years as mayor from 1979 to 1999. He spent his time in office advocating against police brutality, expanding downtown Birmingham, improving the city’s economy and lowering the unemployment rate, instituting affirmative action in the workplace and more, according to F. Erik Brooks and Robert J. Robinson for the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
After Arrington, there have now been several other Black mayors of Birmingham, including the city’s current mayor, Randall Woodfin.
Woodfin, a Birmingham native, has served as mayor since 2017 and became the youngest mayor of the city in over 120 years at age 36. Woodfin’s administration said its focuses are improving the 99 neighborhoods of Birmingham, bettering education, building up the economy and more, according to his plan to “put people first.”
While all these Black political figures have been Black men, Black women are vital contributors to politics in Alabama. The practices and injustices in place that made it difficult for Black men to gain power in this state made it even harder for Black women. However, Black women in Alabama have still made political impact as school board members, city council members, activists, lawyers, community organizers and more.
Black female political figures in Alabama include women like Dr. Sheila Nash-Stevenson, the first Black woman in Alabama to earn a PhD in physics at Alabama A&M University. Nash-Stevenson serves as a member of the Madison school board in addition to being an engineer with NASA at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and many other professional achievements.
Another example of Black female leadership in Alabama politics is Terri Sewell. She is the current representative of Alabama’s 7th Congressional District since 2011 and first Black woman to serve in the Alabama Congressional delegation. Sewell’s prestigious law education and years of political work have led her to create a distinguished congressional career creating improvements in her district, including Tuscaloosa county and Jefferson county. Sewell is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus where she has worked to reform the criminal justice system, improve health care by preventing racial health disparities, expanding education and more. Her work in honoring the civil rights freedom fighters involved in historic Alabama events like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and March from Selma to Wachington were recognized and supported by President Obama and Michelle Obama.
The work of Black politicians has been a crucial part in the change made in this state, but community organizations are important to acknowledge when discussing political impact. It is these organizations that bring together their local community and raise funds for causes that are important.
An Alabama organization that is working to end racial injustice is Project Say Something. Founded by Camille Goldston Bennett, Project Say Something’s mission is “to confront racial injustice and patriarchal violence through Black history by using communication, education, and advocacy, community empowerment to reconcile the past with the present.”
The values behind the actions this organization takes to protect its community include protecting Black mothers and women, advocating for LGBTQ+ members, uplifting all Black voices, advocating for better education and more. Project Say Something considers Critical Race theory as an important part of improving education. Critical race theory or CRT is defined as “an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare,” by The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. CRT was prohibited to be taught in schools in Alabama in October of 2021. However, Project Say Something continues to advocate for the importance of it to be taught in schools as one of the organization’s values.
“We believe that critical race theory should be understood and taught in every level of public education and that our youth should be equipped with the tools to understand oppressive systems from an early age.” -Project Say Something
This is just some of the work that has been done by Black politicians and community organizers in Alabama that has changed the state’s history. Who knows what change can occur if more people learn about local politics and how they can support Black leaders.