Alabama Reflector: Covering the pain and promise of our home
The pain and promise of Alabama collide on Dexter Avenue, the heart of Montgomery.
In Court Square, on the western end of the street, slaveholders once forced men, women and children to endure poking, prodding and the torture of being separated from their loved ones. The souls caught in the system faced physical and psychological abuse that, in many cases, only ended with death.
On the eastern end of the street sits the Alabama State Capitol. Here, slaveholders formed a government that burned the ideals of the Declaration of Independence in the furnace of white supremacy. Four decades later, an all-white assembly, convened through fraud, gathered in this building to approve a state Constitution. It took the vote from Black men and poor white men and established an authoritarian regime.
But on Dexter Avenue, men and women stood up. In 1902, a group of Black men — most working class; all active in their churches — organized the Colored Men’s Suffrage Association of Alabama (CMSAA) to challenge the Jim Crow state constitution. With the quiet support of Booker T. Washington, they fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, daring the justices to nod at a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution. In a smug and destructive decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes meekly submitted to the Alabama elites.
But on Dexter Avenue, the fight continued. A voting rights challenge flared up in 1944, drawing in local activists who fought on for a lonely, frustrating decade. One of them, a seamstress named Rosa Parks, boarded a bus on a December evening in 1955 that she left in police custody. In protest, men and women soon crowded into an orange-red building, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a block from the Capitol, and organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They threw the gauntlet in the face of Jim Crow and started the modern civil rights movement.
And on an early spring day in 1965, 25,000 men and women marched up Dexter Avenue, past the paved-over slave market; past the long-forgotten meeting site of the CMSAA, and up to the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, a few feet from the birthplace of the Confederacy. Their just-concluded procession from Selma would lead to the Voting Rights Act and, after nearly a century, the return of democracy to the South.
“How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who knew Dexter Avenue, said that day. “I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’”
In Alabama, America confronts itself. The state’s past is choked with elites who brutally and unapologetically used the public trust to serve themselves and keep their neighbors in line. They viewed the common good with suspicion, and those advocating it as traitors.
Many more Alabamians rejected these terms. Braving the wrath of former slaveholders, newly-emancipated communities built a public school system after the Civil War. A multiracial coalition rose in 1892 in a doomed but valiant effort to restore republican government to Alabama. King; Parks, E.D. Nixon, Amelia Boynton, John Lewis and thousands of other courageous souls resisted the darkness of Jim Crow, preserving a flame that they would build into a sunrise.
These are the dynamics of our state: a government that often loses sight of the people it is supposed to serve, and citizens who often have to fight hard — and endure much — to be heard. The push and pull of Alabama politics starts here.
Alabama Reflector will cover this dynamic, and more. We will write about government and the governed with clarity, accuracy and thoroughness. We aim to be a window on our leaders and the issues that continue to dog our state.
And those issues are dire. Despite decades of economic development, Alabama remains one of the nation’s poorest states. Over 760,000 Alabamians, more than half of them women, live below the poverty line. Alabama spends less on students than state and regional averages. In 2020, Alabama ranked eighth for death rates from cancer; sixth in infant mortality; third in death rates for heart disease; first (tied with Mississippi) in death rates from stroke; fifth in firearm death rates; and third in death rates from homicide. The racial divides on all of these issues are stark, and shameful.
Many elected officials respond to these problems by looking away and picking on people who can’t fight back. We plan to cover that, too. But we will focus on those never-ending challenges that bind us and how our leaders face them. In doing so, we hope to draw our real challenges from the shadows, help conversations and explore solutions. We want to show the state as it is, and what it could be.
Laws are made in the State House. But Alabama is made outside it, by brave men and women who call us back to our ideals and reject power for its own sake. As we launch Alabama Reflector, we pledge to bring you a clear view of our home; the decisions made by our leaders, and the paths that lay before us.