Home A project of States Newsroom
Steve Marshall doesn’t know what Jim Crow was


Steve Marshall doesn’t know what Jim Crow was

Oct 02, 2023 | 8:00 am ET
By Brian Lyman
Steve Marshall doesn’t know what Jim Crow was
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall delivers his inaugural speech during inauguration ceremonies at the Alabama State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

Last Tuesday, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall issued a “statement on redistricting to the people of Alabama.”

It said his office would abide by a federal court order creating a second majority or near-majority Black congressional district while appealing the ruling.

That’s a standard comment when one loses cases like these. (The office on Friday appeared to have abandoned an immediate appeal of the order.)

But Marshall said a lot more.

The state’s chief law enforcement officer, whose defense of a map generated by the Alabama Legislature hinged on changing Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s mind about the Voting Rights Act, complained that federal judges had “a view of Alabama that was stuck in 1963.” Marshall, whose office often compared majority-minority districts to affirmative action (it didn’t work), said the court order was a declaration that people “must apparently be reduced to skin color alone.”

And he went still further.

“If this brazen and divisive commandeering is permitted without even a whisper of concern from other quarters, America’s congressional elections as we know them will never be the same,” the statement said. “We will be grouped together by race alone, with counties and cities split down the middle—the same way that we were so wrongfully segregated once before.”

Set aside Marshall’s selective outrage about county and city splits. The attorney general will fight to preserve communities in the heavily-Republican Wiregrass. He seems indifferent to breaking up Democratic-leaning Jefferson County, whose state House delegation includes a GOP representative who lives 60 miles outside Birmingham.

Instead, look at that final comparison.

The same way that we were so wrongfully segregated before.

Steve Marshall appears to equate meaningful Black political participation with Jim Crow.

A quick review. We’re getting new congressional districts, per court rulings upheld twice by the U.S. Supreme Court, because voting in Alabama splits down racial lines. White Alabamians tend to support Republicans. Black Alabamians tend to support Democrats.

White Alabamians make up 64% of the population. Black Alabamians make up 27% of the population. It’s very difficult for Black Alabamians to choose their preferred leaders — and shape the policies affecting their lives — if they’re put in districts where their votes are swamped.

With that in mind, a three-judge panel found that packing Black voters into a single congressional district, as the state has done for 30 years, made meaningful participation in the political process unconstitutionally difficult. Citing Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bans discriminatory voting and election practices, the judges ordered the creation of a second congressional district with a majority-Black population or “something quite close to it.” 

The Alabama attorney general’s office never really challenged that finding of racially-polarized voting in the state. Even Justice Clarence Thomas noted the fact in an otherwise acid attack on the lower court

Instead, Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour Jr. insisted that the judiciary reduce the power of Section 2 to a small Nerf gun, its fire bouncing off whatever walls a state erects. The attorney general’s office argued that acknowledging and addressing racial voting patterns with two Black opportunity districts somehow perpetuated racism. 

“It surrenders the State to pernicious stereotypes and sends an ‘equally pernicious’ message to its elected representatives ‘at war with the democratic ideal’ that all voters are represented in Congress, not just the Black representative for the Black voter, the white representative for the white voter, the Jewish representative for the Jewish voter, or the Catholic representative for the Catholic voter,” the state argued in a filing with the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 20. 

The curious phrasing (having all voters represented in Congress is a pernicious idea?) gives the game away. 

The attorney general’s office isn’t striving for a color-blind society. It’s using the rusty conservative tactic of employing the language of equality to fight opportunity.

It’s a purposefully simplistic approach, one that implies other groups had the same or similar experiences in Alabama’s system of apartheid; one that suggests segregation was a mere question of labels, not a system of terror.

But Jim Crow was a unique horror for Black Alabamians.

If Steve Marshall, who is white, wants to register to vote, he can pick up a form and submit it in a few minutes. 

A Black person in Jim Crow Alabama could be assaulted for even trying

When Steve Marshall travels to work, he can be confident that obeying the laws will result in an uneventful journey.

A Black person in Jim Crow Alabama could be arrested on the slightest pretense and sentenced to slave labor. As Douglas Blackmon relates in “Slavery By Another Name,” if that man reached the end of his sentence, his white captor could keep him in chains, confident that law enforcement would overlook the fact.

If Steve Marshall starts a business, he can focus on delivering products to his customers and take pride in his profits.

A Black person in Jim Crow Alabama with a profitable business could be murdered. Elmore Bolling built a successful trucking firm in the 1940s. In 1947, he was killed with a shotgun blast to the back, in part because he paid his workers more than white employers did. 

If Steve Marshall’s church becomes a hub for people challenging unjust laws, he can nod in agreement, or shrug it off. 

We just marked the 60th anniversary of the murder of four little girls in a church where activists trained to challenge Alabama’s authoritarian regime.

That was Jim Crow. 

That was wrongful segregation. 

It was the denial of the vote.  It was a constant attack on the very existence of Black Alabamians. 

It was not remotely comparable to addressing the legacies of that century-long sin.

So forgive me if I’m skeptical of the attorney general’s sudden interest in the fellowship of Alabamians. If Steve Marshall thinks representation equals segregation, he’s making a profound statement of his own ignorance.