Alabama has had a long history of protest and civil disobedience. In fact, even today the city of Montgomery markets itself as the “cradle of the Confederacy” and the “birthplace of the civil rights movement,” all in one breath. Our state motto is “We dare defend our rights,” and while Alabamians from Huntsville to Mobile may disagree on which of those rights to fiercely defend and which to merely tolerate, there’s no doubt that the Heart of Dixie has a culture — at least in thought and theory — that recognizes the importance of political passion and protest.
Today that culture is withering. Since 2010, when Republicans gained complete political dominance over the state, saying of previous Democratic control “136 years is long enough,” accountability has been nonexistent on Goat Hill.
The man who ran that 2010 “storming” of the State House, Mike Hubbard, is now a convicted felon, having been removed from his office as Speaker of the House after using it for personal gain. The newly re-elected Republican governor, Robert Bentley, has been involved in an ongoing personal and political scandal involving his extramarital dalliances while in office.
And, of course, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, also Republican, has been suspended from office — for the second time — after effectively ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court. It took Alabama Democrats 136 years to become as corrupt as the Republicans have in less than a decade.
And during all this time, there have been few bright spots in Alabama’s ever-darkening political prison. Instead, the public has seemed to take a somewhat different approach, not protesting and resisting those we all know to be violating our trust — at least not in the usual sense.
After former Speaker Hubbard had already been indicted on a dozen felony charges, he was re-elected to the same post. Was the public endorsing his actions? I think not.
Rather, it was because the vast majority of people in his district protested in another way: by sitting at home and not voting at all. That may have resulted in Hubbard’s continued service in office, at least until his conviction on a handful of those charges, but it also sent the message many of those who skipped the polls that Election Day had in mind: The system is broken.
That type of protest has its place, because the system is indeed broken. But it’s possible, even probable, that such passive protest has put blinders on us, and that we should take them off.
On Jan. 3, leaders of the NAACP held press conferences throughout the state protesting President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be the next U.S. Attorney General. After their press conference outside Sessions’ office here in Mobile, well over a dozen NAACP members, led by national President Cornell Williams Brooks, began a sit-in in the office that lasted over seven hours and ended with the arrest of six.
That protest was, of course, an actual action — an act of civil disobedience hinged on the idea that nonviolent political pressure, not passivity, progresses and strengthens democracy. But it’s a protest not unlike that of those who stayed home for the re-election of Mike Hubbard.
Removing our blinders, we can see that protest in Alabama takes many forms. While our state’s culture of protest may have waned, it’s a foundation we’ll never break down, and upon which we should always look to build. So Alabama has something to learn from those arrested in Mobile on Jan. 3 — the Sessions Six.
What the Sessions Six peacefully did that day — and continue to do with their active opposition to Sessions’ nomination, voiced in sincerity and substance — is another chapter in Alabama’s long history described above.
“We are about to be arrested,” Brooks told the room before he and others knelt in prayer and then surrendered to authorities. “We are doing this as an act of civil disobedience standing in the tradition of Rosa Parks and members of the NAACP community.”
Whether or not you agree Jeff Sessions should ascend to the office of U.S. attorney general, it’s difficult to disagree with Brooks’ words. The actions of the Sessions Six — like those of former NAACP secretary Rosa Parks — make Alabama great, and make America great. Political protest is an Alabama value, and it’s something that certainly lives on.
In Montgomery recently I rode by the bench where Parks got on the bus she’d later refuse to vacate, just days after I’d sat in Sessions’ Mobile office for hours, awaiting the arrests that would ultimately come. Those events — separated by years of struggle and strides, and of pain and progress — resonate with me as what make Alabama what it is.
As I passed by that bench, and then the capitol, its dome glowing with light and controversy, I realized that the Yellowhammer State’s culture of passion and protest is one of its true strengths, one we can’t afford to let die. Instead, Alabamians should stand up for whatever rights they value, and defend them, because we can’t afford anything less.
One day, Montgomery may truly represent the public, always keeping our best interests in mind. Until then, though, political talk is cheap. Protest and participation is where real change starts, and it can even happen in the State House. If you’ll go, I’ll go: Meet me in Montgomery.
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