The Baldwin County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee held its 34th annual memorial march through the streets of Bay Minette Monday morning, followed by song, prayer and comments at the John F. Rhodes Civic Center, which culminated in a keynote speech by State Rep. Sam Jones of Mobile.
With a theme of “Rouse One Another to Love,” Jones borrowed an excerpt from a King sermon stating, “To hate is rooted in fear and the only cure for hate is love. There is only one antidote for hate, and that is love.”A former Mobile city councilor and Mobile County commissioner who became the first black mayor of Mobile in 2005, Jones said he has participated in MLK Day marches since 1976. He admitted he doesn’t often visit Bay Minette, but said it’s demonstrated incredible growth and development over the years. Commending the city’s mayor and City Council for the progress, Jones then cautioned, “When I tell you about something I like, let me tell you about something I miss.”
As a county commissioner, Jones would often travel to state meetings in Montgomery with Samuel Jenkins, Baldwin’s first black county commissioner and James Williams, the first black president of the Baldwin County Board of Education. Williams died in 2010, Jenkins in 2017.
“I looked up one day and they were gone,” Jones said. “So let me just say to you that it would really please me, and I think would please the Lord, if you would elect one person that looks like me to represent Baldwin County. That’s called progress, and it’s something to pay attention to.”
Less than 10 percent of Baldwin County’s population is black, according to 2017 Census data, compared to more than a third of Mobile County.
Jenkins was elected at a time when the Baldwin County Commission had seven members, but both he and Williams lost reelection bids in 2000, after their district lines were redrawn to incorporate a few thousand more white residents. That same year, Rosalyn Mattingly, the first black woman to sit as a trial judge in Baldwin County (she was appointed 14 months earlier) was also defeated by a white candidate, Jody Bishop.
Today, the Commission has been whittled to four members and all are white. The Baldwin County Board of Education, which represents a student population that is 13 percent black (27 percent identify as nonwhite, according to 2018 data), has no black board members representing its seven districts. Even in the city of Bay Minette, where 42 percent of residents are nonwhite, the five-member City Council contains just one African American, District 4 representative William Taylor, while the other four and the mayor are white. No black judge sits on the 28th judicial circuit.
“This is another year for reapportionment,” Jones said. “Lines will be redrawn. I just wish we could draw something to let people know that Baldwin County has something for all people.”
To that end, Jones encouraged the audience to not only participate in the upcoming 2020 Census, but also encourage others to be counted.
“If you’re unaccounted, you undercut yourself,” he said.
But Jones didn’t blame all of Baldwin County’s underrepresentation on redistricting. He suggested that in some instances, when the black community has had opportunities to advance, they’ve instead been caught “sleeping on duty.”
“Whether your alarm clock goes off or not, morning will come,” he said. Meanwhile, he said in spite of their political differences, he maintains a respectful tone with opponents in the Legislature and he warned against participating in “the divisive political climate we have right now in the country.”
Jones also acknowledged the economic progress in Mobile and around the state, but suggested the playing field isn’t level for some communities.
“They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but it only lifts the ones that are in the water, not the ones on land,” he said. “That’s happening in Mobile now. You see how it’s growing, downtown looks nice, Airbus is hiring folks, but if nothing is touching you, you have to sit back and watch.”
Yet he also encouraged anyone who may not be benefitting from progress to get motivated and take initiative on their own.
“I don’t think anybody is going to come and donate any progress. I’m going to have to go get it myself,” he said. “The door is open and we need to walk through it.”
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