Long before he became the most powerful man in the Alabama Senate, before he controlled billions of dollars in state money and had lobbyists, governors, and future presidents seeking his favor, Hank Sanders used newspapers and magazines as bathroom tissue. His mother would collect periodicals from the wealthy white family whose house she cleaned and bring them back for Sanders and his brothers and sisters. There were 13 children, all told, and they lived with their parents in a three-room shack that their father had built out of one-by-eight boards among the tall pines and chinaberry trees in Blacksher, a speck of a town 50 miles north of Mobile.
This was Alabama in the 1950s, when Jim Crow reigned and a governor’s race was determined by which candidate managed to secure the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. Life in Baldwin County, where Blacksher was located, may have been marginally less horrid for its black residents than in other parts of the state: The county’s last lynching had occurred in 1919 and some of the white men who perpetrated it had even gone to prison. But there were certain realities by which Sanders, as a black child, knew he must abide. He knew not to spend any of the money he earned picking cotton on the six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola at the drugstore; those were only for white customers, and a black person who tried to buy one risked more than just being refused service. He also knew not to look in the direction of a white woman. The one time he did, the woman’s male companion threatened to whip him, and probably would have had Sanders’s mother, a strong-willed woman named Ola Mae, not intervened. For Sanders, the fact that there was no electricity or running water in his house—to say nothing of toilet paper—was far less distressing than the constant threat of danger.
In 1954, when Sanders was twelve, he momentarily ignored the intended purpose of a magazine his mother had brought home and instead read an article about Thurgood Marshall’s work on Brown v. Board of Education. The case had no bearing on Sanders’s everyday life. Baldwin County’s schools were segregated and would remain defiantly so for more than a decade after his education in them. But Marshall’s legal heroics wormed their way into the back of Sanders’s mind, and when his seventh-grade teacher asked her students what they wanted to be when they grew up, Sanders surprised himself by saying, “A lawyer.” His classmates—whose professional aspirations tended toward farming or turpentine work—burst out laughing. Sanders began to cry; the other kids laughed even harder, which prompted even more tears. When the episode was finally over, Sanders resolved that he would become a lawyer (still not entirely sure what one was) just to prove his classmates wrong.
Sanders went from being an eager student—the kind who devoured, cover-to-cover, the two encyclopedias that comprised his school’s entire library—to a determined one. By graduation, he had high marks, but not enough money to go to college. He spent the next three years working in a sawmill and then as a janitor and an elevator operator, squirreling away as much as he could. When he finally enrolled at Talladega College, a historically black school in central Alabama, it was 1963, and he threw himself into the civil rights movement. He joined the Selma-to-Montgomery march that led to the Voting Rights Act, and he did the dangerous work of registering black people to vote in Lowndes County, a part of Alabama so plagued by racial violence it was known as “Bloody Lowndes.”READ: The Wealth Gap Between Black and White Families Is Greater Than Ever
Sanders’s professors at Talladega quickly identified him as a “poor young man of great promise,” in the parlance of the times, and they urged him to pursue his boyhood dream of becoming a lawyer. In 1967, he was admitted to Harvard Law School. In Cambridge, Sanders stayed involved in the civil rights movement, and it was through his activism that he became close to another black Harvard Law student from the South. Her name was Rose Gaines. She was an itinerant preacher’s daughter who possessed the self-confidence and moxie that Sanders was still developing for himself. Before he graduated, they were married. After Harvard, the newlyweds could have followed their classmates to lucrative law firm jobs in New York or Washington. But they knew how much work remained to be done in the South. So they moved to Selma, the spiritual home of the movement, determined to advance the cause.
It was hard, dispiriting work. The couple didn’t take the Alabama bar exam together because they doubted that two black lawyers would be admitted to practice law in the state at the same time. More than once, Sanders had a gun drawn on him by white business owners whom he was suing on behalf of black clients. But soon he and Rose were filing the lawsuits necessary for blacks in rural Alabama to become sheriffs, school board members, and city councilmen—translating the right to vote into actual political power. In 1983, Sanders ran for office himself in a newly created black-majority Senate district.
Over the next three decades, Sanders became a fixture in the statehouse, ascending to the chairmanship of the Senate’s Finance and Taxation Education Committee. From his expansive office just off the Senate floor, he controlled Alabama’s Education Trust Fund, the largest operating budget in state government. Sanders tried to exercise his power to represent people who were unaccustomed to having a voice in Montgomery—namely poor, black Alabamans. He helped bring more money to their schools and their hospitals, better infrastructure to their neighborhoods, and greater fairness to their tax bills. Thanks to Sanders and a growing caucus of African American legislators, many of whom also chaired crucial committees, it was a period during which black people in Alabama enjoyed their most substantive political representation since Reconstruction. And Sanders, an exceptionally large man who suffered from severe obesity and whose supporters called him “The Rock,” was the cornerstone of the black political power structure in the state. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton faced off in Alabama’s 2008 Democratic primary, both candidates sought the endorsement of Sanders’s political organization; it went to Obama, and Obama won.
Sanders told me the story of his remarkable rise to power earlier this year, but his tone was more wistful than triumphant. For so long, his life had been an uplifting tale of slow but seemingly inexorable progress—not just for himself, but for African Americans throughout the South. In recent years, however, the trajectory of Sanders’s story has been abruptly—and just as inexorably—reversed. In 2010, Republicans took over the Alabama Senate and Sanders lost his chairmanship; in the four years since, he’s watched as the new GOP majority has systematically dismantled much of his life’s work.
Now 71, with a bushy salt-and-pepper moustache and glasses that are forever sliding down his nose, Sanders struggled to articulate the magnitude of this development in personal terms, except to say that it had been “the most devastating and adverse of my time in the Senate.” But he wasn’t hesitant to describe the political ramifications. Sitting in his current office—a cramped space with missing ceiling tiles far from the Senate floor—he waved his arm and gestured at the statehouse halls. “The Republicans have demonstrated that we can be down here,” he said, “and that we can be powerless.” Sanders and other black Alabamans can now buy a Coke whenever they want or look at anyone without fear of being set upon. But in other, less obvious ways, black people in Alabama and across the South are as politically vulnerable as they’ve been since the emergence of the civil rights movement. “It’s a total disempowering of African Americans,” Sanders said. “We are going back to the past very fast.”
When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law 49 years ago this month, he proclaimed it “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.” It’s arguable that Johnson was actually understating the law’s significance. The Voting Rights Act enfranchised millions of Americans almost immediately. The voting registration rate for blacks in Mississippi was 6.7 percent in 1964; by 1968, it was 59.4 percent. Over time, the increase in black voters enabled the elections of thousands of black politicians. Without the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Congressional Black Caucus would be a fraction of its current size. Without the Voting Rights Act, Barack Obama wouldn’t be in the White House.
Yet, while the impact of the VRA on the federal government was profound, it was even more transformative at the state and local levels. Their names may be unfamiliar ones in Washington, but in Tennessee, it was Lois DeBerry, an African American state representative from Memphis and the House speaker pro tempore for 14 years, who was that state’s foremost advocate for public education; in North Carolina, it was the black State Senator Floyd McKissick Jr. who authored that state’s pioneering Racial Justice Act that allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences on grounds of racial bias. By 2001, Mississippi and Alabama had 1,628 African American elected officials—more than the entire United States had in 1970. As the voting rights scholars Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman have written, the VRA fomented a “quiet revolution” in state capitals, county seats, and city halls across the South.
Granted, that revolution was years in the making. The Alabama statehouse that Hank Sanders entered in 1983 was almost comically racist. Privately, some of Sanders’s colleagues still referred to African Americans with racial slurs; publicly, their actions often weren’t much better. Under the state’s constitution—a document that was ratified in 1901 in order to “establish white supremacy in this State,” according to one of its drafters—cities and counties are given little say in their affairs. Instead, that power rests with the legislature, which at the beginning of the twentieth century was all white and which the constitution’s authors assumed would remain that way forever more. Early in his first term, Sanders sponsored a seemingly routine measure to annex several unincorporated black neighborhoods into a predominately white city in his district. In the Alabama statehouse, it was customary for legislators to grant their colleagues “local courtesy” and rubberstamp these sorts of bills. But when Sanders filed his, that courtesy was suddenly revoked.
One of his colleagues, a white Democrat who’d been enlisted by the city’s white residents, took Sanders’s bill and “put it in his pocket,” Sanders recalls. And he kept it there while Sanders waged a lonely filibuster—standing on the Senate floor and giving speeches or reading from the phone book—against “local legislation” from every other senator until he could get a vote on his. Alabama’s three other black senators did what they could to help. “I’d dash to the bathroom to try to urinate real quick,” Sanders says, “and Charles Langford, he would come running in shouting, ‘You’d better get back on the floor!’ ” After a month, Sanders’s bill passed. But it was an unpleasant lesson in the limits of his power. “I realized I wasn’t going to get even the things I’m supposed to get,” Sanders says.
He had come to Montgomery brimming with revolutionary fervor, but this experience led Sanders to a momentous decision: If he wanted to achieve anything, he would have to work with some of the same white legislators who were determined to undermine him. His role model for this strategy was one of the most polarizing figures in the South, Joe Reed. A veteran of the civil rights movement, Reed served as the head of the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC), the state’s leading black grassroots political group, and spent much of the 1970s and ’80s filing lawsuits and drawing legislative maps to ensure the elections of black politicians. (It was a lawsuit filed by Reed that led to the creation of the black-majority Senate district that elected Sanders.) “My goal was to get equity,” Reed told me when I met with him at the ADC’s headquarters, a squat brick building next to a bail-bond shop in a depressed section of Montgomery. He is in his mid-seventies now, with a pencil moustache and a fondness for fedoras. “I’m not one of these guys who believes racism is dead,” he continued. “A man tells me he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, he’s lying!”
In 1970, George Wallace successfully attacked his gubernatorial opponent for being “in bed” with Reed and his “black bloc.” But only a few years later, other white Democratic politicians, some of them as racist as Wallace, began turning to Reed for help. David Bositis, a scholar at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies who has worked with Reed for decades, recalls ADC meetings where he’d see “these redneck white guys in cheap suits and even cheaper haircuts, and they’d be there to get the ADC endorsement.” For Reed, maximizing black political power was what mattered most, so if the situation called for the ADC to endorse a white Democrat over a black one, he wouldn’t hesitate. “A lot of times, we were able to get things done with those good old boys,” Reed told me. “They’d come and tell you, ‘I’m not going to say anything, but count me.’ They’d vote with you.”
After Sanders’s terrible first months in Montgomery, he set out to become a deal maker, too. (He would go on to found his own political organization, the Alabama New South Coalition, which eventually would rival the ADC for influence.) But it was his alliance with Lowell Barron that ultimately made him a power broker in the state. The two Democratic senators had arrived in Montgomery within a year of each other in the early ’80s and had long eyed one another warily. Barron, a wealthy businessman from northern Alabama, viewed Sanders as “a big, heavyset dumb black guy”; Sanders considered Barron, whose biggest issue was tort reform, an establishment toady. At one point, the two men had adjoining offices, but it only drove them further apart, with Barron frequently complaining about the smell of the fish sandwiches Sanders would buy for himself and his secretary for lunch.
In 1998, though, the GOP won the lieutenant governor’s office, who traditionally controlled committee assignments in the Senate. After the election, Senate Democrats, who still had a majority, scrambled to change the rules so that the president pro tempore—a Democrat—would have control of the chamber. Sanders floated Barron for the job. He would have preferred a more liberal lawmaker, but he also knew that Barron was the only Democrat who could assemble the necessary coalition to win the vote. “I brought the white folks to the table, and he brought the blacks to the table,” Barron remembers.
The effort was successful, which meant the two men had to keep cooperating to hold their coalition together. Over time, “a bond developed more than just out of necessity,” says Barron, who came to view Sanders as “one of the brightest, most capable individuals, black or white, that I ever encountered in my life.” The two men would strategize late into the night on the phone and, oftentimes, one would fall asleep while the other was talking.
Sanders’s legislative initiatives might not have been as inspirational as the old civil rights battles, but they built on those battles in crucial ways. He passed legislation that changed the state’s school-funding formula so that it was no longer based on average daily attendance, making it more equitable for small, rural schools like those in the Black Belt. He secured additional money so Black Belt schools could replace their coal-powered heaters with modern HVAC systems. And he made certain that some of the government pork that had usually gone to the state’s white districts started making it to his impoverished one—from a $26 million state-trooper training facility in Selma to a $6 million technology center at the local community college.
One of his greatest accomplishments was convincing many of his fellow black legislators to work in a similar fashion. Principles mattered, he believed, but passing bills sometimes mattered more. In the House, John Knight, a representative from Montgomery, eventually rose to become chairman of the committee that oversees the state’s non-education budget. From that perch, he struck a deal in 2006 with Republican Governor Bob Riley that raised the threshold at which an Alabama family of four starts paying state income tax, from $4,600 annually to $12,500. Knight would have preferred to raise the threshold to the poverty line, but he felt that he had to focus on what was politically feasible. It was an approach indicative of Knight’s overall legislative philosophy. “When I got to be chair of the budget committee, there were a lot of these Confederate programs and so forth that were funded in the budget, and the black caucus really wanted to take a lot of those out,” he recalls. “My position was: We’ll meet ’em halfway. I’m not gonna take the historical Confederate projects out. The only thing I’m gonna do is insist that we have some African American historic projects.”
Sanders and Knight were criticized by some black politicians, as well as by liberal white ones, for being too timid, too incremental. But the two argued that they were playing a long game and that, eventually, they’d achieve their larger goals. One was the repeal of Alabama’s 4 percent sales tax on groceries, an especially odious piece of the state’s highly regressive tax structure that results in lower- and middle-class Alabamans paying twice as much of their incomes in state and local taxes as the state’s top 1 percent of earners. Not long after he was elected to the House in 1993, Knight began introducing legislation to repeal the sales tax on groceries; Sanders sponsored almost identical legislation in the Senate. For most of their careers, the legislation went nowhere. But gradually it gained supporters. Then in 2008, it passed the House for the first time. It appeared to be on the verge of passing in the Senate before falling one vote short. It was an agonizingly close defeat—“There is something wrong in Alabama when we decide we ought not to tax food for calves, but we tax food for babies,” Sanders lamented—but both legislators took comfort in the close result. On that issue, and so many others they’d been working on, the prospect of success seemed to grow more tangible by the day.
Mike Hubbard, the speaker of the Alabama House, is not a beloved politician. His Republican colleagues call him “abrasive” and “divisive”; Democrats use other words. From his seat at the front of the House chamber, Hubbard presides in an aggressive fashion. He speaks in a rapid-fire auctioneer’s patter, barreling over anyone who questions his authority, and slams down his giant speaker’s gavel with alarming force. With his slicked-back hair and thin smile, he casts an almost predatory air. Hubbard, in other words, is no deal maker. And as the man who almost single-handedly won Republicans control of the legislature in 2010, he is the most powerful politician in the state.
Hubbard, who grew up in Georgia, moved to Alabama as a young man in the mid-’80s to work in the Auburn University athletic department; he later made a small fortune when he helped the school launch its own sports broadcasting network. In 1998, Hubbard won a seat in Alabama’s House of Representatives, which had been controlled by Democrats since 1874. But unlike so many of his Republican colleagues, Hubbard did not accept Democratic dominance as a fact of life. Instead, he was determined to end it.
It was the Democrats themselves who helped Hubbard realize his goal. During the 2001 legislative redistricting process, Joe Reed and other prominent black leaders were eager to further protect black incumbents. They successfully pushed to fill the House’s 27 majority-minority and the Senate’s eight majority-minority districts with even more black voters. In the process, they endangered the seats of white Democrats, who increasingly relied on African Americans to make up for the growing number of whites defecting to the GOP. James Blacksher, a civil rights attorney who advised Democrats on redistricting, is still stunned by the shortsightedness of this plan. It wasn’t so much a gerrymander, he told me, as a “dummymander.”
In 2002 and 2006, Republicans benefited from this tactical mistake, picking off white Democrats here and there. But in 2010, Hubbard, who had recently become the state Republican Party chairman, proposed the most audacious electoral plan in the history of the Alabama GOP. Rather than take out white Democrats piecemeal, he decided to eliminate them in one brutal election. He put together an 88-page playbook, innocuously titled GOP Alabama State Victory Plan 2010, and pushed the plan to conservative donors not just in the state, but all over the country. Alabama’s campaign-finance laws prohibited corporations from giving more than $500, and some Alabamans were reluctant to contribute to Republicans in case the GOP’s takeover plans didn’t come to fruition. But moneyed conservatives beyond Birmingham and Montgomery didn’t share those concerns and saw a chance to flip the statehouse. Hubbard and his finance chairman, State Senator Del Marsh, ultimately reaped more than $1 million in out-of-state contributions. And in one instance, Hubbard appears to have used a national group, the Republican State Leadership Council (RSLC), to effectively launder contributions to Alabama Republicans from politically toxic gambling interests—a scheme, Politico’s Alexander Burns recently reported, that the RSLC’s lawyers concluded could result in “possible criminal penalties” if it was ever discovered.
Hubbard couldn’t have chosen a better time to attempt a takeover. The election of Obama, and white Alabamans’ visceral distaste for the president (88 percent voted against him in 2008), created a massive shift in the state’s politics. For many years, white voters had often split their tickets, voting Republican in federal and gubernatorial contests but sticking with the Democrats in legislative campaigns. Hubbard realized that, by nationalizing Alabama’s 2010 state races and putting Obama on center stage, he could bring that to an end. Hubbard himself had always been careful never to speak in explicitly racial terms. (Not all of his Republican colleagues were so circumspect. In 2010, a state senator named Scott Beason was caught on a wiretap referring to black Alabamans as “aborigines.”) Now, he didn’t need to explicitly invoke race—he only needed to mention Obama. As the state GOP put it in one ad, “After 136 years, the Democrats have brought us Obama, Pelosi, government health care, liberal policies, higher taxes, and wasteful spending.”
Suddenly, even entrenched white Democrats like Lowell Barron, who’d been in the Senate for 28 years, found themselves in trouble. “People weren’t voting against me in 2010, they were voting against that black man in the White House,” says Barron. “They were pretty specific about it, only they didn’t refer to him as a black man.” Some Republicans concede as much. “Anybody who denies that Barack Obama’s unpopularity in Alabama didn’t help Republicans come to power is just not being truthful about it,” Republican State Senator Cam Ward told me.
The transformation of Alabama politics was nearly instantaneous. Prior to the 2010 election, the Alabama House had 60 Democratic members, 34 of them white and 26 black. Afterward, there were 36 Democrats—ten white, 26 black. Meanwhile, in the Alabama Senate, the number of black Democrats remained seven, while the number of white Democrats fell from 13 to four. The casualties included Barron, who lost to a first-time Republican candidate.
All of this was enough to give the GOP supermajorities in both chambers. Hubbard assumed his role as speaker of the House, and Marsh was elected Senate president pro tem. Having wrested control of the statehouse, now they could begin to change the state.
In February 2013, Quinton Ross was appointed to the conference committee handling an education-reform bill. An African American senator from Montgomery and a former high school principal, Ross was one of the Democrats’ leading voices on education and had spent much of his time since the 2010 elections battling GOP attempts to cut spending on public schools. On the last day of the month, an unseasonably warm one for February, the committee met in a packed, sweltering hearing room on the seventh floor of the statehouse.
Ross and the other Democrat on the committee, an African American state representative named Laura Hall, got there about 15 minutes before their four Republican colleagues. When the Republicans arrived, a clerk handed out copies of the eight-page school flexibility bill, which was designed to give schools more freedom from various state regulations. Then, in the space of minutes, the committee’s Republican chairman gaveled the meeting to order, called a recess, and exited the hearing room along with his GOP colleagues. The two Democrats were left alone at the front of the room, Ross recalls, “just looking at each other like, ‘What happened?’”
For more than an hour, Ross and Hall waited for the Republicans to return. When they finally did, a clerk handed out copies of a new bill. It had a different name, the Alabama Accountability Act, and in the time the Republicans were gone, the legislation had grown to 27 pages and included a host of additional provisions—most controversially, one that allowed tuition tax credits for Alabama children to attend private schools. Ross and Hall tried to read through the document and voice their objections, but only a few minutes after they received it, the committee chairman called for a vote. The bill passed the committee four to two on a party-line vote and was immediately sent to the Senate and House for final passage.
Ross stormed to the Senate floor and confronted Marsh at the microphone. “You went behind closed doors!” he shouted. “You are a hypocrite, Mr. Pro Tem!” Other Democrats screamed their objections, too, but the Republican lieutenant governor, Kay Ivey, who presides over the Senate, ruled them out of order. The bill passed 22 to eleven, diverting some $40 million in government funds from Alabama’s public schools to private ones.
“I understand that I’m outnumbered, but it’s like they’re above the law,” Ross said when I visited him in his Senate office not long ago. “It just walked you back through history and how things were done, and it made me think of one of my favorite authors, Ralph Ellison, because at that moment, trying to get recognition from the lieutenant governor, trying to at least halt this process, it was just like I was invisible.”
The incident was in no way isolated. Under the leadership of Hubbard and Marsh, Alabama Republicans have jammed through numerous pieces of legislation with no Democratic input, or even debate. There was the anti-illegal-immigration bill that, among other things, required public schools to determine students’ immigration status, barred illegal immigrants from enrolling in any public college after high school, and made it a crime to knowingly rent a home to an illegal immigrant. (Much of the law was later overturned in federal courts.) There was the legislation that mandated that Alabamans show photo identification in order to vote. There was the anti-abortion bill that would have forced three of the state’s five abortion clinics to close. (In early August, a federal judge rejected the law as unconstitutional.) There was the piece of legislation that dramatically loosened provisions on firearms and another that contained sweeping new welfare restrictions, including mandatory drug-testing for recipients with a narcotics conviction. Meanwhile, statehouse Republicans successfully blocked Democratic bills seeking to require Governor Robert Bentley to accept the federal government’s offer, as part of the Affordable Care Act, to expand Medicaid in the state.
In their dominance of the statehouse, Republicans have deployed cloture, a legislative tool that a supermajority can use to end debate, to ruthless effect. Between 1999 and 2010, the Democratic Senate majority moved to shut down debate 26 times; in the past four years, the Republican majority invoked cloture on 121 occasions. Bobby Singleton, an African American senator whose district includes some of the poorest counties in the state, remembers the shortest amount of time it took him to get cut off. “Thirty-two seconds,” he says ruefully. Sometimes, though, Democrats don’t even get that long, as the lieutenant governor has simply failed to acknowledge them. Once, after Ivey repeatedly refused to recognize Quinton Ross during a Senate debate, Ross complained into his microphone that her actions were “almost racist.” (“He’s entitled to his opinion, but he’s wrong,” Ivey later said.) “There’s been a total collapse of Madisonian Democratic government,” says Gerald Johnson, an Auburn University emeritus professor of political science. “There’s no debate, no compromise, and no minority participation—and by minority, I mean Democratic or African American.”
Not long after the end of this year’s legislative session, I went to see Hank Sanders’s old partner in compromise, John Knight. We met in his office suite at Alabama State University (ASU), a historically black school in Montgomery, where the 69-year-old Knight served as executive vice president. A tall man with graying temples and a thin, long face, he was a student at ASU in the early ’70s and never really left. In 1981, he filed a federal lawsuit against the state, alleging that it was still maintaining separate and unequal higher- education programs by underfunding ASU and another black college. The case dragged on for decades before the state finally agreed to fund multiple new programs and scholarships at Alabama State, as well as a $600 million, 30-year campus expansion plan. A plaque hailing the lawsuit hung on a wall in the administration building just outside Knight’s office.
Since 2010, ASU has attracted a considerable amount of attention from Alabama Republicans, but not in a good way. Last year, Governor Bentley paid $1 million in state funds to a private accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit of the university’s finances, looking into allegations of waste and fraud, and referred its findings to the state attorney general for additional investigation. This year, the Alabama Senate voted to cut $10.8 million from the university’s budget—more than a quarter of its state funding—before Knight was successful in getting the House to restore the money. Meanwhile, the legislature has spent an inordinate amount of time fighting over the composition of the university’s board of trustees. I asked Knight why there was so much fuss these days about his university. After a long pause, he said: “Maybe because of me. That’s probably what it is.”
Two days after our meeting, Alabama State’s new president announced a major administrative shakeup. Knight’s position was being eliminated, and he was retiring from the university.
Today, Knight’s legislative seat has never been more secure—or more meaningless. After targeting white Democrats in 2010, Alabama Republicans then used the redistricting process to cement their supermajority by a tactic Democrats refer to as “bleaching.” The method involves even further increasing the African American percentage of voters in Alabama’s majority- minority districts and, by the same token, further decreasing their share of the vote in majority-white districts.
All it took was a little statistical tinkering. In past rounds of Alabama redistricting, which Democrats controlled, the mapmakers allowed for what’s known as a 5 percent maximum population deviation restriction—meaning that a given district had to fall within 5 percent of the ideal population size (137,000 for Senate districts; 40,000 for House districts). After 2010, however, Republican mapmakers chose to work under a 2 percent maximum population deviation. This was a key distinction. Many of Alabama’s rural districts are underpopulated, and so in order to meet the 2 percent deviation, the mapmakers had to add tens of thousands of voters to them. Since many of those districts are majority-minority, and since Republicans sought to maintain the same number of majority- minority districts, that usually meant taking black voters from districts represented by white Democrats and moving them into districts represented by black ones. Bradley Davidson, the former executive director of the Alabama Democratic Party, says, “The Alabama Republican Party wants it so that, whenever you see a person with a D next to his or her name on TV, that person is black.”
Republicans have claimed that, in drawing the new maps, they focused on party, not race. So far, that argument has passed legal muster. When Hank Sanders and Joe Reed traveled to Washington in 2012 to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder and other Justice Department officials in the hope of persuading the Obama administration to withhold its approval of the new legislative maps, they were rebuffed. In the Justice Department’s view, since the number of majority-minority districts stayed the same, the maps complied with the Voting Rights Act.
Similarly, after a lawsuit was brought by the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, a three-judge federal court upheld the maps in a two-to-one ruling. Noting that several of the plaintiffs had been content with the majority-minority districts drawn by Democrats in 2001, the court’s majority opinion asked: “What has changed in the last few years to support the conclusion, from the perspective of the Black Caucus plaintiffs, that the new majority-black districts are unconstitutional when the old majority-black districts were constitutional? The answer is simple: The Republicans now control the Legislature instead of the Democrats.”
But the implications of this go far beyond partisanship. Because of increasingly racially polarized voting patterns in the South, party has become a stand-in for race. As University of California at Irvine law professor Rick Hasen recently wrote in the Harvard Law Review, “The realignment of the parties in the South following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s has created a reality in which today most African American voters are Democrats and most white conservative voters are Republicans.” That means that, as Democrats have lost ground in statehouses in Alabama and elsewhere across the South, so have African Americans. According to research by David Bositis, in 1994, 99.5 percent of black state legislators in the South served in the majority. By 2010, the percentage had fallen to 50.5. Today, it’s a mere 4.8 percent.
Political scientists distinguish between descriptive representation and substantive representation. The former focuses on the number of, say, African Americans who are elected to a legislative body, while the latter focuses on the effect of those African American representatives on the legislation passed by that body. It was easy to see, by the early ’80s, that the Voting Rights Act had successfully achieved descriptive representation for African Americans in the Southern state legislatures. But, as time went on, it began to achieve substantive representation, as well. “There was a thirty-year period in the South, from about 1980 to 2010, where there really was biracial collaboration and cooperation in politics,” says Bositis. “And it was a genuine biracial politics—more genuine than in some northern states.” The political scientist David Lublin, who did pioneering research on the impact of the VRA, recalls making his first visit to Mississippi in the early 2000s and attending a legislative session in Jackson. “You walk down this long hallway lined with all the old legislature photos, and everyone in the pictures is white,” he says. “But then you enter the actual chamber and you watch people discussing things, and it’s a racial mixture, black and white politicians having a good and substantive debate. It felt like, ‘Wow, democracy!’ ”
But as any visitor to the Alabama statehouse in the past four years could tell you, those days of wonder are long gone—and they’re not likely to return any time soon. While the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a pair of appeals of the Alabama redistricting decision, it’s doubtful that the conservative Roberts court—the same court, after all, that last year struck down a key provision of the VRA—will overturn the lower court’s decision. This, in turn, will affect far more than the politics of just Alabama and the region.
Today, the South, where 55 percent of America’s black population lives, is increasingly looking like a different country. Fewer children can read; more adults have HIV; its residents suffer from the shortest life expectancies of any in the United States. Earlier this year, when the Social Science Research Council released its latest “Measure of America” report—which ranks each state on its quality of health, income, and education measures—six of the eleven states that made up the former Confederacy were in the bottom quintile. What’s more, that deprivation tends to be concentrated in the parts of these states with disproportionately large African American populations.
One recent afternoon, I met up with Catherine Flowers, who runs a Black Belt community organization called the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE). A few days earlier, over lunch at a Montgomery hot-dog shop, she told me, “My big issue is raw sewage.” Now Flowers, a middle-aged African American woman who favors prim blue dresses and speaks in the patient tones of the elementary school teacher she once was, wanted to show me what she’d been talking about. We drove to the town of Fort Deposit in Lowndes County and pulled into a trailer park. Although we were less than a mile from town hall, Fort Deposit’s municipal sewer line did not extend this far and, Flowers explained, the Lowndes soil had such a slow “percolation rate” that private septic systems were prohibitively expensive.
“Watch where you step,” Flowers said. She walked over to one of the mobile homes and pointed to a piece of PVC pipe jutting out from its base. “That’s where they run the sewage out,” she said, gesturing to a field in between houses that was covered with children’s toys and human feces; bouncy balls and scraps of soiled toilet paper. Working with tropical disease experts at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, ACRE had recently begun collecting fecal samples from residents of this trailer park and others in the Black Belt for DNA testing. Of the 59 samples tested, 23 contained evidence of infection, primarily from hookworm. At one point, that parasite affected more than 40 percent of people in the South but was thought to have been eradicated in the United States in the early twentieth century.
Flowers said that, a few months earlier, one of the Baylor doctors had visited the trailer park and took some photos of the befouled field, which he posted to his Twitter account. “No one believed they were pictures of Alabama,” she said. “People thought they were from the Third World.”
The Southern historian C. Vann Woodward famously described the civil rights movement as the Second Reconstruction. The First Reconstruction, of course, began at the conclusion of the Civil War and led to the election of hundreds of black politicians across the South. One of those black politicians, a South Carolina legislator named Thomas Miller, later described the era with great pride: “We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb ... rebuilt the bridges and reestablished the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”
But in 1877, the Republican Party agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in exchange for putting its presidential candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, in the White House, and the period of biracial democratic government came to an end. White “Redeemers,” as they were known, undid all the Reconstruction-era reforms they could. They shuttered the new schools and charities; they stopped building bridges and funding ferries. “Spend nothing unless absolutely necessary,” Florida’s new Democratic governor instructed his legislature in 1877. Most crucially, they designed laws to eliminate the black vote and enforced those laws with waves of vigilante violence. A mere dozen years after it began, the First Reconstruction was over.
The end of the Second Reconstruction will not be so dramatic. But the systematic way in which Republican majorities in Southern statehouses are undoing so many of the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement suggests that the end is nigh. Whether it’s by imposing new voter-ID laws, slashing public assistance, refusing Medicaid expansion, or repealing progressive legislation like North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, the GOP-controlled governments of Southern states are behaving in ways that are at times as hostile to the interests of their African American citizens as Jim Crow Democrats were half a century ago. As David Bositis told me, “Black people in the South have less political power now than at any time since the start of the civil rights movement.”
Of course, that flies in the face of the newly popular notion that Southern blacks have never enjoyed more political clout. Whether it was black Mississippians helping Senator Thad Cochran win the Republican run-off in Mississippi in June or the potential for African American voters in North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana to carry Democratic Senate candidates in those states to victory this November, “black voters,” Nate Cohn recently wrote in The New York Times, “are poised to play a pivotal role in this year’s midterm elections.” But these will likely be pyrrhic victories. At the state level, Republicans can continue to win by catering exclusively to white voters, pushing the parties even further apart and making state laws ever more extreme. The fact that black people in the South still have the right to vote, and they’re still able to elect black politicians at the state and local levels, is what makes the end of the Second Reconstruction so much more insidious than the end of the First. Lacking white politicians to build coalitions with, those black politicians are rendered powerless. As Kareem Crayton, a University of North Carolina law professor, told me, “The situation today has the semblance of what representation looks like without very much ability to actually exercise it.”
Back in Alabama, the current situation is why Hank Sanders carries on. Four years ago, after an assortment of health problems stemming from his obesity, including double knee-replacement surgery, he’d announced that he would not run again, only to change his mind after concluding that the political realities in Alabama were too dire. This year, he didn’t even ponder retirement.
“I just simply decided that things were too tough to walk away,” Sanders told me, a note of fatigue creeping into his voice. “I couldn’t leave people in that tough a position.” On the last day of the 2014 legislative session, he cast futile “no” votes on everything from a bill that tightened the rules for minors seeking abortions to one that required poor people in Alabama to apply for at least three jobs before seeking welfare benefits. Then, a few hours before the final vote of the session, Sanders left the statehouse early because he needed to get back to Selma for his reelection campaign kickoff.
As he drove the 50 miles from Montgomery to Selma, retracing in reverse the route he and other civil rights activists marched in 1965, he talked about how the last few years have forced him to change how he assesses his political accomplishments. “I can’t define success by whether or not I pass what I want or whether or not I stop what I want,” he told me, speeding through the empty landscape of the Black Belt, past stands of pines and sweetgums and the occasional cotton field. “Success now is about whether or not I fought as hard and as effectively as I could, given all the circumstances. So when I do that, I don’t end up with the overwhelming frustration, I don’t end up with the hopelessness.”
His campaign had set up its headquarters in an empty downtown storefront, and when Sanders arrived, laboring for breath after the short walk from his car, 100 or so people greeted him with cheers of “Keep the Rock!” Still, the mood at the kickoff seemed more elegiac than celebratory, as if the people there had come to witness an ending rather than a beginning. Sanders’s wife, Rose, who since abandoning her “slave name” in 2002 has been known as Faya Rose Touré, played protest songs on an upright piano. A host of local officials—probate judges and school superintendents and economic development directors—hailed Sanders, in valedictory tones, for everything he had done for them over the years. One declared: “I have watched this man maneuver evil political borders, and they’re evil in Montgomery, they’re evil. I watched him maneuver those borders and get things done that I really had no idea, and no belief, could get done.” At another point, a frail-looking elderly woman, a former civil rights activist who was arrested on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” took the microphone and said, in faltering tones, “He’s the product of all my work.”
When it was Sanders’s turn to speak, he did not dwell on his achievements or the movement. Instead, he simply thanked Rose for organizing the event, explaining that he’d been busy that week in the legislature, and he asked his various families—his kin, his political organization, his law firm—to stand for recognition. “I’m not going to try to make a speech to try to impress you,” Sanders said. He looked at the faces looking back at him. “If I haven’t said enough or done enough in all these years,” he went on, “I’m just out of luck.”
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.