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The Battle For Alabama’s soul

FLORENCE, Ala. — This handsome north Alabama town, population 40,428, boasts two nationally acclaimed fashion designers of luxury togs, two boutique hotels, two hipster coffee shops, a regional state university, a Frank Lloyd Wright house, a sustainably sourced restaurant with a celebrated bourbon program, and an annual Shindig cultural festival in late August drawing Jack White and other artistic and artisanal talents near the verdant banks of the Tennessee River.

Florence voted for Hillary Clintonin 2016and Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in the 2017 special election, in a county that went Republican both times. The town holds an annual Pride parade and, this year, painted downtown crosswalks in rainbow hues. For a Juneteenth celebration, activists projected images of Dred and Harriet Scott onto the Lauderdale County courthouse near the Confederate war statue. They hope to erect a permanent “monument to justice,” not eradicating the past but amending it.

On a Monday night — Monday night! — downtown is packed with the young and inked. Several residents describe Florence as “a slice of Brooklyn” — that is, if Brooklyn was plunked in a Southern state dominated by evangelical Christians, where almost two-thirds of the electorate supported Donald Trump.

Some Alabamians yearn to craft a fresh portrait of their state of almost 4.9 million as it observes its bicentennial year, one that moves beyond the tired Heart of Dixie tropes, crimson-red college football zealotry and antiquated tendencies mired in its bloody past.

Yet, there’s plenty that inhabitants are less inclined to promote. Alabama has been in the news of late. Indeed, Alabama can’t stop being in the news.

The impending abortion ban, a state prison system in crisis, persistent inequality and, last month, the return of embattled former chief justice Roy Moore in another potential doozy of a Senate race. These developments, liberals argue, are hurtling Alabama back toward its heritage of hurt and injustice. They’re embarrassed for the home they love, one that they’ve worked so hard to fix.

“There’s such a creative energy in the state,” saysfashion designer Billy Reid,the Shindig’s genial host,sitting in his natty store on North Court Street. “How can we bring it back to that narrative?”

Invariably, liberals mention the space pioneers of Huntsville, the Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, the musical legacy of Muscle Shoals and the searing National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial, which confronts the trauma and legacy of lynching, opened in Montgomery in April 2018 and welcomed 400,000 visitors in its first year.

A powerful memorial in Montgomery remembers the victims of lynching

See, they tell you, technological advances, industrial progress, a joyful legacy, a reckoning.

What they don’t tend to share is the weight of history, the resistance to change, the cross that it bears — literally. Alabama’s flag is a giant crimson X, Saint Andrew’s Cross, that’s almost a pentimento of the Confederate flag. It’s like the wrong answer on a school test.

“A place that echoes with national wounds,” writes Princeton scholar and Alabama native Imani Perry.

“A kind of smog in the air that’s created by the history of slavery and lynching and segregation,” Bryan Stevenson, the peace memorial founder and the Equal Justice Initiative’s executive director, says in a new HBO documentary.

In May, the state passed the nation’s most comprehensive abortion ban, with no exceptions in cases of rape and incest, and up to 99 years imprisonment for doctors performing the procedure.

The bill, surely headed for a legal challenge, is so restrictive that it earned the censure of abortion foes televangelist Pat Robertson and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Twenty-five white, male Republican senators — the majority of the state chamber — voted for it. While the Republican governor, Kay Ivey, is female, there are only four women in the 35-member Senate — and only nine have served in its 200-year history.

Laws and court decisions can hark back to an earlier century. Alabama has been one of only two states that protect parental rights of convicted rapists. (The legislature recently decided that those rights would terminate starting in September.) Last week, a pregnant Birmingham woman was charged with manslaughter for the shooting of her fetus, while the woman who pulled the trigger went free.

“It is not easy being progressive in Alabama,” says activist KC Vick, a tattoo of the state on her left upper arm. Vick is a co-founder of Hometown Action, a power-building organization concentrated on small towns.

Many liberals feel the national Democratic Party has abandoned them — although Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala D. Harris recently campaigned in the state.

There’s little talk of an entertainment industry boycott in Alabama, as there is in Georgia, because, frankly, relatively few movies or television are made here.

For nearly a century, Alabama was ruled by Democrats, most infamously George Wallace, the bantamweight pugilist of Barbour County who reigned as supreme governor for 16 years and a day.

Since 2010, Republicans have held a supermajority in both legislative chambers, and they control everything else, too, although not always well. In a year of unrelenting scandal, Gov. Robert Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Moore were suspended or forced out of their jobs.

The state government is centralized and byzantine by design. Its constitution requires the legislature to approve local laws and is believed to be the world’s lengthiest — more than 388,800 words, which is longer than “Bleak House.”

Last month, the state approved “chemical castration” for paroled sex offenders whose victims have been minors. Alabama has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates. Its prison system is among the most violent, with two dozen murders in two years; it was cited in a scathing Justice Department report for dangerous and unconstitutional conditions; and it faces potential federal takeover.


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