NOTE: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND SHOULD NOT BE ASSUMED TO REFLECT THE VIEWS OF DEEP SOUTH VOICE OR ITS AFFILIATES.
The South’s Intersectional Path of Justice to Senator Doug Jones
By electing Doug Jones and rejecting Roy Moore, Alabama told the nation what many of us have known for years: The Deep South is a key player in the Resistance, particularly by way of coalitions between LGBTQ+ folks, people of color, and their allies, both in and out of electoral politics. Unfortunately, these Southern stories have been neglected in national narratives of 21st Century social justice movements.
The victory in Alabama is a pivotal moment for Southerners to show the rest of America that we too are the Resistance.
LGBTQ+ Community Organizing in the Deep South
In late October, I flew home from college in Massachusetts to participate in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Equality Fest – the first-ever festival of its kind in our community – which convened a racially diverse multitude of LGBTQ+ Mississippians and allies from small businesses, advocacy groups, corporations, artists, restaurants, and nonprofits from across the state. I saw black cooks serving up Southern comfort food, transwomen volunteers making sure that things were running smoothly, drag queens lip-syncing gay classics, straight parents playing with their children in the grass, and organizations like Planned Parenthood and Mississippi Rising Coalition answering questions about their work and recruiting volunteers.
The event didn’t only function as an rebuke of House Bill 1523 – the theocratic anti-LGBTQ+ bill signed into law by Governor Bryant in summer 2016 – which had gone into effect earlier in the month of the festival. It was also a larger progressive organizing landmark in the long-fought battle for intersectional LGBTQ+ justice in the Hospitality State and across the South.
This history includes Camp Sister Spirit, founded by Wanda and Brenda Henson in Ovett, Mississippi, in 1993, which served as a refuge for queer folks –, particularly women –, “providing people counseling, information, education, referral, advocacy, and meeting space to address social issues.” Wanda Henson even appeared before Congress in 1994 and asserted that “the traditional Southern standard that lesbians and gay Americans are subhuman must end.” The Henson ladies continued this work despite ultra-hostile counter-organizing in the state, including targeted harassment and bomb threats.
Bigotry Kills, Institutionalizing Hospitality
It is a sobering reality that some LGBTQ+ Southerners haven’t survived this culture of hostility. In 1999, Jamie Ray Tolbert from Laurel, Mississippi, was taken from a gay bar in Biloxi and murdered and abandoned in the Alabama woods. In 2004, Alabama also witnessed the egregious anti-gay slaughter of 18-year-old Scotty Weaver, who had been “beaten, strangled and stabbed numerous times, partially decapitated, and [whose] body was doused in gasoline and set on fire.”
In 2017 alone, there have been 27 murders of transgender and gender non-conforming folks in the United States, the plurality of which were women of color in the Deep South: Mesha Caldwell in Canton, Mississippi; Chyna Gibson and Ciara McElveen in New Orleans, Louisiana; Jaquarrius Holland in Monroe, Louisiana; Ava Le’Ray Barrin in Athens, Georgia; TeeTee Dangerfield and Scout Schultz in Atlanta, Georgia; Jaylow McGlory in Alexandria, Louisiana; and Candace Towns in Macon, Georgia.
As illustrated by these accounts, there is a war in the South and across this nation on the lives of LGBTQ+ folks and people of color, driven by oppressive policies, inflammatory rhetoric, and arbitrary social sanctions. Prominent organizations across the South, such as Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE), Project One America of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and Southerners on New Ground (SONG), put hope on the horizon as they actively fight these battles for more just culture and institutions across the South.
In Alabama’s special election this week, these groups have witnessed the long-awaited fall of one of their most powerful villains and a clearer pathway for intersectional justice in the Deep South.
Good Ol’ Boy Roy
Prior to his Senate run and recent revelations of sexual assault on young girls and women in Alabama, Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, was known in Southern justice networks as the patriarch of LGBTQ+ oppression. Since 2005, the Fundamentalist Christian theocrat has repeatedly asserted that homosexuality should be illegal in the United States. He is on record praising Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective on and treatment of LGBT people, which has led to mass persecution in Russia and fostered the recent genocide against gay men in Chechnya – a republic of Russia.
He was an ardent opponent of the marriage equality movement, and even after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that same-sex couples could marry in every U.S. state, then-Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Moore directed probate judges in his state to not issue marriage licenses, resulting in his removal from the position. He was also removed from the judiciary in 2003 for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments that he had constructed in the courthouse after it was found to be in violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause.
But Moore also had a history of making obscene remarks aimed at people of color, like his remark that American families were greatest during slavery or his view that Muslims shouldn’t be able to serve in elected office because they are determined to enforce “Sharia law.”
His ultra-conservative policy positions included cutting taxes for corporations, privatizing healthcare, deporting undocumented folks, privatizing schools, and pulling back environmental protections– further assaults on marginalized people.
Alabamians, particularly black women and men, showed out at the polls this week not only to reject Roy Moore’s sordid character and politics but to elect someone who has himself been a principal character in the storyline of justice in the Deep South.
The now Senator-elect Doug Jones, as District Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 1997 to 2001, is best known for successfully prosecuting the Klansmen who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, killing four young black girls. For these actions, he was awarded the 15th Anniversary Civil Rights Distinguished Service Award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2007.
Jones now stands on the most progressive winning U.S. Senate platform in Alabama’s history. His priorities include ensuring that healthcare is a right for all Americans, supporting small businesses, investing in quality education, moving towards a more livable wage, fighting the gender wage gap, pushing for environmental protections, reforming the carceral system which disproportionately victimizes people of color, and protecting folks from discrimination.
Particularly for his pro-LGBTQ+ stances, he was endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign in October, and LGBTQ+ Alabamians organized rallies across the state and canvassed for his election – footing new ground in intersectional organizing in the Deep South.
Alternative Southern Heritage
The progressive organizing that has occurred in the Alabama senate election is not a new phenomenon in the Deep South, unlike much of what the nation has perceived from witnessing a Democrat win in an extremely Republican state. This victory is a continuum in the heritage of Southern icons like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Myles Horton, Jimmy Carter, Lily Ledbetter, Danica Roem, my friend Lea Campbell, and every single person who is protesting and organizing for removing Confederate monuments, changing oppressive policies, and making Southern communities more inclusive every day.
It should deeply trouble anyone in this country that a man who believes that American families were greatest during slavery and that LGBTQ+ people should be killed could garner the support that he has, even before the revelations of his sexual assaults on girls. Electing his opponent won’t eradicate those deeply entrenched commitments to systems of oppression that are present in our home region which lays claim to a transcendent sense of Hospitality.
Regardless of who is representing Alabama in the senate, we must continue to push for better education, better policing, better wages, a better environment, and a better culture in our Southern communities every day. We must ensure that every citizen of this country can cast their vote in free and fair elections.
We must tell truer stories about both the people who are experiencing these injustices in the South and across this nation, and those who are actively working to dismantle them in every way they can. Southern storytellers like those here at Deep South Voice, at The Bitter Southerner, Facing South, Foreword South, and the Sun Herald’s Out Here in America podcast are leading that charge. It is through these means and narratives that a true “Southern Hospitality” might be realized.
As we celebrate Doug Jones’ election, let us not forget that he is one of many players in the legacy of a team that has been fighting for intersectional justice in the South throughout our history. Let’s tell more of those stories.