BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—If Doug Jones manages to win the Alabama Senate race against Republican Roy Moore on Tuesday, it will be because he built a statewide coalition of voters that no Alabama Democrat has managed to do in recent memory.
During the campaign, Jones has primarily targeted suburban female Republican voters who seem most likely to be repulsed by accusations that Moore sexually preyed on teenagers when he was in his thirties, including molesting a 14-year-old girl. But equally important for his prospects will be Alabama’s African-American community which makes up 23 percent of registered voters in the state and has not been actively courted for a statewide race in some time.
Experts say that Jones must produce a turnout comparable to the 95 percent support that Barack Obama won in 2012. It’s a herculean task, not least because Obama’s candidacy was historic, impossible to replicate, and he still fell 20 points short of Mitt Romney in the deep red state. But of any—yes—white Democrat running for office, Jones may have the resume to come closest to doing it.
Jones is leaning hard on his role more than a decade ago as U.S. attorney, when he prosecuted two white Ku Klux Klan members in the bombing of Birmingham’s historic 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Although four African-American girls died in the blast, none of the killers was charged for more than a decade. Three walked free for decades after that.
The Jones campaign has focused on the church bombing case in text messages to black voters, campaign ads on television and Facebook, as well as stump speeches across the state. In his closing argument earlier this week, Jones contrasted himself with Moore by alluding to the Birmingham trials. “I damn sure believe that I have done my part to ensure that men who hurt little girls should go to jail and not the United States Senate,” Jones said.
The focus on the case has led to speculation in the national media that Jones is too one-note, that he has not done enough beyond talking about the case to energize the African-American community, especially young black voters, leading up to Tuesday’s election.
But for all of the hand-wringing about campaign strategy, the 2001 and 2002 convictions of the two remaining bombers remain a defining moment for Birmingham, especially for those who lived through the violence that Sunday in September 1963.
“It was surreal for me, that morning of the bombing,” said Charlie Campbell, who was 12 years old at the time. “I was in the hospital with appendicitis. The church was maybe three miles from the hospital, but I heard the bomb when it went off.”
Cynthia Woodsen-Kellum was supposed to celebrate her 10th birthday that day. “But because the bombing took place, my birthday was canceled,” she said. “To grow up knowing that somebody bombed an organization that worships God, that somebody’s little bitty girls who were my age had died, I died myself inside.”
The months leading up to the church bombing had been marred by violence in the city. Lunch counter sit-ins, police water cannons, and images of Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in a schoolhouse door to prevent integration had shocked the nation. Birmingham had already had so many bombings that year it had become known as “Bombingham.”
Moments before Sunday school at the church was to begin, a blast of 10 sticks of dynamite ripped through the church basement. Beneath the rubble lay Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, the four little girls killed by the explosion, along with 22 more parishioners who were injured or disabled. Denise was 11. The other three girls were 14 years old.
For more than a decade, no charges were filed in the case at all. Few witnesses came forward, while the Birmingham Police Department was suspected of having members of the Klan in its ranks (PDF). In 1977, one man, Klansman Robert Chambliss, was convicted, but no accomplices were charged. The case went cold again for more than 20 years.
“Everyone knew there were others,” said Rev. Dr. Christopher Hamlin, the senior pastor at the 16th Street Baptist Church from 1990 to 2000. “They knew these people were out there, but there was no energy or encouragement from anyone to reopen the case.”
Hamlin was among a group of African-American pastors who began to meet regularly with Rob Langford, a senior FBI agent new to the Birmingham field office who was working to improve the relationship between the black community and the bureau.
“The pastors raised the issue of the bombing and Mr. Langford said he would look into it,” Hamlin said. “Eventually the case was reopened and Mr. Jones was the prosecutor.”
In an oral history years later (PDF), Langford said he first took his findings to the sitting U.S. attorney, who was “not very encouraging at all.” Then, Langford said, “They got a new US Attorney... and he got into it big.” The new U.S. attorney was Doug Jones.
Joyce Vance was an assistant U.S. attorney in the office when Jones began to pursue the case, which even fellow prosecutors worried would be impossible to win, coming so many years after the fact.
“There was healthy skepticism, but also respect that Doug was willing to make the effort,” Vance said. “And make no mistake about it, it was Doug dragging everybody else along when nobody believed the case could be made.”
After a years-long investigation and two trials led by Jones for the prosecution, convictions came in 2001 and 2002. Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton were both sentenced to life in prison.
“I remember hearing it on the national news and all you can say is thank God, at last. I was elated,” said Campbell. “For so many years you’re thinking, it was four little black kids and they just didn’t care. And that’s the way I felt all my life. Until then.”
Woodsen-Kellum said the convictions changed her. “It gave me hope again. And, for the first time, birthdays weren’t a misery for me.”
Hamlin described the convictions in one word: “Relief.”
Whether that moment still resonates today, and whether Jones can build off of those memories in his uphill Senate race, remains to be seen. Jones will campaign this weekend in Birmingham with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) in a bid to turn out the black vote.
Moore, meanwhile, is aggressively fighting a host of perceived foes, from his female accusers, to the “Liberal Media,” to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Democrats. The conservative candidate has also insisted that his opponents are actively registering felons to vote against him—more a bullhorn than a dog whistle and a misleading one at that. Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, recently signed a bill to allow some felons who have completed their sentences to vote in Alabama.
Moore’s been helped in his push by President Trump, who has derided Jones as “WEAK on crime.” It’s an clunky attack on a man who put KKK members behind bars. But, in the end, it sharpens the contrast for voters.
Alabama’s next senator will either be the prosecutor in a famous civil rights case or a former state supreme court justice, twice removed from the bench, who is now insisting he is falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit. The result will tell the country what Alabama voters believe justice looks like in 2017.