Something intriguing occurred during the most recent session of the Alabama legislature. Something historic, possibly seismic. And it happened quietly, with only conversations and negotiations between a specific group of members of the House of Representatives—Republicans and Democrats. Together, the members created a bipartisan alliance the likes of which hyper-partisan Alabama has not seen in, well, maybe ever. The alliance helped guide several pieces of legislation through the oft-divided chamber, bills created to benefit urban and rural Alabamians (that code for Black and white Alabamians) in new and potentially profound ways. The alliance was sparked, even more stunningly, by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. In this column, the first of two written collaboratively by columnists Roy S. Johnson and Cameron Smith, often a political ying and yang among our voices, you’ll read how those calls were received and the “raw” gathering between the Black Democrats and white Republicans in a Montgomery Baptist church less than three weeks after Floyd’s death.
That’s how Rep. Laura Hall felt that Sunday morning in the summer of 2020. It’s how a lot of folks were feeling.
The state representative from Huntsville was home after attending mass and feeding her grandchild in the kitchen when the phone rang.
The voice on the other end of the line was an unexpected one. It belonged to Rep. Danny Garrett, the Majority Whip from Trussville. Garrett is a white Republican in the usually contentious, Republican-dominated state legislature; Hall is a Black Democrat.
In Alabama, the ‘twain just don’t meet. Let alone call. Not on a Sunday afternoon.
Especially not this one.
Not days after George Floyd took his last breath beneath Derek Chauvin’s knee. His life choked out by the then-Minneapolis police officer, now Minnesota state prisoner 261557.
Not days after downtown Birmingham imploded as protestors, frustrated at being unable to topple a Confederate monument standing at an entrance to Linn Park, ravaged nearby businesses, shattering windows, and destroying property.
Not today. Not when the nation was on edge.
Garrett’s call wasn’t political; it was personal.
His television played the same images of outrage and pain coursing through Alabama and the nation. His conscience wouldn’t let him simply change the channel.
“He was concerned,” is how Hall puts it now, more than a year later.
More important: “What can we do about it?” Garrett asked.
“To have that call come at a time when you’re still in a period of despair, to have one of your colleagues on the other side of the aisle call you—it was meaningful,” Hall says.
A similar call was made that day by Rep. Tracy Estes, a white Republican from the Winfield in west Alabama. He reached out to Rep. Anthony Daniels, the House Minority Leader, a Black Democrat.
Like Garrett, Estes saw images of a country where some citizens felt so marginalized, they resorted to violence in an effort to be heard. “I couldn’t get any peace watching the reports,” said Estes. “I can’t tell you what the end goal is. I just needed to do something. Something begins by pulling folks together.”
From those two calls, Estes offered a suggestion – to quietly convene without reporters, cameras, or political fanfare. A few white legislators and a few Black legislators at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church heeded the call and decided to listen to each other. Hear, each other.
In Alabama. As the nation was on edge.
“George Floyd and the riot in Birmingham caused a lot of [Republicans] to wonder: What is going on?,” recalls Garrett. “What are we missing? Some of us did some spiritual reflection, and decided, ‘Why don’t we just sit down with our friends [in the legislature] who are African American?’ It was Estes idea to meet and he asked me to facilitate.”
“I appreciated seeing the openness and willingness to try to understand what they didn’t understand,” says Daniels.
That gathering—more on it in a bit; one attendee called it “raw”—sprung something even more shocking: Bipartisanship. In Alabama.
The group shepherded several key measures to fruition—led by a bill allocating $50 million to support small businesses in rural areas, Opportunity Zones, and other poor areas throughout the state and by providing $100 million to help address the teacher shortages with incentives of up to $20,000 annually for qualified math and science teachers.
Members of the group say they want to re-write our state’s narrative of divisive partisanship and create meaningful, bipartisan legislation that improves the lives of Alabamians in areas too long ignored.
“We all want the same things,” says Rep. Barbara Drummond, a Black Democrat who is among the group. “We want to see the state prosper. We want our constituents to be empowered.”
“A lot of times, we talk past each other and that’s a problem,” Garrett says. “We found common ground and it was not political positions; it was an understanding to do the right thing. They weren’t Democratic or Republican positions. I was motivated by my faith to do the right thing.”
“We don’t need to look at what’s a Democratic issue or what’s a Republican issue,” says Rep. Rolanda Hollis, a Black Democrat who participated. “We need to look at what’s good for the people of Alabama.”
“We didn’t want it to look like we were trying to catch a headline,” said Huntsville Republican Rep. Rex Reynolds. “We wanted to do it for the right reasons.”
During the 2021 session, members of the burgeoning coalition roamed surreptitiously through the halls of the statehouse, agreeing not to speak publicly of their efforts for fear they’d be torched by disruptors on either side of the aisle. Recently Garrett and Daniels reached out to me and fellow AL.com columnist Cameron Smith to share what transpired, and what they hope it foretells for the future of Alabama legislative politics.
The mood was somber as the legislators gathered in Montgomery on June 12, 2020. It was a Friday, less than three weeks after George Floyd took his last breath on a Minneapolis street, not yet two weeks since emotions raged in Birmingham. Uncertainty filled the sanctuary, hovering over both groups.
“I didn’t get the feeling there was apprehension or negativity,” says Hall. “No outburst of ‘Are you kidding me?’—though I wanted to say that a couple of times.”
Garrett says he was asked to facilitate. “We’re here because we care,” he said.
The Republicans came to listen, Garrett says; Democrats who were there say they did.
“It was a very intense meeting,” Drummond recalls. “We all came with an open mind to listen to where we were.”
Some Republicans present had a far more incomplete picture of the realities facing many Black Americans than Democrats in the room thought. At least one was unaware of redlining—the long-held bank policy of not approving loans on homes in Black neighborhoods, areas encircled on local maps and deemed “undesirable”.
“Had not heard of it,” says Hall. “It was astonishing. That was the one thing that stood out to me more than anything else: to have a colleague serving in the legislature, who was not aware of redlining. The mood was, ‘We can’t believe he didn’t know that.”
Black legislators also shared personal experiences and emotions, stories that shaped them and still motivate them.
“I told them why I thank God I was standing in the room with them that day, and my journey getting there,” says Hall. A South Carolina native, she participated in demonstrations and marches in support of the civil rights movement. “I was challenged by leaders at the college,” she adds. “They said we were not only there to get an education, but to be able to make a change and a difference in the community.”
“I had a feeling about being a Black business owner and watching other Black businesses struggle,” says Hollis, a real estate broker. “To have all the qualifications, to bid for jobs when knowing it supposed to be 30 percent minority participation and it’s really less than 10 percent.”
Drummond, a native of Mobile, recalled her days as a rookie reporter assigned to cover—had the “misfortune of covering,” she said—what proved to be the last lynching in that area. Because she was Black. Drummond remembers the name of the Black man murdered on March 21, 1981: Michael Donald. He was 19 years old, not accused of any crime, not even the criminally delusional charge of breaking some disdainful racial etiquette. He was just a Black man who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the deadly wrong time when the local trial of a Black man accused of killed a white policeman ended in a mistrial, which enraged members of the local Ku Klux Klan. Their rage left Donald swinging from a tree.
“I talked about going to the [lynch] site and what I’d seen.”
There were definite moments of deep discomfort—no surprise when the topic was racism. When the chasm of experiences was revealed.
“They didn’t understand what being poor and black was like in Alabama,” says Drummond. “One guy said, ‘I’m poor. All I have to do is go to work every day.’”
“The Black people he knew were working and accomplished, so he thought Black people who didn’t were lazy,” says Rep. Kelvin Lawrence, a Black Democrat. “He didn’t understand that as a Black man there are still so many roadblocks thrown our way, and that there are laws and conditions that keep many Blacks in poverty.”
“My Black colleagues shared their lives with me,” recalled Estes. “Lives that I haven’t had to live. It made me sit back, take a breath, and reassess my perspectives.”
A Seminal Testimony
Lawrence’s testimony was a seminal one, everyone in the room agrees, as he tearfully shared it. A native of Hayneville, he represents the 69th District which includes part of the Black Belt, arguably the state’s most impoverished and overlooked regions. He grew up working in the fast-food industry and aspired to be an owner one day. After years of working in the industry, including managing Hardee’s and Subway franchises in Montgomery, Lawrence created a business plan and applied for a loan at a local bank. He was turned down.
“The guy said I was too new, had no track record, and they weren’t trying to take on that much of risk in a startup,” Lawrence recalls. He went to a few other banks and encountered the same response. “I went back to a guy I worked for—a white man—and said I was running into a few roadblocks. He said, ‘I’ll make you a deal: Work for me a little while longer and don’t expand into Montgomery for five years, and I’ll help out.’ That was fine. I wanted to grow into the Black Belt anyway, to give back to the community.”
The “help” the franchise offered was a call to a bank—the same bank that initially turned Lawrence down. “He said I needed to go to the bank and talk to this guy,” Lawrence says. “Ironically, it was same guy who denied. Nothing changed in my business plan, not a single word or number. This time he said: ‘Well, Mr. Lawrence, upon further review, we decided to grant you the loan.’ All because a white guy put in a good word for me. His friend at the bank, a vice president, said the loan officer had it in for any Black male coming into the bank because his daughter had fallen in love with a Black guy. He made his businesses to treat every Black person the same no matter their qualifications.”
That was 20 years ago. Today, Lawrence owns three Subways. He says the loan officer did not work for the bank much longer after their encounter.
“There were some blind spots,” Garrett acknowledges. “That story had a deep impact on every Republican in attendance. It demonstrated a face of racism far more insidious and destructive than most in attendance had encountered.”
“My personal background is a banker,” said Rep. Andy Whitt. “I wanted to understand what minority Alabamians were facing. We could see how specific policies suppressed the success of individuals.”
“Republicans are not big on quotas as a matter of policy,” said Garrett, “but we realized our Black colleagues weren’t talking about creating quotas. We were told, ‘We’re not trying to change the system, we just want to play the game fairly.’”
“We thought if a person has a good business plan and a successful track record, they could walk into a bank and get a fair shot,” Garrett noted. “We saw examples where that was not the case.”
“It’s instances like a mother without a checking account who goes to cash a payroll check and ends up paying a fee that equates to two hours of work,” said Whitt. “That’s just not right.”
Republicans in attendance learned that many of their life experiences and communities didn’t match those of their Black colleagues.
The Republicans saw getting parents more involved as a critical part of crafting solutions, said Daniels. “The reality is that parents don’t show up in some urban communities. It’s frustrating to acknowledge that.”
Drummond: “It was: ‘Let’s put all of it out there and see where each other is. Where is your pain coming from? What can we do to make it better?”
In time, Republicans shared, too. They spoke of sources of some of their discomfort and angst; Democrats listened.
“There was some terminology used that was offensive to some,” Garrett says. “One [Black] member used the word the word ‘oppressor’—then explained, ‘Not you personally, it was the system.’ ‘White Privilege’ that’s an offensive term until you understand what it is saying.”
“I appreciated the openness and willingness to try and understand what they did not understand,” Daniels says. “A lot of times you have a meeting just to have a meeting, but don’t have clue that we live in different worlds. They were all there to listen. Once I saw that, I felt good.”
Garrett admits the tenor and topics of the discussion surprised Republicans.
“We thought we’d hear a lot about Black Lives Matter and defund the police,” he confesses. “But what we heard was economic opportunity and education.”
“With my background in law enforcement, “I thought I was going there to be defending police,” said Reynolds. “We made it through two and a half hours without law enforcement ever really coming up. It was mostly social, banking, and family issues.”
“We had some deep, deep, heated discussions, which were needed,” Hollis says. “Everyone promised not to take everything we heard to heart. At the end of the day, we would all stay friends.”
Two hours after the group walked into the church, they left seemingly having achieved more than they suspected they might.
“I admire my colleagues across the aisle,” Drummond says. “They said, ‘We’ll show you. Tell us what you want. It started the process.”
The Black Democrats did just that, launching a process that bore surprising fruit. In myriad ways. In Part 2, published tomorrow, Smith and Johnson reveal how the burgeoning alliance was clandestine in their effort to get the bills through by massaging and gaining support from skeptics on both sides of the partisan aisle. And not mentioning a word of it publicly.
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