Until the tide started to turn toward Doug Jones on Tuesday night, it looked as though the quintessential Alabama Moment of its bizarro special election would come courtesy of Jim Ziegler, the Republican state auditor. After candidate Roy Moore was revealed to be a serial mall-stalker of teenage girls, Ziegler was among the many fine Christian citizens to rally to the Republican nominee’s defense. The news, he said, had put him in mind of the inspiring story of Our Lord and Savior. “Take Joseph and Mary,” he said. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became the parents of Jesus. There’s nothing immoral or illegal here.”
Nothing to see here, folks! has not only been the rallying cry of conservative Southerners since the build-up to the Civil War, but of the region’s put-upon liberals as well. As soon as Moore secured the Republican nomination, the familiar sense of dread began to creep in. “Good lord, here we go again,” one of my former neighbors in Montgomery, a longtime civil-rights activist, sighed over the phone. “You know exactly what it’ll be. Magnolias and guns and grits and moonlight and poverty and NASCAR and Selma and Bible-thumping imbeciles and poverty statistics, and oh yeah, don’t forget the cousin-fucking jokes on late night TV. ” (She had no idea how right she’d be about the latter.)
The last time the rest of America had found a reason to tune into news from the state of Alabama, the footage had been black-and-white: The Alabama State Police showed off their baton-wielding and hose-shooting skills, big dogs snarled, and George Wallace demagogued about “segregation now, segregation to-morrah, segregation forever.” The images didn’t just stick in Americans’ heads — they became Alabama.
“This is an election to tell the world who we are,” Doug Jones said on the campaign trail. It’s exactly what so many Alabamians were dreading like the plague.
While Northeastern liberals were getting the first look at Alabama in Technicolor, Roy Moore’s backers did their damnedest to make it appear that time had actually stood still. State Representative Ed Henry told the Cullman Times that the women who accused Moore of molesting them should be locked up. “You can’t be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion,” he said. Besides, said Geneva County GOP chairman Riley Seibenhener, you couldn’t blame a man in his thirties for things that happen: “I know that 14-year-olds don’t make good decisions,” he said. John Archibald, a columnist for Al.com, put it pretty aptly: “Thinking of the world watching Alabama now is like hearing an unexpected knock on the door when you haven’t done the dishes.”
They knew perfectly well that most white Christian folk in Alabama did not really believe that Roy Moore was another holy spirit come down to Earth to impregnate holy virgins. They also knew that Alabama’s ornery streak was about to kick in as soon as the national newspapers started to dig into Moore. “If the Washington Post ran a banner headline tomorrow saying ‘Antifreeze is poison, don’t drink it,’ a sizeable number of Alabamians would be dead tomorrow,” cracked Kyle Whitmire, a local political columnist.
But lo and behold, decency prevailed over orneriness and bigotry on Election Day — by a narrow margin, maybe, but still. All of a sudden, the generations of sneering and stereotypes gave way to gratitude and surprise from celebrity liberals. “I love you Alabama!” tweeted Cyndi Lauper; “Alabama gives us all hope tonight,” said Maria Shriver. “Never give up on this gorgeous mystery called Life,” commented Ava DuVernay. “A Democrat from Alabama? Hope lives.” Alyssa Milano found her inspiration in a whole new place: “Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity, Alabama,” she tweeted.
Granted, it might seem like a pyrrhic kind of victory when 48 percent of the state, and 68 percent its white people, voted to send a probable pedophile and certified theocrat to Washington. At Vox, Dylan Matthews noted that “a glib commentator might conclude that all the election shows it that a Democrat can win a special election in Alabama if his opponent has been fired from the state Supreme Court twice for misconduct and faces multiple credible accusations of preying on teenage girls.”
True enough. But un-crazy Alabamians and long-slandered Southerners will take what credit we can get. While the Roy Moore episode dredged up and reinforced a million hoary old clichés about the Deep South, the ultimate takeaway was something else altogether: Alabama, it turns out, isn’t an American outlier after all. “Looking back at George Wallace, we thought he was a fading and terrible relic,” says Diane McWhorter, the great civil-rights historian from Birmingham. “After Trump, we’re all Alabamians now.”
During the civil rights era, populist historian Howard Zinn wrote the truest thing ever said about the South — and the rest of America. The South, he said, “is racist, violent, hypocritically pious, xenophobic, false in its elevation of women, nationalistic, conservative, and it harbors extreme poverty in the midst of ostentatious wealth. The only point I have to add is that the United States, as a civilization, embodies all of these same qualities.”
After Tuesday, perhaps, Alabama can become a state rather than a symbol. Put to the test by Roy Moore, its voters showed they aren’t really the American exemplars of intractable ignorance and intolerance. At the same time, they’re hardly what Jones wanted to claim in his victory speech — sudden proof that the universe’s moral arc keeps bending toward justice. Charles Barkley, one of the great Alabamians of our time, nailed the real truth as he celebrated Jones’s victory with the homefolk on Tuesday: “Yeah, we got a bunch of rednecks and a bunch of ignorant people. But we got some amazing people and they rose up today.”
On Tuesday, precisely because of that wild mixture of ignorance and amazingness, of smallness and big-heartedness, of bigotry and brotherhood, Alabama finally became a widely recognized part of the United States of America. Whether that’s a compliment or not, of course, depends on your perspective.
Bob Moser is a contributing editor at The New Republic, former editor of the Texas Observer, and author of Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority.