In the final third of his political career, George Wallace retreated from the politics of rage and resentment, apologizing to black Alabamians for his support of white supremacy and winning the votes of many of them. But he is remembered, still, as the fiery segregationist who stood in the schoolhouse door, the politician who insisted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” His legacy is stubbornly resistant to a makeover.
White Southern politicians of the 21st century ought to think long and hard about the Wallace legacy and whether they want to be remembered for more than their political expediency and prejudices. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., seem to be ignoring the lessons of the Wallace era.
Both men are seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate that is currently held by an Alabama Democrat, Doug Jones. And in a hotly contested Republican primary, both men are appealing to a right-wing Republican base that remains resentful of the social and cultural changes wrought by the civil rights movement. To do so, Sessions and Byrne are diving unabashedly into hoary stereotypes and offensive rhetoric.
For Sessions, this is familiar territory. (He is seeking to win back the seat he gave up to become Trump’s first attorney general.) He is a dyed-in-the-wool bigot who has long fought to curtail voting rights for black citizens and who wants to limit even legal immigration. When Sessions was in the Senate, one of his chief aides was the infamous Stephen Miller, now an aide to President Donald Trump. Miller has a long history of trafficking in white nationalist beliefs and supporting the views of self-avowed racists.
So it’s no great surprise that Sessions has a new campaign ad in which he not only denounces Democratic politicians as “socialists” — a time-honored tactic by conservatives — but also accuses them of wanting “open borders” and having a plan to give “free health care to illegal immigrants.” Never mind that the claims don’t bear scrutiny.
Byrne, however, is a more recent convert to the politics of racism and resentment. Once upon a time, he was a moderate Republican with a track record of working within the mainstream. Not anymore. Since Trump’s rise to power, Byrne has been busy tacking to the right, courting ultraconservative extremists, enmeshing his campaign in racially charged rhetoric.
His latest campaign ad is incendiary, featuring images of women of color in Congress and, of all people, former professional football player Colin Kaepernick. At least Sessions has the decency to denounce some white Democrats. Byrne doesn’t. He homes in, instead, on a picture of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., wearing the hijab, and attempts to associate her with terrorism. Kaepernick, who is famous for refusing to stand for the national anthem, is supposedly a traitor to his country. The ad may delight Alabama’s white bigots, but it also makes Byrne appear to be one of them.
And his cynicism shows through as he looks solemnly into the camera to declare that he will not let the people whom he targets in the ad “tear the country apart.” That’s precisely what Byrne is doing with a campaign that takes its cue from the George Wallace who ran for president in 1968, pledging to “Stand Up for America.” In “The Politics of Rage,” a seminal work analyzing Wallace’s appeal, historian Dan Carter writes: “In speech after speech, Wallace knit together the strands of racism with those of a deeply rooted xenophobic ‘plain folk’ cultural outlook which equated social change with moral corruption.”
It is quite likely that a Republican will win the race for the Senate. Jones won a special election in crimson-red Alabama only because the winner of the Republican primary was Roy Moore, a former jurist who was damaged by credible accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. Trump remains hugely popular here in my home state.
But like neighboring Mississippi, Alabama has serious challenges, including high rates of infant and maternal mortality and a poor system of public education. It deserves to be represented by politicians prepared to meet the future, not those mired in the reprehensible politics of the past.
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