Could Alabama Elect a Black Governor?

Rep. Artur Davis will run for governor in 2010. He’s leaving Alabama’s tortured racial history in the past. But will the state’s Republican voters be able to do the same?

Denise Stewart

Last Saturday in Linn Park in downtown Birmingham, a 41-year-old Congressman who went to Harvard and then graduated from Harvard Law School, announced that he was running for governor of Alabama in 2010.

There were red, white and blue signs with his name on them and a diverse crowd of about 500 cheered on the candidate. There was a little white girl, her face painted like an orange cat. There were black and white retirees in lawn chairs, sipping on soft drinks and bottled water. Then there were the business owners, lawyers and politicians—black, white and brown.

The candidate, Rep. Artur Davis, is black.

The multicultural campaign launch is noteworthy, of course, because it’s happening in Alabama.

This, after all, is where George Wallace stood in the door of the state’s flagship university in an attempt to keep blacks from registering for college; the state where civil rights marchers were beaten on a bridge in Selma when they tried to march to the state capital to highlight inequality in voting rights; the state where four little girls were killed in a church on a Sunday morning by a bomb planted by Klansmen. This, after all, is Alabama.

Davis seems undaunted by history. In his 15-minute speech on Saturday, he talked about the racial divide only briefly and focused instead on trying to move beyond it.

“... No matter what you think of what Alabama used to be, no matter what you think of what some people outside of Alabama say about our state, the Alabama we have now is a new one, the best one we’ve ever had and the one that will take us places we’ve never been.”

Black candidates often run for statewide offices, usually as Democrats. If they make it past the party primary, they generally lose in the general election in a state that is resoundingly Republican.

In 2008, when Democratic candidates across the country were getting a boost from the candidacy of Barack Obama, the Obama magic didn’t make it to Alabama. John McCain won Alabama by 21 percentage points.

Judge Clyde Jones, a black candidate for the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008, also lost out that year. Before becoming a circuit court judge in 2002, Jones had been a deputy district attorney and a defense lawyer. Though he had an impressive résumé and the backing of influential legal groups, Jones lost to Beth Kellum, a white Republican woman who was a senior staff attorney in a law firm. Jones got 857,043 votes to Kellum's 1,095,348, a difference of more than 21 percent.