How Race And A 'Bunker Mentality' Have Shaped Alabama's Political History

As voters in Alabama decide one of the most controversial Senate elections in recent memory, Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson takes a look back at the state’s political history — from Martin Luther King Jr., to former Gov. George Wallace.

Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus in the history department at Auburn University, and Barry McNealy, an education consultant at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, trace the history.

Interview Highlights

On the historical principles of Alabama politics, as embodied by former Gov. George Wallace

Wayne Flynt: “There are two major historical principles about Alabama that grow from our distant history and Wallace incorporated both. One is ‘we dare defend our rights,’ which is the state motto, and it’s sort of a bunker mentality where you think the world is against you. Everybody hates you. Everybody makes fun of you. And so, understandably, what you end up with is a bunker mentality. And Wallace was the embodiment of it. And the other characteristic of Wallace was that blacks need to know what their place is, and they need to stay in their place. And so it was about not allowing Yankees to put you down and not allowing blacks to participate in the political process. … Alabama politics begins and pretty much ends with race.”

On race and religion in Alabama

WF: “An evangelical is an evangelical, right? No, not in Alabama. It’s all about race, and so black evangelicals are very different, even though theologically and even on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, they may agree with white evangelicals. But they figure there’s a larger issue here about justice and fairness and equity in society, and protecting voting rights, whereas Republicans could care less about those things.”

On Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the Civil Rights Institute

Barry McNealy: “We have April 12, 1963 where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is going to be locked behind these bars, and he’s going to pen his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’ These are the actual bars, that’s the actual stool. We have the two keys to the cell, but they are kept in archives.

“I think the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is so significant in a symbolic way. If you’re using the confines of incarceration to liberate people, it really exposes what African-Americans had to deal with in terms of segregation in their lives. And he states that, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ in the letter, and how the wait — because one of the things that was said often was, ‘you’re pushing too hard, you’re pushing too fast, you’re asking for too much at one time, and we need to do this gradually.’ And Dr. King pushes back against this gradualism, and he says, ‘You know, basically, we’ve been waiting for over 100 years now.’ And this letter is designed to try to wake people up who are of good faith to say, ‘You are on the wrong side of history,’ basically.”

On the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing

BM: “The 16th Street Baptist Church started out as a beacon in the city of Birmingham for the African-American community. But during the civil rights movement, it took on a greater importance when they started using it for planning and demonstrations and things of that nature. And it was targeted for a bombing on Sept. 15, 1963 after Birmingham City Schools were forced to integrate.

“The bombing of that church. The death of those four little girls was an … example of man’s ability to be inhumane to other men. But from that example, people pushed back, and you had things like the Civil Rights Act, and people began to draw closer together because I think they were able to see the precipice of this hate and how bad it was.”

On Birmingham’s future

BM: “This quote by Dr. Martin Luther King that greets all of our visitors when they come here is a window into who he was as a leader. When we read the words, ‘I like to believe that the negative extremes of Birmingham’s past will resolve into the positive and utopian extreme of her future; that the sins of a dark yesterday will be redeemed in the achievements of a bright tomorrow’ — we hear these words, and they’re powerful words, but they’re made more powerful by understanding that Dr. King was delivering these words as he preached the eulogy of three of the little girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.”

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