BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (RNS) — For much of the rest of the country, Alabama's Senate race hinges on whether voters will elect an accused predator of young women — Republican Roy Moore.
But many African-Americans in this state are less concerned with Moore’s sexual misconduct, which he denies, and more with countering a former judge they think is bent on returning the state to its segregationist past.
Blacks, who make up 27 percent of the population in the state, overwhelmingly favor Democratic candidates. For the first time since many can remember, they and their allies have a real chance of electing a Democrat — Doug Jones — to the U.S. Senate.
Recent accusations that Moore, the former state Supreme Court judge, made unwanted sexual advances on teenaged girls could potentially tilt the race in favor of Jones, who until a few months ago was not thought to have much of a chance in this deeply red state.
But that doesn't mean African-American pastors are ready to champion Jones from the pulpit in Alabama, a state where many people — black and white — center their lives around the church.
At the 16th Street Baptist Church, a red-robed choir greeted worshippers with a rousing rendition of “O Come Let Us Adore Him” on the first Sunday of Advent (Dec. 3).
The Rev. Arthur Price Jr., the church’s pastor, preached about waiting as the theme of the Advent season.
And during church announcements, worshippers were reminded of the Dec. 12 special election for U.S. Senate and urged to vote “for the candidate of their choice.”
The 16th Street Baptist Church has a special relationship with Jones. As a former U.S. attorney, he prosecuted the two surviving Ku Klux Klan members who helped plant the 1963 bomb that killed four girls in the basement of this church.
Jones, a Methodist, regularly drops by the church and has led tours there to help law enforcement understand how he collected evidence in the case.
But Price, like many African-American pastors across Alabama, is reluctant to endorse Jones from the pulpit, preferring to urge members to vote their conscience.
“It’s not in the church’s best interest to give an endorsement,” said Price. “The church isn’t made up of just one party or one group.”
Price, along with most African-Americans here, does not shy from personally stating his preference for Jones, and many Birmingham blacks are reliable Democratic voters.
But in Alabama, only a strong showing among blacks could potentially tip the scales in Jones’ favor.
“The question in this election is, what is the turnout among African-American vote?” said Joseph Smith, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama.
African-Americans understand the stakes are high.
“In American history, we’ve come to several crossroads and many times we’ve taken the wrong turn,” said Horace Huntley, a retired University of Alabama professor and member of another iconic church in Birmingham, Sixth Avenue Baptist. “A lot depends on what route we decide to take.”
Race haunts this state. African-Americans here began fighting for basic civil and human rights soon after the end of the Civil War and the modern civil rights movement took off when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery bus in 1955.
In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote: “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known.”
Today that history is still in plain sight. After state and federal courts struck down segregation in the 1970s and 1980s, white Birmingham fled “over the mountain,” a reference to Red Mountain, a long ridge separating the city and its southern outskirts. In the city’s southern suburbs, whites created their own school districts and municipalities, leaving Birmingham with an African-American majority of 73 percent.
More recently, as the state’s whites turned solidly Republican, African-Americans remained the visible presence of the opposition party. White Democrats are hard to find in the Alabama legislature. Of the 32 Democrats in the 105-seat state House, two dozen are African-Americans. Of the seven Democrats in the state Senate, six are black.
Many African-Americans see the dangers of a Moore win far more ominously than electing a man who may have engaged in sexual misconduct.
“There is a section of people in the South who believe in the old ways and that’s what he represents,” said Huntley. “That’s anti-black, anti-urban, anti-Jewish, anti-women. That’s what he stands for, that old legacy.”
And they have long memories of Moore’s resistance to integration.
In 2004, when a bipartisan coalition of Alabama leaders moved to strike sections of the state constitution mandating school segregation and poll taxes — a symbolic measure since those laws were no longer in effect — Moore’s fierce opposition killed the measure.
Until last year, Moore — along with President Trump — was a “birther,” believing President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. “Birtherism,” as author Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, is another way of denying the legitimacy of the first black president.
Moore has said Muslims should not be able to serve in Congress and he has compared homosexuality to bestiality.
“He wants to go back to slavery times,” said Jackie Askew, a member of 16th Street Baptist. “He’s not saying that, but I think that.”
Yet even though the Trump administration has recently empowered religious leaders to speak up politically, and many white Republicans such as Moore’s own pastor Tom Brown, have taken advantage of that opening, African-American pastors are more circumspect.
“I do not try to give them guidance as to who they should vote for,” said the Rev. Thomas Wilder Jr., pastor of Bethel Baptist Church of Collegeville, a historic congregation formerly led by civil rights legend Fred Shuttlesworth. “My purpose here is to share the gospel, not necessarily my political opinions.”
The Rev. Ronald Davis, pastor of Day Street Baptist Church in Montgomery and the leader of the Montgomery Antioch District Association, a group of 75 mostly African-American churches, feels the same way.
“I feel Jones is a better man for the job,” Davis said. But he added: “We honor the separation of church and state. We don’t endorse any candidate.”
For Jones to win, though, African-Americans will need to show up in force.
Special elections, triggered by the mid-term resignation or death of an officeholder — in this case, the appointment of former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general — typically draw few voters.
Only 14 percent of eligible voters turned out for the Republican primary runoff between Moore and his challenger Sen. Luther Strange in September.
Alabama’s secretary of state’s office projected about 1 million of the state’s 3.3 million registered voters will to go to the polls on Tuesday.
Moore is a polarizing figure and is not liked by many in in his own party, but his base of supporters tends to come out and vote.
Smith, the University of Alabama political scientist, said he understands the reluctance of African-American pastors to endorse Jones.
“It’s not obvious what the Democratic Party has done for African-Americans in Alabama,” he said.
“It’s understandable that they would be reluctant to urge their parishioners and tie themselves to Doug Jones. They might be saying, ‘He’s going to do things for us,’ but Alabama Democrats have had a hard time getting things done, and maybe when they do have power they haven’t put the interests of African-Americans at the top of their priorities.”