Skip to contents

Alabama and the Politics of Retribution

The retaliation a Black mayor is facing is part of a long history of resistance to Black political leadership, experts say.

The first elected Black mayor of Newbern, Alabama, has been prevented from taking office and locked out of its town hall, seen above. (Aallyah Wright/Capital B)

Alabama is becoming fertile ground for the dilution of Black voters’ political power, experts say. 

Last week, the state’s Republican leaders refused to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to redraw a congressional map to include two majority-Black districts. Gov. Kay Ivey approved a map with just one majority-Black district. While Black Alabamians make up around 27% of the state’s voting-age population, they hold a majority in only one of the seven districts under the map in question.

The news came mere days after Capital B reported on the Black rural town of Newbern and Mayor Patrick Braxton’s fight to govern it. 

“Failing to have access to a democratically elected position is violence. It’s indirect relative to some acts of racial terror, but it sends a similar message,” Christine Slaughter, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University, told Capital B this week.  

The Supreme Court’s decision upheld a lower court ruling that the state’s newly enacted congressional map likely violates Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which says that marginalized groups must have an equal opportunity “to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”

For decades, there hadn’t been elections in the 85% Black town of Newbern, and residents didn’t have a chance to exercise their right to vote. That changed three years ago, when Braxton became Newbern’s first Black mayor. Since then, though, he’s experienced harassment and intimidation. He’s also been locked out of the town hall, fought fires alone, been followed by a drone, and been unable to access Newbern’s mail and financial accounts, he says.

The retaliation he’s facing isn’t new. Rather, in important ways, it’s part of a long history of resistance to Black political leadership, especially in the South.

During Reconstruction, a number of Black men were elected to the U.S. Congress and to state legislatures. Sworn in on Dec. 12, 1870, Rep. Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina was the first Black member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet “white Southerners responded to Black political progress in the 1870s with a brutal campaign of voter disenfranchisement and violent repression,” the House’s History, Art, and Archives section notes.

Braxton might not be encountering the bloody defiance of the past, but his struggles exemplify the fierce opposition that’s routinely confronted Black politicians in certain parts of the country. 

“The types of suppression have changed, but it still has the intended effect of intimidating voters and officeholders,” Slaughter said. “Alabama has denied the enfranchisement of Black Americans. Look at what it’s doing with congressional maps, refusing the mandate of the Supreme Court.”

Capital B spoke with Emmitt Riley III, an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at the University of the South, as well as Slaughter about what protections exist for voters via the Voting Rights Act and why cases such as Newbern continue to happen today.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Capital B: How does a situation like Newbern happen in 2023? 

Riley: There’s been a lack of accountability, locally, with county officials. When systems aren’t responsive to the needs of the citizens they serve, people have one of two options. They can either continue to put pressure on the system, or they can become disengaged altogether. Especially when we’re talking about Black communities — fighting [for] voting rights [or against] discrimination, economic issues, and a host of systemic issues — often people don’t have the resources or the time to continue to invest in political systems that aren’t yielding the outcomes [they want]. Some people will throw their hands up and not engage. I can’t say that people in Newbern aren’t engaged because I don’t know. What’s happening is that [white] people have gotten away with this because this hasn’t been in the news. It hasn’t been publicized. It’s the lack of coverage. It’s the lack of accountability for the leaders. But also these leaders have to feel empowered to take these actions.

Slaughter: Part of me thinks that somebody has cared or has raised flags about this — it just hasn’t received national attention. One thing to consider is that there are multiple levels of representation for the people of Newbern. When there’s a state like Alabama that’s controlled by Republicans, [Black] communities can feel politically disenfranchised and want to speak out against these superpower structures — where the governor is a Republican, the state legislature has a Republican majority, and they’re represented by a white Republican Congress — [but] they may not view mobilizing for the mayor as powerful, given what it looks like up the chain. I think that’s particularly true in Southern states, where we have majority-white Republican representatives but Black rural towns. 

Especially during Reconstruction, Black Southern political leaders faced racial terror and violence. Is what’s happening in Newbern a modern-day example of the tactics used against Black leaders of the past?

Riley: This political moment we’re in is what we like to describe as a politics of retribution. Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen Black Americans make significant strides in becoming president and becoming judges and becoming leaders in almost every aspect of U.S. society. The response has always been for the white political establishment to attempt to hold onto political power. 

This moment, while it’s different, is similar to what our ancestors experienced around Reconstruction. When we think about restrictions on voting rights, when we think about some of the Jim Crow-style tactics being turned into public policy, this political moment mirrors the past. Some people try to say that it’s not as bad as it was after Reconstruction, [but] I’m not so sure. Who would’ve thought that, in 2023, a majority-white legislative body would expel two Black members who’d been duly elected? Who would’ve thought that, in 2022, in the state of Florida, a white governor would remove a democratically elected state prosecutor because he disagreed with how that prosecutor was doing his job?

What should the next step be?

Riley: People have got to protest. People have got to demand accountability. In a so-called democracy like the U.S., this is unacceptable. It goes against the very principles of an open society, of holding fair and free elections. People have got to be upset. People have got to channel that anger into public action. That’s the only recourse we have now. We need to utilize the courts as best as we can to bring about redress but also understand that the court — like every other institution — is also rooted in anti-Blackness. I don’t want people to think that there’s no hope. There is hope. But we have to be real about the structures we’re working in, in an effort to bring about change.

Slaughter: Amplify what’s happening to Black folks across not just the South, but the rural parts of the South we don’t necessarily write about or think about. Those are the areas that almost serve as a litmus test for where we are in the U.S., and tell us where we are when it comes to race and power.

Another thing is just recognizing what voter intimidation is, and how what we’re seeing in Newbern is a form of intimidation. These things send messages to voters, to Black people, about “knowing their place” in politics and in the town. People know what parts of town not to go in, what things not to say, what businesses not to frequent, and we just have to be really aware of how that persists over time, even if the intimidation doesn’t look like it did in the 1960s and ’70s.

Capital B is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to uncovering important stories — like this one — about how Black people experience America today. As more and more important information disappears behind paywalls, it’s crucial that we keep our journalism accessible and free for all. But we can’t publish pieces like this without your help. If you support our mission, please consider becoming a member by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!