News from the States of the Union: Alabama!

I probably don’t know what’s going on where you live, except when it makes national news. And in this year of midterm elections, as the country lumbers down its warpath of “What the fuck is going on, y’all,” well, that doesn’t seem enough. Cable news, grey ladies, and pundits on Sunday morning talk shows come in at the crescendo, not the individual notes that build to it—like the city council meetings, the school board elections, that reveal the inner workings of America, that create the first ripples of real change. And so begin this series: I’m going to read local newspapers from one state each week and report on what’s making headlines in cities and hamlets, in parking lots and elementary schools, across the country. Not to snark, not to make fun of people from unincorporated towns who write letters to the editor, but to share with you a more complicated, less yell-y look at where we are, with the hopes of better understanding where we might be headed.

AlabamaMapFirst up, alphabetically: Alabama!

Let’s start with reactions to The Affordable Care Act:

In between many stories about motorcycle clubs, churches, and student organizations raising money and gathering donations for local folks in need, were combative editorials on the newly enacted law:

“By the way, the Obamas, Reids, Bidens and Pelosis are the ones who think all Americans are stupid,” wrote Johnny Oliver of Enterprise, and David Oltmans of Dothan went further: “The sleazy Democratic Party is trying to steal our money and our rights. It wants to subvert the Constitution and to destroy the United States.”

While we might have been trained by the national news to expect these opinions from a red state, not all of Alabama agrees. In the Dothan Eagle, Sanford Williams, of Geneva, wrote: “Since a recent letter suggested that Democrats ‘wake up,’ I would remind that writer that he is half-right; certain Democrats need to get a backbone and show some political courage to stand for equality for all…” He ended his letter, “And just for the record, the Democrats do need to wake up, but progressives are rising up.”

craterOh and by the way, the town of Wetumpka is holding a Crater Art Contest to celebrate “the site of the only authenticated impact crater in the Eastern United States;” the meteor, which struck 85 million years ago, left a five-miles wide impression just east of what is now downtown.

Meanwhile, across Alabama’s gentle plains, Gulf Coast, and Appalachian North, a cacophony of voices called for the state’s governor, Robert Bentley, to expand Medicaid.

Phillip Watts, of Birmingham, wrote in an editorial, “Possibly the thing that would change Governor Bentley’s mind is for him, like Ebeneezer, to be visited by the ghosts of Alabama’s jobless, followed by the ghosts of Alabama’s poor, and finally by the angels of his professed faith.” The publisher of The Randolph Leader called the governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid “government malpractice,” and Kelly Evans of Hanceville wrote that “denying the poor from being able to see a doctor…is doing harm…I pray you will reconsider your stand.”

One Montgomery resident even connected the governor’s refusal to insure thousands of poorer Alabamians to another governor’s refusal to allow black students into schools:

“Once again Alabama has the dubious distinction of its governor standing in a doorway to prevent a specific group of people from entering. Back in the early 1960’s, it was George Wallace standing in the doorway of Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus to prevent black students from entering to register for classes.

Today … it is Gov. Bentley standing in the doorways of hospitals across Alabama, preventing thousands upon thousands of Alabama citizens’ access to health care.”

Beyond these individuals calling for change, a coalition of organizations from Mobile, Birmingham, Montgomery and Shorter have formed Alabama’s Better Economy Starts Today; citing studies that show the expansion would provide health insurance to 300,000 more people, while also creating 30,000 new jobs, the group “will advocate expanding access to health care by allowing more Alabamians to participate in the Medicaid program.”

WEB-Josh-Campbell-pic

Let’s be honest: it’s hard for a man riding a horse from Indiana to New Mexico, who stopped in Russellville, to compete with the charming minutes from a 4-H meeting at Ranburne Elementary, which included “Your heart is to the left of your body.”

Funding for early education programs, like Head Start, is often seen as a partisan issue, yet in Alabama, more than half of children up to age five participate. A report from the Alabama Partnership for Children showed that nearly 200,000 young Alabamians are enrolled, and that the programs have a direct, positive impact of more than $500 million on the state’s economy, accounting for 19,000 full-time jobs. This is apparently a non-partisan issue in the Heart of Dixie, as the Alabama State Legislature expanded funding for the programs in 2013 and members are looking for ways to further grow them in the upcoming session.

This is great news, though it might be the only education issue where mostly everyone in the state agrees.

Take the Alabama Accountability Act, which created tax breaks to send public school students to private schools and continues to be widely controversial. When the bill was rushed through and passed by the legislature, incensed State Democratic Representatives commented that: “I’ve never seen such sleaziness,” and “Welcome to the new confederacy where a bunch of white men are now going to take over black schools.” As of December, the state has identified only 51 transfer students, most of them from Montgomery. If you agree with former governor Bob Riley, chairman of the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund created by the AAA, you would think more would’ve jumped to switch schools, since the law “is all about freedom. It is only about freedom.”

It gets worse: the state is considering charging students take the bus to school. The Hoover School District, which had previously voted to stop all bus services due to budge shortfalls, has decided to assess a fee for riding instead, though the details aren’t settled. With the legislature contemplating enacting the fees state-wide, Praveen Krishna, an assistant U.S. attorney in Birmingham said, “We’d be concerned about any sort of policy that burdens student access to education and any part of a policy that has an adverse impact on minorities.”

cowIn breaking news from Columbiana, Molly, a cow and best friend of a goat, Maddie Lane, died.

One county, in Western Alabama, popped up in different papers on multiple occasions. First, there was the republished headline from December 17, 1963: “The U.S. Department of Justice sued Sumter County, arguing the board of registrars was discriminating against black people.” And then, nearly 50-years later to the day, I learned that State Senator Bobby Singleton, who represents part of Sumter County, along with other members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, had filed a lawsuit against the redistricting maps passed by the Republican-led legislature, alleging that the maps, “purposely perpetuate and attempt to restore Alabama’s historical policy of segregating African Americans in party politics.” A federal court recently ruled in the state’s favor, 2-1, but the group plans to appeal.

Jerry Mitchell, executive director of the North Alabama African American Chamber of Commerce, blasted the state’s Republicans in Huntsville’s Speakin Out News; claiming that the new maps were meant to “corral Black voters” with the intent to “minimize potential coalitions between a minority of White voters and a solid core of Black voters,” he closed, writing: “Black voters in Alabama will either have to form coalitions with other groups to fight retrenchment or continue to allow ourselves to be kept powerless ‘in our designated place’.”  It’ll be interesting to see how the newly appointed Alabama G.O.P. director of minority outreach, Troy Towns, responds to these issues.

From the human interest pages of Jasper’s Mountain Eagle, I read about 91-year old Bill Jones, of Birmingham, who served as the press secretary for both George Wallace and Carl Elliott, the Alabama Representative who helped push for the Great Society’s programs, as well as mobile libraries for rural Americans. The interview in the Eagle explained that Jones “was known as the liberal on the staff and was intensely disliked by several of the state troopers who surrounded Wallace and wanted him to go even further in defending segregation.”

I’ll admit to checking the “Police Beat” in my hometown paper, although I wish it also had a section like the Lamar Democrat and Sulligent News’ “Around Vernon,” which takes a different approach, including details like: “Carolyn Reeves enjoyed a telephone visit Friday morning with her brother, Ray Finch, of Minneola.”

Although we hear from Republicans across the country that taxes cannot, must not, and should not be raised, it seems that in cities across this red state, including Huntsville, Eufala, Pelham, Clay, and others, raising taxes is the only way to improve local roads and services. Add that to the call for raising the minimum wage in the bustling rojo areas of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

Local readers throughout the state posted reviews of books that made many of our best of lists: there was the review from Talladega of Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage; in Huntsville, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 was highly recommended; and one writer, in the Cullman Sense, said of Karen Russell’s Vampires from the Lemon Grove that the book “leaps over lines of genre, time, and style to bring us tales that terrify, bemuse, or, at their best, provoke deeper consideration.”

To interrupt for a quick second, allow me to introduce you to the “Dancing Man of Guntersville,” Foster Ayers, who was featured in Marshall County’s Advertiser Gleam. Mr. Ayers be-bops as he listens to his music outside the local Walgreen’s and is beloved by his community; he prefers classic country, although he will dance to classic rock, even if it takes “an awful lot of energy out of [him.]”

Now that you’ve been charmed, let’s switch gears: of the twelve members of the jury that convicted Joshua Russell for the capital murder of Anniston police officer Justin Sollohub, eight recommended life in prison without parole. Yet Calhoun County Circuit Judge Brian Howell sentenced Mr. Russell to death. Alabama is one of only three states that allow judges to override jury sentencing recommendations, and when the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from one of the state’s death row inmates in November, Justice Sotomayor condemned the practice in her dissent.

Here’s what’s different about reading national papers vs. local: one gives you statistics about the number of people in poverty in Alabama, and the other crumples something in you when you read the announcement that a church in Athens is giving away beans and rice to anyone in need, promising: “No questions asked. No names taken.”

Finally, Andy Robinson, in an editorial in the Brewton Standard, noted that with so many worries, including the government shutdown and the closing of local businesses, that it was watching auditions for the local community theater’s production of Annie that lifted his spirits: “When negative news starts to pile up, it’s refreshing to remember just how many good things we have going on in our community. We’re blessed to live in Brewton.”