Apathy and a Divide Among Some Black Voters

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Karen and Charles Fowler canvass for U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones in northeast Birmingham.
Karen and Charles Fowler canvass for U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones in northeast Birmingham.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM 90.3 FM

If he has a chance at defeating conservative Republican Roy Moore in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate election, Democrat Doug Jones needs lots of votes, especially from African Americans. But some in the black community say it’ll take more than a history of prosecuting the KKK members responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing to energize them.

This past weekend, Karen and Charles Fowler walked up and down the streets of northeast Birmingham. They walked past barking dogs and through the leaves to knock on doors and win support for Jones.

About a fifth of the state’s black voters live in Jefferson County. The Jones campaign is hoping for a high voter turnout among African Americans, like when Barack Obama first ran for president.

“I think it’s important for everyone to come out – everyone who is disenfranchised, whether it’s an African American voter, whether it’s a white voter, whether it’s a millennial voter,” Karen Fowler says as she walks through a racially mixed neighborhood just off Center Point Parkway.

Jones ads have appealed to some black voters, touting his role in convicting the Klansmen who bombed 16th Street Baptist Church. One recent radio ad contains an endorsement from NBA superstar Charles Barkley.

Jones even opened an office in the heart of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District.

But it’s going to take more than that to motivate black voters to go to the polls, says Ed Bowser. He’s a social media marketer and freelance columnist. He says African Americans appreciate Jones’ role in prosecuting the church bombers, but he says, the Jones campaign may have waited too long to talk about other important issues.

“Education, unemployment, crime — those are also very important issues, and those went silent,” Bowser says. “And to hear them now, it seems like a scramble and a catch up. And I worry that those ears may be tuned out.”

Bowser says he’s voting for Jones on Dec. 12, but he says he senses apathy among some African American voters.

Meanwhile, Jones is trying to energize voters with rallies, church visits and fish frys around the state.

On a recent damp afternoon in Ensley, Berdis Blanding, a chemical engineer, came out with his wife and two children to hear what Jones had to say.

Blanding is 34. He says he’s afraid the younger generation may take voting for granted.

“Voting was something that was fought for. It’s something that certain folks died for,” Blanding says. “We’ve got to get with our friends and our associates and corral them, and then we’ve to reach down and get some that’s younger.”

Roy Moore, Jones’ Republican challenger, is trying to corral some black voters, too, especially evangelicals.

On Sunday, he spoke at Guiding Light, a predominately black church near Irondale. He wasn’t allowed to campaign, but he stayed for the worship service and greeted churchgoers afterwards.

Ben Little is an Anniston pastor and a city councilman. He says he’s voting for Moore and he expects other blacks will do the same. He says Democrats use blacks like a doormat.

“They know that blacks, the majority, is going to vote for them,” Little says. “They don’t promise anything. When they promise, they don’t deliver.”

Little says he likes that Moore takes a stand and sticks with it. He’s heard the allegations of Moore’s past sexual misconduct, but he says he hasn’t been found guilty.

He says, “If you convict somebody without having a trial, can you imagine what will happen to black people and poor people?”

Little says a lot of blacks just won’t vote in the special election.

If that prediction holds true, Jones, will have even more of an uphill battle in a state that has not sent a Democrat to the Senate in more than 20 years.