The Deep South’s Only Democratic Senator Still Has Hope

The Alabama Democrat Doug Jones discusses the coronavirus outbreak in the South, new efforts to grapple with the region’s Confederate legacy, and his hopes that this time of crisis leads to systemic change.

Framed by the U.S. and Alabama state flags, Doug Jones sits in an office.
Alyssa Schukar / Redux

Updated at 5:13 p.m. ET on July 14, 2020.

When Doug Jones invokes the civil-rights movement of the early 1960s, he knows the stakes. Twenty years before his upset win in a 2017 special election to represent Alabama in the Senate, Jones, a U.S. attorney, prosecuted Klansmen for the Birmingham church bombing—and insisted that the guilty verdict not be seen as the end of the movement’s story.*

Jones understands why Americans might be cynical about the current civil-rights protests. He understands why people might look at all of the demonstrations since George Floyd’s death and say that, so far, there’s been more political back-and-forth over whether “Defund the police” is a good slogan than actual change.

“You only have to look back at what happened in this country in 1963, 1964, 1965,” Jones told me. Those changes, he pointed out, took more than a few months. “I would encourage folks to just not give up, to not let this moment pass and not just sit back and say, ‘Well, it’s never gonna happen. There’s going to be too much resistance, so let’s just move on.’”

From his home in Birmingham, Jones has been trying to get Alabamans to listen to public-health guidelines about the coronavirus—while also trying to campaign to hold his seat in November. He’s also been watching the South grapple again with its history, and urging people to be honest about what the Civil War and its aftermath meant. “You can honor individuals who fought, but we should not honor the Confederacy. Remember, this was not our country. This was the Confederate States of America,” Jones said. “If you love freedom and you are a patriot, then you can’t honor the Confederacy.” But he warned against getting consumed entirely by the fight over monuments, despite supporting the removal of many himself. “Those are just symbols, and they’re monuments; and they’re not the barriers to racial [equality],” he told me.

The civil-rights movement began 60 years ago, and he says it’s not over. I asked him how long he hopes the events of the past four months stay with America. “Well, to be honest with you,” Jones said, “I hope we live with it for a long time.”

Listen to the interview here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript:

Edward-Isaac Dovere: Senator, the last time I saw you was in March. We were in Selma, Alabama, for the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You gave a speech warning against how people in Washington were trying to turn Americans against each other. How are we doing on that?

Doug Jones: Well, I think, as a whole, America is actually faring much better. I think America is coming together like never before.

Dovere: I’ve talked to people who say that we are being foolish to think that things are going to get better. You already feel hopeful.

Jones: Look, I can’t help it. I understand the cynicism that people have. You only have to look back at what happened in this country in 1963, 1964, 1965—historic moments that created a number of changes, but they didn’t finish the job. And as we went on, we tended to start backsliding. So I can understand that cynicism. I just want to look at a glass half full. And I would encourage folks to just not give up, to not let this moment pass and not just sit back and say, “Well, it’s never gonna happen. There’s going to be too much resistance. So let’s just move on.” We have this moment—with this pandemic, with an economic crisis, with the spotlight on racial disparities—the most unique time in modern history, I believe, to really do things in a way to get rid of the systemic problems that we’ve got in this country and build a stronger and more just America.

Dovere: So many other parts of the world and even in the country have figured out how to keep cases low. Not Alabama. What’s going on?

Jones: Well, most places in the country have not figured it out, or if they figured it out, they’re just not following it. I think Alabama and our governor did their very dead-level best to try to open up the economy in a slow and methodical way. But there was a lot of pressure, I think, and I don’t mean just pressure from the administration. I mean community pressure that we’ve got to get out of our households. We’ve got to start trying to live again. And so the governor and others started opening up. Alabama’s governor’s order went from a safe-at-home order, and almost a stay-at-home order, to a safer-at-home order.

But people just didn’t listen to that as much. They heard: You can get out. You can go to restaurants. Just social distance. Wear a mask. But they didn’t follow that advice.

Dovere: Do you feel like enough people in Alabama are wearing masks?

Jones: No, I don’t. I think, more and more, you are seeing more local officials, more business leaders, saying, “Wear these masks. Please take these precautions.”

Dovere: Do you think if it had been reversed, if the pandemic had started in more rural communities instead of hitting cities first, that the response might have been different?

Jones: My view is that it would have been much, much worse had it hit in our rural communities, in our underserved communities first. Because it is those communities that do not have access to good health care, that do not have the same quality of health care and first responders. Now, having said that, what’s so disappointing is that because it did hit in their urban centers first—and I said this really early on to folks in rural Alabama, rural America: “Look, this is right now centered in our more populated areas. You folks in these rural areas, where the population is more sparse, have this opportunity to stop this in its tracks before it gets to you. But you’ve got to do what we’re being told to do in Birmingham and in New York and other places, and that’s: Start social distancing now. Start self-quarantining. Stay at home. Let’s do these things now.” And unfortunately, I don’t think folks got that.

It’s incredibly frustrating. But I will tell you that part of this is just the media messages—and when I say this, I’m not being critical of the media, because we’ve had to report things as we go. So let’s think about this: The first thing we’re hearing is “Well, this is really affecting senior citizens and people in nursing homes.” That let everybody have their guard down a little bit, because that’s all they heard. Then it’s affecting the cities. So the people in the rural areas think, That doesn’t affect me. Then there is even a racial component where it really affects African Americans and the Black community and Latino community more. So there was a sense of Okay, I’m probably not really at risk. There is just so much that we didn’t know and that we were learning. And as we learn it, we say things, we do things, and it lulls people a little bit. And it is incredibly frustrating. Here we are in July, and to be in a situation in Alabama where every day we see a new record and every day we see more deaths. And it’s just not acceptable.

Dovere: You’ve invoked the early ’60s as sort of the model of the moment that we are in now. In 1997, you were put in charge of the prosecution of two Klansmen responsible for the Birmingham church bombing. At the time when that prosecution happened, it seemed to people in a way like it was closing a chapter in history.

Jones: It helps heal some wounds, but it didn’t close a chapter. I said—and I’ve said for 20 years now—we should never close that chapter. We should always remember what happened in Birmingham and the changes that came from the events that occurred right here in our city, whether it was the fire hoses and the dogs, or the church bombing in the course of one year in 1963. And I think we are in a similar moment right now that we can’t let pass.

Dovere: Where do you think we are in the story of the legacy of the South, slavery, and segregation?

Jones: I think we have taken tremendous strides in that story. There’s no question. We have more Black elected officials now. We have more folks integrated into society and schools. But at the same time, we have also seen some slide-backs, rollbacks of efforts to give people the right to vote and make it harder to vote. And so I think we got a little complacent. Dr. King wrote about this in 1967 in his last book. It’s really easy to pass legislation and, at the signing of the legislation, think everything is accomplished.

I think, to some extent, that’s what happened in the ’60s. Everybody patted themselves on the back. It was an incredible victory. And I don’t mean at all to diminish those amazing victories. But doing things legally and statutorily is one thing. Doing it in a way that people change is a completely different story. And I think that there are so many times that we see an implicit bias that people don’t even fully appreciate. And now we are in that moment where everything seems to have come full circle and we are back to where people are recognizing what is going on in this country. They’re also recognizing that regardless of what happens in the future, we are becoming a more diverse America. There is no question about that. And people are seeing it. They’re accepting it. They understand it.

Dovere: What do you say to the people who want to honor the Confederacy?

Jones: I say you can honor individuals who fought, but we should not honor the Confederacy. Remember, this was not our country. This was the Confederate States of America. It was a separate country that was taking up arms against the United States of America. If you love freedom and you are a patriot, then you can’t honor the Confederacy. It was not just a so-called state-rights issue. That’s just a fallacy and a revisionist history. It was states rights with regard to owning enslaved people.

Dovere: You talked about the ’60s as a potential model for what we are going through now. We’re still living with that. How long are we going to be living with the legacy of this period?

Jones: To be honest with you, I hope we live with it for a long time. I hope we live with the fact that we are reminded of the things that pull people together and the things that divided folks. I think that the legacy that we have witnessed now is going to last with us for generations. We should never forget how ill-prepared we were when this pandemic hit us. That is something that I hope will never happen to the United States or the world again. We were not prepared to do this. Schools were not prepared. Businesses were not prepared. Government was not prepared.

Dovere: The Republican primary runoff in Alabama is next week, and you’ll find out whether your opponent will be Jeff Sessions or Tommy Tuberville. It is probably the weirdest Republican race in the country, given the dynamics between them and President Trump being so invested in hurting his former attorney general, despite how much Sessions keeps chasing him. What does that race tell you about the state of the Republican Party in Alabama?

Jones: I think it tells you something of what’s happened to the Republican Party in Alabama, not what’s going on in the state of Alabama, but just what’s happened to the Republican Party. And I fault the Democratic Party a lot for this, because national Democrats ignored the southern Democrats for so long and we had to go it ourselves. And then all of a sudden, things got to a point in Alabama where our party was just not functioning properly. And so there was not another voice out there. And the Republican Party just became a party that you had to appeal to a small base in a primary—you know, 50 percent of an already-small base in a primary—in order to win a primary that was tantamount to an election, somewhat in the way Democrats did years and years ago.

Dovere: So, Tuberville or Sessions, which one would you rather face?

Jones: The answer to that is: I am ready to go. It doesn’t matter to me. I think they both have serious flaws.

* This article previously misstated the date when Doug Jones prosecuted Klansmen for the Birmingham church bombing.