I moved to Alabama to fight Trump. I thought it would be temporary – here’s why I decided to stay.
In July of 2018, I arrived in Huntsville, Alabama, and I wasn’t seen.
My 2009 Honda Accord was packed to the contents of my apartment in Bushwick, New York, which was beginning to feel like a distant memory somewhere in the drab, rolling beauty of the Smokies. The box contained garbage bags stuffed with clothes and liquor boxes full of books. In the back seat was bedding, framed art, and a coffee table that my uncle made in the 1980s. My plan was to stay for five months—until the end of the midterm elections—and then return to the life I’d had in Brooklyn for the better part of a decade.
I had been to Alabama only once before, several months ago, to volunteer at the Equal Justice Initiative’s opening of its museum dedicated to lynching victims. There I met the Democratic House Minority Leader of Alabama, who offered me a midterm job. It was also there, at the Red Roof Inn on Zelda Road, that I picked up an average case of bed bugs, which left an itch on my face and arms that took weeks to go away.
Now I was off to meet Alice, the campaign volunteer who had offered to wake me up for a few nights and rent me an apartment on one of her properties in downtown Huntsville. The rent was $400 a month for one large bedroom—less than half of what I paid for my part of the two-bedroom dilapidated I was renting in Brooklyn.
Alice and her wife lived about 20 minutes outside of Huntsville in Harvest, a rural, unincorporated community. I wondered while driving around Huntsville, which I was told would soon become the largest city in Alabama Where is the city part? The sight of the cotton fields sent chills up my spine, and by the time I got to Alice I was basically questioning my decision to move.
I was not a professional operator in the campaign. In fact, this was my first job in politics. until Donald Trump Elected President in 2016, I’ve been in the business of publishing books, teaching yoga, and generally enjoying the many perks that my whites have made available to me. Like many liberals in New York City, that election was a wake-up call, and I committed myself to doing more, to educate myself, and to fight for rights I naively believed were guaranteed.
I’ve read countless articles thinking about how we needed to spend more time in those parts of the country that voted for Trump. But if Hillary Clinton doesn’t bother going to Wisconsin, do I really need to uproot my life and move to Alabama?
Growing up in New Jersey, I knew as much about the South as I did about Timbuktu. When I applied to Tulane University, my grandmother, a die-hard New Yorker, said without a hint of sarcasm, “But you know you can’t get a decent education without a Mason-Dixon line.” The bedbugs didn’t surprise anyone – my decision to move came as a shock.
With some trepidation, I let myself into Alice’s house using her keyboard and waited for her to come home. The campaign was in full swing, so I got busy in the afternoon with calls and emails raising money and drafting papers for the tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization.
When Alice arrived, we greeted each other warily. We spoke several times on the phone, mostly about campaign-related business, and her low voice, thick accent, and easy-going demeanor put me instantly at ease. She was understandably more skeptical than me. What was a girl from New Jersey with no prior work experience in politics doing here in Alabama?
Over dinner and bourbon, we got to know each other. I told her about my family, the man I was dating, and my desire to find more meaningful work. Alice shared her struggles to lift herself out of rural poverty and become the vice president of a major technology company, and the difficulties she faced getting out. We started to develop a friendship.
As part of my education in Alabama, Alice pulled out a whiteboard to explain the deeper political divide in the state. On one side I wrote “Alabama”. On the other side was written “Auburn” in a line dividing the two. Under Alabama, she wrote “Roll Tide”; Under Auburn, “War Eagle”.
I said, “I don’t understand.” “Why is one team called ‘Alabama’ if both teams are in Alabama? And why is Auburn’s chant ‘War Eagle’ if their mascot is the Tigers?”
Alice looked at me as if I had two heads.
“What don’t you get?” she asked. “I think you had too much bourbon.”
Football as a religion was just one of the many cultural discoveries I made during those early months in Alabama, and most of them can easily be compiled into an early rom-com. Meat and Three, Jason Isbell and chatting to people in line at the grocery store were foreign concepts, and I enjoyed discovering them. Well, everything except football.
Alice was my first friend, but I soon made more and Alabama soon began to feel right at home.
The campaign was crowded, but the work was meaningful. We hoped to build on Doug Jones’ historic victory in the Senate and break the Republican supermajority in the state house before the census and redistricting. Since state legislators are responsible for forming congressional districts, it was critical that we win in counties across the state where Democrats have not only lost, but in many cases not fielded a candidate for many years. Given the state’s history of civil rights regulation and voter suppression, the mission seemed particularly vital.
During the campaign, I visited New York frequently, both on personal trips and fundraising trips. Every time I came, I was amazed at how little I missed the city and how eager I was to return to Alabama. The city’s energy and ambiance that had fueled me throughout my twenties felt draining, and the disdain with which so many Northeasters treated my new home felt depressing.
At a fundraising event in lower Manhattan, I told the host about my latest move. He simply replied, “I’m sorry.”
No one I know has ever been to Alabama, and most seem to believe the state was populated by illiterate, shoeless Trump supporters. The boon that well-meaning liberals have extended to the Midwest did not extend to a country whose reputation was solidified during the civil rights movement. Most people I talk to still associate Alabama with Gov. George Wallace’s “separation forever” ad and Paul Connor assaulting peaceful protesters with dogs and fire hoses.
Although Alabama’s brutal and racist history is still very much alive and undoubtedly woven into the fabric of the state, it is far from unique to the state of Alabama. I was continually struck by the smugness with which Northeasterners spoke of Alabama without any apparent awareness of the history of racism in our region or, more strikingly, the state’s equally energetically powerful history. In mocking the country as a whole, people seemed not to realize that they were also mocking activists, organizers, and ordinary people working for the best with what few resources they may have.
The joke that Alabamians are shoeless and illiterate is even less funny when you consider the state’s history of racism and lack of job opportunities or funding for public schools.
After a heavy midterm loss, she decided to stay in Alabama and work in the state House Democratic caucus. When the session ended, I went to work with Terri Sewell, the only Democrat in the US House of Representatives, and then Doug Jones’ second running for the Senate. I moved to Birmingham, fell in love and bought a house. I got involved, started teaching yoga again and completed a master’s program in journalism at the University of Alabama. Not long ago, 4 1/2 years passed and I built a life for myself.
For my friends and family in the north, my decision to stay was even more confusing than my initial decision to leave. After that, I was on a mission with a clear goal and end date. Now, I was just… live?
Gradually, more friends and family came to visit and began to understand the appeal. The pace of business here is slower, the food is excellent and history is everywhere. Politically and culturally, the country is still fiercely conservative, but I have found a group of friends (largely through political work) whose progressive ideals align with mine. We joke that the only time Alabama makes positive national news is football, but beneath the challenge and the struggle, there’s also beauty and culture. Social justice and equity action become more powerful in the face of obvious and overt enemies.
As a country, we are still mired in the work of consensus building. We remain deeply, deeply divided. In part, I think the issue is about exposure. The echo chambers of social media and online news isolate and anchor people in their beliefs, and despite the commitments many of us have made to understand those with opposing views, it is easier to engage with like-minded friends.
representative. Marjorie taylor green (Republic-ga.) recently hit the headlines for Proposing a “national divorce” between the red and blue states. Although critics were quick to deride her, it’s a sentiment I’ve heard often in casual conversation with northern friends on the left. “If the South is going to hold us back from meaningful climate and social progress, why not let them separate?”
The answer, in simple terms, is that separation hurts the least. If creating a more just and equitable society is really what we progressives care about, then it is our responsibility not to withdraw but to lean into it.
We saw what happened in Georgia, but it took Stacy Abrams and many other organizers and activists more than a decade to implement the internal structures that turned Georgia purple. The fighting continues. There is still a lot of important work to be done and a lot of people are struggling to hold on to the ugliness of the past. The exclusion of Alabama or the South as a whole does nothing to advance this business; It just assures people here that they have been left behind.
Ellen Gomory is a native of New Jersey and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. She’s passionate about storytelling, progressive politics, The Real Housewives, and her dog, Eloise. You can find her lurking on Twitter @employee.
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