Before the blue side in America’s current civil war gets too relieved or gleeful about a Democrat’s upset victory in the Alabama Senate race Tuesday night, it would be worth looking back on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s encounters with two different Southern sheriffs. Precisely because celebration is such a temptation, sober caution is required.
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Yes, both upper-case and lower-case democrats can feel stirred by Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore, thanks to a surge of African-American voters and enough defections by moderate Republican suburbanites. Yes, we now know there actually is a limit to the cynical, bigoted faux populism of Steve Bannon, and that limit is a credibly accused child molester who waxes nostalgic about the family values of the Confederacy.
But it is almost certain, Alabama being as red as it is, that Jones will not win re-election to a full term in 2020. And the narrow defeat of his wholly execrable opponent hardly qualifies as a rebuke of the hard-right political agenda of the G.O.P. For that matter, as of the time of writing, Moore has not even conceded yet, which I fear is a preview of what Donald Trump will do if he loses three years hence.
All of which brings us to King and the sheriffs and the lesson therein.
One of those sheriffs, Bull Connor, lives large in historical infamy. As the police commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, Connor set loose dogs and fire hoses on the freedom movement’s child marchers.
The images of his assault, captured in newspaper photographs and television footage, persuaded even the hitherto timid John F. Kennedy to deliver a presidential address supporting civil rights. Something awoke in the dozing conscience of white America as a whole.
Brilliant strategist that he was, King had sought precisely the result he got from Connor. King baited a hothead into overreaction. And King put Connor’s snarling, pugnacious face on the laws of segregation and the ideology of white supremacy.
Part of the reason he did derives from another Southern sheriff, Laurie Pritchett of Albany, Georgia. Two years before the Birmingham marches, King went to Albany to assist local activists in a campaign to desegregate the town’s bus terminal, among other public facilities.
Pritchett, however, refused to play his assigned role as Jim Crow’s thug. His officers arrested hundreds of non-violent marchers in a carefully non-violent manner, avoiding the public spectacle of police brutality. At one point, King himself was arrested for parading without a permit. He refused to pay a relatively minor fine, ensuring that he’d be sent to jail for 45-day sentence, which he hoped would provide the Albany movement with the iconography it needed.
An unidentified someone of Pritchett’s acquaintance promptly paid King’s bail and to his consternation he was released. Soon after, he left Albany altogether, having failed. As King put it in a later interview, "The mistake I made there was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair."
My point in resurrecting this history is that, on the matters of segregation and white supremacy, Laurie Pritchett differed rather little from Bull Connor. Pritchett was just far more tactically adroit in battling civil rights activists. He understood the utility of putting a responsible, reasonable face on an odious form of race hate.
Had the American South met King with more Pritchetts and fewer Connors, one wonders how many more years would have had to pass before Lyndon Johnson could push through his series of landmark civil rights laws between 1964 and 1966. Perhaps some of those laws would never have been enacted at all.
So it is far too comforting and convenient to personalize the struggle against Republican extremism in the twisted figure of Roy Moore. Indeed, that same kind of lazy thinking lets too many progressives demonize Donald Trump as if the right-wing agenda is his alone.
Years before Trump ever ran for president and Roy Moore for Senate, the Republican Party’s Tea Party base had defied the party establishment to nominate such fringe candidates for Congress as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Both lost the general election to Democrats. And both of those losses did nothing to derail the Republican project.
That project was amply represented by Jeff Sessions and Luther Strange, when they occupied the seat that Moore failed to hold onto. As attorney general, Session now pursues his agenda of mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders. Rather than investigate the burgeoning neo-Nazi movement, he had the Justice Department invent the national threat of "Black Identity Extremists."
With the exception of Bob Corker of Tennessee, every single Republican senator now in Congress voted in favor of the tax "reform" bill. The legislation bears Trump’s imprint but is essentially the same old G.O.P. formula of lavishing tax breaks on the rich and setting the stage for budget cuts to the social safety net of entitlement programs that protect the poor, working class, and middle class.
Even Jeff Flake and John McCain, the Arizona senators who have bravely broken with Trump on other issues, fell into line on the tax bill. So did putative moderates like Susan Collins of Maine. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, formerly an eloquent critic of Trump’s, now is his golfing sidekick.
The momentary ecstasy of beating Moore – and, by extension, Bannon and Trump – deserves to be only momentary. Progressives got rid of Bull Connor. But the reactionary, bigoted, white-nationalist movement known as the Republican Party still has plenty of Laurie Pritchetts in place. Its power will not be broken till enough of them are beaten like Roy Moore.
Samuel G. Freedman, a frequent contributor to Haaretz, is the author of eight books, including Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry. Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman