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Across the Aisle | A Murder Leads to Talk—and Action in Alabama

A bipartisan group of legislators, Black and white, met to talk about racism and the rage fueling the racial justice protests after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer.

By Kelley Griffin  |  February 1, 2024

Just after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, Black and white Alabama state legislators met to talk.

A group of white Republicans sought to better understand the rage fueling the racial justice protests in Alabama and across the country. They asked Black Democrats to share their stories and solutions. The Democrats, who are outnumbered 76 to 28 in the statehouse, did not expect this.

Black History Month

State Legislatures News is reposting this story, which was first published in February 2023, for Black History Month. February’s recognition of the achievements and struggles of African Americans began in 1926 as Negro History Week. Read more

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were wondering what their role in the wake of this unrest could be, and all seven Democrats and seven Republicans accepted the invitation. They would meet behind closed doors, no journalists, no Twitter, no Facebook.

“I said, ‘I don’t know what’s gonna happen here, but I want the Black members who are here to understand that the white members are here today because we care,’” Rep. Danny Garrett (R) recalls. “So whatever is said, whatever comes out, we care.” 

Garrett, who helped organize the meeting, says he thought all the focus might be on Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. Rep. Rex Reynolds (R), a Huntsville police officer for 25 years, thought the focus might be on him personally. 

That’s not how it went. 

Rep. Barbara Drummond (D) says the meeting was “extremely raw, and when I say raw, it was filled with a lot of emotions.”

She found herself drawn back to a Ku Klux Klan lynching she covered as a reporter-in-training at the Mobile newspaper in 1981. She knew the victim, 19-year-old Michael Donald, and knew his sisters. She interviewed his mother, Beulah Mae Donald, that day. 

“She was not very well educated, but she was the most courageous woman and religious woman of faith that I have ever met,” Drummond recalls. “I mean, here she was exposed to something, her son was just hung, and she had enough courage to say, ‘I can’t just sit here and mourn his death. I’ve gotta make it mean something.’”

Beulah Mae Donald did make it mean something: Her landmark case against the klan resulted in a $7 million judgment and required the group to give its headquarters to Donald.

“So what they sent me on was an assignment of danger, but it turned out to also be a real opportunity for me as a young person, and every day that I’ve lived after that, I understood the magnitude of what I had just witnessed,” Drummond says.

Sharing Personal Stories

Drummond’s deeply personal encounter with horrific racism set the tone, and more stories of trauma and hardship poured out. Several told how they or their constituents had been denied the American dreams of home ownership or starting a business because of their race.

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels described how his grandparents, who were sharecroppers into the 1970s, couldn’t get a bank loan to build a home, despite having enough income to qualify. He says another lawmaker in attendance, Kelvin Lawrence, described how several banks denied him funding to start a business. Finally, a white business owner, who knew Lawrence, vouched for him at a bank. 

“He basically said to the bank, ‘This gentleman has simply a better profile than I had. And if you are not going to help this gentleman with his issue and giving him access to capital and opportunity to start his own business like you’ve given me, then I’m taking all of my money and moving it to another bank,’” Daniels says.

Lawrence went on to open several Subway shops, but Daniels notes it could have been a different story if he hadn’t had a white person to vouch for him.

He described redlining—the well-documented practice of banks drawing lines around poor and Black neighborhoods where they wouldn’t issue loans. Some Republicans said they were unaware of the practice, including a banker in the group. 

The Black lawmakers didn’t dwell on any frustration they felt about having to explain systemic racism. They simply wanted to make it clear to their colleagues that lack of opportunity for Black people—to get a good education, buy homes, build businesses—hurts the state as a whole. 

“There was concern about, you know, relationships within our communities, between our law enforcement and the residents there, (but) so many more factors came out, to include banking,” Reynolds says. “And so it was an interesting twist, and that’s when we heard about socioeconomic factors, jobs, housing, banking loans.”

At the end of the gathering, the group agreed to keep working to address disparities they had explored, particularly with education and access to capital. They planned to meet again to do the work. And again, they all agreed it would be kept private. 

“We didn’t want anybody to be in front of a camera or to perform for the camera or to perform for their respective parties,” Drummond says. “We wanted everybody to be honest, and we wanted them to have the freedom to say what they needed to say.”

They met every two weeks for a year, bringing in others for their expertise on budgets, education, economic development. 

They developed legislation, including measures to boost funding for teachers in high-need areas and support early childhood education, and to create a $25 million fund to invest in minority-owned businesses. These measures passed in the 2021 session. They also revised the racist language in the state constitution, which still allowed slavery. Voters approved the updated version via a ballot measure in November, with 75% in favor. 

The Work Continues

There’s much more to be done on these complex issues the group set out to address. But it’s different now as the Republicans and Democrats continue to work together. While there is still plenty the two sides disagree about, they’ve found a lot of common ground on addressing racial disparities and continue to develop legislation. 

“I was always very sensitive to some of the issues in Alabama’s past and wanted to do what I could when I got to the Legislature to try to rectify these issues,” Garrett says. 

The George Floyd murder and subsequent protests brought new urgency, he says, especially as he and other Republicans reflected on what their faith would guide them to do “from a genuine standpoint of trying as a Christian to do the right thing and treat people fairly and also resolve some of these problems that we had just never addressed.” 

People involved in that first meeting say they are grateful to have been part of such a difficult conversation at a crucial time, and grateful the collaboration continues. 

“I began to see that we can work across the aisle because we all had an innate desire to see those that we serve progress in the state of Alabama, regardless of what part of the state that we came from,” Drummond says. “And that collaboration of all of us that were in that room that day, it really showed that we are all truly our brothers’ keepers.”

Kelley Griffin is the host of NCSL’s “Across the Aisle” podcast.

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