Sen. Doug Jones on the lessons of Birmingham 1963, Christchurch 2019 and Donald Trump

Alabama's surprise senator on racial justice, the upsurge of white supremacy and how Democrats can win in 2020

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 7, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

Birmingham bombing, 1963; Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch shooting, 2019. (AP/Getty/Salon)
Birmingham bombing, 1963; Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch shooting, 2019. (AP/Getty/Salon)

Doug Jones in person seems exactly like someone who is well situated to triumph over long odds: For example, to prosecute a decades-old crime whose trail has been covered up in bitterness and silence, or to win a Senate election as a Democrat in perhaps the most Republican state in the nation.

In case you have forgotten — and we all have short memories in this time of dread and chaos —Jones captured the nation’s attention late in 2017 by winning a nail-biting special election in Alabama against Roy Moore, a far-right, Christian nationalist hero who faced numerous credible charges of pursuing or assaulting teenage girls. (Let us not say definitively that those things are connected.)

Journalists do interviews with people they deem important in order to learn something, or so we must hope. I had no doubt I would learn something from Doug Jones, although I wasn’t sure precisely what. (Which is, I think, the correct attitude.) Jones first came to prominence in Alabama as a U.S. attorney in the early 2000s, when he tried and convicted the two surviving Ku Klux Klan suspects who had planned the notorious Birmingham church bombing of September 1963, in which four young girls were killed and 22 other people injured. At least officially, Jones was in New York to promote his new book about that case, “Bending Toward Justice.”

But the things we could all stand to learn from Jones are only partly about the crimes in America’s past, and our slow curve toward racial justice. (His title references the famous metaphor employed by Martin Luther King Jr.) Just days before my interview with Jones, across many thousands of miles of ocean, a crime had shocked the world that struck both of us as directly descended from the Birmingham bombing and the aftermath of the civil rights era: An avowed white supremacist had murdered 50 Muslim worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In this age of everyone explaining everything, the gunman had posted a lengthy online manifesto, making clear that his crime was connected to American racial politics, the debate about gun ownership and the rise of President Trump.

If Roy Moore seemed to be at the center of the story in that 2017 election held to fill the seat left vacant by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions (himself the star of a story full of pathos and tragedy), Doug Jones turned out to be its half-accidental protagonist. His unlikely victory both was and was not a precursor of the “blue wave” that arrived a year later: It was, because it signaled that Democrats could suddenly win in jurisdictions Donald Trump had carried easily, and it was not because Alabama is only technically part of the United States, and what happens there cannot necessarily be understood as connected to what happens elsewhere.

Still, Jones is now 1 percent of the U.S. Senate and pronounces himself brim-full of confidence that he will win re-election next year in another race that virtually everyone (myself included) believes he will lose. He has a relentlessly optimistic demeanor but also switches modes skillfully from earnest debate to dry humor, an unteachable skill that is crucial to political success.

When I arrived to meet Jones at Salon’s New York studio, he was in the rear kitchen of a facility we share with other companies, sitting with a group of producers, guests and visitors and discussing the possibilities and limitations of the Green New Deal. It should come as no surprise that Jones is not exactly for it or against it: He says he welcomes its goal of dramatically reducing carbon emissions, but believes the legislative package put forward by two colleagues far to his left, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is far too ambitious to be feasible.

Remember, he is from Alabama. Before we went live, I asked Jones — jokingly, I swear — whether he wanted me to avoid critical remarks about Trump, given that in November 2020 Jones must once again face the voters in a state where the president got nearly 63 percent of the vote last time around. Not at all, Jones said. He had been fairly critical of Trump himself, he added mildly, and believed he could talk to Alabama voters about why the president’s actions, policies and behavior were actually harmful to their well-being.

How much I would agree with Jones about policy or ideology I am genuinely not sure. But given his trajectory so far, he possesses a quality of unquestioned moral authority that is almost certainly more important to ordinary voters. (I express no firm conviction as to whether that's a good thing or not.) Our conversation was largely serious in tone, as you will perceive below. But Jones switched modes again as soon as the cameras turned off, and dispensed a few anecdotes about Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on his way out the door.

I asked him about the tense confrontation between Kavanaugh and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, observing that until the Supreme Court nominee's public apology, the Minnesota senator appeared ready to cut out his liver with a rusty steak knife. “Oh, I’m sure she would have,” Jones responded. “You see, as senators we don’t have to go through normal security. Amy probably had one in her bag and was ready to go.” To be clear, I am virtually certain he was joking.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Our full conversation is embedded below.

Senator, you were elected in 2017 in what was, to many people, a surprising turn of events. It was the first major victory for Democrats after the election of President Trump, in a state that Trump had won overwhelmingly and that had been represented entirely by Republican senators since 1992. Was that a fluke event?

It was not a fluke event. We're going to prove that in 2020.

You're here today because you have written a book, which is,  both strangely and unfortunately, appropriate to this precise moment in history. The book is called “Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing that Changed the Course of Civil Rights.” Talk briefly about that event and what its significance was for Alabama, for racial justice, for the United States.

I think it changed a lot of hearts and minds, and I like to say that it really awoke the conscience of America, to the hatred and the fallacies of Jim Crow and the segregation of the time. There'd been a lot of racial violence over the time in Alabama and Mississippi and other places in the South. You saw the Emmett Till murder. You saw Freedom Riders that came through, but for some reason, this church bombing, [which killed] children who were not really part of the movement, they were just black, in a house of worship. This was going to be a youth worship service, on Sept. 15, 1963, and somebody placed a bomb right outside the church, underneath the steps leading up to the sanctuary in the back, right outside the ladies' lounge.

These young girls, four of them who died and one that survived, were getting ready for that youth worship service. And I really do believe, especially if you think about 1963, the fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham, the Children's Crusade, really started getting people's attention. And then you had the murder of Medgar Evers, and [Gov. George Wallace’s] stand in the schoolhouse door, and then the “I Have A Dream” speech in August.

Just before this event. I hadn’t put that together.

Just one month before this event, and there was so much hope rising. But yet as hope rose in the civil rights movement, so did Klan violence and segregationist violence. And what was happening in Birmingham that gets lost in this is that city schools were being desegregated for the first time. There was a court order, and literally five days before this bombing, black kids and white kids were going to go to school together.

The cauldron started bubbling because of school integration, and that's why I think this bombing occurred, but when it did, I believe it woke the conscience of America. It certainly woke the conscience of a Congress and of a president, and that was the catalyst for what would happen a year later. Obviously, the death of President Kennedy [in November of 1963] also had some impetus for that, but a year later came the Civil Rights Act of '64, and then the Voting Rights Act of '65.

Talk about your personal involvement. You were alive in 1963. Do you have any personal memory of the bombing?

I was nine years old. No, I really don't. I think that that's part of the reason I felt that I needed to write this. I lived in a very protected world, in Fairfield, Alabama, which is literally on the outskirts of Birmingham. It was a segregated city just like Birmingham was, like most cities in the South were. It was pretty much of a bubble. We don't have Salon TV in 1963. We don't have 250 cable channels. We had three TV channels at that time, with old rabbit ear antennas. So the news was on for an hour a day at most, and my parents, like so many others of my friends, shielded us from all that was going on.

We knew things were happening, but candidly, I don't really remember the church bombing itself. It was not until when I went to junior high school, and started going to an integrated school, that the world all of a sudden changed and came home. In college, I got to know Chris McNair, who was the father of one of these girls. It all really came home, and the other thing that people forget is that in Birmingham, we had such a sordid history that the powers that be really wanted to put that aside. They really didn't want to talk about that, so you didn't hear about it too much after it happened. It was not until 1977, when the first of these cases was tried, when it all came back into the fore. That was, for me, a really pivotal moment, even though I was 23 or 24 at the time. Cutting classes in law school to go watch that trial was a really defining moment.

That's a remarkable story. I've heard Bill Moyers talk about how the people he calls the prophets and truth-tellers were expelled from the white South at a certain point. White people who wanted to tell the truth about racial justice were cast out.

Yes. On the day after the bombing, on Sept. 16, there was a young progressive lawyers named Charles Morgan, who gave a speech. He had been working to change the form of government in Birmingham, and to try to do some reconciliation. He gave a speech, and it resonates so much, about how the person that's responsible for the bombing is not "the demented fool," in his words, who threw the bomb, but really the good people who said nothing. He used some very stark terms: It was the people who told the racial jokes, people that just turned their back on what was going on. He literally got run out of town. His family got threats. There was a lot of that. It was just one of those things that you did not talk about as much, but as schools were desegregated more and more, you had to talk about it. You had to deal with it. You had to face it.

Your book is of course partly about that history, but it's more about what you did years earlier, relating to this case, which is probably the reason you're in the Senate right now.

After Bill Baxley, who was the Alabama attorney general, successfully prosecuted a guy named Chambliss [in 1977], everyone knew that there were others involved. But nobody else politically would touch that case. It cost Baxley the governorship in 1978, and no one really thought about it too much until 1994-95, after the Byron De La Beckwith conviction for the murder of Medgar Evers, followed by the Sam Bowers conviction in Mississippi for the murder of Vernon Dahmer.

All of a sudden, people began to talk about pulling these old civil rights cold cases out. It was about the same time that I decided that I would like to try to be the United States attorney. Right before I was nominated it became public that they had reopened this case, in part, because of the FBI trying to reach out to the black community. There'd been some bad blood. Janet Reno was the attorney general. She was all in favor of looking at it. The FBI put resources in it, and then I came on board as U.S. attorney in September of 1997, with no one really knowing my history with the McNair family and having watched those cases. That was just the extra shot in the arm to do that, and it took us awhile.

We indicted the cases actually not in federal court but in state court, because the statute of limitations had run, and so we indicted [the defendants] in state court three years later.

We had an incredible team that just never gave up. They kept digging and they kept digging, and they took the pieces of what amounts to a big puzzle, and we put it together for two separate juries in 2001 and 2002. Conviction of Tommy Blanton first, and then Bobby Frank Cherry second. We moved the cases over to state court, and I was designated as a Special Deputy Attorney General for the state of Alabama to do the Blanton case, and then again for the Cherry case, even though I’d left as U.S. attorney in 2002.

We had tried to not get people to get their hopes up, because you never know what's going to happen in a case like this. But those convictions were really a healing for that community. I don't use the word "closure," because you don't want to close a book on something like that. You need to always remember. Especially in this day and age, I think we need to remember. But it dang sure was a healing.

I’ve certainly heard that. I’ve also heard the contrary case. Prosecuting two feeble old men, senior citizens now who were once vicious Klansmen, does that actually contribute to the larger cause of racial justice and social justice?

I think it absolutely does. Now, that would not be true necessarily in other types of cases, but I think, in the context of a civil rights case from the day, when you knew that the system of justice did not work at all in those cases, then being able to go back and do that. ... At the end of the day, in my view, it is never too late to right a wrong like that, to seek the truth and to do that justice.

I said at the end of the first trial that people talk about justice being delayed as justice denied, and there is certainly an element of injustice in the delay. But you still get justice, and those families deserve it no less than someone who may lose their life today. I also think that by going back and looking at that -- unlike some of the criticisms that we heard about not wanting to see the fire hoses and the dogs again and resurrect a really bad past -- I think you have to examine those facts to understand that if we're not careful we can let history repeat itself.

That's something, to some extent, that I think we're seeing right now. That's why I think it's timely to remember that sordid past that we've had with race, because it's now much broader than race. It's religion, it's gender, you name it.

We were speaking earlier about the tragic and alarming fact that very recently, on the other side of the world, we saw a deadly attack in a house of worship that was clearly motivated by bigotry. I think there’s no dispute about that. White supremacy is not a dead issue in the world today. Not in Alabama, not in New York, not in New Zealand, not anywhere.

That's correct.

When you see the way how this has metastasized for a new era -- as a senator, as a prosecutor, as a person with some authority as a moral leader in white America -- how do we address this?

I think we have to continue to address it straight up, but I also think we have to address some of the underlying causes, and some of the underlying causes are public officials and others who feed that. This bombing occurred, in part, because George Wallace and Bull Connor had the rhetoric that basically empowered people to do things that they wouldn't otherwise do, because they thought they could get away with it, and they did for so, so, so many years.

Remember, during some of this, George Wallace famously said that, "I think one of the ways we stop [civil rights protests] is if we have a few first-class funerals." Well, to somebody out there that's got a little bit of a screw loose, now it's completely unwound and they feel like, "Well, George is sending me that dog whistle to let me know what's going on." I'm afraid that happens. That's happening a lot.

Now, people criticize the president, and rightly so, for a lot of his failure to properly address this. Everyone gets tired of hearing, "Our thoughts and prayers are with people." That is the standard line. We need to do more to stand up and speak out, not just from a law enforcement perspective, but also from a public service perspective.

I've given a lot of talks on this, and I always say that one of the lessons is that we need to make sure we understand that we're all in this together. You cannot separate one from the other, and now, when you see what's happening in New Zealand, that seems to be transported from America, you know we are part of a globe. We are part of a community that's much bigger than ourselves, and we must continue to work and to talk, and we need to make sure we respect each other more. That will go a long way to stemming this tide.

I would not exactly argue that President Trump is personally responsible for what happened in New Zealand. I mean, he didn’t literally tell the guy to do that. It is true, however, that the shooter's manifesto mentioned Trump specifically and praised him. I do not recall any terrorist of whatever persuasion previously claiming that he was inspired by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter.

I don't recall any of that either. Not at all, and that's part of the problem. Look, I'm like you. I do not believe that the president of the United States condones that kind of behavior. I also don't believe that he thinks right now that what he says is causing that behavior, but the fact is that it does. What public officials often don't do is they often listen to themselves more than they try to think about, “Who is listening to me, and who is out there in the privacy of their own home, hearing something that was unintended?"

That's what I think people have to be very careful of. When you don't condemn, in the strongest possible terms, these kind of actions instead of just saying "our thoughts and prayers" and "I deplore this" or whatever, You have to really work to lead. The president, members of the House, members of the Senate have opportunities to lead. The president of the United States especially has an opportunity, because there are so many people that support him, that would follow him. He could lead them into a much better place if he would just do it.

The Democratic Party, is often said to be divided right now. You are identified as a moderate Democrat, a Democrat who likes to work with Republicans, likes to create bipartisanship. What is your assessment of the internal state of the party? Is this a productive dialogue, or is it potentially a destructive one?

Well, it could go either way. I think it's a little early to tell right now, but it certainly could go either way. I think, if you look historically at both parties, that if you don't use the dialogue as a way to be constructive, it can be very destructive. You only have to look at [George] McGovern in 1972. That was a tough one -- but there are others, you look at what the Tea Party did, to some extent, on the Republican side.

The dialogue is good. I think there is a place for all this dialogue, as long as that dialogue still brings in people and respects other people's opinions. That's where you can get destructive, if the dialogue gets so fervent within the party that people refuse to even acknowledge and stand in someone else's shoes, and understand that maybe we can govern and achieve our results productively together. Then it can be a problem.

I am very hopeful. Look, I'm a glass half full kind of guy, and I am very hopeful. I believe that that's where we will head. There's a lot of energy. There's a lot of enthusiasm out there right now in the party, and trying to capture that and harness that in order to go into 2020 is going to be a challenge. But with every challenge, there's also opportunities, and that's what I see. I think there's incredible opportunities.

I'm a constituent, as a matter of fact, of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the sudden superstar of the other house of Congress. It is my contention that it's important for the Democratic Party to find a way for you and her to be part of the same coalition and work together toward common goals. Do you agree with that?

I absolutely agree with that. Compromise doesn't need to be about a loss. It needs to be a way to progress, and there's got to be a way to do that. And that's what I've been trying to do in the Senate, because I've got so many colleagues that are probably closer aligned over there than they are with me, but we are finding ways to work together. Governing, I think, requires that, to actually get things done. We are so polarized now that we've got to do this within the party first, and then we've got to figure out ways that we can find common ground to get things done. Everything has got to be done with an eye toward, "What can we do to govern?"

We joked earlier that you are among the handful of Democratic senators who are not going to run for president …

The Non-Presidential Caucus.

Do you see this race, with so many actual or potential candidates, including Vice President Biden, who hasn’t figured it out yet -- is that a constructive development, or are there hazards? We know what happened when the Republicans had 17 candidates.

Yeah, look, there are hazards there. But I think we've got some very talented people that are in that, and they saw what happened in 2016. It's going to be rough-and-tumble, but I think there will be a fall-off relatively quickly, and you will get down to those folks that are going to have the best chance. And those are the ones that are going to be able to reach people about how to govern. That's what I believe will happen.

I hope that they saw the lesson of 2016. They better have. I really believe that the goal here is to try to make sure that we restore the institutions of government and restore the prestige of the institutions of government, and we foster a ticket that is going to be able, once they're sworn in, to actually govern. That will require reaching across the aisle to do some things.

We still have certain rules in the Senate that require that, so in order to actually get things done. I think you're going to have to see that in government, because the one thing that I think people in both parties need to be concerned about is the growing power of the presidency to just do it on their own. Maybe I'm biased because I'm in the Senate right now, but we need to get back to where the legislative branch of government, which is Article I [of the Constitution] for a reason, can pull back a little bit of the power and the control.

You’re going to be running for re-election next year in Alabama, presumably not against someone who has been credibly accused of assaulting children. What is your pitch to Alabama voters who are likely to support President Trump and are likely to vote for Republicans for other offices? Aren’t they going to look at you and say, "Well, he seems like a nice guy, but he's in the same party as all these socialists we don't like"?

I think our challenge is to make sure that we educate the voters of Alabama about what I'm really doing, not how someone is labeling me. And I think if they look what we're really doing, I have been an independent voice for the folks in Alabama. It is one of those things that has not been easy to do, because I get criticized on the right and I get criticized on the left. But the one thing we're doing is we're not trying to make political decisions.

I'm trying to look at how this is going to affect my state and the country, and I think if we educate people appropriately, they will see there's a lot of things that this administration is doing that are not helpful to the people of Alabama. The farmers are getting hurt with the tariffs. Manufacturers are getting hurt with the tariffs. Our automobile sector, which is growing -- most people don't realize this, but Alabama is the fifth-largest producer of automobiles in the country. So those markets around the globe are very important to us.

If you look at the president's budget, what he's trying to cut out, it hurts cities and it hurts counties. It hurts housing. Part of my job is to say, "Look, there's a bigger issue sometimes with the president, but you also need somebody that's got your back, that's only looking out for you. That's what I'm doing."

It's a challenge. There's no question. I knew that going in, but I think the voice that we've got out there now is one that Alabama has needed, and I hear that a lot. It's not about me. It's really about that voice that can do things beyond just those issues that have divided us.

Is Jeff Sessions going to stop licking his wounds and come back to run against you?

Oh, I don't know. I think Jeff is happy in retirement. He's got grandkids that he hasn't seen in awhile. But I don't know. He has talked about it, or at least his people have talked about it. We'll see. I don't lose sleep at night over who's going to be in and who's going to be out. Every Republican in Alabama is seeing stars in their eyes right now, and I'm just going to let them see those stars. Then I'll knock them out and they'll see more.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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