Just a couple of weeks after George Floyd was killed by a police officer and a video of his death sparked massive protests, a group of white Alabama Republicans asked Black Democrats to meet in a church and talk. No one knew what to expect, but that first “raw and emotional” meeting led to historic collaboration. Democrats – a small minority in the statehouse – said they felt heard. Republicans said they gained a deep understanding of the systemic racism that Blacks are up against in Alabama. Both sides worked together to pass laws addressing long-standing inequities, and their work continues today. We’ll explore what happened when they met behind closed doors to be honest about the thorny issues of racism in Across the Aisle, NCSL’s podcast on bipartisanship.
I’m Kelley Griffin. Thanks for joining me for Across the Aisle, a podcast by the National Conference of State Legislatures with stories of bipartisanship.
When George Floyd was killed by a police officer who kept a knee on his neck until he suffocated, the death prompted massive protests in the U.S. and around the world. In many communities some protesters were so angry they tore up buildings, looted businesses and pulled down confederate statues.
It was no different in Alabama.
Here’s what it sounded like one night in Birmingham, from video shared by the news site AL.com.
Audio of protests
But the response of some lawmakers WAS different. A few lawmakers there quietly took extraordinary steps to talk across both the political and racial divides. A handful of white Republicans asked their Black Democratic colleagues to talk with them. No specific agenda, just the hope that they could learn something about the racial strife roiling their communities, and maybe find some solutions together. They met in a historic Black church in Montgomery. They all agreed - no press allowed, no tweeting, no Facebook.
They all wanted a place where they could be very honest with each other. And they were. Representative Barbara Drummond, a Black Democrat, echoed what others said about that gathering.
Drummond: It was extremely raw, and when I say raw, it was filled with a, a a lot of emotions
In this episode of Across the Aisle, we’re going to learn how this difficult first meeting led to specific legislation- to improve education, support minority-owned businesses , expand internet access and even to rewrite the constitution to delete racist language after years of trying.
Representative Danny Garrett is a Republican whose district includes his hometown of Birmingham. His parents were conservatives but they were sympathetic to the goals of the civil rights movement; his father was the first officer at xxxx in charge of equal opportunity hiring and took heat for ensuring Blacks got a fair shot at jobs.
Garrett: I grew up in the sixties and the, uh, civil rights movement was near and dear to my heart and experienced a lot of that for, as a child. And so I was always very sensitive to some of the issues that,in Alabama's past and wanted to do what I could when I got the legislature to try to, you know, rectify some of those issues.
By the time racial issues were boiling over again in Birmingham after Floyd’s death, Garrett was was dismayed by the violence and looting. He spoke with some of his colleagues about it.
Garrett: We were perplexed somewhat by some of the reaction and some of the emotion and, you know, what are we missing? What's, what's going on? And, and I'm a person of faith, several other members were as well. And we were trying to look at it from, from that perspective as well. You know, what are, what are we missing? You know, ///what do we need to, what do we need to do?
He and fellow Republican Tracey Estes decided to approach a few of the small number of Democrats in the statehouse, who are Black, to see if they would agree to talk with a group of Republicans.
If you look back on news reports and conversations on social media at that time, there wasn’t a great deal of support in the Black community for explaining all this to whites; Black people described feeling frustrated to still be explaining their experiences with racism.
Alabama Representative Barbara Drummond, a Democrat, says when a Republican called her on a Sunday afternoon with an invitation to meet, it was so unexpected that she said yes. And she too wanted to be involved in finding a path forward.
That doesn’t mean she was convinced it was going to work.
Drummond: I got a call from Representative Tracy Estes, which is a Republican, and he called and he says, we're gonna to meet in this church, and we're just gonna talk about the incident of George Floyd and how we can work together. And I'll be very honest with you, I didn't hold a whole lot of hope for it.
They gathered on a Saturday in June in the First Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery. This is a church built just after the Civil War by freed slaves who were ready to leave the white First Baptist Church where they still had to sit in the balcony.
There were seven Republicans and seven Democrats.
Danny Garrett opened the meeting.
Garrett: And I said, well, I don't know what's gonna happen here, but I want the black members here to understand that the white members are here today because we care. So whatever is said, whatever comes out, we care.
Barbara Drummond says she was surprised how the setting took her back to a Ku Klux Klan lynching in 1981. She shared the story with the group.
Drummond: And for me, it conjured up a whole lot of pain from the past because I represent Mobile in the legislature, and Mobile is actually the site of one of the last hangings in America. And, and it was with Michael Donald. And, and during those days I was reporter and, ///I was very young and I was sent to cover that story because of, of my race, because at that time, they were very fearful that there would perhaps be a lot of repercussions, and they did not want white reporters going into those neighborhoods.
Drummond, brand new to her reporting job, went to the gruesome scene; she knew the 19-year-old who was lynched by two Klan members, and she knew his family. She was sent to interview his mother, Buelah Mae Donald.
Drummond: She was not very well educated, but she was the most courageous woman I have ever, and religious woman of faith that I have ever met in my life. I mean, here she was exposed to something, her, her, 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.
Buelah Mae Donald did make it mean something with a landmark case against the Klan that resulted in a $7 million dollar judgment and the Klan was required to give its headquarters to Donald. That spelled the end of the organization that had committed some of the most violent acts of the civil rights era in Alabama.
Drummond: So I, what, what they sent me in was an assignment of danger, but it turned out to also be a real opportunity for me and as a young person, and every day that I’ve lived after that, I understood the magnitude of what I had just witnessed.
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.
Rep. Anthony Daniels is the House minority leader. He 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, told of how he was denied funding by several banks to start a business. Finally, a white business owner, who knew Lawrence well, vouched for him at a bank.
Daniels: And he basically said to the bank///\this gentleman has simply, if not better, um, credentials, a better profile than I had. And if you are not going to help this gentleman, uh, with his issue on 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.///And that's how he was able to get to the point to get the access to capital.
Lawrence went on to open several Subway shops, but Daniels noted it could have been a different story if he hadn’t had a white person to vouch for him.
Daniels told the Republicans there are countless examples of these economic disparities and lack of opportunities for Blacks. He and others also talked about the gaps in education and the lack of access to broadband that create barriers to success in the Black community.
This wasn’t the direction the Republican lawmakers thought it would go. Garrett says he thought they’d hear about Black Lives Matter, defunding the police, and maybe even a defense of the protests that turned destructive.
Representative Rex Reynolds thought he’d be a target.
Reynolds: Well, I, I'll be very candid with you, but b based on, on my, my some 25 or 30 years in law enforcement, uh, Andy Whit, one of the other representatives from our area rode down to Montgomery with me. And we kind of, we kind of made, made light of it saying, boy, you know, Rex, you're gonna have a tough time with your background. You, they're really gonna be focused on law enforcement, and he's a banker. And when we got down there, you know, while, while they, they, there was concerns about, you know, relationships within our communities, between our law enforcement, you know, and, and the residents there, that so many more factors came out, uh, and and to include banking. And so it was an interesting twist. And, and then that's, that's when we heard about, you know, just socioeconomic factors, jobs, housing, you know, banking loans.
The meeting went on for more than two hours. It was uncomfortable at times because there were plenty of misunderstandings to sort out.
At the end of it the group agreed to keep working to address disparities they had explored in the meeting, particularly with education and access to capital. They planned to meet again to do the work. And again, they agreed it would be kept private. They definitely had strong opinions about that. Here’s Danny Garrett and Barbara Drummond:
Garrett: we wanted to keep it off the radar, keep it out of the media, and let's just continue talking. Drummond: Because we didn't want anybody to be in, in front of a camera or to perform for the camera or to perform for their respective parties. 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 over the course of a year; bringing in a few others for their expertise on budgets, education, economic development. As the meetings went on 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 dollar fund to invest in minority businesses. These measures passed in the 2021 session. As part of all this they also grappled with the racist language in the state constitution - it still had language allowing slavery, after all. The legislature agreed overwhelmingly to revise the document and put it to citizens for a vote, and in the November election voters approved the new constitution with 75 percent in favor.
Of course, these quote-unquote secret meetings had to come out in the open once the lawmakers proposed legislation. And people were surprised when legislators came out working together like no one had ever seen, especially in a state where Democrats have very little sway.
No surprise, there’s more to be done on these complex issues the group set out to address. But it’s so different now. For one thing - legislators who weren’t in on the initial meetings want to get involved. And 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.
For Danny Garrett the meetings made clear to him the moral imperative to finally address the systemic racism in Alabama, and he’s proud of how much legislation has passed in the wake of the meetings.
Garrett: And we've made a lot of progress in those areas. So, from a genuine standpoint of trying to, you know, as a Christian to live out, what I believe, just trying to be a person who wanted to do the right thing and treat people fairly and also resolve some of these problems that we had just never addressed. And, we've continued to make progress in our relationships across the aisle.
People involved in that first meeting in the church say they are grateful to have been part of such a difficult conversation at a crucial time.
Representative Barbara Drummond.
Drummond: 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. And, 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.
That’s our story for this episode of Across the Aisle. If you know of a good example of bipartisan work in your state, please share it, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for listening. I’m Kelley Griffin.