After weeks during which the people of Alabama were prejudged as incapable or unwilling to decipher right from wrong, they proved themselves by blazing a new path to virtue.
They defied tradition. They defied political party. They defied the elites who felt the need to instruct and lecture them when their consciences were the only compasses they needed. They showed the end should never justify the means.
This was a wakeup call for all of America.
Strikingly, by election night’s end, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, unbowed and unrepentant, refused to concede after an inglorious defeat. By contrast, Democrat Doug Jones exuded humility in graciously accepting victory with words of “dignity and respect.”
Then again, Moore is the former state Supreme Court jurist who sued to display the Ten Commandments before breaking the spirit of every commandment by violating the trust of young women.
For Alabama, this was the moment when the residual shards from their history became history … when the lore of past prejudice was summarily silenced by a surge of decency … when the New South took up residence where the Old South used to live.
This was no easy feat for a state once known for the kind of prejudice that became textbook reminders of intolerance. The bloody brutality imposed on a peaceful march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The “segregation now … segregation forever” rant of Gov. George Wallace barring black attendance at the state’s namesake university. The 16th Street Baptist Church bomb that killed four young girls during the sanctity of worship.
Yet this election day of reckoning also recalls other Alabama events of courage and achievement. Because this is also the state that brought us American steel and the steely Tuskegee Airmen; a huge part of America’s space program; role models in statesmanship and perseverance like Condoleezza Rice and Mia Hamm; world role models like Rosa Parks demanding a bus seat, and Jesse Owens demanding a gold medal seat at the table in the ’36 Berlin Olympics.
The state also provides stories that power the heart, literally, as a white physician, Dr. Luther Hill, saved a black 13-year-old boy’s life by performing the first successful open heart surgery in the Western world.
For commentators and political operatives, this election leaves much to chew on. Does the much-larger-than-expected Alabama turnout (450,000 more than projected) presage more pressing problems ahead for the GOP following the massacre in the Virginia governor’s race? Are voters growing weary of a Congress doing too little and a president tweeting too much? How do Republicans reverse a branding spiral where they’re perceived as insensitive and intransigent?
Conversely, shorn of special circumstance (like a GOP foe accused of a heinous act of inhumanity), can Democrats keep this going without offering a stronger alternative? Given that (per exit polling) 85 percent of white men and 75 percent of white women went with Moore, does that constitute a warning sign? Will they adapt to the emerging postpartisan demand for candidates and ideas that avoid dwelling on the far fringes in favor of something closer to the middle? Can they turn 2017’s wave of fortune into an electoral tsunami next fall?
For the rest of us, this election marks a challenge. Faced with the same choice, would we be willing to tolerate the intolerable or confront the unacceptable? Are we just critics objecting from the anonymity of the sidelines, or Americans willing to speak up — and show up — for what’s right?
That’s because virtue is not the sole preserve of any race, creed, gender or ZIP code. It does not retreat in the face of populist pabulum or wither from the deceit of denial. Rather, it appears most often unannounced whenever the conscience of mankind commands it. America needs this now, more than ever.
This revelation of a new Alabama didn’t happen like a bolt out of nowhere. Had we been listening, we would have heard what the state’s Hall of Fame music legend Hank Williams sang to us 68 years ago.
I was a fool to wander and a-stray,
Straight is the gate and narrow the way.
Now I have traded the wrong for the right.
Praise the Lord, I saw the Light.
Sweet home, Alabama.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.