When Foreword South launched in April, we set out to tell the stories of influential, game changing individuals across the South who are making a difference in their own community. We knew it was also important to use our platform to give our audience a hub for the latest Southern news. Across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we have worked to keep our readers informed on the stories that so often don’t garner enough national attention.
As the year closes out, I’ve compiled a list of the seven most significant Southern stories of 2017. We look forward to keep you covered on the latest news through 2018!
7. Reps. John Lewis and Bennie Thompson Protest Trump’s Attendance at Museum Opening
As 2017 wrapped up, 45 missed no opportunity to start more controversy when the White House announced the President accepted an invitation from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to attend the opening ceremony for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. In true hero fashion, United States Congressmen and Civil Rights icons John Lewis (D-GA) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS) announced they would no longer attend and share a stage with Trump at the ceremony, calling President Trump’s polices “hurtful” and “an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum.” While President Trump still spoke at the opening on December 9, this story made our list for the example Rep. Lewis and Rep. Thompson continue to set for us all: respecting the office of the President doesn’t require us to bow in the face of oppression.
Sometimes the best way for us to go high may be to not go at all.
"Sometimes the best way for us to go high may be to not go at all."
6. North Carolina Ordered by Court to Redraw Electoral Maps
This wasn’t one of 2017’s sexiest stories, however, it was one that will have major implications of future elections in North Carolina and potentially other states around the country. In 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ordered the GOP-lead legislature to redraw the district maps after the panel of judges determined prior districting was racially motivated and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. When the state challenged the ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court, the lower court’s findings were upheld and the state was given a September deadline this year to have presented new maps.
The redistricting process has remained under intense scrutiny by the court, and in October it was announced that Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily would be appointed to assist in the ongoing efforts to create new maps. While Republican lawmakers have been very critical of the process (including challenging Persily’s appointment), in the judges’ order released on November 1 it stated the newly presented maps “preserve the core shape of the unconstitutional district, divide counties and municipalities along racial lines, and are less compact than their benchmark version.”
North Carolina’s redistricting saga will undoubtedly continue to unfold in 2018. Other states throughout the South who face their own potential cases for gerrymandering will have a watchful eye on how the court and North Carolina’s lawmakers reach an agreement. Organizations such as FairVote are dedicated to the fight for election reform and fair representation in North Carolina and it’s this very fight for a stronger democracy that lands this story at number six spot this year.
5. Randall Woodfin is Elected Mayor of Birmingham
At 36, Randall Woodfin was elected as the youngest mayor of Birmingham, Alabama. Woodfin’s campaign electrified the national press, and after running on a progressive platform which promised sweeping changes to the city including education reform, a jobs program, financial transparency, and a scholarship program that would grant free tuition to Birmingham’s high school graduates (remind me why those are even “progressive” policies again?), he crushed incumbent mayor, William Bell, in the October 3 runoff election.
Woodfin calls his election a “mandate,” stating “People want change. I don’t think they want it for change’s sake. As I have always said, people want to participate in progress. We have a city full of history, but what about the present and the future as well?”
The election of Randall Woodfin makes our 2017 list because he is election is a testament to the South’s growing progressive movement and undoubtedly a rising leader to keep an eye on.
“People want change. I don’t think they want it for change’s sake. As I have always said, people want to participate in progress. We have a city full of history, but what about the present and the future as well?” - Randall woodfin
4. Robert Bentley Resigns from Office Amid Scandal
On April 10, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley resigned from office after months of salacious headlines and political scandal involving the governor’s top aide Rebekah Caldwell Mason. If you followed this story then you know it only got worse (for all of us exposed to the details) as time went on. Our friends at the Washington Post have fortunately provided us with a handy-dandy timeline of the former governor’s…extracurricular activities. Bentley, 74, denied any physical involvement with Mason but the recordings, reportedly handed over by his now former wife Dianne Bentley, certainly tell a different story. We love storytelling here at Foreword South, but I think I’ll spare the full recap of those recordings.
Robert Bentley’s resignation makes our list for the horror, the laughs, the nausea, and everything in between we experienced as this story unfolded in 2017.
3. Confederate Statues Come Down
The removal of Confederate statues is certainly not a topic that made its way into headlines, sparked arguments in your Facebook comments, or invited rolls into your mentions on Twitter for the first time in 2017. However, this year we saw major strides made by organizers in cities such as New Orleans and Memphis to finally follow through on the removal of these symbols of white supremacy.
While the New Orleans City Council voted in 2015 to classify the statues as a “public nuisance” and ordered their removal, it was not until May 19 that the final statue – a 16-foot tall bronze depiction of Gen. Robert E. Lee – was removed from its pedestal in the city’s business district. In a powerful speech, Mayor Mitch Landrieu stated “we can not be afraid of our truth.” He continued, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
Recently, Memphis organizers and City Attorney Bruce McMullen worked together to identify a legal loophole that would allow for the removal of statues from two city-owned parks. McMullen, motivated by the upcoming 50th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis and the political forces in the state legislature that would inevitably halt the removal upon entering their new session in January, masterfully got around Tennessee’s Heritage Protection Act, by selling the parks to the nonprofit Greenspace for $1,000 each. This nonprofit is headed by Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner who had the statues removed on the night the sale became official.
The fight for removal of Confederate symbols in 2017 makes our list for the example of leadership displayed by city officials and organizers who are dedicated to moving the South forward from symbols reminiscent of days marked by fear and intimidation.
2. Charlottesville Erupts in Protests
Speaking of statues, in one of the ugliest moments of 2017, we saw yet another reminder of the presence of white supremacist and anti-Semitic attitudes in our country flash across our television screens as many of us watched the protests in Charlottesville that began with the “Unite the Right” rally that ultimately began in effort to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee. Headed by popular white nationalists, the rally was scheduled for Saturday, August 12. However, the night before,a parade of over 250 white men and women with torches took to the University of Virginia campus and gathered just near the gymnasium. As brave counter-protestors took to campus to disrupt and stand in solidarity against these white nationalists, tensions only continued to escalate. On Saturday, the worst unfolded when 32-year old Heather Heyer was killed as terrorist James Alex Fields Jr. plowed into a crowd of protestors.
In an op-ed for FS, I wrote about what we can learn from Charlottesville and what we should have already known stating: “Now, on the other side of a long and mentally arduous election, we were reminded that a large portion of White Americans - those that we work with, those that we teach our children, those that lovingly hug us after church - still don’t truly respect or value us.”
The protests in Charlottesville lands on our list because it proves that our conversations about race and the dangers of white supremacy are still alive and well.
1. Democrat Doug Jones is Elected in Alabama
In the most captivating election since the tragedy of November 8, 2016, Alabama stunned the country by electing former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones over opponent and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in a special Senate election.
As a native of Alabama, I can not recall a single election in my lifetime that garnered the amount of national press that our state received in the final months of 2017. On November 9, just weeks before the election, The Washington Post published a story that detailed an inappropriate sexual encounter between Roy Moore, then 32, and a 14-year girl by the name of Leigh Corfman. Three other women came forward in the story with details of how Roy Moore pursued them when they were between the ages of 16-18: Wendy Miller, Debbie Wesson Gibson, and Gloria Thacker Deason.
Even prior to these allegations, Moore was unfit to serve in any capacity as a public official (he was already removed from the judgeship two times prior). He was a racist, a misogynist, and a poor example of a “Godly” man before we even heard about these accusations…at least now we know he’s a pedophile too.
The Washington Post story undoubtedly rocked the election and Black Alabamians, especially Black women, were there at the polls on December 12 to ensure he was defeated. By a margin of 21,924 votes, Jones won the election and became the first Democrat to represent the state of Alabama in the U.S. Senate since now Republican Senator, Richard Shelby was elected in 1986…yes, that’s a subject for another time.
For the critical work of the organizers and volunteers on the ground that canvassed, registered voters, made phone calls...for the Black women who saved us from yet another embarrassment…for the women who came forward to share their truth bravely with the world, the election of Doug Jones to the United States Senate is our number one Southern story of 2017.