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  • Writer's pictureJoseph D. Bryant

Black Alabamians in the Republican Party?

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

African Americans and party activists seek to increase their ranks within the GOP

By Joseph D. Bryant

M. Helen Newsome is used to being approached before and after monthly meetings of the Houston County Republican Women.

In addition to her bright smile, the Dothan resident also stands out in the crowd as one of the few, if not only, Black women in the room.

As a member and second vice president of the group in her southeast Alabama community, Newsome represents a triple minority as a woman, a Black woman, and a Black Republican. While the Democratic Party has been the political mainstay for Blacks for over half a century, others like Newsome say they have found a welcoming reception in what some might call an unlikely place – the GOP.

“I have met quite a few good people and very open people who respect me,” she said. “I love having an opportunity to meet and greet people one-on-one; that's me. They have never told me what I needed to do or who I needed to vote for.”

Alabama is one of the most conservative states in the nation where “Trump 2020” signs still dot rural roadsides more than a year after the election was decided.

Still, on the other side of the political spectrum, African Americans remain among the most committed loyalists to the Democratic party, both locally and in nationwide races. But more people like Newsome are emerging as rare examples of conservative voters, activists and even office holders.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said the GOP in Alabama and throughout the nation is more diverse than ever, calling it a party for all people.

“Here in Alabama, we believe in working hard to provide for one’s family, our Alabama values and in common sense policy. I think that going forward, more and more people – men, women, black, white and so on – will join in moving common sense, good policy forward,” Ivey told Our360 News in a statement. “For me as governor, reaching every Alabamian is critical, because I am a governor for ALL Alabamians, whether they voted for me or not. Every decision I make is made with Alabamians at the forefront, and that will not change going forward.”

Shelby County, for example, lays claim to the first elected Black Republican to the Alabama State Legislature since Reconstruction. Rep. Kenneth Paschal was elected to House District 73.

In a story by The Associated Press, Paschal noted the historic moment of his July 2021 win in a special election.

“We have put people in the box based on your skin color. . . . Hopefully, we can change that,” he said at the time.

Paschal also downplayed race in the election, saying the voters elected him on the issues.

“The voters in House District 73 have all but shown evidence that Dr. (Martin Luther) King, his dream is alive in Shelby County and in Alabama,” Paschal said in an earlier statement. “Their votes were not based on the color of my skin. They cast their votes because they saw a God-fearing man with integrity, who protects and defends the Constitution, who served his country and is proud to salute the flag, recite our pledge, and sing the national anthem in a voice that is loud and firm, and even sometimes off-key.”

He is now seeking election to a full House term in November’s general election. Paschal also leads the Alabama Republican Party’s new minority outreach coalition. Paschal has rebuffed attempts to be interviewed by Our 360 News.

Announcing the new GOP initiative toward people of color in Oct. 2021, State Republican Chairman John Wahl used the moment to take a swipe at the current

political home of most African American voters.

“I am here to tell you that the Alabama Republican Party is proud to support and encourage minorities. The Democrat Party wants you to believe that all minorities share their liberal views, but we are here today to challenge that false stereotype,” Wahl said in his statement, using the term Democrat rather than Democratic as a pejorative often delivered by Republicans. “There are thousands of conservative people in minority groups across this state, and they deserve to be recognized.”

Paschal’s win in decidedly ruby red Shelby County places him among Birmingham-area Republican political stalwarts, including perennial Sen. Jabo Waggoner, where the GOP holds a majority in both the House and Senate.

On the other hand, the city of Birmingham remains an island, a blue city surrounded by a sea of red GOP county leadership, including the leadership of Shelby and Jefferson County commissions. In Jefferson County, Republicans Jimmie Stephens, Joe Knight and Steve Ammons lead the majority on the dais where just two Democrats sit from districts that include Birmingham, Bessemer and other mostly majority Black communities.

So, is there a future for Alabama Blacks in the GOP? The answer is nuanced, explained D'Linell Finley, adjunct professor of political science at Alabama State University and a veteran political observer.

The appeal of the GOP to some Black voters stems from the Republican platform that usually rails against crime and embraces conservative social issues that appeal to some voters on religious and family grounds, Finley explained.

“African Americans want the same thing white people want,” he said. “They want good, safe neighborhoods, they want economic development, education for their children, and safety. There is no difference in terms of quality-of-life desires between African Americans and white people and Democrats and Republicans. It’s just that people have their preferences in terms on how we get to those ends.”

Grassroots recruitment of Black and minority members to the GOP is a long-standing goal of the Alabama Minority GOP, a group founded in 1976. It now boasts chapters in Huntsville, Birmingham and Mobile.

Finley noted that Democrats, including Black voters, crossed party lines and voted Republican in the latest primary contest for U.S. Senate. Those voters wanted their ballots to make a difference in the race for Senate where the competition between the Republican contestants for the seat garnered national headlines.

Republicans are now seeking to prevent that from occurring again with a proposal to tighten party rules to ban so-called crossover voting in their primaries.

Republican Katie Britt prevailed in the matchup and faces Democrat Will Boyd in the November general election. Since this is decidedly Republican Alabama, most observers have called the GOP primary and runoff, in which Britt prevailed, the matches that have already decided who will succeed outgoing Sen. Richard Shelby in Washington D.C.

Finley also noted that former President Donald Trump received some support among Black voters during both his races for president, lending belief that there is an undeniable, albeit a minority, conservative following among African Americans.

While some anti-Trump pundits feared that Trump would slice enough support from future President Joe Biden to capture a second term in 2020, such a thought was based on a gross overestimation. According to the Pew Research Center, Biden received 92 percent of the Black vote, nearly the same rate that former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton received in her failed 2016 presidential bid against Trump.

For some Black voters, these issues, and the Republican answers to these challenges, are strong enough to ignore other more repellent rhetoric espoused by some supporters of the party and prominent party figures -- including Trump himself.

“They don’t identify with all the racism and all the things you see in the more extreme groups," Finley said. "But still, there are other Blacks who have what I would call traditional conservative values who believe that somehow their religious rights have been threatened. Those folks tend to vote Republican. Again, it is a perspective, and African Americans are entitled to it."

Republican outreach efforts in the state are likely sincere yet fatally flawed, said Natalie Davis, professor emerita of political science at Birmingham-Southern College.

“In fairness, I believe the people who are trying to do that are acting in good faith, but it’s a losing battle, and they properly know it,” she said. “But it gives them some good talking points.”

Davis said efforts to recruit more Blacks to the GOP help the party counter criticism of racism within their ranks.

“You’ll remember that during the 2016 campaign for president, Donald Trump kept talking about ‘my black person.’ It’s an effort by the Republican party to say, ‘Look, we’re not racists; here are our Blacks.’”

Additionally, while party loyalists call the GOP the “Party of Lincoln,” Davis offers a more contentious political history: the emergence of the modern Republican Party in Alabama in response to the rise of Black participation and leadership in the Democratic Party, she said.

“It didn’t come from high-minded ideological views; it came from white flight from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party,” Davis said.

While some higher-income, socially conservative and evangelical Black voters might be attracted to the GOP, Davis calls those numbers a very narrow slice of the total electorate.

Finley is candid in his assessment of the GOP landscape and where Blacks fit in.

"I don't think Trump was a good candidate, and I don't think he was particularly a good president, but let's face it, Trump did accomplish some things that many people in the country were satisfied with,” he said. “They have a right to like those things,” he said. “I have been saying this for over 40 years -- the African American community is not monolithic.”

Regarding the most visible figure of the GOP, Newsome said Republicans should praise Trump when he deserves it. "Likewise, there should also be room to open debate and discussion based on the issues," she said.

Even with the small number of Black people in the Republican party, Finley called it healthy for democracy to have even a fraction of diversity within the GOP. He also warned against typecasting all Black Republicans as extremists or cartoonish racial pawns trotted out when needed.

Images of people sitting as front-row props decked in “Blacks for Trump” T-shirts at rallies might come to mind, but they don't tell the entire story, according to Finley.

“You are always going to have the more clownish and outlandish individuals, but I think we should look beyond the attention-getters and look at the individuals who have rock-solid values who go about their work quietly,” he said. “If you look beyond all the superficiality and all the clownish acts, there are some serious individuals out there. Let the best argument win.”

Finley also cited other credible and mainstream Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Birmingham native. Coincidentally, Scott has endorsed Britt in her race for Senate. “I am glad that the Republican party is not exclusively white, and I am happy there are some African American faces in the Republican party,” Finley said. “While I may disagree with them on some things, they can be pretty credible individuals.” However, Finley said don't expect the ground to open and swallow the traditional support for the Democratic Party that has existed for decades among Black voters. “Right now, more African Americans think that in terms of priorities and policies that the Democratic party leans more to the things that would benefit them,” he explained. “I don’t know that you’re going to have a significant number of Blacks heading to the Republican Party, but there will be some who lean toward them.” Nevertheless, Newsome is more optimistic about her party's growing appeal to African Americans. Newsome’s reasoning for joining the Republican women was simple – they asked her. While there, she heard ideas that resonated.

She said a great number of independent Black voters could be swayed to the GOP “if they will commit to learning for themselves instead of being told,” Newsome said. "Educate yourself."



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