Alabama politicians want you to live in a political ad

July 17, 2023 6:59 am
A family of four -- a man, a woman and two children -- walking through a field of grass. A tree rises to the left. The sun hangs just over the horizon, near a hill.

A family walking through a field. (Getty)

Imagine living your life in a political ad. 

Not the sort of spot where the world is monochrome; the air is filled with ominous bass notes and a guttural voice accuses you of kicking puppies or flipping off military widows. No, the kind where the candidate tries to come across as a normal Alabamian. 

You’d start your day walking through a green field, hand-in-hand with your opposite-sex spouse and your 2.5 children, nodding knowingly at the youngest.

You’d soon find yourself at the door of a small, white, steepled church, dressed for the 10 a.m. contemporary service, shaking hands with a pastor who smiles and hands you and your spouse two AR-15s and camouflage hats. You sling them over your shoulders and walk casually yet confidently in front of a forest that hasn’t seen a deer since the Eisenhower administration. 

Later, you speak to your rapt family from the tailgate of a $76,000 luxury pick-up truck that’s never driven through anything messier than rush hour on Highway 280. You rant about outsiders, insiders and other topics that kill casual conversations. Stepping off the truck, you pass by a split-rail fence and wave at a cop, a farmer and an infantryman leaning against it, without listening to anything they have to say. 

You finish your day walking into a sunset, a surge of strings drowning out anything your family says to you. And every day after that, you do the same things; meet the same people, and stay in the same circle. 


This is how politicians want us to view them. These ads try to appeal to as many people as they can, however detached from day-to-day reality the message is. 

But it sure seems like our state’s leaders want to turn this narrow, soft-focused world into reality. 

Last month, the Alabama Department of Archives and History hosted a presentation by Maigen Sullivan, co-founder of the Invisible Histories Project, on the history of LGBTQ+ Alabama. The shame and stigma heaped on LGBTQ+ Alabamians helped lead to the destruction of much of this history.

Woman speaks in front of screen explaining Invisible Histories Project
Maigen Sullivan speaks at the Department of Archives and History on Thursday, June 15, 2023. (Jemma Stephenson/Alabama Reflector)

It’s an act that the state is familiar with.  The exclusion of marginalized groups from the popular narrative of Alabama is an old tradition. 

As’s Kyle Whitmire wrote last year, the Department of Archives and History was run for years by Marie Bankhead Owen, an unapologetic racist who turned the department into a pedestal for white supremacy and the Lost Cause version of the Civil War. In a 2020 statement on its past and future, the department noted that for over five decades, leadership there declined “to acquire and preserve materials documenting the lives and contributions of African Americans in Alabama.”

Archives and History rejected Owen’s approach long ago. “If history is to serve the present, it must offer an honest assessment of the past,” the department’s 2020 statement said. 

In that light, a presentation about a historically ignored group is a no-brainer. 

But Alabama’s conservative media infrastructure saw the presentation — an outside grant covered the costs — as a way to meet its daily rage quotas. Now Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, wants to rescind about $5 million targeted for construction at Archives during the redistricting special session set for this week. 

Whether that measure will pass is unclear. If Republicans hold together, they could overcome the limits on special session voting and take the money away. But Gov. Kay Ivey called the session to create a new congressional map, which must go to a federal court by Friday. Redistricting is hard enough without planning bombing runs in the culture war. Legislative leaders may not want the extra hassle. 

But the legislation doesn’t need to succeed to achieve its goal. It’s aimed at intimidating public agencies that try to reflect Alabama as it is, not the Alabama that exists in our leaders’ heads. 

In that vision, only a select few are “real” Alabamians. These “real” Alabamians have the same goals, the same desires, and the same beliefs in the unseen. They vote the same, have the same backgrounds and come from the same places.

This vision doesn’t completely exclude Black Alabamians or LGBTQ+ Alabamians or foreign-born Alabamians or any other minority group. They just have to keep their mouths shut and nod at everything that’s said. 

But that’s not Alabama. 

Who we are

Alabama is the rural Black Belt and the skyscrapers of Birmingham. It’s Nat King Cole and Sun Ra. It’s a small country church in Russell County and a street in Mobile dotted with rainbow flags. It’s the quilters of Gee’s Bend working in a 200-year-old tradition and a rapidly growing Hispanic community in Russellville. 

It’s Alabamians arguing about the shape of our government. It’s our neighbors loudly protesting efforts to exclude them, often at the risk of their lives. 

As Archives reminds us, there was a time when Alabama lived under the thumbs of the white-gray men whose cold stone eyes stare down from century-old pedestals. But the story of Alabama rests with the people who circumvented and resisted those men.

Today, the leadership of the Archives understands this, creating spaces where we can look at our state as it is, not the narrow-minded fantasy some wish it could be. 

You can punish Archives for acknowledging this reality. But you can’t bend Alabama into the vision of a political consultant. It’s too stubborn, too messy and too wonderfully complex for that.


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Brian Lyman
Brian Lyman

Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006, and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association and Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. He lives in Auburn with his wife, Julie, and their three children.