It was an October surprise like no other. This fall, voters in Mobile, Alabama were on the verge of electing a dead man and a disgraced ex-judge on the same day. City Council President Levon Manzie was favored to win the District 2 runoff election and a third term—despite the fact that he had died two weeks prior. Potentially joining the deceased on the seven-member city council was Herman Thomas, a former Circuit Court judge who was tried for numerous sex offenses involving young prison inmates a decade ago.
Thomas “absolutely moved cases off other judges’ dockets, pulled prisoners out of jail and took them to his secret office in Government Plaza—where semen was found—and also admits to having sort of a freelance gig spanking young men,” noted Rob Holbert, the publisher of the local newspaper Lagniappe Weekly, in an Oct. 6 column. He compared the possibility of electing the ghost of Manzie and Thomas to an episode of The Twilight Zone: “It is bizarre to consider that voters may elect a dead man tomorrow to represent my district.”
They say politics can make strange bedfellows, and so it goes in Mobile, where the future of the demographics of Alabama’s fourth largest city were at stake. Not that anyone would say so. Few want to directly address race, class, or political party—it’s “divisive,” we’re told—but these issues were, to put it mildly, the elephant in the room.
For years, the city’s conservative power players have pushed an annexation plan designed to add between 10,000 and 20,000 mostly white, suburban, middle-class, Republican-leaning residents to a majority-minority city that has shed them in the course of decades of “white flight.”
That group saw this year’s city council races as a unique opportunity to Make Jeff Sessions’s Hometown White Again—and they were willing to play dirty to do so. “It’s about power, it’s about money, it’s about control, it’s about gentrification,” a source familiar with the race, who wished to remain anonymous, told Protean.
Here in the new New South, the open racism that once defined the politics and culture of this region has been quietly tucked away along with the Confederate battle flags that proudly flew outside statehouses, courthouses, businesses, and some voters’ yards. But it’s not as if institutional racism itself disappeared along with its symbols. In Mobile, it lies submerged but near the surface, like the swampy sandbars in the nearby Tensaw Delta during the wet season.
To most outsiders, Mobile is known for its parties, not its politics. The Gulf Coast city has hosted absolute ragers for more than 300 years. Its sister city New Orleans is world-renowned for its Mardi Gras, yet Mobile, colonial France’s original capital, clings to the debatable claim that it played host to America’s first true version of the holiday. Various empires and wannabe nations have played musical chairs over control of Mobile since 1711—France, Spain, England, the United States, the Confederacy, and then back to the U.S. But the partying never stopped—it just added more beads, booze, and Moon Pies.
All the revelry tends to obscure the dark side of what’s been nicknamed Azalea City. In the 18th century, Mobile grew obscenely wealthy, and deeply unequal. Those riches were made possible through ignoble diplomacy with native people, the enslavement of Africans, and exploitation of poor whites. A few landowners lived like kings on plantations—and much of the rest of the people served them in one way or another.
Local writer/actor/raconteur Eugene Walter once famously declared that Mobile was “a separate kingdom. We are not North America; we are North Haiti.” Culturally, perhaps, but Mobile, unlike Haiti, never overthrew their ruling masters in a violent revolution. During the Civil War, it took up arms for the planter class of the Confederacy. For a few short years, Mobile served as a key inland port for the rogue secessionist country, becoming its fourth-largest city. But in April of 1865, with the Union army looming nearby, Mobile’s leaders surrendered to avoid the fate of Sherman’s burned Atlanta.
Lincoln’s Republicans ruled Alabama during Reconstruction and freed the enslaved, who made up 28 percent of the city’s population. But it wasn’t long before disenfranchised Democrats got revenge. On Election Day in Mobile in 1874, for instance, armed gangs reportedly roamed the streets, and mobs of people surrounded polling places to scare Republicans from voting. Later, the Ku Klux Klan enforced the racial order through terror. Even Mobile’s legendary parties have a not-so-secret unsavory side, as Mardi Gras mystic societies and seasonal balls are largely segregated by race.
The route of nearly all the Mardi Gras parades of the last 120 years passed by Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes. The North despised the man, considering him a barbarous pirate—but in Jim Crow-era Mobile, Semmes was beloved as a gentleman warrior who represented everything noble about Southern aristocrats. His soldierly statue stood in a prominent location in downtown Mobile for 120 years, until the eve before a Black Lives Matter group planned to tear it down during the George Floyd protests last summer.
Semmes silently watched on for a century as the city and Alabama state government tinkered with the systems designed to oppress or control Black people. From the Black Codes to Jim Crow laws, racial segregation of schools and public spaces, and contemporary mass incarceration and brutal policing, these systems have evolved to keep pace with changing times and court decisions that have attempted to even the playing field.
White supremacy is far from ancient history. In my own neighborhood, the Old Dauphin Way historic district, I sometimes stroll past a hulking tree, marked by a plaque, that sits two blocks from my house. This is the spot where the KKK murdered and hung 19-year-old Michael Donald, the same day they burned a cross on the lawn of the Mobile County courthouse. Mobile’s authorities dragged their feet on the case, releasing three uninvolved men they’d taken into custody. It took the attention of Jesse Jackson, the FBI, and Donald’s determined mother, Beulah Mae Donald, to help bring Michael’s killer to justice two years later.
The date of Donald’s death was March 21, 1981, only nine months before Levon Manzie was born.
The man that prosecuted the KKK killer was Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, who has a name that makes him sound like a time-traveling Confederate general.
Jeff Sessions’s long and awful career, which spans the modern Republican Party—from Reagan to Trump—includes prosecuting the Michael Donald lynching case as a federal attorney. But he did so reluctantly. That’s according to Thomas Figures, a Black assistant U.S. Attorney who testified before the Senate that Sessions tried to convince his brother, the Donald family’s attorney Michael Figures, not to pursue it. Figures also alleged that Sessions referred to him as “boy” and told him that the KKK was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” That was enough for the Judiciary Committee to reject Reagan’s nomination of Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1987. But—no—isn’t wasn’t enough to disqualify him to serve as an Alabama senator for two decades, and later as Attorney General in the Trump’s administration.
Sessions has a powerful ally in Mobile: Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who beat the city’s first Black mayor, Sam Jones, back in 2013. “The man I know is an upright individual, who is honest, who is forthright,” Stimpson said about Sessions. That’s probably not surprising coming from Sessions’s finance chairman for his 2002 and 2008 Senate campaigns but Stimpson’s politics are of a softer, gentler sort than his old boss. Mobile’s three-term mayor has a grandfatherly aw-shucks quality, like he might wave at you from aboard his yacht or offer to pray for your sick mom. He signs off his nightly emails to the public with Bible verses and earnest devotionals from popular Evangelical preachers.
To his credit, Stimpson has struck a more conciliatory tone than most right-wing Alabama politicians on matters of race—at least in public. In 2017, he resigned as a paying member of the “Comic Cowboys” Mardi Gras society after multiple Black council members complained about the flagrantly racist signs that the all-white organization displayed on parade floats—such as “Black Lives Matter demands justice, but it seems they’ll settle for a big screen TV,” accompanied by an illustration of a Black man looting a television.
Since then, Stimpson’s been either contrite or more canny about racial matters. During the George Floyd protests last May, he tweeted: “We join the voices demanding justice. There is a systemic problem which must be addressed at every level in America, from local to federal government.” A few days later, on June 5th, he opted to remove the Admiral Semmes statue from its pedestal in the middle of the night and stow it away in the history museum, telling me in an email interview that “the values represented by this monument a century ago are not the values of Mobile in 2020.”
The stealthy ousting of Semmes was in defiance of a 2017 state law that imposes a $25,000 fine against cities that remove monuments that have been in place for 40 years or more, which many have referred to as “the Confederate statues law.” Now there’s a good chance that the blank space on Government Street could soon be filled by a statue of beloved baseball legend Hank Aaron, a Mobile native, who died last year. Aaron was the polar opposite of Semmes: he grew up poor, and Black, and his success was dependent on breaking through racist barriers and institutions that were stacked against him. Stimpson also gave his blessing for the construction of a Heritage House in nearby Africatown, which promises to turn the remains of the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have brought captured Africans to America in 1860, into a tourist attraction.
But it’s one thing to make admirable symbolic gestures towards racial equality, and quite another to devote money and resources to the people who have been impacted most by racism. The latter has been conspicuously absent in Mobile.
Take the case of next year’s budget, in which Stimpson has proposed spending $100 million on public safety, which is half of the city’s general fund and a 20 percent increase from 2018. Police department reform, meanwhile, has yet to occur. The Police Citizens Community Relations Advisory Council, formed in 2016 following the death of Michael Moore, a Black Mobile teenager who was fatally shot by a white police officer during a traffic stop, fell apart. The council reformed after the George Floyd protests last fall, but remains toothless. Mobile’s police chief has been quoted as saying that granting subpoena powers to a volunteer group of citizens would be “detrimental” to police officer morale.
Construction has begun on Africatown’s Heritage House, but the area surrounding it remains resource-starved—it’s one of the poorest, most dilapidated areas of the country. Africatown is a small community on Mobile’s northern border founded by more than two dozen West African captives who escaped the Clotilda. For most of the last century and a half, Mobile’s leaders pretended it didn’t exist. The neighborhood is now surrounded by a paper mill, chemical plants, and oil storage tanks, and the amount of industrial pollution has led local residents to file a lawsuit. Many of Africatown’s houses and businesses are in worse shape than the polluted shores of the Chickasaw Creek; they’re half boarded up or “blighted,” and the average value of a home is only $56,000—less than a third of average prices in the city as a whole.
Mobile attorney and city Judge Karlos Finley, who lost to Stimpson in this year’s mayor’s race, believes that Africatown descendants may have a case for reparations. But Stimpson is focused simply on “the community’s ability to share their story and legacy of resilience.” After all, talk—or as Stimpson calls it, the act of “elevating narratives”—is cheap. To raise standards of living? Not so much. As such, Stimpson is calling on the Lord to help with the latter. “My prayer is that God continue to send the people and resources to the city of Mobile to transform it into the city he wants it to be in his timeline,” said Stimpson on the night he was reelected in October.
But who needs God when you have a mighty annexation plan?
Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger once wondered aloud whether or not the court could effectively desegregate Mobile schools due to self-migration. “I suppose Mobile is no exception to what is true in almost every large community in the country that there is a more or less constant movement of people, sometimes described as an upward movement… How does the district court in performing this function keep track of the changes that would flow from that?” he asked. In other words: in the age of white flight, wouldn’t the formal desegregation process be like playing Whack-A-Mole with racial demographics?
The year was 1971, a full 17 years after the Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. Yet Mobile’s school district was extremely slow to obey the ruling. In May 1963, the parents of 23 Black students filed a lawsuit asserting that Mobile County continued to operate a “dual school system,” where the majority of schools were still separated by race. The case, Birdie Mae Davis v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, was appealed to the Supreme Court fifty years ago.
The Court sided with the plaintiffs, then represented by the NAACP, but a desegregation plan got stuck in a decades-long quagmire of false starts, appeals, and aborted plans. In 1988, a plan was conceived to convert several schools with majority-Black enrollment into magnet schools. The so-called “Mobile Plan” was good enough for the white school board members to consider the Birdie Mae Davis case settled. It was dismissed in 1997—an absurd thirty-four years after it was filed.
Looking back, Chief Justice Burger wasn’t wrong when he speculated that desegregation would be difficult in Mobile, and in cities across America. At the time of the Supreme Court case in 1970, Mobile’s white population stood at 64 percent. By the 2000s, it had dropped to below half of that; today, it sits at 43 percent. The Black population now represents a majority, at 51.4 percent. In total, Mobile has shrunk by five percent over the last two decades.
It’s no coincidence that Baldwin County, the coastal land that hugs the east side of Mobile Bay, has quadrupled in population over the same time span. Baldwin County’s hottest destination is Fairhope, where the population has nearly doubled. It’s the closest thing Alabama has to the Hamptons—rich, highly-educated, lily-white, and full of oversized single-family homes on the beach with cutesy names like “Bliss on the Bay.” It’s no wonder that Jordan Peele filmed much of his 2017 film Get Out in Fairhope. It’s the perfect setting for genteel racist horror.
How to compete with Baldwin County for white people? Stimpson has been trying to execute his two-pronged plan for years. The first is the gentrification of downtown and historic old neighborhoods in Midtown. The city has demolished housing projects, displaced residents, and purchased dozens of blighted properties and sold them to developers—many of them house flippers—who sell them back to an increasing number of middle-class white families. You need enough housing stock makeovers “so people are comfortable with the neighborhoods they want to live in,” Stimpson said. The mayor also helped lure Uber and a downtown Starbucks, and is helping other developers convert under-utilized industrial buildings into yoga studios, breweries, and lofts, hoping to attract millennials and empty-nesters with money.
The second and more insidious part of Stimpson’s “Grow Mobile” plan is to borrow white people from elsewhere—specifically, to annex patches of land from nearby unincorporated areas in suburban West Mobile County. Of the 13,000 residents that would have become Mobilians in the 2019 annexation plan, approximately 70 percent were white, and many were Republicans. In the adjoining neighborhood of West Mobile, voters choose Stimpson over his two Black opponents by 90 percent. In the city’s majority-Black precincts, he carried 10 percent of the vote.
It’s reminiscent of Richmond, Virginia’s controversial annexation in 1970. That plan annexed 23 square miles and 50,000 people, mostly white, which instantly changed Virginia’s capital from a majority-Black to a majority-white city. The U.S. The Supreme Court later ruled that the annexation had been made for racial reasons and placed an injunction on Richmond’s municipal elections for seven years.
Likewise, Stimpson’s effort to whiten Mobile would have triggered automatic federal review under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But that changed with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby v. Holder that gutted the requirement for federal clearance. The Stimpson administration tried to fast-track the annexation plan in 2019, under the pretense that Mobile needed to break 200,000 in population to get extra federal grants. The Council voted 4-3 in favor of the annexation plan, but a five-vote supermajority was required to pass ordinances. The three Black councilmembers voted against it. Levon Manzie, considered the swing voter, was torn about his own vote.
Plus, a propaganda campaign trying to push Manzie into voting for annexation may have backfired. Mobile Policy Forum Inc., a dark money group whose executive director worked as an attorney on Stimpson’s re-election campaign in 2017, mailed fliers depicting a shadowy figure, coded Black, breaking into a house. The text, written in font that looked ripped from a horror movie poster, read: “A vote against annexation is a vote against safer Mobile neighborhoods.” Manzie told AL.com that the propaganda fliers “woke up a sleeping giant” by angering his constituents.
Mobile’s white elites didn’t take the defeat lightly. Four months later, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran held a press conference that announced an effort to strip the supermajority rule from the city council via petition. The supermajority requirement was part of the Zoghby Act, stemming from a 40-year-old class-action lawsuit filed by Wiley Bolden that alleged racial discrimination in the city’s form of government. In a city with a large Black population, three commissioners largely guided city affairs—and they always happened to be white.
In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the city in Mobile v. Bolden, but a second hearing was held in a lower court. This time, the district court ruled with the plaintiffs—they had unearthed a “smoking gun” in the form of a 1909 letter written by the white State Senator Frederick Bromberg, which explained the racist origins of Alabama’s post-Reconstruction election laws that he had helped enact:
“We have always, as you know, falsely pretended that our main purpose was to exclude the ignorant vote when, in fact, we were trying to exclude not the ignorant vote, but the Negro vote… At present, the masses of the colored race are indifferent to the right to vote and still more indifferent to the right to hold office. By adopting remedial measures now we shall cause no discontent, because of the present apathy of our colored citizens. This is fully recognized by all statesmen.”
Five years later, the Zoghby Act was created by the Alabama State Legislature to establish Mobile’s current form of city government, with a mayor and seven elected councilpersons. Finally, centuries after arriving in Mobile, its Black residents had Black representation. Sheriff Cochran’s specious reasoning for his attempt to defang the Zoghby Act? That it had somehow become inherently racist. “Things are different between 1985 and now and this supermajority now creates more racial polarization than it solves,” Cochran said at a press conference for his “Grow Mobile Now” campaign.
Meanwhile, Stimpson and other elite Republican leaders looked to the 2021 election as an opportunity to get pro-annexation candidates elected so they could push through a second vote on the issue. That list included former Judge Herman Thomas (whom Holbert called “the most corrupt judge in recent history”) and Manzie, who made a few public comments that indicated he was a “pro-growth candidate” who had changed his mind on annexation.
If anything, Levon Manzie seemed to campaign harder after he died. Not long after the City Council president succumbed to illness on September 19th, an avalanche of new signs and fliers suddenly popped up on the streets of downtown Mobile. They urged voters in his district to elect the deceased to a third term in an October runoff, forcing a special election at a later date to “honor his legacy.”
The framing was puzzling, to put it mildly. Voters had just weighed in on the District 2 race in August, in one of the wildest local elections in recent memory. The ballot was stuffed with a crowded slate of first-time candidates: Jason Caffey, a former NBA player who had won two championship rings as a member of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, an LGBTQ+ activist who was a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Alabama, a young Black activist, and one white guy: a conservative local realtor considered the Chamber of Commerce’s choice.
The only familiar face in terms of city government was William Carroll, who, like Manzie, was a Black man who’d served two prior terms as a city councilman in this majority-Black district. Manzie not only had to face five other candidates, but also persistent rumors that he was “on his deathbed.” One of his opponents told some voters that the council president wouldn’t live to serve out his current term, much less the next.
“That’s ludicrous,” Manzie said of the rumors. “From a health perspective and from what my doctors tell me and what I know personally, I am looking to be here until I’m 100 years old.”
Yet, in a televised debate aired the week before the August primary, Manzie looked little like the smiling fresh-faced portrait from his campaign materials. He appeared frail and weak while leaning back in his wheelchair, especially in contrast to the figures standing next to him—the six-foot-eight Caffey and the sturdy Carroll, one of the best college defensive backs of the early ‘90s. The beleaguered incumbent finished first in the municipal vote, but because his share of the vote fell below the fifty percent threshold required by local rules, District 2 voters got another shot. A few days later, Manzie passed away, likely from a chronic kidney disease that had already resulted in two transplants.
Within 24 hours of Manzie’s death, dark money from a conservative PAC rolled into his campaign coffers. Then, on September 27th, Stimpson announced that he was appointing Manzie’s mother, Jeanette, to serve on the City Council for a month in her deceased son’s seat.
Immediately, two Black pastors expressed their concern that Jeanette was being used as a pawn to vote for annexation before the end of the term.
“The concern we have is losing the voice. The supermajority is put into place to ensure the African-American community voice is continuously heard and respected. I don’t believe for one moment that the mayor is concerned about that as he is with his own agenda,” one pastor said. But Jeanette Manzie withdrew a day later after it was discovered that she was not a registered voter and had a past felony conviction.
On October 1st, a $26,200 contribution was made to the Manzie campaign from the South Alabamians for Good Government—a group chaired by a man who had political ties to Tommy Tuberville, Sessions, and the Alabama Republican Party. Soon, fliers and signs began to appear. “The attempt was apparently to buy who you wanted into that seat to influence [policy],” said former mayor Sam Jones, who also told AL.com that a $25,000 donation was the most he’d ever seen in a Mobile election.
The effort to elect a dead man and “the spanking judge” (as the media referred to Herman Thomas) ultimately failed, but just barely. Carroll beat the ghost of Manzie by about 400 votes, and Cory Penn defeated Thomas with 59 percent of the vote. “It’s time to put the politics of this last election behind the district and focus on the future,” said Carroll, who has expressed hesitancy over annexation.
But burying the past will be difficult when Stimpson has declared that a new annexation plan is a big part of his third term’s First 100 Days agenda. “We have to be a city larger than 200,000,” he said. That’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center sent him a four-page letter in mid-November warning they’d sue the city if they found evidence of a “racial gerrymandering technique” of “packing” and “cracking” in the city’s redistricting plan, or an annexation plan that “would serve to dilute the political power of communities of color.”
The race is on for Stimpson, Sheriff Cochran, and other conservatives to pass a new annexation plan. The Democrats’ John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restrengthen parts of the Voting Rights Act and likely require federal pre-clearance on Mobile’s racial power grab. But the Republican Senate, including two Alabama senators, filibustered the bill last month, and it’s back in limbo.
Soon, annexation may be in the Mobile’s City Council’s hands once again.
Holbert is a vocal annexation supporter who tries to play the “both-sides” approach. He blames everyone for the election fiasco and annexation slowdown, claiming that Black and white officials have both been driven “insane” by misguided racial animus. “Black Mobilians are sure they’re about to be screwed and white Mobilians are sure the city’s about to be taken down the wrong road.”
But here’s the truth of it all: Mobile’s Black community can point to an extremely long history of disenfranchisement. What’s more likely—that its white leaders have finally learned their lesson and will cede money, power, and control of their own accord? Or that the white supremacy that the Semmes statue once represented keeps working, but this time in the shadows, carefully obscured by dark money and opaque language?
As usual, it will likely be up to judges ruling in courtrooms hundreds of miles away to decide Mobile’s future.♦
Ryan Zickgraf is an Alabama-based freelance journalist and writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, The Verge, Jacobin Magazine, Current Affairs, and more. He also blogs at the Third Rail Substack.
Cover image: Undated photo of an historic Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile, AL.