He currently represents Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District but Democrat Rep. Artur Davis has a bigger prize in mind. On Saturday in the city once dubbed “Bombingham” for the violence aimed at Blacks during Jim Crow, Davis declared his candidacy for governor in Birmingham’s Linn Park. If successful, the 41 year-old Davis would follow former Governor L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and become only the second Black to lead a southern state since Reconstruction and the first Black governor of Alabama. Currently there are only two other Black governors, New York’s David Paterson and Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick. Though the odds are challenging, Davis looks to follow the path Barack Obama took to the presidency and build a multi-cultural coalition to carry him to victory.
If winning the White House is considered an epic moment in Black history, winning the Alabama governor’s seat, or any Deep South state house, would have to be a close second in terms of a historical milepost. Alabama was a key bloc of the southern resistance to Blacks’ civil rights and its history in the 1950’s and 1950’s is one of violent acts toward Black citizens and civil rights movement workers and supporters. Some of the most memorable incidents in the civil rights movement took place in Alabama, under the shadow of Governor George Wallace, who became the poster boy for white defiance. Its attitude toward Blacks personified in the rule of Sheriff Bull Connor, whose brand of southern justice was infamous for the use of fire hoses and dogs on protesters. From the famous Montgomery bus boycott to Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham jail,” and “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, to the murder of four Black girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Alabama stands out as particularly strident objector to the full inclusion of African Americans in society.
Davis, a Montgomery native, enters the race at a time when the presence of Barack Obama is shifting the racial landscape in American politics. Like the President, Davis is a product of an Ivy League education, having received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a law degree from Harvard Law School. During his days at Harvard Law School, he worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center and Senator Howell Heflin. For four years, he worked as a federal prosecutor and then was in private practice for another four years. He first challenged Rep. Earl Hilliard, another African American, in 2000 and was unsuccessful but ran a strong race. That campaign was a defining moment in Black politics for the generational issues it raised with the younger Davis setting a markedly different tone in his outreach to voters. He would come back two years later and defeat Hilliard and has comfortably held on to the seat ever since. Rep. Davis sits on the House Committee on Ways and Means, only the tenth Alabaman in congressional history to serve on the powerful panel. He also serves on the Committee on House Administration. The Seventh Congressional District covers a twelve-country area that stretches from Birmingham to the “Black Belt.”
Race remains an overarching factor in the gubernatorial race. Like Obama, Davis is going to have to find the right tone to send out a “universal” message to Alabama voters without burying his racial identity and risk losing Black support. He began down that road during his speech to supporters, a mixed crowd as reported by The Birmingham News on Saturday when he directly addressed the state’s obviously tortured history. “I want to thank you all for coming out and showing me that you believe that no matter what you think of what Alabama use to be, no matter what you think of what some people outside of Alabama say about our state, the Alabama we have now is a new one, the best one we've ever had and the one that will take us places we've never been,” remarked Davis. Joining Davis at the kick-off event was another famous Alabaman, American Idol winner Ruben Studdard.