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.