Alabama Strike Fest: A New Era of Organizing in Alabama
“Once they banned Imagine it became the same old war it’s always been.
Once they banned Imagine it became the war it was when we were kids.”
I watched Mike Cooley sing these lyrics from atop a small trailer in a union hall parking lot in rural Brookwood, Alabama on May 22nd, 2021. It was part of a fundraiser known as Alabama Strike Fest for striking miners at the UMWA Locals there. It was also his last song for the day and the end of the festivities.
Back in 2017 I was working in West Africa in Ghana and listening to his band, Drive-By Truckers, and their new album ‘American Band’ which contained Once They Banned Imagine.
I couldn’t believe I was hearing it live in the setting where I was in Alabama. The songs on the album are highly political, and offer social commentary with an undeniable leftward slant, with one lamenting the killing of Trayvon Martin. The town of Brookwood, Alabama, home of the Strike Fest Fundraiser, is no different than so many out of the way Alabama communities on the old state highways just off of our interstate system. While the UMWA district there is the most diverse in the country with 40 percent membership, there is no doubt there are many ardent conservatives still in their ranks. We are talking about rural Alabama.
The weekend was a special one with so many connections being made across political lines by folks with a singular goal of supporting the miners and their families. But it also would remind us where we have been, where we are, and where we are going when it comes to rural organizing in Alabama- all within 24 hours.
Now if there is a beating heart of goodness in the center of activist organizing in our state it’s Lee Bains III. Before Mike Cooley, Lee and his merry band of punk gospel prophets, The Glory Fires, rocked the stage, decrying lousy scabs in old labor union songs while also imploring folks to take care of each other and love their neighbors. His band’s set was preceded by the beautiful sounds of a group of local miners who performed as Brothers United. The day overall was one of solidarity with each other, and one of folks from different worlds learning to be together in a space where they had been taught a distrust — and even a hatred for some — of each other.
In order to raise money in solidarity with the striking miners and their families I knew we were walking a bit of a tightrope there because we recognized and remembered where we had been as rural organizers in Alabama.
I come from an area in Alabama very similar to Brookwood and I understand very few folks are going into these rural spaces and having the conversations I am. When it comes to taking on propaganda it starts with having folks recognize each other’s humanity. I did that in the days leading up to the event by working side by side with white folks whose idea of Black Lives Matter and socialism come only from Fox News and their radio, where the poison of disinformation and the fear of others occurs non-stop.
The night before the event I talked with a group of miners when I heard one of them say something like “…doubt I could find solidarity with groups like Antifa or Black Lives Matter.” This was within earshot of a couple of black miners and a few others. I only initiate engagement in spaces like that if I’m given an opening. So I did.
“Brother you already have. I’m antifa and believe Black Lives Matter and I’ll be here with y’all for a while.”
We then had a three hour conversation on Black Lives Matter, Trans rights, and the other hot button issues of the day. It wasn’t heated and I didn’t preach to them. I pushed back against the propaganda and lies they’d been told. By the end I overheard someone looking on say, “He’s right though. We probably been going to the bathroom with trans folks our whole lives.” I was even told by one I was the first socialist they’d ever met and I seemed ok. My white skin and Southern accent allowed me to engage them in conversation, but it was obvious this was the first time many of them had a real conversation with someone like me who spoke and felt the way I do about the world around us.
By the end of the conversation we weren’t talking about what divides us. We were talking about our shared humanity and tearing down those invisible walls meant to separate us.
We didn’t solve all the world’s problems but we cut off at least one more avenue for disinformation and misinformation to divide us. Did I change the mind of the man I engaged with? Maybe. Maybe not.
I am certain I planted some seeds there with the folks who were looking on. I don’t show up thinking I need to change everything about someone else or pour who I am into them like they’re an empty vessel. I get folks talking about things in ways that break down the type of programming that I was once victim to. And that happened.
Those were little victories, no matter how small, in a space I never thought I’d be having those conversations in. It was apparent to me absolutely no one had ever attempted to push back on how they felt about anything we discussed.
The Left at large abandoned those spaces long ago. By the end of the evening, though, I had gathered contact information from some of those I had spoken with, and we have plans to meet up soon to continue that conversation. They had a human being in front of them taking on what they’d been taught and finding common ground where there were shared interests.
It was also apparent they appreciated the fact I recognized their humanity and dignity and respected them enough to have a tough conversation without attacking or preaching to them. I challenged every single stereotype they’d been taught about folks like me, gave absolutely no quarter to hateful ideology, and I reminded them of our likenesses and that the powers-that-be want us in conflict. Some of us with differences in opinion, and not differences in morality, found common ground that we could build on.
It was the first example of where we are as rural organizers in Alabama.
“Mimi, tell me about old Bull!
Mean and proud even praying in the pew.
Putting profits in the black with businessmen on Sunday,
Monday morning, beating prophets black and blue.”
As I listened to Lee Bains III sing those lyrics I had no idea of the full extent of a confrontation that had happened earlier in the day. It happened so quickly that only one of the organizers and a core group of miners knew the details. If anyone else did I couldn’t find them when I initially looked into it.
There we were with someone singing of the evils of Bull Connor, the infamous Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner, while only a couple of hours earlier the ghost of old Bull had raised its ugly head as a misunderstanding had spiraled into a racial slur towards a Black attendee.
Symbols are powerful. They can immediately bring a connection, such as finding a supporter of the same college football team, or they can create an immediate dislike of the other person — particularly when it comes to things like a MAGA hat or a flag with a hammer and sickle. For better or worse, and because of the efforts of so many powerful entities, folks in the rural south think socialism is a four letter word. I encountered it time and time again leading up to the event when it was apparent that the support — support that would eventually raise tens of thousands of dollars for striking miners — was coming from leftist groups. And I combatted what I could. Most all of the miners didn’t care where the help was coming from but it was apparent a small group didn’t care for the political leanings of some of the supporters.
When a socialist flag was spotted at a table there was a confrontation.
I’m not surprised a socialist flag at an event in the rural South would spark the encounter it did. I’m also not surprised that a white man would immediately resort to racism towards black man during a conflict. I’m incredibly saddened that it occurred and that someone was made to feel so threatened, especially at an event that helped build so many new bridges. The misunderstanding could have been dealt with that day. The racism now must be addressed, and no misunderstanding can ever be an excuse for racist behavior.
I’m saddened that the actions of a couple of men could hurt the overall effort and the other miners and their families. I am hopeful, however, that the relationships that were built over the past few days will end up with proper repercussions and some healing and reconciliation, and that folks will learn from the experience.
I certainly have.
I think we all let our guard down with so many allies around us. Even though we were all invited, it was still in a place where the specter of Bull Connor still haunts us and the teachings of his generation and generations before still echo through ripples in time. We saw real progress in a number of engagements and were lulled into thinking we had turned a corner. We have. It’s just not the one that leaves racist thinking in the dustbin of history.
Lee was telling us all what we can and should be and, sadly, someone also decided to remind us of where we still are in Alabama.
As horrible as it was, I refuse to let that one incident define what was a historic weekend in Alabama for a lot of folks, and what I will consider, to this point, the greatest organizing day in my life.
There are no road maps to the paths that lie beyond broken barriers. In rural Alabama we probably gathered the most politically diverse group of folks for an event that’s ever happened here. With hundreds of volunteers, attendees, and coal miners together from all walks of life there was mostly dancing, hugs for friends not seen in over a year, and folks getting to know each other who would never have spoken otherwise.
In those moments I saw where we are going as rural organizers.
It’s easy to write off Alabama as incorrigible especially when, once again, we see racist behavior at an event meant for solidarity. But something like Alabama Strike Fest would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Musicians singing songs of solidarity, an open and honest accounting of our history, and attacking the racist symbols of our past while doing it? Amazing. For every racist clinging to lost cause ideology we have ten others who will be actively working to eradicate racism from our world and leading other folks to learn and grow themselves.
The overt racism is where we have been, the fact it is still around and can pop up even at an event like this is where we are, and a time where it’s no longer acceptable is where we are going.
I believe that. I have believed that since the first time I heard Lee Bains III sing “We Dare Defend Our Rights”. When I first digested the lyrics I said we have entered a new era in Alabama when a white guy from here is writing and singing lyrics like that. When I saw people together last weekend, having tough conversations at times, in an era of hyper-polarization — and in Alabama — I said this is the way forward.
This is a new era of organizing in Alabama. My only regret is that the racism, in the only negative incident that occurred during an otherwise successful fundraising event, wasn’t addressed publicly that day. It may not have been addressed during the event, but in the long term racism won’t be acceptable anymore. That day is coming sooner than most people in the South realize.
But it’s never going to be easy. Growth is often painful. It takes things that reduce us to “fellow human beings” to remind us of who we are and what we have, from striking against the bosses to disasters that level communities and cities. We have to use those times to remind others of how much we have in common, root out problematic thinking, and not allow the powerful to divide us. For now, we are still up against those powerful efforts of division.
Until we get there, it takes folks like me who have the privilege to be able to enter those difficult spaces, to build new relationships while challenging hateful thinking.
I will always look back fondly at Alabama Strike Fest as a watershed moment where the most politically polarized folks here found a way to come together to take care of people in need. It will always be a guidepost to me as I plan future events, knowing what went well and what did not, and I will always look at it as the beginning of a new era of rural organizing in Alabama.
We will never change the rural South without meeting people where they are, and engaging and challenging folks in spaces where only one narrative has been written until now. We must do it deliberately and earnestly, with a focus on what is productive and what can move people from one way of thinking to another that is more just and equitable.
Alabama and our nation need that.