Michael Bloomberg did not want to be in Selma on Sunday. When the Rev. Leodis Strong invited him to participate in the 55th anniversary of the 1965 civil rights march known as “Bloody Sunday,” the former mayor at first declined, saying that he was too busy running for president. A week later, he changed his mind — or had it changed for him — and decided that attending the historic Brown Chapel the Sunday before Super Tuesday and crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with ailing congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis wasn’t a distraction from his campaign, but an important piece of it.
Bloomberg’s instinct to stay away was understandable. He had already spent an unprecedented amount of money in a bid for Alabama’s 52 pledged delegates and was about to pull off an impressive political trick: the rapid financial orchestration of a strong position in the state’s minority-majority primary, including a main office facing a statue of Rosa Parks, without having drawn any local attention to his legacy as the mayor responsible for stop-and-frisk policing. Being invited onto the most hallowed ground of the civil rights movement on its most hallowed day on the eve of this achievement may have felt like a trap. Accepting and rejecting the invitation both risked highlighting the nettlesome legacy that he needs black voters — who made up 54 percent of the 2016 Alabama Democratic primary — to forget.
Bloomberg surprised many inside the church when he took a seat in the front row. Adding further contrast between himself and former Vice President Joe Biden, who assumed a pride of place behind the altar, Strong pointedly reminded his flock inside the church, and the thousands more watching the service on the Jumbotron outside, that Bloomberg opposed the invitation before he supported it.
Bloomberg may have been expecting worse when it finally happened, toward the end of his boilerplate speech, and a dozen or so churchgoers in a center pew stood and turned their backs to him until he finished.
There was no plan to protest Bloomberg’s presence, said one of the dissenters, Ryan P. Haygood, a former NAACP lawyer who directs the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Given what this sacred space means, I kept waiting for him to lean into it, to talk about what he presided over as mayor,” he said. “When it became clear he wasn’t going to atone, we decided to do something. Fifty-five years ago, nonviolent protesters assembled right here in this church and prepared to get brutalized by Alabama police half a mile away. We channeled them. We think it’s what they would have done.”
If Pete Buttigieg hadn’t suspended his campaign hours later, the silent protest against Bloomberg would have been the biggest story out of Selma about any of the five candidates in attendance. This spurt of bad press landing so close to Super Tuesday left Bloomberg looking more displeased than usual during the Bridge Crossing Jubilee that followed the service. Amid thousands of people holding hands and walking arm and arm, photographs capture Bloomberg looking like a handcuffed prisoner with a two-guard escort, his hands clasped anxiously across his sternum.
It was in Montgomery last November that Bloomberg filed his first ballot papers, followed by a three-month spending spree involving more money than Alabama had ever seen in a Democratic primary. It was the same model he has used in Tuesday’s other small, Southern primary states: Soak the airwaves with ads and find out which nonattached local politicians and political groups are interested in a sugar daddy. As in Arkansas and Tennessee, which don’t see much primary money, he flooded the zone with more than $8 million in TV and radio alone (Sanders spent the second most, with less than $150,000) and opened four field offices staffed by 30 very well-paid full-timers. “In Alabama, the attitude is, You get what you can, when you can, because there will be no money spent here in the general,” said Brandon Moseley, a veteran writer for the Alabama Political Reporter. “He spread the money all over the place. We got some of it.”
Amid thousands of people holding hands and walking arm and arm, photographs capture Bloomberg looking like a handcuffed prisoner.
By the time Bloomberg’s statewide operation was up and humming in December, Joe Biden had already locked down endorsements from Alabama’s marquee Democrats (namely Rep. Terri Sewell and Sen. Doug Jones). But the campaign’s largesse produced a slate of allies claiming influence with black voters, notably state Senate Minority leader Anthony Daniels and Joe Reed of the Alabama Democratic Council, the state Democratic Party’s black caucus, which endorsed Bloomberg last month.
Whether the ADC endorsement and others like it will dig into Biden’s large advantage with black voters in Southern states will be a test of Bloomberg’s unorthodox gambit. If the black voters gathered in Selma on Sunday are representative, the mayor may be disappointed. The council hasn’t been a fearsome Southern machine for a long time, said Pam Foster, a Tuscaloosa Medical School professor, while marching to the Pettus Bridge behind a banner of the Alabama chapter of the Rev. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign. “Reed and the ADC endorsed Bloomberg because he bought off a lot of people,” she said. “[They want us] to forget that in New York, he ignored the African American community. I voted my conscience and voted Biden.”
One person notably absent on Sunday was Bernie Sanders, the only candidate with an arrest record related to civil rights protest. (Biden’s make-believe arrest during a 1970s visit with Nelson Mandela in South Africa does not count.) Sanders has attended multiple civil rights events in Alabama over the years, including the 50th anniversary Bridge Crossing Jubilee in in 2015. Unlike some candidates, he has nothing to prove on that front. But according to the math of the Alabama primary, he doesn’t have much to gain either. The Sanders campaign has always conceded the primary and never opened an office or hired a single staffer in Montgomery.
In 2016, Alabama gave Hillary Clinton her second-highest margin of victory against Sanders, nearly 78 percent of the vote, mirroring her win in neighboring Mississippi. In 44 of Alabama’s 67 counties, Sanders lost by 50 points or more. His closest contest was a 17-point loss in one of the whitest counties in the state. Why the candidate with the most credible and demonstrated commitment to addressing poverty is so roundly rejected by Deep South communities scarred by endemic hardcore poverty is not a question easily or neatly answered.
There are enthusiastic black Sanders supporters in Alabama, but they become increasingly scarce the farther you get from a university campus.
There are enthusiastic black Sanders supporters in Alabama, but they become increasingly scarce the farther you get from a university campus. It is an exception that proves the rule when you meet a black Sanders supporter as old as Al Lawson, a retired 75-year-old former “Wilcox County Freedom Rider” from Camden, Alabama, who marched in the original Bloody Sunday march with Lewis in 1965. After dodging a bit, Lawson admitted to falling for Sanders in 2016 and supporting him again in 2020. “I think he would have beat Trump last time, and they kicked him to the curb,” he said. “He’s got guts. I like him. I think he’ll do a little better this year, but Alabama — here, we’re from the old school. If people know the vice president, people are going to vote for the vice president.”
Even among the state’s politically engaged younger residents, a willingness to break from familiar patterns is just as likely to express itself in support for Sen. Elizabeth Warren as Sanders. As the procession moved down Broad Street toward the bridge, it passed by a support center for transgender youth called the Knights and Orchids Society. Standing in the storefront and holding a rainbow flag was Quentin Bell, a 22-year-old trans man, and the center’s director, and Tony Christon-Walker, 35, who had driven down from Birmingham, where he directs an AIDS service and prevention nonprofit, AIDSAlabama. Both were voting Warren; neither expected Sanders to compete for many black votes outside small urban pockets of millennials.
“Black people have always accepted that you have to vote for the lesser of two evils,” said Christon-Walker. “Even Obama gets flack for not doing enough and disappointing the black community. So how can you expect this old white man to get hopes up in these communities and be hailed as this perfect candidate? Biden, he’s just safe. Bloomberg has a lot of money and he talks shit. He’ll go toe to toe with Trump. People like that about him.”
“Well, I don’t,” said Bell. “I don’t like anyone who comes in here and tries to buy my city and my vote.”
Correction: March 4, 2020
A previous version of this article misstated the first name of Rev. Barber; his name is William, not Benjamin.