‘It’s Our Time’: Meet 18 Candidates Leading the Historic Rise of Black Women Running for Office in Alabama

  • May 25, 2018
  • Jamia Wilson
  • Glamour

Figures remains a champion for women. As one of the few current sitting politicians at Glamour’s Birmingham photo shoot, and by far the longest ranking one on set, Figures led the rest of the candidates in a prayer circle, channeling the devotion to faith that most of the candidates spoke of in their interviews. The women prayed that each of their campaigns would be blessed with a win in the June 5 Alabama primaries. But regardless of wins, she said, “we know we are a force to be reckoned with.”Before Black Panther celebrated the all-­female freedom fighters of Wakanda, real-life black women formed their own type of special-forces unit in Alabama. When a whopping 98 percent of African American women voters united behind Doug Jones, they were able to elect him as the first Democrat to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate in more than 20 years. They didn’t just defeat Roy Moore; they rocked the political status quo.

They have no intention of stopping there.

An unprecedented groundswell of at least 70 black women have launched electoral campaigns across Alabama for local, state, and national offices in 2018, according to the nonprofit Emerge America, which trains women to run for office. While this echoes a national trend (the Black Women in Politics database lists 590 black female candidates across the country, 97 of them for federal seats), experts say the numbers in Alabama are particularly striking. From first-time hopefuls to seasoned veterans, twenty-somethings to sixty-somethings, women are lining up to disrupt the mostly white, mostly Republican old boys’ club in the state. (Only two black women are running as Republicans in Alabama this year, both for local seats, according to the state’s GOP office.) “African Americans are a quarter of the population here, yet they aren’t seeing their issues front and center,” says Rhonda Briggins, a cofounder of VoteRunLead and an Alabama native, “so they’ve decided to run themselves.”

Representative Terri Sewell, 53, who’s up for reelection this year, was the first black woman to represent Alabama in Congress when she was elected in 2011. “As a congressional intern during the late eighties, I remember walking the halls of the Capitol and not seeing many black women in any role, let alone as elected officials,” she says. “When I was first elected, making my voice heard as a black woman surrounded by older white men was a challenge. This year we’re proving the strength of our voice at the ballot box.”

Stoking a Flame

Ironically, it was the election of a white guy—thanks to the record-breaking mobilization of black women—that motivated many of these candidates to jump into the race. “After so many black women carried Doug Jones over the threshold, I think more women across the state began to see our political power,” says Ashley Smith, 34, a Montgomery native running for district judge in Lowndes County.

Wendy Smooth, Ph.D., a political scientist at Ohio State University, agrees the high voter turnout in last December’s special election inspired black women candidates to tap into the political momentum. “There was this robust energy, and once energy like that has been released, it doesn’t go away,” she says. “And once women learn [how to] get a candidate elected into office, a lightbulb comes on and they say, ‘This isn’t that hard after all. I too can do this.’ ” But, she’s quick to point out, the uptick of black candidates in Alabama and beyond is not just reactionary. These candidates are building on a tradition of activism among black women that’s resulted in major social progress. They’ve done the work, using their coalition-based organizing methods, to fight voter suppression, help Barack Obama win the presidency, and change the game in the special elections. Running for political office is a key part of their strategy.

Briggins emphasizes that these women are making deliberate next steps in a larger blueprint for change, in both their communities and the country, noting how past seeds laid the groundwork for growth. “Women are primarily the workers behind the Alabama New South Coalition and Alabama Democratic Conference, organizations that, since the civil rights movement, have become the foundation of black political power in Alabama,” she says.

All that boots-on-the ground work has also given women invaluable experience. “We know we can do these jobs because we’ve been behind the scenes, whether it is assisting someone in doing the job, or doing it and not getting the recognition,” says Marshell Jackson Hatcher, 51, a lawyer running for Jefferson County circuit court judge. “This time we wanted to put ourselves out there for elected positions.” Briggins agrees: “Black women are moving from winning elections for others to winning elections for themselves.”

These rising stars recognize they are following in the footsteps of their trailblazing black Alabama sisters, women like Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King, Condoleezza Rice—and their own mothers and grandmothers. State House candidate Arlene Easley, 54, was a child in the Jim Crow era. She recalls asking her mother why her family had to sit at the back of city buses and remembers being harassed by white parents during the integration of her elementary school. Those experiences bring vital perspective to today’s policy making, she says. “While we don’t have Jim Crow, the question is, Are there things that are legislated that are Jim Crow–esque? Those are things I, as a woman of color and longtime resident of Mobile, can compare and contrast. And I can take that with me to Montgomery to ensure that we as a state are not moving backward.”

Facing Down Challenges

The question is not whether these candidates have what it takes to lead the state into a more just future; it’s whether they will receive equal access to the resources, institutional support, and megaphones needed to win. “Yes, black women are coming in as amazing insurgent candidates,” says Smooth. “But pay attention to how many of them are formally endorsed, [which is a sign of] their parties’ support and belief that these candidates are viable.” In surveys women of color report that when they first ran for office, they received less party support than they’d hoped, or were even discouraged from running. (The Alabama Democratic party says it won’t make any endorsements before the primary election, which this year falls on June 5.) Studies also show that female candidates receive less media coverage and are more likely to have their messages misrepresented.

These women aren’t waiting for state and national parties to climb on board. Many pointed to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress (representing New York) 50 years ago, as a role model who inspired their campaigns, and they subscribe to her strategy: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” They are pooling their resources in other ways, getting help from organizations like Emerge, VoteRunLead, and Higher Heights for America—and one another. From 28-year-old Chuantae Brown, who is running for district judge in Jefferson County, to 62-year-old Army reservist Audri Scott Williams, a Democrat running for Congress against an outspoken NRA-supporting incumbent, these candidates agree that working together shows the public that more diverse leadership benefits everyone. “We realize it, and now the public is realizing it. We have the tools to be elected,” Brown says. “I want it to be normal for a black woman to run for Congress, for president, for anything, just like it’s normal for a white man.”

When asked what change they will ignite if they win, they talk of criminal justice reform, improved access to education, student debt relief, and more inclusive government. And they quickly show how they will reframe the debate. As Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, 62, who’s running for reelection said, “Not if, when I win.”

Meet the Candidates


Representative Terri Sewell, Running for Reelection to the U.S. House District 7

In 2011 Representative Sewell, 53—who was a Glamour College Woman of the Year in her youth—became the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama—and she’s been in office ever since. This year she’s running for reelection in the midst of what people are calling the year of the black woman. “We are running for office in record numbers and leading movements against sexual harassment and police violence,” she says. “After decades of activism and advocacy, black women are finally getting the recognition they deserve.”

Ashley Smith, Running for District Judge in Lowndes County

Smith, 34, a Montgomery native, wants women to realize that “we are just as qualified as men to run for these positions,” she says. “My hope for women in 2018 is that we will realize our political power. I hope women will run without fear, run zealously, and advocate for our constituents.”

Jayla McElrath, Running for Board of Education, Place 4

A current senior in high school, McElrath, 18, has been moving through the school system as students around the country have been murdered in classrooms just like hers. She doesn’t think our schools are safe. And instead of running for student council, she has decided to run for the state Board of Education to fight for change. On her campaign’s Facebook page, McElrath (who is one of just two female Republican candidates in the state, as of press time), writes about the danger of all of the different types of violence affecting students today. “Violence goes deeper than gun violence,” she writes. “It is what’s going on in a student’s life in and outside of school…. Are they bullied by others? Are they abused at home? These are questions that need to be asked and taken seriously.”

To curtail violence, she has proposed strategies like setting up security systems and implementing peace officers in schools who can both protect the students but also get to know them—so they can talk students who might be a potential threat away from committing violent acts.

Miranda Joseph, Running for State Auditor

Joseph, 33, is a board-certified internal auditor whose training and education has all taken place in her home state. Her goal? “To take our family values to Montgomery to ensure we have an open and honest government,” she says. “Just as we sit at our kitchen tables to save and watch our pennies, our government should do the same with her tax dollars.”

 Audri Scott Williams, Running for U.S. House of Representatives, Alabama District 2

Scott Williams, 62, is running for Congress in Alabama’s Second District to promote peace. As a former Army Reservist and internationally renowned speaker who has fought against the religious persecution of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and was given the Service to Humanity award by President Clinton—peace building has been her life’s mission. Outside of her work she’s a mother of three sons, a grandmother of 14, and has been in a loving relationship with her life partner, Karen, for 15 years. When asked why she’s chosen this year to run for office for the first time, Scott Williams explains, “This is a time that is so important for women, and women of color to show up,” she says. “Our country needs us. We are the ones who can forge through this bipartisan craziness that is going on and build the bridges, partnerships, and coalitions that will get America back on track.” Talk about making America great again.

Vivian Davis Figures, Running for Reelection for Alabama State Senator, District 33

Figures, 61, was first sworn in to the Alabama Senate in 1997 after her husband Michael A. Figures passed away and a special election was held to fill his seat. When the press joked that she had “big shoes to fill,” Figures retorted that she wore a size 7—a clear signal that she would be focusing on her own shoes. She’s held the seat ever since.

When Figures began her term, there were very few women in the senate, and “women were not even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor,” she recalls. A rule that baffled her. “One day I wore a navy blue pinstripe suit and all of the clerks came over and said, ‘Senator Figures, you can’t wear that on the floor!’ So I said, ‘I’d like to see them pull me off the floor in my pantsuit.’ I went up to the secretary of the Senate and said, ‘Mr. Lee, how do you think I look in my pantsuit today?’ And he said, ‘Senator Figures, as usual you look great.’ And I told him, ‘You know, Mr. Lee, it’s proper business attire in this day and age for women to wear suits.’ He took me straight to the supervisor of the clerks and we changed the rule that day. It was the first thing I did for women when I went to the Senate.”

Figures remains a champion for women. As one of the few current sitting politicians at Glamour’s Birmingham photo shoot, and by far the longest ranking one on set, Figures led the rest of the candidates in a prayer circle, channeling the devotion to faith that most of the candidates spoke of in their interviews. The women prayed that each of their campaigns would be blessed with a win in the June 5 Alabama primaries. But regardless of wins, she said, “we know we are a force to be reckoned with.”

Marshell Jackson Hatcher, Running for Circuit Court Judge in Jefferson County

Hatcher, 51, is a longtime attorney who has handled hundreds of cases throughout her career. Now she’s seeking the circuit court judgeship because “I believe that improving the quality of justice is critical to the community,” she says. “My service would be fair, my service would be impartial, and my decisions would be based on the evidence that comes before me.”

Linda Coleman-Madison, Running for Reelection for State Senate, District 20

State Senator Coleman-Madison started off her political career as the first ever black woman elected to the Birmingham City Council in 1985. Now, 23 years later, she’s running for her fourth term as State senator. Right before she ran for the first time, her grandmother passed away, but she continues to be inspired by their bond. “Even though my grandmother was not educated, and came up during the era where she could not vote, she always encouraged me to be all that I could be,” she says.

Suzanna Coleman, Running for Alabama House of Representatives, District 15

Growing up in Alabama, Coleman, 46, learned about hard work from her father, a decorated World War II veteran and a mechanic, as well as her mother, who worked as a food warehouse clerk. After graduating from University of Alabama, Coleman earned her J.D. from Birmingham School of Law all while holding down a full-time job. A mother of two, Coleman serves in the ministry at her local church and runs her law firm. She decided to run for office after going through a rough patch in 2016. “I fell apart a little bit—and I realized that it was going to take more than just a Facebook post or social media to help me, help my children and other girls and young women know they can make a difference, and that they matter,” she says.

Chuantae Brown, Running for Judge in Jefferson County

Brown knows a thing or two about firsts. Not only is she the first person in her family to attend college; she’s also the first to attend law school—and now to run for office. Brown, a 28-year-old lawyer, says she’s running to be a criminal district judge so she can represent the people who populate the criminal justice system in Jefferson county, people who have low incomes, lack an adequate education or job, and those with drug addictions, she says.

If elected, she plans to honor the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said that “It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Brown intends to embody this saying by giving people not just a ruling, but a lifeline. “As judge, I have the authority to order defendants to get a G.E.D., be admitted into an in-patient treatment facility to address drug addiction, and ordered to get certified in a trade,” she says. “It is vital that this community not only has a judge that holds people accountable, but will focus on the roots of the problem to try to decrease the chances of that person reoffending.”

Arlene Easley, Running for State House of House, District 104

Easley, 54, grew up in the Jim Crow era, and living through those racist policies has fueled her quest for a more just state. While she has always volunteered, she never expected to run for office until she found herself on a bus traveling from Mobile to Washington, D.C., to participate in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. “On that trip I realized that we each have to be the change we want to see,” she says. Easley believes Alabama’s current Republican-led House has failed to deliver on things that are important to her community, like a strong economy, competitive wages, and educational resources for our schools. “We need leaders in Montgomery who work for the people…not special-interest groups,” she says, hoping to become one of those leaders herself. “We deserve representatives in Montgomery who understand what it’s like to struggle, what it’s like to raise a family while going to school at night.”

Clotele Brantley, Running for District Judge in the Family Court, Jefferson County

Brantley, 59, has worked extensively with substance abusers in the criminal justice system, providing rehabilitative services and coordinating reentry for incarcerated young women. As a district judge, she hopes to “work with our youth, families, and the D.A.’s office to curtail the gun violence that’s happening and make our community a better and safer place for children and families.” Women this year, she says, are “coming out in full force so that we can make a difference.”

Sandra Little Brown, Running for Reelection to the Jefferson County Commission, District 2

Commissioner Brown, 62, a breast cancer survivor, is serving her second term as the first black woman ever elected president of the Jefferson County Commission. Known to many as a fighter in her community, she says she’s heartened by all the women becoming involved in the political world this year. If she were to give her 10-year-old self advice, Little Brown says, she’d tell her younger self: “Things are going to get better.”

Cara McClure, Running for Public Service Commissioner

When George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, McClure, 48, knew she could no longer stand idly by. Shortly after, she founded the Birmingham chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, and then went on to help launch the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice Birmingham. Just last year McClure spearheaded a campaign on Mother’s Day to bail black mothers out of jail and reunite them with their families.

For McClure, her activism is personal—at one point she and her son were briefly homeless. And now she’s taking her work to the next level, by running for the public service commission. If elected, she would become the first African American—male or female—to serve on the commission in Alabama. Her hope is to represent the people she’s been fighting for throughout her life: “the marginalized and poor black and brown communities that are underrepresented on the commision,” she says. “Those who don’t have a voice or seat at the table.”

Deidra Willis, Running for State Senate, District 7

A former principal, Willis, 51, is committed to ensuring quality education and much-deserved raises for area teachers, as well as supporting small-business development. “It’s time for a change,” she says. “We need equity within our district.”

Jessica Fortune Barker, Running for State Board of Education, District 8

Barker, 33, has lived in the district she’s running in for most of her life, and has witnessed “both the disparities and unity that this community has encountered.” Right now, she says, the educational system is in “a state of emergency.” Due to factors such as a lack of funding, low teacher wages, lack of access to required coursework, and removal of humanities and vocational programs from the curriculum (“to name a few”), Alabama’s kids are put at an educational disadvantage when compared with other states, says Barker, a mother of four. “We need someone to come in who has a vested interest. I am that woman who can answer that call.”