MONTEVALLO, Ala. — Perhaps no one was more surprised to learn that Joyce Jones wanted to defund the police than Joyce Jones herself.
On Aug. 11, Ms. Jones was in the final stretch of her campaign for mayor of Montevallo, a town of 6,674 people in central Alabama, when she appeared in a candidate forum alongside her opponent, Rusty Nix. The moderator asked both candidates how they would work with the town’s police department. Ms. Jones said she was grateful for the work of Montevallo’s law enforcement, and that as mayor she would consider adding social programs to help the town not just respond to crime (of which there is little in Montevallo) but prevent it, too.
She awoke the next morning to find her phone clogged with social-media notifications. “‘Defund the police,’” she remembered. “It was like a wildfire.” Citizens on one of the local Facebook groups accused Ms. Jones, who was running to be the town’s first Black mayor, of using the “same language” in her answer as the Black Lives Matter movement, implying that she had a hidden agenda. “Very few people will actually say ‘Defund the police,’” one man warned.
Montevallo’s elections are nonpartisan, and there was a time when they felt that way. Candidates would run on proposals like updating the sewage systems, beautifying Main Street and starting a townwide recycling program.
But as Ms. Jones, a 44-year-old lifelong Montevalloan, was finding, not even her tiny town was immune from the divisions roiling the Trump era, the political tremors that once would have felt out of place in casual conversations at Lucky’s supermarket, not to mention local elections, but that now seemed to color everything.
Ms. Jones tried to quash the rumors. She posted on her campaign’s page about her daughter in the Alabama National Guard, her niece and nephews in law enforcement, how she did not believe in “de-funding the Montevallo PD.” But the falsehood continued to ricochet across social media. One man shared a photo of activists in Austin, Texas, holding a giant black-and-white “Defund the police” banner, captioning it, “Montevallo’s future if liberals keep getting elected.”
For Ms. Jones, it was but one partisan-inflected battle in a campaign season of many, an election that would go on to mirror national fights over poll watchers and targeting of Black voters; include sobbing staffers, charges of racism and warnings of Marxism; and culminate in an unsettling feeling among many that, by the time the final vote was counted on the evening of Aug. 25, something in the town had been lost.
“It has always been in my heart this center of civility,” said Montevallo’s outgoing mayor, Hollie Cost. “Before the age of Trump, before all” — she paused — “this, whatever this even is, we all got along. It just ripped us apart.”
‘These people don’t want me here’
It’s not as though Montevallo was tension-free before 2020. There had always been those who felt the town’s leaders catered too much to the University of Montevallo, the local college. But it was the campus’s thriving arts scene and vocal L.G.B.T.Q. community that had long given the town a progressive sheen, at least relative to most other places in the rural Deep South.
Ask many in Montevallo about when things in town began to feel different, and they’ll point to the evening of March 5, 2019, when the town’s historic preservation commission, of which Ms. Jones was a new board member, gathered for its monthly meeting.
Faculty members from the university were scheduled to tell the story of the night some 130 years ago when two Black men were lynched in Montevallo, and propose the installation of a marker, funded by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, on Main Street. The commission had opened the meeting to the whole of Montevallo.
On Sept. 1, 1889, according to The Montgomery Advertiser, a mob had accused the two Black men of killing a local white man. After a nightlong search, the mob captured the men; one confessed to the crime, the other denied involvement. The mob hanged them from a tree.
When the presentation concluded, the outcry began. “The reaction was immediately, ‘This wasn’t a lynching. This was frontier justice,’” recalled Paul Mahaffey, a Black professor who had helped put the presentation together.
Many at the meeting wanted to know why Montevallo, which is 73 percent white, should “memorialize murderers” — meaning the Black men, not the mob — and why they weren’t also considering a marker for the white man who had been killed. Ms. Jones, other than Dr. Mahaffey, was the only Black person present. “I remember wanting to say things like, ‘Y’all, this isn’t just about these two men.’”
But she stayed mostly mum. Ms. Jones was used to being the only Black woman in the room; she wasn’t used to feeling like it. “For probably the first time as an adult, I felt like, ‘These people don’t want me here.’”
After the meeting, many of the historic commission’s members began to resign. Ms. Jones suddenly found herself the de facto chair. In August 2019, after she wrangled enough members for a quorum, the commission approved the marker’s installation. Shortly after, the City Council, composed largely of university faculty and staff, also approved the measure.
The dustup led Ms. Jones, a mother of four whose husband is a Baptist preacher, to consider a run for local office. She believed a campaign centered on inclusion, on ensuring no one would ever again feel as she had on that March night, could do some good. She announced her candidacy at a City Council meeting on June 8, the day of the marker’s unveiling. And Mr. Nix, who had been the lone councilman to vote against it, would be her opponent.
A campaign turns personal
Ms. Jones quickly sensed how the presidential race would loom over her own. In her first round of door-knocking, she introduced herself to an older white man. He had one question: Who was she voting for in November, Donald Trump or Joe Biden?
Ms. Jones responded with what would become her version of a stump speech — that mayoral elections were nonpartisan, that her slogan was “One Montevallo.”
Sure, he said. But he was a conservative, and he only voted for conservatives, and she hadn’t answered his question. When Ms. Jones said she’d prefer not to discuss it, he nodded. “Well,” he said, “that tells me about all I need to know.” He shut the door.
That moment set the tone for the months to come: The white man who asked if she was a liberal who planned to take his guns, the Black woman who asked for assurance that she did not support Mr. Trump. But if Ms. Jones tried to de-emphasize the notion of “sides” — no city official could take his guns, she promised; the election was nonpartisan, she reiterated — Mr. Nix seemed to embrace it.
Mr. Nix, who is white and also a lifelong Montevalloan, had been on the City Council for more than a decade. Early in the campaign, he teamed up with other City Council candidates to form a joint ticket of sorts, something that no one in Montevallo said they’d ever seen in their elections. They clustered their signs across town, sent out mailers and hosted meet-and-greets under the same banner: the Conservative Coalition.
Mr. Nix did not respond to interview requests for this article. But according to Chris Brown, a Birmingham-based Republican consultant hired by Mr. Nix, the coalition offered an alternative to the “progressive” path they thought the town was taking.
“There was a dynamic shift in the culture,” said Mr. Brown. “I think Rusty Nix saw the opportunity.”
Indeed, an increasingly vocal contingent of Montevalloans believed the local government was more interested in promoting things like “identity politics” and “cancel culture” than improving the town. The Conservative Coalition suggested whose leadership they might emulate instead: During the Aug. 11 mayoral candidate forum, one member wore a Trump 2020 hat with his Nix campaign T-shirt.
It was in the aftermath of that forum that the defund-the-police rumors began. To Ms. Jones and her supporters, those rumors, and their persistence in spite of her appeals, were evidence that the election had taken on a racial dimension — that the tensions simmering since the lynching marker debate had, when combined with a national reckoning on race, finally boiled over.
“It didn’t matter what she said,” Dr. Cost said. “The assumption was, she’s Black, so she wants to defund the police. It didn’t stop.”
Ms. Jones’s campaign received a call one day from one of their supporters, a white retiree named Bill Nathews. He said someone had dropped off a document at his house that they needed to see.
Twelve years ago, Ms. Jones, whose family had struggled during the housing crisis, wrote a bad check for groceries. In Mr. Nathews’s hand was a printout detailing just that. He would not say who had given it to him, but that they had done so with a message: “This is who you’re supporting.”
“Well, hell, who hasn’t bounced a check in Montevallo? We’re all poor around here,” Mr. Nathews had joked. But Ms. Jones was humiliated. A few days later, an anonymous Facebook account began sharing the document on the town’s community pages, and some citizens called for further “background checks” on Ms. Jones. (Mr. Brown said Mr. Nix’s campaign had nothing to do with the document or Facebook account.)
The political contours of the race grew sharper. On a community Facebook page, one voter shared an article on “cultural Marxism,” encouraging users to discuss how it might apply to Montevallo’s upcoming election. The Montevallo Progressive Alliance, a group of local activists, endorsed Ms. Jones, putting her on the hook for the group’s posts on things like “reproductive justice” and “microaggressions.” that she insisted bore no relevance to her vision as mayor.
It was a vision that in fact did not differ so much from Mr. Nix’s. Their answers in candidate forums on questions about infrastructure, safety and economic growth were largely the same. But by that point, their perceived differences on national issues overshadowed everything else.
When Patrick Mayton, whose wife, Tonia, was running for a spot on the City Council, saw the post warning of Montevallo’s future by pointing to the defund-the-police banner in Austin, he seemed exasperated.
“This is NOT Montevallo’s future!!!” he pleaded in response. “I appreciate you and others on here wanting to be vigilant against communism and police defunding, but I am confident that we do not need to fear these scenarios.”
An encounter at the polls
What kept Greg Reece, Ms. Jones’s campaign manager, going was the promise of seeing Ms. Jones’s grandmother, who came of age in Jim Crow Alabama, walk into the polling station and cast a ballot for her granddaughter.
On the morning of Aug. 25, Ethel Blake, Ms. Jones’s mother, loaded her own 88-year-old mother, Sadie Burns, into the car. It was raining as Ms. Blake drove to the polling station and helped her mother stand in the long line. They were wearing their Joyce Jones T-shirts, which, as they’d checked on the Alabama secretary of state’s website, was legal to do when voting.
Each candidate has the opportunity to appoint a poll watcher inside the building. Like most candidates had done for years in Montevallo, Ms. Jones’s campaign did not appoint one. All four members of the Conservative Coalition, however, had watchers on duty.
Ms. Blake felt their eyes on her when she reached the front of the line. As she helped her mother obtain her ballot, she learned why. The poll watchers had flagged the two women for their T-shirts. They would have to go home and change.
Ms. Blake’s face burned — she knew she’d read the website right, but didn’t know how to respond — as she went to retrieve her mother, who became upset. “But I haven’t voted yet,” she kept repeating. Back home, Ms. Blake urged a plain blouse over her mother’s head. “Momma, I know, just please,” she said, fighting back tears as Ms. Burns said she didn’t want to change.
Ms. Blake prayed for God to cover her mouth as they returned to cast their ballots. She called Dr. Reece to tell him what happened. “Not as an adult have I sobbed that way,” Dr. Reece said.
They weren’t the only Black voters stopped for their T-shirts. Herman Lehman, the city clerk, said the poll watchers — none of whom agreed to be interviewed for this story — had been misinformed about the rule. But white voters who wore campaign gear said they had cast their ballot without issue. “It was really crazy, because it was after I had voted that we got the reports of people being turned away,” said Andrea Eckelman, who had worn her Jones T-shirt, button and mask to vote. “And the only people getting turned away that I heard of were people of color.”
Ms. Jones’s campaign spent the rest of the day trying to confirm that anyone who had been turned away for a T-shirt had ultimately returned to vote. Finally, from a tent outside the polling station, they listened to the results trickle in.
It had been a record turnout in Montevallo, a 60 percent increase from 2016 that included many first-time voters. Out of 1,307 votes cast, Mr. Nix won by 49.
Shortly after the results were announced, according to Ms. Jones and three others who witnessed it, a pickup truck filled with teenage boys sped by. “You suck,” they yelled, appending a racial epithet.
Ms. Jones reflected on that moment. “Listen, I’m not the angry Black woman. I’m not. Like, I fight really, really hard to not let that be my narrative,” she said. “But we, even I, walk around thinking that these things don’t happen — not here, not anymore.”
But they did. And in the weeks since the election, that fact has continued to daunt those who felt they knew the town better than most. On social media, citizens argued over which side had been the race’s true source of bigotry. As for the mood in Montevallo since then, many weren’t sure how best to describe it. Some said “weird.” Others, “tense” and “different.”
“I love Montevallo. But this whole thing was just not what I grew up with,” said Patricia Honeycutt, 67, who has lived in town all her life. “It’s the hatred — I think these national politics have just made it all worse.”
Mr. Nix, in a Facebook post following his victory, previewed the four years to come.
“There will be no room for identity politics within this administration,” he wrote. “We are #MontevalloUnited.”