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  • Musings on America:Highway 31, Steinbeck, and the Future
  • Barbara A. Heavilin and Cecilia Donohue

To Beth, my sister, whose light burns clear.

—John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

They called themselves Highway 31, and they are the ones primarily responsible for promoting the Doug Jones for U.S. Senate ads that peppered Alabama's television sets during the 2018 race to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. According to the Associated Press, "A mysterious super PAC . . . spent millions of dollars backing Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama's Senate race, . . . heavily funded by the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, . . . the primary backer of the PAC called Highway 31, . . . named after a major route crossing much of the state" (Web). The efforts of this PAC were strengthened by support from local professionals, businesspeople, educators, and concerned citizens. The Washington Post identifies Jones as follows: "The Democratic Senate candidate in Alabama made his name as a U.S. attorney in the late 1990s when he successfully prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan for the notorious 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four black girls" (Rosenberg). Newsweek describes his Republican opponent, Roy Moore, thusly: "A U.S. judge hoping to fill a now vacant seat . . . in the Senate, has been accused of sexual misconduct against five women, all who were between the ages of 14 and 18 at the time of the alleged assaults" (Dovey). Although the choice between a candidate with a pristine record of solid and notable accomplishment and one accused of child molestation seems an easy one, this race occurred in Red State Alabama, with a long-entrenched party affiliation. [End Page V]

Clearly, someone had to act, and the group calling itself Highway 31 stepped up to bat, expending time, energy, talent, and money on the campaign. They chose a good title for themselves, for Highway 31 is the old North–South route through the state before the advent of U.S. 65. It winds through lovely little Gardendale with its neat rows of crepe myrtles down the center of the median, going through the middle of town, where I live and where the local high school is in pitted battle in the courts, demanding independence from Jefferson County—some believe this move would bring about a return to a type of segregation.

On Thursdays, my husband, Charlie, and I take this route through North Birmingham, one of the most impoverished, deprived areas in the state. Unmown grass and weeds line the sidewalks. Many people in this area walk because they do not own a car. African American men of all ages wander the streets aimlessly, with no job ahead of them, subject to all of the woes of extreme poverty. Once, we saw one of these men rummaging through the garbage bin in front of Rally's Hamburgers. He was ragged and dirty. Insisting that Charlie stop the car, I rolled down my window, called to him, and gave him the cash from my billfold. He looked puzzled and bemused as he grasped the money, stuffed it into his pocket, and returned to his rummaging. Directly across the street from this man in search of a bit of food, an extravagant Top Golf site has recently been erected, beautifully landscaped around its perimeter so as eventually to block out any view of its surroundings. Fifteen minutes from this hungry man is the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where plans are underway for a new multimillion-dollar stadium where its newly instated football team will play.

We continue along Highway 31 through the main streets of Birmingham before crossing the viaduct over the old steel mill section of town to Highway 280 over Red Mountain where Highway 81 runs south through Vestavia Hills, Hoover, Homewood, Mountain Brook—a vista of pristine, well-tended natural beauty standing in sharp, vivid contrast to the scraggly, untended North Birmingham area. Here wide sidewalks are lined with hydrangeas and azaleas. In the charming little village of Mountain Brook, huge cement flower containers overflow with annuals—from pansies and snapdragons in fall and winter to petunias and begonias in spring and summer. Old money resides here, and we love...


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