By Dana Beyerle
I’ve always said that the late Rep. Alvin Holmes of Montgomery was the moral voice of the Alabama House of Representatives. He was short but stood tall when often lecturing how the House should respond with legislation to do good. You might not have liked his delivery, but when he wasn’t providing running commentary from the floor, in his serious mode he was a constant advocate for the chance of prosperity and equal rights for his black constituents; in doing so he advocated for all.
Holmes, who died Saturday at age 81, served in the House for 44 years, more than half his life, a record that will probably never be broken. He was a controversial but, in my opinion, a lovable and entertaining figure in the House. He was Dean of the House in the minority Democratic Party during his last years of service that ended in 2018 after he lost a primary runoff to his eventual successor.
During the 25 regular legislative sessions and dozens of special extraordinary legislative sessions that I covered as a capital reporter for United Press International and the New York Times Regional Newspapers between 1988 and 2012, I liked and admired Rep. Holmes’ for his serious mien and for his tongue-in-cheek observations of human nature in general and House dynamics in particular.
Rep. Holmes could light up any House deliberation; sometimes he was silly, sometimes he was challenging, but most of the time he was absolutely correct, especially when he talked about human relationships and “what is right.” He was known from Stevenson to Satsuma, from Cherokee to Cottonwood, and especially in the State House. In Alabama, black legislators and public servants are known statewide and in a sense are statewide legislators for black citizens. He said it himself in an interview a few years ago.
“Being a black legislator is more than just going up there and voting on a bill,” Holmes told capital reporter Mike Cason of AL.com in 2018. “I mean, you’re more of a civil rights leader than you are a legislator. You have to constantly remind departments in the state of Alabama that they don’t have enough blacks employed. The promotion of blacks. And I do that on almost a daily basis.”
He wasn’t a legislator in the significant coverage areas of my newspapers in the Florence, Gadsden, and Tuscaloosa areas, but because of his statewide stature, I sometimes sought him out.
Rep. Holmes, who called me Danny, sat during one election cycle for an interview. Gone was the bombastic and challenging persona he sometimes liked to adopt while on the House floor.
He showed me letters from white detractors (and that’s a nice way to characterize them), letters which contained vile and disturbing language that I won’t repeat. Suffice it to say you know exactly what was said. Some of the nicest things were, “I hope you die,” or some such.
I doubt seriously whether any black citizen of Alabama ever wrote similar sentiments to white politicians. I was raised in a family that didn’t cotton such antics and I might have been sheltered as a youngster, but as an adult I understood completely what he was conveying.
As Arkansas native Bill Clinton once said in a speech (not about Rep. Holmes) at the civic center in Birmingham, “We’re all from the South, you know what I’m talking about.”
When talking about the letters, Rep. Holmes’ voice turned a solemn octave lower. He understood the gravitas of what he was showing me. No one should have to endure that abuse. He shouldn’t have but he somehow did. I think it gave him strength. It also strengthened his resolve.
Rep. Holmes wasn’t a total saint. He once harangued white legislators that some might be cousins to the KKK. (There were times when his jabs were returned, once famously by House Speaker Jimmy Clark.)
Rep. Holmes threatened to expose alleged extra-marital affairs of legislators if they voted to impeach then-Gov. Robert Bentley. “It isn’t against the law to have a girlfriend,” if I recall him saying. During debate over whether Alabama would allow gourmet beer, he said, “What’s wrong with the beer we got?”
He was arrested for symbolically trying to scale a fence around the Capitol that was being removed in order to remove the Confederate flag that flew atop the dome. He loved it.
In 1993 when Jim Folsom was governor and had the flag removed, it was Rep. Holmes several days later who alerted the press of its absence. He privately and maybe publicly rightly observed that the press was not that observant.
Rep. Holmes liked to have fun. He once prefiled a local bill that would prohibit wearing baggy pants that show underpants. “It’s nasty and filthy and I’m going to stop it,” he said.
He was serious when it counted. Rep. Holmes established Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday, observed to this day.
Holmes was born on a farm to a large family in the late 1930s when blacks were second-class citizens, if not third. He was a U.S. Army veteran who returned to his hometown and graduated from what today is Alabama State University, and earned a master’s degree.
He was great on history, especially World War II history. Rep. Holmes, serving in a part time legislature, was a real estate broker and educator at his alma mater. He also was a member of numerous political organizations.
“I came to the State House out of the civil rights movement. I said I wanted to go up there and make a change,” Holmes told the Associated Press in 2018.
While legal segregation no longer exists, Holmes fought against discrimination and for equality in employment and economic opportunities. His moral legacy will include just that.
Dana Beyerle is a retired newspaper reporter who worked during five decades in Florida and Alabama, including 26 years in Montgomery covering politics for UPI, the Gadsden Times, TimesDaily in Florence, and the Tuscaloosa News. Beyerle was on the staff of the Tuscaloosa News and contributed to stories of the 2011 deadly tornadoes, newspaper reports which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2012.