MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Longtime education writer Larry Lee’s candidacy for the Montgomery School Board has attracted significant attention from around the state.
Some Republicans are challenging Lee’s place on GOP ballot given his voting and campaign history as a Democrat. Lee has fired back at critics pointing out their own contradictions. It’s a lot, especially for a normally quiet local school board race.
But, it’s not the first time Lee has attracted controversy in a campaign for public office.
During his first run for Congress in the 1980s, Larry Lee caused an uproar within the Democratic Primary when he used an offensive racial epithet to accuse his opponent of suspicious campaigning.
“As we say down home, there’s a n****r in the woodpile somewhere,” Lee told Montgomery Advertiser reporter Tom Gardner. In a Sunday, August 1, 1982 edition of the paper, Lee used the phrase to assert that his opponent Billy Joe Camp had not properly filed campaign finance reports.
The racial slur stands out both for how it is printed in its entirety and how Lee uttered it to a member of the press. As a journalist himself, Lee would have been familiar with how the press works. The Advertiser recently ran a series of articles recounting its own history of reporting on lynchings and publicly acknowledged the paper’s shortcomings in opposing racial violence.
Asked about the comment and subsequent controversy from years ago, Lee denied saying it.
“I never said this,” Lee wrote in an email. “I’m saying I NEVER said that to a reporter on the phone the way he claimed I did.” [emphasis his]
However, at the time Lee apologized for the slur, calling his comment “an unfortunate choice of words.” He later called a press conference to say his “supposed remarks were made off the record,” according to the Advertiser story on September 5.
The slur brought swift condemnation from local black leaders, including then-Montgomery County Commissioner John Knight, who called on Lee to withdraw from the race.
“It would set Alabama back to send anyone to Washington who didn’t have more control over what he says than that,” Knight is quoted as saying.
Lee lost that primary to Camp, who went on to lose in the general election to longtime 2nd District Congressman Bill Dickinson.
According to a Wikipedia article, the phrase “there’s a n***** in the woodpile” was a Jim Crow-era expression meaning something is suspicious, possibly deriving from the practice of escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad hiding in fences or stacks of wood to avoid capture.
Lee is facing retired Air Force Col. Ted Lowry in the GOP Primary for Montgomery Board of Education District 2. The seat represents a diverse section of east Montgomery and is generally known as a conservative-leaning district.
The Alabama Republican Party Executive Committee is expected to decide as soon as this week whether Lee will be allowed to continue his candidacy under the GOP banner.
The GOP Primary election is scheduled for Tuesday, June 5.