Senator Doug Jones: Justice Delayed, But Not Denied

“We reopened a three-decade-old case that had been the most tarnishing crime in Alabama in the 20th century – the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The Klan used dynamite to kill four little girls and three of the four killers had escaped justice for over 35 years. Thanks to an incredibly dedicated team of prosecutors, investigators and staff we convicted two former Klansmen for the murder of those four innocent children. Justice may have been delayed, but it was certainly not denied.” Doug Jones

“I am a product and lifelong resident of Alabama. I was born in Fairfield, Alabama to a father who worked for U.S. Steel and a stay-at-home mom. One of my grandfathers was a steelworker and the other a coal miner. I, too, spent some time working a union job in the steel mill. My parents and grandparents forged my respect for those who work to feed a family while trying to make their childrens’ lives better.” Doug Jones

Douglas Jones is an American attorney, lobbyist, and politician who served as a United States Senator from 2018 to 2021. A Democrat, he was the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 1997 to 2001.

Jones was born in Fairfield, Alabama, and after law school, he worked as a congressional staffer and federal prosecutor.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton  appointed Jones as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Jones' most prominent cases were the successful prosecution of two Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American girls, and the indictment of domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph. He returned to private practice at the conclusion of Clinton's presidency in 2001.


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Emy Digrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy Digrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question why. We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is What's Your Why?.

                 Today we are talking to former US Senator Doug Jones. Senator Jones is an attorney, a lobbyist and politician. He served as a US Senator from Alabama from 2018 to 2021. And before serving in the Senate, he was appointed as US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama under president Bill Clinton. And one of his most prominent cases was the successful prosecution of two Klu Klux Klan members for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American girls. That's quite a statement and I just want to welcome you, Senator Jones.

Doug Jones (01:19):

Thank you. I appreciate it. Honored to be with you here today. It's great to be in Jackson, Wyoming.

Emy Digrappa (01:24):

Well great. Is this your first time to Jackson?

Doug Jones (01:27):

You know, it's actually the second time. I was here many years ago when I was a young law student working for a law firm on a matter and just took a few days off and came. So it's been probably 40 years.

Emy Digrappa (01:38):

Wow. So it's changed a lot, I guess, right?

Doug Jones (01:41):

Changed a lot. Grown up a lot, built up a lot, but the elk horn entrance ways to the town square are still the same.

Emy Digrappa (01:50):

Yep. And I hope they always will be that way.

Doug Jones (01:52):

Me too.

Emy Digrappa (01:53):

It's so iconic. So you grew up in Alabama, right?

Doug Jones (01:57):

Yep, absolutely. Right outside of Birmingham and Fairfield, which was the steel capital of the South at that time. US Steel had a huge steel making facility there.

Emy Digrappa (02:07):

Oh, interesting. What did your parents do for a living?

Doug Jones (02:10):

Well, Mom was a stay at home mom. She took care of me and my little sister and ran the household. Dad worked out at US Steel. Started out as a laborer as a US Steel member of the Union, the United US Steel Workers. Later moved into management. And then about 1983, took an early retirement and went to work for a German company that was still working out at US Steel. So he was still in the same place, just for the different company. He didn't retire until he was 80 years old in 2010.

Emy Digrappa (02:41):

Was he a big influence on your life?

Doug Jones (02:43):

Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, my dad, my parents, my grandparents. I've had a number of folks that were a big influence on me, but Dad, especially. Very quiet reserved kind of guy. Kind of unlike me on that standpoint, but just a quiet strength that was just amazing.

Emy Digrappa (03:02):

And, what was your first kind of passion and desire to serve as a politician for Alabama?

Doug Jones (03:13):

Well, my first passionate desire was to be an astronaut when I was seven years old and we started going up in the moon. My second one was to play football at the University of Alabama. I was too small for both of those, so I ended up going into law school and public service. I was involved in politics some in high school and college, but then my first job out of law school was working for the late Senator Howell Heflin from Alabama, working on Senate Judiciary Committee. And I guess that's where I really got the bug, not just for public service, but for the Senate itself. And then maybe one day, put myself out there as a candidate. It took a long time to get to that point, but it really started with Senator Heflin in Washington in 1979 and 1980.

Emy Digrappa (04:01):

Well not only that, but even before that, just the honor of being appointed as the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, that's quite an honor in and of itself.

Doug Jones (04:12):

It is. Now that came away after I worked for Senator Heflin. You know, my career has been kind of back and forth between private sector and the public sector. I worked with Senator Heflin right out of law school. Then I was an assistant US attorney, a federal prosecutor for four years, went into private practice for 13, then appointed by president Clinton to be the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama there in Birmingham, then back into private practice before I ran for the Senate in 2017.

Emy Digrappa (04:44):

Well, the other thing that, when I'm reading your bio and just when you became the US Attorney for Northern Alabama District, what was the impetus to reopen the case of the 1963 church bombing?

Doug Jones (05:01):

There's a number of factors that went into that. First of all, it was actually reopened right before I became the US Attorney. But the real impetus that started that reopening really began with a combination of two things, number one, it was an investigation the department of justice had for many, many years involving some of the Black elected officials in Birmingham. It became very, very bitter. And at the same time that was going on, you had a couple of cases open up in Mississippi, the Medgar Evers murder, where Byron de La Beckwith was convicted. The Sam Bowers case who murdered Vernon Dahmer. Those cases were reopened. They were 1960s cases. They were reopened and successfully prosecuted. And people began to think, "Well, you can go back. You can take a look at these old cases."

                 So about that same time is when the FBI and Justice Department in Birmingham decided they want to try to mend fences with the Black community with all that had happened in the years before. And one of the things that the Black ministers asked the head of the FBI was to reopen the case, take a look at the church bombing case. One person had been convicted in 1977, but everybody knew there were more folks involved. And so from that meeting of the FBI and the ministers in a kind of a healing type meeting, that's how the case got reopened. I became US Attorney about eight or nine months later and really took it from there and really put a lot of time and effort in assembling a team into looking at it so that we indicted the first cases in the year 2000.

Emy Digrappa (06:43):

Just to go back from there, you grew up in a segregated South, correct?

Doug Jones (06:48):

Right. Yes.

Emy Digrappa (06:50):

When did you first become aware of what was going on in the Black community?

Doug Jones (06:54):

Well, it was probably not until about junior high school, because in those days we didn't have social media. We didn't have a 24 hour news cycle. We had ABC, CBS, NBC, and the PBS stations in Birmingham. And the news was on for like 30 minutes in the afternoons, and then local news at night. And as a kid growing up, it wasn't my focus. I was focused on sports and football and things like that. So it really was my junior high school year, was the first time that I went to school with African-American children. And at that point you began to open your eyes a lot more and you see things, you're with people that you've never been with before, come from different backgrounds, different traditions, trying to make your school work and do things. So junior high and high school were really formative years for me when it came to civil rights, school desegregation, and really setting a pattern going forward in my life.

Emy Digrappa (07:51):

Right, and so when I think about what's going on right now between Democrats and Republicans, what is really separating these two parties in such a way that they can't communicate on any level?

Doug Jones (08:08):

That's a very difficult question. It is probably one that we don't have time for in just this small, short broadcast. I think it's a really deep issue. It's one of those things that been building up for a long, long time. And it seems to me that, particularly parties that are wanting to either cling to power or obtain power, they're doing and saying some things that are just pretty ridiculous these days. And I think it is that power base that has so consumed candidates and public officials.

                 You know, in Alabama I found it was very frustrating, because so many people, when I was in the Senate said, "We want you to work together. We want the parties to get together in a bipartisan way and work." But then they really don't vote that way. I think citizens across this country ought to stand up, and they've got their allegiances, I agree with that. People are generally identify as Republicans or Democrats. But at some point people need to stand up and say, "I'm going to vote for the person I believe is going to best work with the other parties and try to get things done for my state and my country." And not just go back into partisan corners, because that's exactly what happens. And I think that right now, that's it. You use race, you use immigration, you use cultural issues and those kinds of things to really divide people. And we really need to be healing people. We need to be bringing people together, not dividing folks.

Emy Digrappa (09:43):

Well, and that's why I asked that question because when I think about civil rights and the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, it seems like that's one area that we can all agree on.

Doug Jones (09:56):

One would think, but here's what happened. Last year after George Floyd's death, we saw that happen. And we saw across the country, from Wyoming to Alabama, where people came together and people have said, "You know, look, I get it. I understand." A lot of people that had never really fully seen the disparities in health care and businesses, all of those issues. Really people came together, kind of woke everybody up. It really was one of those things. The pandemic put a spotlight on this disparities, George Floyd's death really put a spotlight on the disparities that people in the Black community have been talking about for many, many years. And people came together.

                 But then what happened was, as we get closer to the election, and as we saw some of the peaceful protests move into a little bit more violent protests, they were separate. I mean, the peaceful protests were one thing. They all started as peaceful protest, but at some point when the peaceful protestors were finished, it was when others and more violent protesters took over. And so, as we got closer to the politics of the election, and we saw some of the violence, then people started going into their corners again, their political corners. And race started being used as a political cudgel, instead of [inaudible 00:11:23] trying to bring someone together.

                 And that's still going on. It is going on. Even as we speak with regard to the committee that's looking at the January 6 insurrection. It's going on with issues involving critical race theory. And what people need to understand is folks are using that for political reasons, trying to divide people. Young really understood these issues. We should all be coming together because that's what, I think, at the end of the day, everyone wants to be treated fairly equally, and with respect.

Emy Digrappa (11:54):

Did you grow up as a Democrat? Have you always been a Democrat?

Doug Jones (11:57):

Well, pretty much. Early on, I think my first election or so I may have voted for a couple of Republicans. But after that, when I first started voting, it was pretty much of a democratic state and the choices were in the Democratic Party. But people like how Howell Heflin really had a dramatic influence on me, because he was one of the first Alabama politicians in the 1970s to really embrace civil rights and embrace all in Alabama. He was pretty conservative on many, many things, but in terms of equal rights and liberties, he was very progressive. And so that had a big influence. So at least from like college and law school on I've been pretty much affiliated and associated with the Democratic Party.

Emy Digrappa (12:42):

Well, I think that's interesting. And it's true, we don't have enough time on this podcast. But it would be great to understand what are the really huge differences between those two party that makes you stand on one side or the other?

Doug Jones (12:57):

Well, it's real simple for me. I mean, I really will tell you, it's pretty simple for me. I believe that that the party has always stood for regular folks in this country. They've stood for the working men and women of this country, they really stood for families. It was Democrats who gave us social security. It was Democrats who gave us Medicare and Medicaid. It was Democrats who pushed through the right to vote, the civil rights bill, the voting rights bill. Even though those bills had Republican support, those are the kinds of things. They've always supported working men and women, as opposed to what traditionally has been more with Republicans I've seen into the corporate world. And I'm all in favor of businesses, but I want to make sure that the employees are treated fairly. And I think, unfortunately, what has divided Republicans and Democrats so much in the last few years is politically, where people have driven wedges.

                 They've driven religious wedges between people. They've talked about women's reproductive rights and driven wedges. They've talked about gun rights, which is really bizarre to me. I come from a state in where I'm a gun owner, I'm a hunter. I don't want to take away anybody's guns, but yet I get labeled with some leftist view of guns. And it's just not appropriate. So the lines had gotten really blurred and people accuse other folks in the parties of different things and I don't think that they should.

                 And if we could just pull that aside and really look at each individual candidate, you'll see where the party is coming, the Democratic Party. And I think what President Biden is doing now with his build back America program, where he's trying to get children out of poverty, where he's trying to get money into people's hands with the economy booming like this. That's really what the party stands for.

                 And healthcare, healthcare is a big issue across this country. In my state alone, we still have close to 400,000 men and women who do not have healthcare because my state refused to expand Medicaid. We should have expanded Medicaid. Those are the kinds of things that I think the party in my view stands.

Emy Digrappa (15:03):

I guess, when you watch TV and there's a lot of sensationalism and you always see the bad of everything and not the good. And of course, they say, "That's the news." You know? They're not going to report on the good stuff they're going to report on the bad stuff. But what kind of role do you think the media plays in creating those divisions?

Doug Jones (15:23):

I think the media plays an overly sized role in creating the divisions, because you just answered the question. The media will often report the far left and the far right. And they don't always report everything that's going on in the middle that is getting things done. The loudest voices are on the political right, the far political right, the radical right, and the far political left, the socialists. But those are just the loudest voices. They're not most of the people. And I get real frustrated sometimes with my friends in the media, and I have a lot of friends in the media, in the way they continue to report some things. And they continue to just report things that may basically attack people. I think the media needs to really focus on facts, work on the facts, and try to give the same set of facts no matter who's speaking on that particular network.

                 So there's a lot of things that I think the media can do, but of course the media can only do so much. It's the social media that you really can't control these days. And the social media and the misinformation that is out there, it's just stunning. And so I think we could all do a better job. I think politicians, candidates, and the media can all do a better job of talking about facts. Straight on with the facts as in the old Dragnet series, "Nothing but the facts, Ma'am. Nothing but the facts."

Emy Digrappa (16:44):

One thing, I don't want to put you on the spot, but do you still have a desire to run for office again?

Doug Jones (16:52):

You know, I miss being in the Senate. I'd be lying to you if I didn't say that. I miss being in the Senate. I was out here with a former colleague, Tim Kaine, was in Jackson the other day. And it was great to see Tim and get back together with him a little bit. I think my desire more is with public service. I really enjoyed public service. It felt like we did a good job, whether it was as US Attorney or whether it was in the United States Senate, I think I made a meaningful contribution and I really liked that. But I can make meaningful contributions in other ways. So I've got working on a number of different things back at home to try to make those contributions. You never say never because you don't know what the future will hold, but right now I don't have any plans to get back and be a candidate.

Emy Digrappa (17:37):

Oh, you don't. Okay. Well, I'll still look for you because it sounds like you have it in your blood. It's in your bones.

Doug Jones (17:43):

Well, my family says that, but we'll see how it goes.

Emy Digrappa (17:48):

Yeah. I can see it. I can tell. So I think for my last question, in terms of politics and what's going on in voting, what is your best advice for our young people to get out and vote?

Doug Jones (18:04):

To get out and vote. To get engaged. Do not let the obstacles to voting, no matter which state you're in, whether it's traveling a long distance, whether it is just having to stand in line, whether it is the family obligations, don't let the obstacles get in your way of doing what really is the heart and soul of this country. And that is the democratic process of voting. One of the problems that we're having in this country, particularly in the South, but all over the country, young people just don't have the same sense of civic duty. They don't have those same [inaudible 00:18:40] civic lessons. That's why I was so happy to be out here this week as part of the We the People Program in Wyoming, because they are trying to teach that civic education, teach teachers. Who will then teach that civic education and the importance of getting out there to vote.

                 To get engaged. Because if you get engaged at local levels, you can affect change and voting affects change. Even if your candidate happens to lose, by your vote you're still sending a message that there's an alternative and that you need to be heard. And so I would tell all young people, please get out there, look around you, look at the changes that we need to make for you and your children and your grandchildren. It may be hard for a 25 or 30 year old to think about grandchildren down the road, but they will. And we want to make sure that we can save this planet. We want to make sure that we've got an economy that accommodates all and gives everyone equal opportunities, educational opportunities. And you do that. You do that by exercising your right to vote. As my friend, the late John Lewis used to say, "Voting is the most significant nonviolent thing that you can do to change this country."

Emy Digrappa (19:59):

Amen. I love hearing that. Thank you so much. And thank you for your time today.

Doug Jones (20:04):

It's my pleasure. Thank you.

Emy Digrappa (20:19):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why?. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more good to, subscribe and never miss a show.