A biological threat that once seemed far removed from Alabama dominated both state news and everyday life like nothing else in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic was the state’s top news story of the year, and its effects will linger into the New Year and beyond. Here is a look at that and other Top 10 Alabama news stories of the year:
A pandemic that spread waves of death and misery across the globe killed more than 4,100 people in Alabama, sickened thousands more and ravaged the state’s economy like nothing else in decades. A springtime of school closings and business shutdowns was followed by months of mask-wearing and social distancing. A midsummer surge in cases eased, but that was followed by a fall spike that health experts say will keep killing people at least into 2021. Unemployment dropped after hitting a high of 12.9% in April, when nearly 217,000 people lost their jobs statewide. Yet the prospects for continuing improvement could be tied to how well people heed health precautions and the success of a vaccination program that is just beginning.
Republican Tommy Tuberville reasserted the GOP’s lock grip on Alabama by defeating Democratic Sen. Doug Jones after stopping a comeback bid by Jeff Sessions for the party’s nomination. Faced with a crowded primary field that included President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, the retired football coach emerged from a runoff against Sessions to run a campaign that consisted of embracing Trump at all turns. The tactic worked to perfection in deeply conservative Alabama: Tuberville trounced Jones in November to oust the only state Democrat holding statewide office.
The fallout from a police killing hundreds of miles away from Alabama helped erase vestiges of the state’s white supremacist past with stunning swiftness. Confederate monuments were removed and college buildings were renamed following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. A night of violence after a demonstration in Birmingham set the stage for the removal of an obelisk honoring Confederate soldiers and sailors. Monuments also came down in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville, and protests were held elsewhere. The Alabama Department of Archives and History acknowledged its past role in perpetuating racism and so-called lost cause ideals in a sign of systemic change that once seemed unlikely.
Longstanding complaints over violence, dilapidated buildings and inadequate care in Alabama’s prisons resulted in a Justice Department lawsuit claiming men’s lockups are so bad they violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Calling the state’s prison system one of the most understaffed and violent in the nation, the department asked a court to require unspecified changes to improve conditions. The court fight will last at least into 2021, as Alabama said it plans a vigorous defense in court. The state also is moving ahead with a $900 million plan to have companies build three new, giant prisons that will be leased by Corrections.
Hurricane Sally blasted the Alabama coast, leaving widespread damage and knocking out power for weeks in some areas, during a record-setting year of tropical weather. Sally made landfall as a Category 2 storm at Gulf Shores on Sept. 16, pummeling the coast with fierce winds and as much as 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain. Officials said the damage was worse in places than from Hurricane Ivan, which landed a direct hit on the same area in 2004. Crews spent weeks removing mountains of debris that lined roadsides. The hurricane season was so busy forecasters had to turn to the Greek alphabet after running out of assigned names.
Alabama native and longtime U.S. Rep. John Lewis was honored with events in Troy, Selma and Montgomery following his death at age 80 in July. A wagon drawn by two horses carried Lewis’ body across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he and other voting rights marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in 1965. A long line of people later waited to pay respects to Lewis as he was honored at Alabama’s Capitol. A native of rural Pike County near Troy, Lewis had moved to Georgia and represented Atlanta in Congress for decades.
DEADLY MARINA FIRE
Eight people were killed in a horrific fire that swept through a north Alabama marina near the Tennessee River in Scottsboro. The January blaze at Jackson County Park Marina began in the middle of the night and quickly engulfed a dock where people who lived aboard boats were sleeping. Five children and teens were among the dead, and the victims included six members of one family. The fire was later determined to be an accident, but a federal report said it was worsened by the marina’s “limited fire safety practices.”
HUBBARD REPORTS TO PRISON
The long saga of disgraced Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard finally ended behind bars. The one-time Republican leader reported to prison in September four years after jurors convicted him of ethics violations. Then a judge reduced Hubbard’s sentence from four years to 28 months at the request of the defense after part of his conviction was overturned earlier this year. Prosecutors accused Hubbard of leveraging his powerful Statehouse office to obtain clients and investments for his private businesses, and he was automatically removed from office when he was found guilty in 2016. Six of his 12 felony convictions were thrown out on appeal.
A lawsuit for control of the Alabama Democratic Party ended with new leadership but the same old results. Long given up for dead in a reliably red state, the party found itself at the center of a court fight over control of the organization in late 2019. The battle ended in February when a judge dismissed the lawsuit filed by longtime leader Nancy Worley to prevent the new party chair, state Rep. Chris England, from taking control. Newly invigorated, the party fielded a slate of candidates with hopes of winning new seats in the November election. Instead, Democrats didn’t claim any new statewide offices and lost the one they had when Sen. Doug Jones lost to Republican Tommy Tuberville.
The state committed to spend $1 million to preserve the remnants of the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have landed in the United States. A federal judge granted ownership of the Clotilda shipwreck to the Alabama Historical Commission in April, and the state responded by announcing funding to protect whatever remains of the vessel on the muddy bottom of the Mobile River. With plans for a visitor center and dreams of tourism linked to the ship, 2021 will begin with new hope in Africatown, the community near Mobile where relatives of the ship’s captive Africans still live.
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