A Black-and-White Alabama Homecoming

Article excerpt

It was a giddy, feel-good celebration. Three months ago, when Alexis Herman returned home to Mobile, Ala., for a weekend of festivities in her honor, the whole city turned out to pay homage to its favorite native daughter. From the time the 50-year-old secretary of labor stepped off the plane, she was greeted by throngs of people who drenched her in adulation.

"She's the pride of Mobile," remarked an elderly White man who waited hours to see her at a downtown public reception. "I tell my girls, `If you want to see how high a Black woman from the South can rise, just look at Alexis,'" said an African-American mother who brought her teenage daughter to see the woman Black Washingtonians affectionately call `Sister Secretary.' "I tell her, `Alexis grew up right here, and look what she's become.'"

What Herman has become, of course, is the highest-ranking African-American woman in the Clinton Administration and its brightest star. Since she did what almost no one believed she could--coax officials from UPS and the striking Teamsters into settling their differences in just 15 days--everyone is singing Herman's praises.

Less than a year ago, however, the Republican Congress was singing a very different tune. The Senate Labor Committee investigated Herman for two-and-a-half months before it even scheduled a hearing on her nomination. By February, the allegations the conservative right were floating against her--that she mixed partisan politics and official business, that she traded access for political and personal favors--had gotten down and dirty.

Though Herman knew the charges were politically motivated and her critics would find nothing to support them, for a time, she admits, things were so ugly, so intense, the only thing that kept her sane was her faith. "It was as much a spiritual journey inward to my soul as it was a public journey to the office of the Secretary of Labor," Herman says of the brutal confirmation proceedings. "It was through that process that I really came to understand what it means to walk by faith and not by sight and lean not to shine own understanding. I learned what faith was all about and what leaning on the Lord really means. And while I thought I'd done it in the past, I truly had to be stripped bare and naked in this process for those words to have their full meaning."

Herman pauses and takes a deep breath. When she exhales, her voice is barely above a whisper. "Every day during the confirmation process, I read Proverbs 3:5, which says, "Trust in the Lord with all shine heart and lean not unto shine own understanding." That verse sustained me when things got so difficult and so many people predicted I would not be confirmed."

To be sure, there were ample signs that she would not be. But the political roadblocks and partisan mudslinging weren't the signs Herman was looking for. As the "dump Alexis" chorus grew "I asked God for a sign to let me know I was on the right path," she says.

Herman will never forget the day she got it. It was February 3 and she was attending the National Prayer Breakfast when a woman came out of the crowd and implored her to go home and read James 1:1-8 in her Bible. That night, a friend called and told her the same thing: He had been praying for her--and that she should read dames 1:1-8.

"I went to get my Bible, which had been my mother's before her death," Herman recalls. And that is when it happened. "When I opened it, a note fell onto the floor," she says. "On it were two scripture passages, one from The Book of Proverbs, which says to trust in divine providence. And in my mother's handwriting, she had written: `In times of trouble and decision, read James 1: 1-8.'"

Herman knew it was the sign she had been praying for. "What James 1:1-8 said to me is to consider yourself lucky when all kinds of trials come your way," she says. "Because when your faith is tested and if it endures, it will carry you all the way. …