About the Author
Wayne Flynt is Distinguished University Professor of History at Auburn University and author or coauthor of 11 books, including Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie, Poor But Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites, Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, and Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950. He has been recognized by numerous awards and honors, including the Lillian Smith Award for nonfiction, the Clarence Cason Nonfiction Award, the James F. Sulzby Jr. Book Award (twice), and the Alabama Library Association Award for nonfiction (twice).
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Alabama in the Twentieth Century
By Wayne Flynt
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning
The 1901 Constitution
September 27th 1902
I sent you the pen because I thought you would be more apt to keep it than any of the other grandchildren. I wrote my name to our new Constitution in September 1901 with it, and fifty or as many years as we live under that Constitution the signers names will be before the people. If it shall prove to be a wise thing we will be honored for making it. And if it should not prove to be a good one it can be amended to suit the people. This will never be forgotten: we have virtually disfranchised the negro, reduced the taxes, and largely increased the school fund. So keep the pen as a souvenir, remembering your Grand Pa wrote his name as a member of the convention that drew up said Constitution. — Dabney Palmer of Leroy, Washington County, to Stella Palmer
Few states other than Alabama were governed throughout the 20th century by a single constitution. Other states updated their governing documents as they modernized. Alabama should have been so lucky.
As it was, most if not all the state's formidable problems had their origins in the 1901 document. The virulent racism of that original charter reminded one and all that at the beginning of the century chief among the issues of governance in the minds of white citizens was the subordination and exclusion of black citizens. That such a document could still govern Alabama at the end of the century is testimony to the continuing power of the economic and political elites that put it in place, the racial insensitivity of many whites, and lack of concern about the state's negative national and international reputation.
The origins of the 1901 constitution demonstrate the folly of assuming that any pivotal historical event stands alone. It was shaped by a history of racial and class conflict, opposition to taxes, ambivalence about industrialization, and lack of commitment to public services, including public education, that dated well back into the 19th century.
Antebellum Alabama was slow to provide public schools, not establishing its first statewide education system until 1854. Even then the system was a mixture of state and private schools, all underfunded. Nor was the state inclined to adequately fund other social services such as prisons, mental hospitals, or public health.
Antebellum taxes, at least what few existed, were raised by a surprisingly equitable mix of levies on land, slaves, and luxury items. Those who owned most wealth paid most taxes. Like nearly all Americans, taxpayers bitterly resented paying any taxes at all and considered the governments that levied them profligate and inefficient.
Before the Civil War, virtually all whites farmed for a living and saw no reason to encourage manufacturing, banking, or business. In fact, the state legislature, the governor, or both regularly rejected requests by private entrepreneurs for state subsidies to help build roads, canals, railroads, or other economic infrastructure.
Because wealthier and better-educated Alabamians were more receptive to higher taxes and government inducements to encourage business, improve education, and provide public services, regional divisions developed along class lines. Jacksonian Democrats tended to be leery of any government activity or intrusion into their lives, while Whigs tended to be more supportive of business. No whites of any class believed that blacks should participate fully in government or society.
Civil War and Reconstruction shook all these assumptions to their foundations. Freedmen began to vote, hold public office, and draft laws. Together with their white Republican allies, they paid taxes, levied taxes, and dispersed the proceeds. They offered state financial inducements to private businesses. They favored increases in public services, particularly for education. With slavery ended and luxuries greatly reduced, they shifted the primary burden of taxation from affluent planters to struggling yeomen farmers. White small farmers cursed Reconstruction government, partly because it included African Americans, "traitorous" Alabama scalawags, and "opportunistic" northern carpetbaggers; but even more, they despised it because the new Republican government tripled property taxes.
The ensuing war — for that is what it was, complete with murders, fraud, and intimidation — between Republicans and Democrats continued for a decade until white conservative Democrats regained control of government in 1874. The winners institutionalized their victory in the 1875 constitution. Of the 100 delegates to that convention, 80 were Democrats, 12 were Republicans, and 7 called themselves independents. Only 4 were African Americans.
Conservative Democrats wrote their ideology into the document. They prohibited the state from loaning money or extending credit for internal improvements. They placed a cap on both state and local property taxes. They segregated schools and abolished the state Board of Education. Only fear of federal intervention prevented the convention from limiting black suffrage, segregating passengers using public transportation, and forbidding interracial marriages. As a consequence of the new constitution, taxes declined as did revenue for education.
During subsequent years, conservative white Democrats used a variety of methods to reduce the number of black voters: they gerrymandered town limits to reduce the number of enfranchised African Americans; they made state and local offices appointive rather than elective, especially in areas of majority black population; they complicated election laws (the 1893 Sayre Election Law arranged candidates alphabetically under the office they ran for without listing party, required voters to produce a certificate of identity, and only registered new voters during May).
All these measures fell short of their ideal. In 1900 more than 100,000 African Americans were still eligible to vote, and they had created significant mischief, along with their white allies, during the 1890s Populist insurrection.
Theoretically the end of Reconstruction and the 1875 constitution had restored law, order, and integrity to Alabama. In reality none of these occurred. Violence, especially lynching, had become more common rather than less. And political corruption reached new heights during the 1890s as well.
The object of much of this political violence and corruption was the Populist movement. Populism was rooted in the decline of agriculture that impoverished so many small farmers after 1865. Only about 10 percent of Alabama white farmers had been bereft of both personal property and land when the Civil War began; by 1880 nearly half of all farmers were landless tenants. Populism was born in this decline. In fact, the single most important factor in determining whether or not a county voted Populist was the rate of tenancy increase and the decreases in the percentage of owner-operated farms.
Although Populist demands varied, at heart these agrarian radicals sought to expand the power of government in order to enlarge opportunities for ordinary citizens. By appealing to Democrats, Republicans, and independents, blacks and whites, on a frankly class-based platform, Populists terrified conservative Democrats, especially in the Black Belt, where planters envisioned a neo-Reconstruction coalition taking over and imposing higher taxes.
Their worst fears nearly came true. In 1892 and again two years later, planters had to steal black votes in the Black Belt in order to deny Populist leader Reuben Kolb the governorship. The first time Kolb reluctantly conceded. The second time he ordered his legions to Montgomery on inauguration day, determined to be sworn in as the lawful chief officer of the state. He marched up Dexter Avenue at the head of his followers to confront a line of Montgomery police, the Montgomery Mounted Rifles, and other militia units. More people probably expected civil war that day in 1894 than had expected it in 1861. Kolb's statesmanship saved the day. He mounted a wagon, had himself sworn in, then told his bellicose supporters: "Let us be peaceable, and justice and right will reign in Alabama." He was only half right. His followers did not provoke violence, but their forbearance did not cause justice and right to prevail.
By 1900 whites agreed that something must be done to change the political climate. Political corruption threatened the very existence of orderly government. Even ministers participated in stealing votes in order to maintain white supremacy. And the Selma Times frankly admitted in December 1895: "The Times is one of those papers that does not believe it is any harm to rob or appropriate the vote of an illiterate Negro. We do not believe they ought even to have had the privilege of voting."
The U.S. senatorial race in Alabama that year became a referendum on suffrage, with the incumbent U.S. senator arguing for a disfranchisement convention to rewrite the state's constitution and the sitting governor opposing both disfranchisement and constitutional revision. The proconvention incumbent won, causing the legislature to poll voters about their desire for a new document that would disfranchise blacks. More than 60 percent of voters supported the call for a convention. Strongest enthusiasm came from the Black Belt and greatest opposition swelled in the northern hill and southeastern Wiregrass counties.
Of the 155 delegates elected to the 1901 constitutional convention, 141 were Democrats, 7 were Populists, 6 were Republicans, and 1 was an independent; 96 of the delegates were lawyers and 12 were bankers. No Negroes or women were elected.
The 1901 Constitutional Convention
Delegates set the tone for their proceedings by electing a corporation lawyer from Anniston, John B. Knox, president of the convention. Knox's presidential address left no doubt about the chief agenda of the gathering: "And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State. This is our problem, and we should be permitted to deal with it, unobstructed by outside influences. But if we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law — not by force or fraud. These provisions are justified in law and in morals, because the negro is not discriminated against on account of his race, but on account of his intellectual and moral condition. There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro."
The 155 delegates represented four divergent points of view. The weakest delegation contained Populist remnants, but these delegates could do little more than wage a rearguard action against those seeking to disfranchise poor whites. A larger cadre of urban Progressives expressed support for humanitarian causes, clean government, better funding for education, expanded public services, antilynching legislation, and prison reforms.
The two groups that dominated proceedings — as well as the political and economic life of the state during the new century — were planters and "Big Mules." Planters were large landowners most prevalent in the Black Belt. Big Mules represented the state's banks, railroads, and industries, and were centered in the so-called Birmingham district, a belt of industrial towns stretching from Anniston and Gadsden to Tuscaloosa. They were the coalition that elected Knox president and dominated the proceedings.
With their purpose clearly stated and their opponents either unrepresented or divided and dispirited, the planter-Big Mule coalition set about their business. Suffrage restriction had driven the call for a convention and now dominated debate. With no African American delegates and with virtually no support for them among any white faction, blacks had no way of protecting themselves from disfranchisement. The main question to be resolved was whether blacks would be eliminated in a process entirely aimed at them or whether delegates would add poor whites as secondary casualties of a process transferring all governmental power into "the hands of the intelligent and virtuous."
Some delegates among the predominant planter-Big Mule coalition left no doubt about their objective. To them, poor white Populists — the great unwashed, uneducated masses of white tenant farmers; textile, steel, and sawmill workers; coal and iron ore miners — were as much a threat to their class hegemony as were black voters. Why discriminate against blacks, who "knew their place" within the social and political hierarchy, when the greater threat came from uppity whites? Former governor William C. Oates, himself a near political casualty of Reuben Kolb's populistic masses, maintained that "there are some white men who have no more right to vote than a negro and not as much as some of them." Newspapers in Alabama's major cities agreed, with the Birmingham Ledger dismissing out of hand the plea to spare Confederate veterans and their sons from the literacy requirements of the new constitution: if "Confederate soldiers and their sons who have not pride enough to learn to read" tried to vote, they "should be laughed back to the woods."
Nor were the most insightful Populists surprised at such sentiments. The Populist Tuscaloosa American noted prophetically that "past history teaches us that the rule of the so-called 'virtuous and intelligent,' the rule of the rich and the favored has ever been one of the most tyrannical and despotic. Under such rule, but two classes exist, the master and the slave."
About blacks there was even less equivocation. One planter delegate proposed to replace the "doubtful methods" used to disfranchise blacks in the past with legal disfranchisement. J. Thomas Heflin, future U.S. senator and a delegate from Chambers county, believed that "God almighty intended the negro to be the servant of the white man," claimed that race war was inevitable, and therefore concluded, "I do not believe it is incumbent upon us to lift up and educate him [the black man] and put him on an equal footing that he may be armed and equipped when the combat comes."
The suffrage provisions of the new constitution reflected these ideological debates. Residency requirements of two years in the state and one year in the county were aimed at transient tenant farmers and industrial workers. The poll tax of $1.50 per year, cumulative if unpaid to a maximum of $36, effectively struck down both white and black tenants and laborers; the average tenant farm family earned less than $100 a year and few industrial laborers made more than a dollar a day (with many days of unemployment during a typical year). Crimes that disqualified voters included not only felonies such as murder, rape, and robbery, but also homosexuality, bigamy, adultery, vagrancy, and hoboing. Perhaps the most obvious intent of delegates could be found in the property requirement. In a state with ever increasing numbers of yeoman farmers losing their land to mortgage foreclosures or inability to pay property taxes, the constitution required that registrants own 40 acres of land with all taxes paid or $300 worth of personal property. The one concession to poor whites was a one-year window when military veterans or their descendants could register without being subject to the state's new literacy test.
After severely restricting suffrage, delegates moved to other matters. Having been sufficiently bold to challenge the will of the federal government to protect black political rights, delegates did not hesitate to restrict their social freedoms. The new constitution required segregation of schools and banned interracial marriages.
Excerpted from Alabama in the Twentieth Century by Wayne Flynt. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
PART ONE: Alabama's Political Economy,
1. In the Beginning: The 1901 Constitution,
2. Every Man for Himself: Politics, Alabama Style,
3. Selling Alabama: The Economy,
PART TWO: Alabama's Society,
4. Life from the Bottom Up: Society,
5. Teaching the People: Education,
6. On and Off the Pedestal: Women,
7. Counting behind White Folks: African Americans,
8. Fighting Mad: Alabamians at War,
9. Beyond the Game: The Social Significance of Sports,
PART THREE: Alabama's Culture,
10. What Would Jesus Do? Religion,
11. Plain and Fancy: Folk and Elite Culture,