A pivotal in the study of history and politics, not only in Alabama but in the other states of the South. Barnard’s account is elegantly concise, the labor of conspicuous scholarship. In an effort to analyze Alabama’s political bedrock, the author has tapped virtually every source. What results is a cogent and harmonious theme.
About the Author
Mr. Barnard is professor and chairman, Department of History, The University of Alabama.
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Dixiecrats and Democrats
Alabama Politics 1942-1950
By William D. Barnard
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1974 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Emergence of Folsom
In the spring of 1946, Dr. H. Clarence Nixon sought to explain the supposedly "reactionary South." Nixon was a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and a sensitive chronicler of the mores and folklore of his native Piedmont, that triangle of mountainous land bounded by Birmingham, Atlanta, and Chattanooga.
Nixon wanted "to show why it is that the South seems so reactionary when actually its people are not that way." His was a task repeatedly returned to by hopeful Southern liberals. In part it represented the human bent toward self-delusion, in part a realization that the region was in truth misunderstood. In great part, however, it represented a persistent desire to discover the "true" liberal past of the South in order to foster a genuine Southern liberalism in the present. Many may argue that this was an exercise in futility. But it was not without a certain nobility, and it was eloquent testimony to the truth of the adage that hope doth spring eternal in the breasts of sanguine Southern liberals. Nowhere else does it flourish so handsomely.
i "The Southern states are honey-combed with political imbalances," Nixon argued, "with a consequent wide inequality between sections, between races and between economic groups." The effect of these inequalities, he wrote, was "to distort the picture of the real south and support the impression, as recently stated by a writer in The New Yorker, that this region is 'almost solidly right wing.'"
Yet only a cursory look at the "politics of the hills," Nixon contended, would show "that the South inherently is neither solid nor completely right wing.... I will show that conservative or reactionary elements exercise an undue and unfair share of power through inflexible patterns made long ago."
Thus, the triangle formed by Birmingham, Atlanta, and Chattanooga—America's Ruhr, Nixon called it—was subject to a "tenacious dominance from the lowlands, where river bottom agrarians arrived early and established priority in the exercise of power." This political inequality between regions within the states appeared most often in legislative apportionment and in the impact of a restrictive suffrage. Its effects were also apparent in party management, in the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, in tax policy and in almost every other sphere of legislation.
Nixon was chiefly concerned with his native Alabama. In Alabama, there existed "a rotten borough" system and a multitude of restrictions upon the suffrage—"an accumulative poll tax ..., permanent registration, and educational or property tests" as well as stringent residence requirements. He sought to trace the history of this "constitutional-political arrangement," a history more familiar today through the works of V. O. Key and C. Vann Woodward.
The political arrangement by which conservative interests controlled the state was made effective, Nixon maintained, "on the heels of the Populist threat to the 'Solid South.' In that threat there were gestures toward getting together by Black Belt Negroes, up-country whites and Republican politicians." But by raising the specter of Negro rule and by the judicious use of ballot fraud and intimidation, the conservative leaders turned back this challenge from agrarian insurgents. The upshot was that "white supremacy became Black Belt supremacy," and "the checks on black Republicans became checks on the republican form of government."
The state legislature had not been reapportioned since the adoption of the 1901 Constitution, despite the clear constitutional mandate that this be accomplished after each federal census. Inequities in apportionment were glaring. Jefferson County, the state's largest, had a population of 460,000 in 1940, and was afforded but one of the thirty-five state senators. By contrast, Lowndes County, in the heart of the Black Belt, had a population of 23,000—over 85% non-voting Negroes—and was also represented by one senator. The southern half of the state, according to Nixon, had "much less than half the state's people, wealth, or tax burden but a clear majority in both houses of the legislature." And this in clear violation of the state constitution.
The political impotency of the more progressive portion of the state was "old stuff" to informed Alabamians, Nixon contended. But what were the prospects for change? The nationalizing effect of wartime prosperity and continued industrialization could not be discounted. Moreover, Nixon thought he discerned on the near political horizon "a crop of social Democrats, with opportunities for new leaders to battle the old."
The Birmingham News, in commenting editorially on Nixon's argument, added simply, "Let us hope he is not seeing mirages." Over two decades later, one is tempted to concede that Nixon was seeing just that. Still, this hopeful man could have pointed to one very tangible and immediate representative of the new "crop of social Democrats" he hoped for. For even as Nixon wrote, James E. Folsom was embarked on a successful campaign for governor in Nixon's native Alabama. It was a turning point in the state's political development.
ii Folsom's emergence as the most powerful political figure in Alabama in 1946 was a surprise even to the progressive New Deal faction of the Democratic party. But to the conservatives within the state party, it was a fundamental challenge to their hopes for a postwar and post-Roosevelt resurgence. For Folsom represented the most radical and serious threat to conservative power in state politics since the agrarian revolt of the 1890's. Progressive governors like Bibb Graves might offend proper notions of good government and economy, and New Deal senators like Lister Hill might support TVA and other New Deal reforms, but they had not seriously threatened the institutional basis of conservative strength—a limited electorate and a malapportioned legislature. Theirs was not so radical a challenge to the permanent sources of conservative power. Folsom's was.
Folsom, like his Populist predecessors, met repeated defeat in his efforts to liberalize the suffrage and reapportion the legislature. But Folsom shared more than a common fate with the Populists. For as V. O. Key recognized twenty years ago, the remarkable thing about Alabama politics in the late 1940's was how little had changed since the 1890's, how strikingly similar political arguments and alignments were. The principals had changed, at least in name. Reuben Kolb, "Evangel" Manning, Thomas G. Jones, William C. Oates—those names had faded from living memory. But both the roles and the character of the players seemed static creations, impervious to the passage of half a century.
In rough-hewn rhetoric as well as in program, Folsom echoed the cries of the Populists. A champion of the common man—more particularly, the small farmers, the laborers, the "real people"—he drew upon the social and political outlook, as he understood it, of his historical hero, Andrew Jackson.
His enemies, in his view, countered his faith in the people with the demands of property and of privilege. And they, like their historical forebears of the 'nineties, were driven in desperation to defeat the people's champion, to deny in fact the very democracy they gave rhetorical homage to. This time they did not have to stoop to the crude means of ballot fraud and outright intimidation to accomplish their aims. They were called Bourbons, but they were more than the name Bourbon implied. For they had learned the lesson of the 1890's all too well and had enshrined in the 1901 constitution the means by which to perpetuate their power and privilege through restricting the size and composition of the electorate. They had done their work enduringly well.
iii Folsom represents the persistence of Populism in the politics of the South. But he represents a political tradition older than the Populists as well, as old as the state itself.
Antagonism between small farmer and planter shaped the political history of the state from the time of its admission in 1819.5 This conflict had its roots in divergent economic interests. But, as in other Southern states, it was heightened by differing sectional interests and attitudes.
Northern Alabama was the center of small farmer strength. In an era when the pattern of river commerce was all important, north Alabama was cut off from the remainder of the state, unconnected with the great complex of river systems that drain the central and southern portions of the state. Served by the Tennessee, north Alabama looked eastward to North Carolina and east Tennessee, westward along the Tennessee to St. Louis and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Central and south Alabama looked to the south, to Mobile.
This geographical influence on the pattern of state politics manifested itself in other ways as well. North Alabama was settled chiefly by migrants from the hills of Tennessee and North Carolina. In central and southern Alabama, migration from South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia was more common. Each band of settlers brought with them the political and social attitudes prevalent in their home area. These divergent origins and attitudes tended to reinforce the natural geographic divisions in the state.
Moreover, the character and quality of the land itself determined the kind of agriculture which came to predominate and, in turn, influenced the nature of social organization as well. Except for some areas in the western Tennessee Valley, the broken, rolling, sometimes mountainous land of north Alabama was ill-suited for the cultivation of cotton or other staple crops. The land was less fertile than in the Black Belt and less adaptable to the plantation system. As a consequence, north Alabama, like the Wiregrass area in the southeastern corner of the state, was a region where farms were small and subsistence farming the chief occupation. Here slave holdings were small or nonexistent, and hostility to the great slave-owners of the Black Belt was endemic.
Planter strength centered in the fertile Black Belt, a swath of rich, black, alluvial soil stretching from the east and south of Montgomery westward, past Selma, thence northward, widening as it nears the Mississippi line. Here land holdings were large, cotton was the rule, and the concentration of Negroes was the greatest.
Clashes between the two great sections of the state appeared repeatedly in the state's history. The location of the state capital, the basis for apportionment in the state legislature, national contests between Whigs and Democrats—all were issues on which sectional division appeared. Sentiment for Andrew Jackson in the 1830's and against secession in the 1860's was strongest in the north Alabama hill country. The Populists drew their support from north Alabama and the Wiregrass, though they also received aid from the nascent labor movement in the mineral district of north-central Alabama.
After the defeat of the Populists and the consolidation of the one-party system, these sectional divisions continued to serve as a basis for a rough bi-factionalism between progressives and conservatives in the first four decades of the twentieth century.
The power and influence of the pre-Civil War planters had been grossly disproportionate to their numbers. After the war, when industrialization wrought an economic transformation in and around Birmingham, the Black Belt remained politically potent. Now in league with conservative industrial interests in Birmingham and Mobile, the Bourbons of the Black Belt dominated state government in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.
Having weathered the flare-up of agrarian revolt in the 1890's, conservative forces within the state consolidated their control over state government (whose taxing powers were increasingly curtailed) with the constitution of 1901. Both Negroes and many poorer whites were effectively disenfranchised. With the electorate increasingly weighted in their favor, the Black Belt leaders with their industrial allies dominated state government for much of the twentieth century.
At times a candidate for governor would defy the conservative alliance. If the times were right and the candidate had the personal magnetism of a B. B. Comer or a Bibb Graves, he might win a state-wide race. Comer had ridden to power on the issue of railroad regulation in the progressive surge of 1906. Graves had first been elected in the mid-twenties by a coalition of groups which stood to benefit from an expansion of state services. He also had the support of the revived Ku Klux Klan.
Though progressive candidates such as Comer and Graves succeeded in winning the governorship, conservatives forces remained entrenched in the state legislature. There they could not always prevent progressive measures from being enacted, but they were able to forestall any far-reaching changes that might threaten their power.
This bifactional division between liberals and conservatives, underlain as it was by a persistent sectionalism, constituted the political milieu within which James E. Folsom operated and of which he was well aware. And it was within this political context that the intra-party struggles between the conservative and liberal factions of Alabama Democracy were fought in the 1940's.
iv James E. Folsom was born in 1908, the fifth of seven children. His family lived in a small rural community known as Farmer's Academy in Coffee County, one of the Wiregrass counties in the southeastern corner of the state. The Folsoms were not wealthy, but they were solid rural middle class.
When Folsom was a child of two, his family moved to town, to Elba, a thriving community of 1000. There he spent his youth and early manhood. Within the confines of the town and county, the family was prominent socially and active politically. At one time or another, Jim's father served as tax assessor, deputy sheriff, and county commissioner.
Elba was the county seat of Coffee County, and the county seat was the economic, political, and social center of life in the rural South. Each Saturday farmers from throughout the county would flock to Elba to transact their business dealings and gather in small clumps under the shade trees surrounding the county courthouse. Here the weather, the crops, the latest murder or scandal were the staples of conversation. That and politics.
Young Jim Folsom was raised on a typical Southern diet of grits, greens, Sunday chicken, pork—and politics. From his father and his colleagues, young Folsom heard tales of storied contests between the political giants of the past, of Andrew Jackson and more recently of William Jennings Bryan. And he readily absorbed the whispered rumors of the political present.
Politics was not something one talked about occasionally or complained about casually. It was something one did. It was something you were a part of. And there was a continuity about it all. Political contests of the past were not the stuff of textbook history: they were real and they were reenacted in the present, though with new and different actors.
It is not surprising, then, that politics became an abiding passion with that young boy who dogged his father's footsteps as he went about the county's business. Nor that he was to feel an identity with the political past by which he located himself politically, economically, socially, in the present.
Folsom was an indifferent student, though he did well in the courses that captured his interest—geography, history, and civics. After graduation from high school, he attended the University of Alabama for a year and then transferred to Howard College in Birmingham in hope of playing basketball. His ambition at the time, as befits the 1920's, was to become a corporate lawyer. That ambition and his college career ended abruptly, however, in March of 1929.
The Pea River, which flows through the heart of Coffee County and meanders through the town of Elba, overflowed its banks in a disastrous flood that spring. Water was head-high in parts of town, and economic losses were staggering.
The depression which hit the rest of the country in the winter of 1929 had blighted the economy of the rural South since the early twenties. But the flood was unlike the continuing decline of farm income which had plagued the area. However cruel, that decline extended over a period of years and, because it was gradual, could be adjusted to. The flood was quick and devastating. It wrought havoc not only to the economy of the area but to Folsom's hopes for a legal career as well.
Folsom left school to help reestablish his family. Except for a few courses in public speaking and political science at George Washington University in the late thirties, this was the end of his formal schooling. Because he never completed his formal education, Folsom's political opponents in later life often depicted him as a rather ignorant country bumpkin. Shrewd, yes, but without sophistication, the inner self-control and self-assuredness that come from the disciplined application of a receptive mind to formal studies.
Excerpted from Dixiecrats and Democrats by William D. Barnard. Copyright © 1974 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Populism Revisited: The Emergence of Folsom,
2. Folsom Triumphant: The Gubernatorial Election of 1946,
3. The Democratic Ascendency: Sparkman, Folsom, and Hill,
4. Race, Class, Party, and the Boswell Amendment,
5. Folsom in Retreat: The Fruits of Victory Denied,
6. The Enduring Clash: Race, Class, Party, and the Dixiecrat Revolt,
7. Stalemate: Alabama Politics 1948-1950,