A Century of Controversy: Constitutional Reform in Alabama

A Century of Controversy: Constitutional Reform in Alabama

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This timely examination of Alabama’s severely criticized state constitution will serve as an indispensable guide for legislators and citizens considering reform of the outdated document.
Alabama’s present constitution, adopted in 1901, is widely viewed as the source of many, if not most, of the state’s historic difficulties and inequities. Chief among these is a poorly funded school system, an imbalanced tax system that favors special business interests, legislated racism, and unchecked urban sprawl. Many citizens believe that, after 100 years of overburdening amendments and confusing addendums, the constitution urgently needs rewriting.
With this book, Bailey Thomson has assembled the best scholarship on the constitution, its history, and its implications for the future. Historian Harvey H. Jackson III details the degree to which the 1901 document was drafted as a legal tool to ensure white supremacy at the expense of poor whites and blacks, while Joe A. Sumners illustrates how the constitution ties the hands of elected civic leaders by handing authority for local decisions to state government in Montgomery. James W. Williams Jr. explores the impact of the state constitution on the beleaguered tax system and the three principal “revenue crises” it has engendered. Thomson’s own contribution explains how, in contrast to the previous failed attempts for constitutional change by past governors who appealed to their fellow power brokers, the current reform movement arose from the grassroots level.
As citizens and politicians in Alabama review the 1901 constitution for revision, as they navigate the pitfalls and opportunities inherent in change, it is incumbent that they inform themselves adequately on the controversies that have swirled around the constitution since its adoption. The future of Alabama’s government will depend upon it, as will the fortunes of Alabama’s business interests and the well-being of every citizen in the state for years to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817313623
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/15/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Bailey Thomson (1949-2003) was a journalism professor at The University of Alabama and known throughout the field as a gifted and award-winning editorial writer.

Read an Excerpt

A Century of Controversy

Constitutional Reform in Alabama

By Bailey Thomson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1362-3


The Populist Revolt in Alabama

Prelude to Disfranchisement

Samuel L. Webb

The conservative Democrats who wrote and supported the ratification of the 1901 Alabama Constitution were not trying merely to "restrict" voting rights. Since the end of Reconstruction, they had been faced with one political revolt after another against their party. Each time, the Democrats won by limiting the political rights of their opponents. In the 1890s, however, the opposition became so intense, and white men were so divided, that Democrats decided to take a more extreme step: they sought in 1901, through a new state constitution, to end democracy itself in Alabama by eliminating their opponents.

Only by taking a step backward into the 1890s, by examining that turbulent time and the nature of the opposition, can Alabamians in the twenty-first century understand what led conservative Democrats to make this decision. Events of the 1890s, often called the "Populist Revolt," also reveal how close Alabama came to actual revolution.

On the first Tuesday in August 1894, for example, Alabama voters were supposed to choose their state and local officials in the first of two general elections. In many parts of the state, however, there was such extraordinary tension that violence lurked just beneath the surface. Two years earlier, the state's ruling Democratic Party, in a desperate effort to hold onto the governorship and other state offices, had engaged in widespread ballot box fraud and outright theft in deflecting a serious challenge from a coalition of three opposition parties.

In Conecuh County, one of the few southern Alabama counties where the anti-Democratic opposition controlled the county government, the sheriff and the probate judge were taking no chances in 1894. Guards armed with shotguns and Winchester rifles surrounded the county courthouse at Evergreen to protect local ballot boxes from state Democratic officials until local election supervisors could publicly announce the results. Armed men guarded returning officers from various precincts as they brought ballot boxes into the courthouse, and ballots were locked in the county jail. Opposition candidates won in Conecuh County, but Democratic candidates for governor and other state offices triumphed again. Opposition leaders argued that another state election had been stolen by Democrats, and strong evidence backed up their assertions. In Black Belt counties, where African Americans made up more than three-quarters of the total voting population, Democrats had stolen the votes of black citizens to win the election. Some members of the opposition parties vowed to participate in a "Winchester" revolution to restore democracy to Alabama.

On November 6, 1894, the day of Alabama's general election to choose federal officials, a shooting war broke out when Democratic Party officials at Shelby County's Harpersville precinct refused to allow the Populist Party to have an official observe the counting of ballots. Each side charged the other with starting the carnage, but Democratic voting officials were firing out of the polling place while Populists shot into it. When the battle ended, one man lay dead and several others severely wounded. Populist Party leaders John W. Pitts and his son John Singleton Pitts, members of one of the most respected and politically active families in the county, were charged with murder.

Only a month after the Shelby County fracas, the state faced the possibility that the revolution might actually occur. Minutes before William C. Oates, a former congressman and Confederate hero, was scheduled to take the oath of office as governor of Alabama on the capitol steps in Montgomery, about two hundred men, all leaders of the Populist or other parties that had jointly opposed Oates's election, marched up Dexter Avenue toward the capitol. Outgoing governor Thomas Goode Jones, standing with Oates, watched the procession with growing anxiety. The marchers knew that Oates had been illegally elected and that the candidate of their coalition, Reuben F. Kolb, should be the next governor. In fact, they had already visited a justice of the peace who had administered the oath of office to Kolb. The marchers knew that the election of 1892 had also been stolen from Kolb by the Democrats and that Jones should never have been inaugurated either. A Populist newspaper editor expressed the attitude of thousands of Alabamians when he wrote that the state's people were "but slaves to a despotism of fraud and political serfdom as intolerable as were the chains that bound the black man to the slave auction block." As the angry men began their ascent up the slope toward the inaugural ceremony, they found members of the Alabama state militia waiting on them, and Kolb was refused permission to address the inaugural crowd. Outmanned and outgunned, the protesters went over to a side street, where Kolb climbed on a mule-drawn wagon and spoke to his supporters, encouraging them not to pay their state taxes as a way to protest the denial of the right to cast a fair ballot. Oates went on to serve as governor, but the revolt against the Democrats that led to the march was far from over.

In November 1894 a coalition of candidates from the Populist, Jeffersonian Democratic, and Republican Parties had rallied to defeat the ruling Democratic Party in several congressional elections despite the corrupt practices of the latter. Milford Howard, a Populist candidate, was elected to the U.S. Congress by polling an astounding two-thirds of the vote in the Seventh Congressional District. Meanwhile, a candidate of the Jeffersonian Democratic Party was sent to Washington from the Fifth District. Several months later, Congress overturned an ostensible victory by the Democratic Party in the Sixth District by declaring that the election there was stolen from the Republican candidate.

Alabama's Democrats were in trouble, and they knew it. Their blatant efforts to stifle the opposition parties had not entirely succeeded. November's elections made it clear that they would have to sully their precious honor in future elections, and they knew that more vote stealing was likely to lead to more violence.

This uprising in the 1890s against the Democrats was part of the last true grassroots political movement in United States history. By no means confined to Alabama, the movement was led by southern and western farmers suffering from a combination of low prices and the inability to obtain credit on reasonable terms. This agrarian distress was intensified in Alabama both by smoldering anger over how Democratic Party leaders had unfairly controlled the state's political processes since the end of Reconstruction and by sectional rivalries that had existed almost since the beginning of statehood. Thus economic, political, and sectional disharmony all shaped Alabama's post-Reconstruction political atmosphere. Still, if farmers had been able to make a living in the late nineteenth century, a revolt would have been unlikely.

Prior to the Civil War, most southern farmers had been a self-sufficient group who worked small plots of land with family members, raised food crops and stock that fed the family, and, unlike their large planter neighbors, rarely sold anything at the marketplace. After the war, finding their farms and homes in dilapidated condition and needing an infusion of cash to get started again, farmers throughout the South jumped into the business of growing cotton. The low cost of starting a cotton farm, a rise in cotton prices in the late 1860s, and the growth of new railroads to haul the crop led many into the marketplace. Cotton prices began to fall in the early 1870s, however, and with little interruption they fell for the next twenty years. Increasingly dependent upon credit for survival, farmers borrowed supplies and money from merchants or large landowners at high interest rates. When prices did not rebound, the farmers had to sell their land, mortgage it, or give liens on their crops as collateral. Former landowners soon became tenant farmers, paying cash or a share of their crops to rent the land they had worked so hard to make productive. Heirs to the Jeffersonian ideal that the only truly free citizens in a republic were independent landowners, many viewed this form of existence as a form of servitude.

As the economic walls closed in on these rural southerners, many of them despaired. For them farming was not merely a business, but a way of life that created a culture that had nourished their families for generations. The prospect of giving up their farms to work in textile or lumber mills, or perhaps to become coal miners, meant relinquishing their traditional ways and entering a precarious existence where employers would control their lives even more than merchants and landlords did. Looking to restore their independence and protect their culture, they joined farm organizations that promised them hope. The most important of these was the Southern Farmers' Alliance.

The Alliance began in Texas and achieved successes there by the mid-1880s. The Texans sent lecturers across the South and West to form new Alliance chapters and train additional lecturers to appeal to even more farmers. Alliance leaders hoped to break the hold that a "system of finance capitalism," concentrated in "eastern commercial banks," had on the agricultural economy. After the Civil War there was little money in the South. Instead, money was concentrated outside the region in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore banks. Southern landlords and supply merchants borrowed heavily from northeastern bankers, who controlled the nation's credit system and dictated the interest rates charged in all parts of the country. Capitalist forces in the Northeast used their political clout in the national government to maximize their growing economic advantages over other regions. Farmers' Alliance leaders hoped to reform and decentralize the nation's credit system, and they asked their members to join cooperative ventures that would free them from dependence on loans from people who were financed by northeastern bankers. Lecturers called on farmers to pool their resources, create their own mercantile stores, start credit agencies that would lend them money at low interest rates, and even manufacture the products they needed.

Alliance lecturers also aimed their rhetorical fire at merchants who charged usurious interest rates, at the system that demanded that farmers give liens on their crops, at the power of monopoly corporations, and at the railroads' unreasonable warehouse and freight charges. The Alliance supported strong antitrust laws and government ownership of the railroads and telegraph lines, but its most insistent demands concerned the nation's currency and credit system. Calling on the federal government to print and distribute greenback dollars without regard to whether this paper money was backed by gold, Alliance leaders charged that using the nation's gold supply as a standard for measuring the amount of money allowed into the economy starved the country of badly needed currency, drove interest rates too high, and made it impossible for farmers to obtain credit. The Alliance's program included a call for both the coining of silver and the increased mining of silver to expand the money supply.

The centerpiece of the Farmers' Alliance program was the subtreasury plan, which called for the creation of federal crop warehouses in every county that yielded more than $500,000 worth of agricultural produce. Farmers could store nonperishable crops such as cotton, tobacco, rice, wheat, and oats in these subtreasuries, wait up to a year for the price to reach a higher level before selling, and receive a subtreasury certificate of deposit allowing them to borrow up to 80 percent of the local market price of their product upon storage. This program would allow farmers to circumvent creditors in the South who were controlled by banks in the Northeast. Some referred to the Alliance movement and its hope for a more flexible currency and credit system as the "revolt against the East." By 1889, more than 125,000 farmers in Alabama had joined.

Southern Alliance proposals seemed dangerously radical to the men who dominated the state's economic system. These merchants and landlords were active in local and state affairs of the Democratic Party, and if the Alliance hoped to accomplish its goals it would have to enter politics and exercise power in that party or take control of it. Since the end of Reconstruction the Democrats' statewide leaders had been a group of wealthy, elite men known popularly as the "Bourbons." Whether they were large Black Belt planters, directors of railroads, corporation lawyers, or leaders of Alabama's growing iron and steel industry, Bourbons had one common interest: they wanted to control the tenant farmers, sharecroppers, farm laborers, textile workers, lumber millhands, coal and iron ore miners, and workers in iron and steel mills who produced the wealth for the state's upper classes. Thus Bourbon Democrats served the state's economic hierarchy. They knew that if they lost control of state government laws governing landlord-tenant and master-servant relationships, agricultural liens, mortgages, interest rates, banking, and other important economic matters might be changed to their disadvantage by the state's laboring classes. They could not let that happen.

Even more important to Bourbons was the maintenance of the racial system of white supremacy. Most of Alabama's workers on farms, in the homes of whites, or in the mines and iron factories were black men and women. Controlling them and keeping them in a subordinate position was absolutely essential, and convincing the state's middle- and lower-class whites that blacks should be kept separate from and beneath them was necessary to achieve this goal. When the Southern Farmers' Alliance affiliated with and sometimes invited to its meetings members of the Colored Farmers' Alliance, the threat to the Bourbons' political and economic power became palpable. An opposition political movement that included small farmers and workers of both races might affect the Democrats.

Democrats believed that they had seen all of this before, and they knew how to deal with it. From 1868 to 1870, and again from 1872 to 1874, during Reconstruction, the Republican Party controlled Alabama's state government. The great majority of newly freed blacks had become Republicans during Reconstruction because of the support that the party of Abraham Lincoln had given to their civil rights. Running as Republicans, black politicians were elected to Congress, the state legislature, and many local offices. They were joined in the Republican Party by a small group of whites, and this biracial group defeated the Democrats in a number of elections. Democrats developed an elaborate myth that portrayed Reconstruction Republican officeholders as corrupt, incompetent, and venal. In truth, the Republicans had been no more corrupt or incompetent than had most state governments of the era. But in 1874 the Democrats determined that they would take total control of Alabama's government again and that any means they used in doing so would be justified. Most whites in every region of the state agreed, and in the 1874 elections the Democrats used force, fraud, intimidation, and trickery at the polls to win. Barbour County's white Democrats literally stood with shotguns and stopped Republicans of both races from voting. Having "redeemed" the state in that famous election with the support of the great mass of Alabama's whites, Democratic Party leaders no doubt felt that they would be equally justified in using the same tactics if white supremacy or the rule of their party was ever endangered again.

Democrats equated loyalty to their party with loyalty to the white race, and hence disloyalty meant racial treason. Democratic newspapers and orators warned that any break with the party, however slight, could divide white men and lead to a Republican victory and the return of biracial government. Those who broke with their party, wrote one editor, were "enemies to the cause of good government and social order ... occupying a position false to themselves, to their country and to their God." But Democratic leaders were not just content to force white people within the confines of one political party. Because so many different groups of people would be under the party roof, there had to be unity within the party as well, and these efforts to enforce unity also helped to create the uprising of the 1890s. Bourbon Democrats created a system of nominating candidates calculated to control dissidents within their party's ranks.


Excerpted from A Century of Controversy by Bailey Thomson. Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Thomson Bailey
1. The Populist Revolt in Alabama: Prelude to Disfranchisement L. Webb Samuel
2. White Supremacy Triumphant: Democracy Undone H. Jackson III Harvey
3. A Tragic Century: The Aftermath of the 1901 Constitution Flynt Wayne
4. Failure of Reform: Attempts to Rewrite the 1901 Constitution H. Stewart William
5. Missing: Local Democracy A. Sumners Joe
6. Alabama's Dysfunctional State Government Moody Bradley
7. Alabama's Revenue Crisis: Three Tax Problems W. Williams James
8. Economic-Cultural and Political Gaps in Alabama Permaloff Anne
9. Lessons of Reform: Alabama in National Perspective Tarr G. Alan
10. A Taste of Reform: The Judicial Article Martin Schaefer Robert
11. Options for State Constitutional Reform in Alabama P. Walthall Howard
12. Whose Government Anyway? A Call for Citizen-Based Reform Thomson Bailey
Suggestions for Further Reading

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