History lesson in politics
Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, July 29, 2009
One day, as I was having a long political discussion with one of the most knowledgeable masters and historians of Alabama political lore, the question arouse as to whether north Alabamians or south Alabamians were more politically involved. I espoused my belief that south Alabamians were without a doubt the most serious because they had held the power in the state legislature for most of the 20th century and most of our governors also hailed from the region. Indeed, history reveals that from the origination of our 1901 Constitution through 1990, the Black Belt and South Alabama had produced most of our governors. Barbour County produced six itself, including one who served four terms, and calls itself the “Home of Alabama Governors.”
The two regions are without a doubt diverse areas, even more so when the state was being settled 150 years ago. There was a natural rivalry or friction between the areas. North Alabama, because of its soil, was settled by yeomen farmers who were from Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. South Alabama was settled by Virginians and low country Carolinians who were mostly tidewater and of Scotch Irish descent. South Alabama, especially the Black Belt, had the richest soil. It was named the Black Belt because of its rich, luminous, black soil that produced the cotton. The landowners were wealthy plantation owners and owned most of the slaves in Alabama.
It was these gentry whites from the Black Belt who wrote the 1901 Constitution. Their mission was to disenfranchise not only the African Americans they controlled but their white brethren in North Alabama as well. They accomplished this mission.
South Alabamians controlled the Constitutional Convention. When the vote to ratify the Constitution was taken, these same South Alabamians illegally voted African Americans who could not read or write and unwittingly voted two or three times. One county, Lowndes, reported twice as many votes as they had registered voters.
After creating a Constitution that kept taxes low on these large land holdings, they created legislative districts that were grossly unfair and unconstitutional and for more than sixty years ignored the U.S. Constitutional mandate to reapportion. It took a Civil Rights Act and a federal judicial mandate to force reapportionment, which finally gave black Alabamians a seat at the table. It is almost amazing that North Alabamians sat idly by while South Alabamians, with only one-third of the State’s population, held two-thirds of the legislative seats.
The practice of not reelecting incumbents further diluted the legislative power of North Alabama. They would swap their legislator’s out every four years. Therefore, their representatives and senators were never experienced and never gained any seniority.
Whereas senators from the Black Belt would stay twenty or thirty years and never have an opponent. These senators completely dominated the power. The constant first term senators from North Alabama would show up like deer caught in the headlights and get eaten alive by the wolves.
Therefore, I assumed that this power garnered by Black Belk South Alabamians was due to an inherent love and interest in politics. My older learned friend disagreed. He said that indeed the record is clear that the South had the power, but he argued that the Black Belt region had an autocratic landowner class that inherently by birth took the regions positions of political power. It was assumed they should hold these powers so they were never challenged by the less privileged or less educated whites in their communities.
In contrast, North Alabamians were all of the same class. They were all forty acres and a mule and very religious. Unlike their neighbors to the south, North Alabamians were Bible toting, salt of the earth, teetotalers. Most of the counties north of Montgomery were dry. Most of the Black Belt counties settled by the Scotch Irish were wet and enjoyed their bourbon.
My mentor argued that North Alabamians took their religion and politics much more seriously than South Alabamians. He said that local political issues would get hotly debated and that local legislators would get beaten by local politics and another local politician because they were more egalitarian and of the same class. They would challenge the incumbent on issues and personality. They chewed each other up before they could gain experience and power.
The regions are now more blended. The stark differences are not as pronounced. However, it makes for good discussion of Alabama political history.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is an Alabama political columnist.