GovernorBob Riley (R)
SenatorsRichard Shelby (R)
Jeff Sessions (R)
- 3 D, 4 R
- 1 through 7
Alabama had its beginnings in two surges of settlement. One was from the north, when Jacksonian farmers from Tennessee swept into the red clay hills from which their hero, Andrew Jackson, had expelled the Creek and other Indians. You can see their early Greek Revival buildings in historic Huntsville, surrounded by the boomtown that has grown up around the Marshall Space Center, but Jacksonian Alabama was anything but civil and classical. The settlers brought the fighting faith of the Scots-Irish, a hot-spirited willingness to fight to the death against any perceived insult or threat. The other surge of settlement into Alabama came a few years later, as entrepreneurial Southern planters brought slaves in to pick cotton in the fertile Black Belt (so named for its soil) east and west of Montgomery in the middle of the state. The interplay between the offspring of these two streams of settlers has been the stuff of Alabama politics ever since. The Jacksonians’ fighting spirit led them to join the planters to support secession. The first Confederate Congress convened, and Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy, in the Alabama Capitol in February 1861.
After the Civil War, Alabama, like other Southern states, became solidly Democratic, with an angry populist accent. Birmingham, with its solid-iron Red Mountain, became the South’s first steel producer in the 1880s. Alabama politics in the first half of the 20th century was a struggle between plantation owners of the Black Belt and populists who favored New Deal government spending to help the little guy—Senator and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Sens. Lister Hill and John Sparkman, Gov. “Kissin’ Jim” Folsom, and the local economic potentates they called the “Big Mules.”
Alabama went on to become, kicking and screaming, one of the birthplaces of the civil-rights movement. Down the hill from the capitol is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where in December 1956 the 27-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. led the boycott that began when Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. A hundred miles north in Birmingham, while King was held in jail, Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor, then Alabama’s Democratic National Committeeman, ordered police dogs and fire hoses to be turned on peaceful demonstrators in May 1963. Four months later, four girls were killed when a bomb exploded in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. (The bombers were convicted in 1977, 2001, and 2002.) In March 1965, a civil-rights marcher was murdered in Montgomery two weeks after police beat dozens of people at Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge; another activist was shot and killed in Lowndes County that August. These events had reverberations far beyond Alabama. In June 1963 President Kennedy endorsed what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in March 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.
While Alabamians like Parks were leading the nation toward civil rights, Alabama’s most prominent politician of the time, George Wallace, was pulling the other way. Elected governor in 1962, he made national news in June 1963 by standing in a schoolhouse door to defy a federal court desegregation order. In 1964, Wallace ran in Northern Democratic presidential primaries against Lyndon Johnson. In 1968, he ran for president as a third-party candidate and won 13.5% of the vote. He ran in the Democratic primaries again in 1972, and was partially paralyzed by a gunshot wound while campaigning in May. He took delegates to the national convention, and did not lose his force as a national politician until Jimmy Carter beat him in the March 1976 Florida primary. But he remained the key figure in Alabama for three decades, running his first wife to succeed him in 1966 (she died midterm), regaining the governorship in 1970 and again in 1974, then running and winning one last time in 1982. He spent his last sad years apologizing for his acts, meeting with the student he tried to block in the schoolhouse door, and proclaiming, “The South has changed, and for the better.” He died in September 1998.
It was during Wallace’s last term as governor, in 1983, that the state government started publishing a black heritage guide. Today, heritage tourism commemorating the civil-rights movement is one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism industry, and Alabama is leading the way. Montgomery boasts artist Maya Lin’s circular Civil Rights Memorial, Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum, the Dexter Parsonage, and the end point of the Selma-to-Montgomery trail. The Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, the Selma-to-Montgomery interpretive center in Lowndes County, and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site all are on the Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail. In 2007, the Legislature passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. And in early 2009, Democratic Rep. Artur Davis, who is black, launched a serious campaign for governor. As Davis told the Birmingham News in 2008: “Voters put on a different lens when they are assessing presidential races in the South than they do when they are assessing races involving people they’ve gotten to know.”
Economically, Alabama in recent years has been gaining ground lost in the Wallace years. Then, while Atlanta was peacefully desegregating and beginning decades of vibrant white-collar growth, Birmingham was violently resisting the civil-rights movement, only to see the shrinkage of its once-substantial blue-collar base in the steel industry and an outflow of talented people of all races. But Alabama’s economy has been moving ahead recently and started growing faster than the nation’s as a whole. Autos have played a part, and not just at the Talladega NASCAR racetrack or the Porsche Sport Driving School near Leeds. Big new automobile manufacturing plants have opened starting in 1997, with Mercedes in Tuscaloosa, Honda in Talladega County, and Hyundai in Montgomery. Unions have tried to organize them without success. Alabama produced 739,000 vehicles in 2007, and the auto companies and suppliers generated 48,000 jobs. Some 2,700 more will be coming when ThyssenKrupp finishes building its $3.7 billion steel-processing facility near Mobile in 2010. Unemployment has risen since it reached a historic low, 3.1%, in October 2007, but income levels have been rising toward the national average, and people are moving in, not out, with higher rates of in-migration in 2007-08 than either Florida or Virginia.
George Wallace delayed for a generation Alabama’s move toward the Republican Party. But in the quarter-century since he last appeared on the ballot, Alabama has developed two-party politics and, in presidential elections, has completed its transformation from one of the nation’s most Democratic states to one of its most Republican. But state politics remain competitive. On one side of this political conflict are the Democrats. Their voting base is Alabama’s large black minority, and the institutional base is the state’s well-organized teachers’ unions and trial lawyers. On the other side are the Republicans. Their voting base is white evangelical Protestants, and their institutional base is small-business owners and the affluent young families filling the fast-growing suburban areas outside Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and Huntsville. The Republicans have tended to prevail, by large margins in presidential and Senate and state Supreme Court elections, and by narrow margins in races for governor and in statewide down-ballot contests. But the Democrats have fought back hard, holding on to the Legislature and, since Wallace left office, bringing ethics charges against one Republican governor that led to his conviction and removal from office—Guy Hunt in 1993—and defeating another, Fob James, in 1998.
The 2002 race for governor between Democrat Don Siegelman and Republican Rep. Bob Riley showed the close division between the two Alabamas. Siegelman carried the central cities, the Black Belt, and many of the poor, white rural counties in the north. This was the coalition of blacks and poor whites the political scientist V.O. Key Jr. longed for in his midcentury classic, Southern Politics. But it was not enough to win. Riley carried by big margins the suburban counties around Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, and Huntsville and the smaller, robustly growing counties along the interstate highways.
Alabama politics have continued to run into turbulence. One controversy raged over state Chief Justice Roy Moore’s installation in 2001 of a huge monument with the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building. In 2002, a federal judge ruled the monument unconstitutional, and an appeals court affirmed the judgment and ordered him to remove it in 2003. Moore refused, but the other eight justices complied. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed Moore in November 2003, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in 2004. Another controversy came when Gov. Riley put on the ballot a referendum on a $1.2 billion tax increase. Riley argued that his changes would reduce taxes on low-income people and that such a move was in line with Christian morality. Alabama’s Jacksonians did not buy it. The proposition was defeated 67%-33%, and won by unimpressive margins in black-majority counties and the state capital. It won only 14% in Winston County, an independent-minded hill county that seceded from secessionist Alabama during the Civil War.
Sparks threatened to flare again in the 2006 Republican primary when Moore ran against Riley, but Riley won, 67%-33%. Moore evidently struck even many of those who had voted against Riley’s tax increase as too extreme. Almost as many Alabamians voted in that Republican primary, 460,000, as in the Democratic primary, 467,000, on the same day—a stark contrast with 20 years before, when George Wallace was the retiring incumbent and turnout in the Democratic primary, 830,000, dwarfed that in the Republican primary, 25,000. Riley won the general election by a solid 57%-42%. Democrat Jim Folsom Jr. was narrowly elected lieutenant governor, and Democrat Sue Bell Cobb beat Chief Justice Ryan Nabers, who had beaten a Moore ally in the Republican primary. Republicans won most other statewide offices.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Alabama has become a solidly Republican state in presidential politics. George W. Bush carried it twice by wide margins. John McCain carried it 60%-39%, his best showing in all but four other states—Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. There was clear polarization by race, with McCain carrying whites 88%-10% and Barack Obama carrying blacks 98%-2%. Obama carried the Black Belt, Montgomery County, and Birmingham’s Jefferson County, the first time it had gone Democratic since 1952, as whites have moved out to suburbs. McCain carried everything else. But this was not just a vote on race. Here as elsewhere Obama ran poorly among voters with Jacksonian roots.
Alabama’s presidential primary for years was held in June, too late to count for much. It might have counted for something in 2008 if the Legislature had left it there. But in 2006, it moved the contest to February 5, Super Tuesday, in the hope of getting some national attention. It didn’t work. Alabama was overshadowed by big states such as New York and California that had also joined Super Tuesday. For the first time, more Alabamians voted in the Republican presidential primary, 552,000, than in the Democratic presidential primary, 537,000. Polls showed four different Republicans leading at some point in the cycle, but Mike Huckabee ended up edging McCain 41%-38%, with Mitt Romney at 18%. McCain carried the Black Belt, and the race was very close in the counties including Birmingham and Montgomery. Huckabee ran up big margins in northern, Jacksonian counties. On the Democratic side, blacks mostly voted for Barack Obama and whites mostly for Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Obama won, 56%-42%. A June primary might have turned out differently. The Republican contest would have been over by then, and with no party registration, more whites might have opted for the Democratic primary and boosted Clinton’s total.
|111th Congress: 3 D, 4 R|
In drawing the boundaries of the state’s seven congressional districts, the Democrats in control of redistricting in Alabama in 2002 did a pretty good job of helping their party. They marginally strengthened Democratic Rep. Bud Cramer in the 5th District and made the 3rd District significantly more Democratic by subtracting fast-growing St. Clair County east of Birmingham and raising the black percentage from 25% to 32%, the second highest in the state. Rep. Mike Rogers kept the 3rd District Republican, but the redistricting changes helped Democrats hold the 5th District when it came open in 2008. Democrat Bobby Bright, mayor of Montgomery, was able to capture the 2nd District, Republican since 1964, when it came open the same year. Alabama is not expected to gain or lose House seats in the 2010 census.