Last Updated July 8, 2003
In 21st century Alabama you can still see the monuments that symbolize the cultural and historical history of 20th and 19th century Alabama. On a hill in downtown Montgomery, Dexter Avenue connects two buildings that capture much of southern history. Atop the hill is the restored Greek Revival Alabama Capitol, where the first Confederate Congress convened and Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy in February 1861. A few blocks down the hill 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. One building symbolizes the breakout of fiery defiance that led to the tragedy of the Civil War, the other the dignified resistance that produced the success of the civil rights revolution. Today, both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement are celebrated, though as time goes on with less emphasis on the first and more on the latter: Maya Lin's circular Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, the Civil Rights Institute across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham's Civil Rights District, the Pettus Bridge in Selma and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church are among the many sites of civil rights and black history preserved and promoted by the state.
Yet for all the classic symmetry of the Capitol and the calm simplicity of the black churches, nature still seems untamed in Alabama, and the raw passions of the first settlers that gave life to these serene buildings often seem ready to break into anger--even as its politics moves beyond the struggles of past centuries. There has been a raucous tone to Alabama's history since the first Jacksonian farmers pushed the Indians west and plowed the steeply inclined red clay hills of northern Alabama, and the first plantation owners shipped in hundreds of slaves to grow cotton in the dark Black Belt soil. It was the violent reactions of white Alabamans that led to the greatest triumphs of civil rights: The police dogs and fire hoses of Birmingham in 1963 motivated President John F. Kennedy to endorse what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beatings on the bridge to Selma spurred President Lyndon B. Johnson to propose the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even in Alabama's peaceful economic development is a story of the clang of metal on rock: Miners hacking away in the 1880s at the solid-iron Red Mountain to feed newly cast steel mills glaring in the valley of Birmingham below; motorists today speeding past exposed red earth of gouged-out hillsides towards the factories and Wal-Mart shopping centers that have sprouted up in the past two decades.
There is a similar rawness to Alabama's politics, as it has shifted from one of the nation's most Democratic to one of its more Republican states. Alabama politics in the first half of the 20th century was a struggle between angry populists who favored New Deal government spending to help the little guy--Senator and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman, Governor "Kissin' Jim" Folsom--and the local economic potentates they called the ''Big Mules'' and the plantation owners of the Black Belt (named for its rich soil, not its numerous slaves and sharecroppers). Then, as the civil rights movement was sparked when Rosa Parks refused to leave a front seat in a city bus, Alabama politics became focused on blacks' peaceable protests against legally enforced racial segregation and whites' angry and sometimes violent opposition to desegregation.
The key figure here was George Wallace, first elected governor in 1962, and who retired as governor in 1986, a changed man in a changed state. While Martin Luther King Jr. was leading what turned out to be a civil rights revolution whose moral force he was among the first to comprehend, Wallace was an opportunistic politician who decided that he would never again be "out-segged," as he believed he had been in the 1958 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Wallace in June 1963 made a symbolic stand in the schoolhouse door after a federal court desegregation order, a charade that encouraged violent resistance. The acts of Alabama officials--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; Sheriff Jim Clark's cordon tried to prevent the Selma-to-Montgomery march in March 1965--sanctioned and fostered this climate of violence, like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls and the murder of two civil rights demonstrators by snipers in Lowndes County. The North was no longer able to turn its eyes away from the South's legally imposed segregation, and most Americans decided it must end.
Despite his defeat, Wallace went national. With a shrewd sense of ordinary voters' resentment at elites' cultural liberalism, Wallace ran well in the 1964 and 1972 northern Democratic presidential primaries, and as a third-party candidate in the 1968 presidential race won 13.5% of the vote. He was partially paralyzed by a gunshot wound while campaigning in May 1972, and lost all force as a national politician when he lost to Jimmy Carter in the March 1976 Florida primary. But he remained the key figure in Alabama for a decade, retiring as governor in 1978 but returning to office in 1982 until his final retirement in 1986. 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,'' until his death in September 1998.
In the Wallace years, Alabama lost important ground. While Atlanta was peacefully desegregating and beginning three 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--the steel industry--and an outflow of talented people of all races. The state's economy, regarded as progressive when manufacturing was the leading edge of growth, seemed backward at the end of the Wallace era.
Wallace delayed for a generation the rise of the Republicans in Alabama and the non-metropolitan South. But post-Wallace Alabama has developed a two-party politics in which the Republicans have been more successful than the Democrats--and also more volatile. 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 businessmen and the affluent young families filling the fast-growing suburban areas outside Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Huntsville--groups that are fractious and not well organized. 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 statewide downballot offices. But the Democrats have fought back hard, holding onto the legislature and, since Wallace left office, ousting one Republican governor from office (Guy Hunt in 1993), defeating another (Fob James in 1998) and twice contesting election results with dubious legal arguments (the Democratic runoff in 1986 and the general election in 2002).
The 2000 and 2002 elections were examples of these trends. George W. Bush carried Alabama (56%-42%) without difficulty, and so did Republican Senator Jeff Sessions in 2002 (59%-40%). But the 2002 race for governor was much closer, and heatedly contested.
Slowly, a new Alabama is growing along the state's Interstate highways--Alabama ranks number one in the percentage of workers who drive to work--and in the suburban sprawl beyond Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Huntsville. The state's Hispanic population tripled in the 1990s, to 75,000. The Mercedes Benz plant built in 1993 near Tuscaloosa has been expanded; Honda is building a big plant in Talladega County, off I-20 east of Birmingham. The exceedingly close race for governor between Democrat Don Siegelman and Republican Bob Riley showed the close division between the two Alabamas. Siegelman carried the central cities, the Black Belt and 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 mid-century classic Southern Politics. But it was not enough to win. Riley carried prospering small counties along the Interstates near the Georgia and Florida borders and the area around the space-high-tech center of Huntsville. By an even greater margin, he carried the fast-growing suburban counties. Eight counties grew by more than 25% in the 1990s, and Riley carried seven of them 62%-35%, with a 59,000-vote margin, although they cast only 14% of total votes. The other 59 counties went 51%-47% for Siegelman, enough for a 55,000-vote margin, but not quite enough to win. Alabama has seen a future, and it is not what V.O. Key hoped for or George Wallace sought.
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