Beginnings matter, and Alabama had its beginnings in two surges of settlement. One was from the north, when Jacksonian farmers from Tennessee surged into the red clay hills from which their hero, Andrew Jackson, expelled the Creek and other Indians. You can see their early Greek Revival buildings in historic Huntsville, surrounded by the boom town that has grown up around the Marshall Space Center, but Jacksonian Alabama is anything but cool 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 and support secession; the first Confederate Congress convened and Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy in the Greek Revival Alabama Capitol in February 1861. After the Civil War, Alabama like other southern states became solidly Democratic, but 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 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.
Then Alabama became 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 (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 at Selma's Pettus Bridge; another activist was shot and killed in Lowndes County that August. These events had reverberations far beyond Alabama: in June 1963 John Kennedy endorsed what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in March 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. But, like the state's Confederate heritage, they are no longer controversial but are commemorated and promoted as tourist attractions by the state, in Maya Lin's circular Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, the Civil Rights Institute on 16th Street in Birmingham, the Pettus Bridge in Selma and the Dexter Avenue in Montgomery.
While Alabamians like Parks were leading the nation toward civil rights, Alabama's leading politician of the time, George Wallace, was leading the other way. Elected governor in 1962, he made national news in June 1963 by standing in a schoolhouse door and pretending 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 he lost to Jimmy Carter 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 in mid-term), regaining the governorship again in 1970 and (when second terms were allowed) 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,'' 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.
Alabama's economy enjoyed no Atlanta-like boom in the Wallace years, and politically Wallace delayed for a generation the rise of the Republicans in Alabama and the non-metropolitan South. But Alabama's economy has moved ahead recently, most notably with the Mercedes plant, now under expansion, in Tuscaloosa and the new Honda plant in Talladega. And since Wallace's last election, Alabama has developed a 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 remains 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 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, bringing ethics charges against one Republican governor which led to his conviction and removal 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).
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 exceedingly close 2002 race for governor between Democrat Don Siegelman and Republican Bob Riley showed the close division between 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 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 Alabama 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.
Since Riley's election, Alabama politics has been as turbulent as ever. One controversy raged over Chief Justice Roy Moore's installation in July 2001 of a huge monument with the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building. In 2002 a federal judge ruled that unconstitutional, and an appeals court affirmed the judgment and ordered him to remove the statue in 2003. Moore refused; the other eight justices complied; the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed Moore in November 2003 and the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in 2004. Another controversy came when Bob 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 even in black-majority counties and the state capital. It won only 14% in Winston County, an independent-minded hill county which seceded from secessionist Alabama during the Civil War. There was more controversy in November 2004, when it turned out that voters rejected by a 50.1%-49.9% margin Amendment 2 that would have overturned both the state's 1901 provision requiring racial segregation in schools and a 1950s provision saying there was "no right" to public schools. The state Christian Coalition and economic conservatives argued that removing the latter provision could spark a lawsuit, like those brought successfully in many states, requiring a new school aid formula and higher taxes. So the result should not be taken as a yearning for a return to segregated schools; Amendment 2's sponsor said he might sponsor another amendment repealing only the 1901 provision.