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An eventful century


Alabama sharecroppers
Alabama sharecroppers

Populism, with its potential to combine poor-white and black interests, threatened Bourbon control of Southern state governments. The Bourbons’ response was to disfranchise blacks—that is, prevent them from voting. Mississippi was the first state to disfranchise black voters. Alabama achieved it through its 1901 constitution, using methods like a property ownership requirement, a literacy test, and a poll tax (a tax levied on individuals as a prerequisite for voting). In one-party Alabama, the Democratic nomination was equivalent to election, so early in the 20th century, nominating conventions were replaced by direct primary elections. This gave the people greater power in selecting candidates.

In the years preceding World War I, several reforms and new laws were enacted. Governor Braxton Bragg Comer (1907-1911) achieved regulation of child labor in factories, better funding of education, and stronger regulation of railroads. After World War I, a state budgetary system was introduced, and the tax structure was revised to provide more revenue. State highway construction was expanded as automobile traffic increased.

Bibb Graves was elected governor in 1927 with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, which was then politically powerful in Alabama. Graves brought many progressive reforms, including abolition of the corrupt and inhumane convict lease system. This system amounted to slavery: convicts were put to work in chain gangs for private entrepreneurs who had contracted with the state for their labor in fields, mines, or road repair.

They were never paid for their labor, thus leaving large profits for the business owners and the state. Graves also improved mental hospitals and provided capital improvement funds for schools and colleges. The onset of the Great Depression forced Graves to deal with relief for Alabama citizens who were suffering from the hard times. He campaigned on promises to provide jobs in state government when he ran for governor again in 1935 (at that time the constitution did not allow governors to succeed themselves). In his second term, New Deal programs such as the TVA helped ease the Depression in Alabama. In 1939, after Governor Frank M. Dixon took office, a state civil service was established to provide a fair, rational basis for filling state government jobs.

This was a reaction to Graves’s use of state jobs as a campaign ploy and his granting of jobs for political purposes. Later Dixon reorganized the state government and streamlined its cumbersome system of expenditure.

James E. (“Big Jim”) Folsom, who was governor from 1947 to 1951 and from 1955 to 1959, was very popular and was noted for his colorful campaigning style. He campaigned in small towns and crossroads hamlets from a wagon filled with hay, and his speeches were preceded by music from his “Strawberry Pickers” country music band. As he talked, he swirled a mop in a bucket of suds, saying he would use the mop to clean up state government. Folsom was more liberal on racial questions than other Alabama politicians of his time. He opposed oppressive segregation policies and refused to tolerate terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan. One of Folsom’s supporters was a Barber County state legislator, George C. Wallace, who tried to succeed him in 1959.

Race was a main issue in the campaign, and Wallace’s opponent, John Patterson, used it to win votes (most blacks were still unable to vote). Wallace, following Folsom’s example, did not use race as an issue, and it cost him the election. In 1962, however, Wallace ran on a platform of support for segregation and made race the cornerstone of his campaign. This time he won easily. In 1966 he supported the election of his wife, Lurleen, to carry on his policies until he was eligible for another term. Two years into office, however, she died of cancer.

In 1968 Wallace ran for president of the United States as the candidate of the American Independent Party. Campaigning on a platform of states’ rights and “law and order,” he carried Alabama and four other Southern states. In 1970 Wallace was again elected as governor, and in 1972 he campaigned for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. During a speech in Laurel, Maryland, he was shot and partially paralyzed by a would-be assassin. In 1974 he became governor again after the law was changed to let him succeed himself. He thus became the first Alabama governor to serve three terms. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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