Editor’s Note: This is a work in progress. I am retrieving, editing and revising material from the archives.
After reading the Wayne Flynt section in Alabama: The History of a Deep South State which covers the period from 1920 to 1993, I have finished the book. It is during this era, which began in the lifetime of my great-grandfather and was the successor of the New South, that Alabama was transformed and became the state that anyone reading this website would recognize.
A series of outside shocks – the boll weevil invasion in 1910, the First World War in 1917-18, the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the New Deal and the Second World War – destroyed the old order. Henceforth, the state government and the federal government would become much more robust and involved in the economy and everyday life than had previously been the case.
Before we dive into that though, we need to take a look at the role of the state in education, which had always been treated as a public good in Alabama:
From the outset of statehood in 1819, Alabama recognized education as a public good and a state responsibility. The first state constitution states that “schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged in this State.” The University of Alabama was founded in 1831 and between 1820 and 1860 around 250 private academies were chartered by the state legislature. In 1854, the Alabama state legislature passed the Public Education Act. By 1860, 61,751 White children were enrolled in public schools, slightly over half of those who were eligible, and another 10,786 attended private academies.
The War Between the States destroyed the education system. Before the war, Alabama’s schools were dependent on Northern textbooks, and there was a shortage of those because of the Union naval blockade. Naturally, the money which had previously been appropriated for education was consumed by the Confederate war effort. The University of Alabama was also burned to the ground by Union troops in 1865. By the end of Reconstruction, the Radical Republican government had bankrupted the education system through mismanagement and fraud, although black education dates to this era.
In 1872, Alabama accepted the terms of the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862, which had been signed into law by Abraham Lincoln. The act provided for 240,000 acres of federal land to be sold in order to provide funds for an agricultural and mechanical school. The small town of Auburn offered the land and buildings of the tiny Methodist East Alabama Male College which was combined with the Morrill money during Reconstruction to become the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama. In 1960, the Alabama Polytechnic Institute was renamed Auburn University.
Auburn, which Flynt describes as “the child of federal munificence,” profited from funds for agricultural research from the Hatch Act of 1887, the Morrill Act of 1890, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, and the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917. The University of Alabama resumed operations in 1871-72, recovered over the next several decades, and blossomed into what is today under Dr. George Denny who president from 1912 to 1936. Between 1865 and 1920, 58 colleges were chartered in Alabama including Alabama State (1867), Tuskegee University (1881), Troy State (1887), and Jacksonville State (1883).
Both the Constitution 1875 and the Constitution of 1901 which were creatures of the Bourbons created tax ceilings that limited the amount of revenue local governments could raise to spend on education. Alabama created the skeleton of a modern education system, but starved it of resources. In spite of this, the Alabama state legislature continued to pass reforms including mandating a high school in every county in 1907 and compulsory attendance in 1915. By 1920, the illiteracy rate in Alabama had been reduced to 6.4 percent for Whites and 31.3 percent for blacks. While this progress placed Alabama in the bottom tier of states, it was still a vast improvement over what had existed before.
I’ve chosen to highlight the part about the origins of Auburn University because I graduated from there in 2005. If it wasn’t for all those years that I spent my leisure time studying these issues in the Auburn library, you wouldn’t be reading this blog. Did you graduate from a land grant college?
The 1920s were the final days of the old postbellum order.
The biggest change was Alabama’s volte-face on “internal improvements.” Ever since the 19th century, “internal improvements” had been controversial in Alabama due to the influence of Jeffersonian-Jacksonian ideology. The Constitutions of 1875 and 1901, which envisioned a privately owned transportation system fit for the world of the railroad and horse-and-buggy, had been careful to ban “internal improvements.” The arrival of the automobile in Alabama changed everything though.
In 1911, the Alabama Highway Department was created to build and maintain hard surface roads. The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which was sponsored by Alabama’s Sen. John Hollis Bankhead and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, was the first federal highway funding legislation since Andrew Jackson’s veto of the Maysville Road bill in 1830. From 1916 to 1934, Alabama received $50 million dollars in federal matching funds to build roads. As a result of this, the number of hard surface rural roads in Alabama increased from 5,000 to 20,000 in 1930. In 1920, there had been 74,637 automobiles in Alabama. By 1930, there were 277,146 automobiles in Alabama. In the 1920s, Gov. Thomas Kilby, Gov. William Brandon and Gov. Bibb Graves generously supported the expansion of the highway system.
By the 20th century, over 40,000 people in New Orleans had died from yellow fever, which also plagued Mobile and the rest of Alabama into the 20th century. Yellow fever stifled urbanization in the South and the Caribbean for centuries until it was finally eradicated thanks to the research of Dr. Walter Reed and the US Army in Cuba after the Spanish-American War. The Rockefeller Foundation played a key role in the eradication of both yellow fever and hookworms in the South in the early 20th century.
In 1920, there were 130,000 child laborers in Alabama, but child labor was under attack and would finally be abolished in the Great Depression. The abolition of convict leasing in 1927 put an end to the most reliable source of cheap labor that had previously been used to break strikes. The Great Migration sent an exodus of blacks north from Alabama to states like Ohio and Michigan and the Immigration Act of 1924 began to choke off the annual flood of cheap labor from Europe which played a major role in raising wages and later creating Alabama’s middle class.
Around the state, modern Alabama was taking shape: Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and Fort McClellan in Anniston survived World War I to become permanent military installations. In Mobile, the federal government had spent more than $17 million dollars between 1880 and 1915 on improving Mobile’s harbor. Also, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the shipping channel which allowed deep-draft ocean-going vessels to dock at Mobile’s port for the first time. In 1922, the Alabama state legislature authorized the construction of the Alabama State Docks, which after it was completed in 1927 made Mobile the cheapest coaling port in the world.
By 1930, Alabama was 28.1 percent urban, and over half of state income was concentrated in six urban counties. In 1924, Birmingham had 788 manufacturing plants employing 106,000 workers. Flynt notes that “most miners lived in company-owned houses. Few of them had running water, less than half had electricity or gas, and none had bathtubs, showers, or flush toilets. The labor-management tensions of the coal mine camp with its payment in scrip rather than cash, its expensive company commissary, and its closely guarded isolation produced bitter strikes like the 1920 conflict and would soon produce the state’s bloodiest union campaign.” Alabama was the fourth most industrialized state in the South with a heavily exploited urban proletariat in coal mining, iron and steel, along with textile and timber workers in rural areas and small towns who worked for low-wages.
The Alabama state legislature mandated the seven month school term in 1927 and passed a workman’s compensation bill in 1919. When Alabama exited the 1920s and entered the Great Depression, the state was still heavily rural, agriculture was about to reach its nadir, and a few pockets of urban prosperity had failed to translate into high living standards for the industrial workforce.
In the 1930s, Alabama went through a revolution as sweeping as the 1860s.
The Great Depression hit Alabama harder than any other Southern state and Birmingham harder than any other city in the country due to the presence of so much heavy industry. Alabama’s sharecropping and farm tenancy system was dealt a staggering blow from which it never recovered. By 1935, over 65 percent of farmers in Alabama were sharecroppers and tenants, and over half of White farmers had lost their land.
In agriculture, the New Deal fatally undermined the sharecropping and farm tenancy system with the Agriculture Adjustment Acts of 1933 and 1938 which introduced acreage reduction, farm subsidies, and price supports for cotton. Landowners used the federal money from the AAA to invest in tractors and later the mechanical cotton picker which mechanized Southern agriculture and destroyed the sharecropping and farm tenancy system. The long term trend of disintegration of the plantations, which began after the War Between the States, was reversed and farm size began to grow again.
In finance and banking, the New Deal ushered in the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 which separated commercial and investment banking and created FDIC insurance. The Securities Act of 1933 and the creation of the SEC in 1934 regulated the financial industry. Also in 1933, FDR took the US off the gold standard with a series of executive orders. Alabama’s Rep. Henry B. Steagall presided over the House Committee on Banking and Currency from 1931 to 1943. For decades, the United States enjoyed a quiet and stable banking system thanks to Depression-era reforms that ended financial panics.
“In many ways it was. Within months of his inauguration Congress passed a measure establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority. The scheme would transform the valley through a series of hydroelectric dams. The network would provide navigation of the river, flood control, a vast recreational area, cheap electrical power to the state’s northern third, and pave the way for eventual industrialization. Before the New Deal the valley, which drained parts of seven states, was the poorest area of the United States with a per capita income only one-third the national average. Only 0.2 percent of farms in the valley had electricity in 1930, only 3.0 percent had running water, and illiteracy rates stood at 6.8 percent compared to the national level of 1.5. The decade-long construction program not only created thousands of jobs for the unemployed but also built dams whose generators electrified farms throughout the region, produced cheap fertilizers, and led to a flourishing trade in midwestern grains, which in turn stimulated the livestock and poultry industries. During the boom times of the 1940s, industry poured into the valley, attracted by its cheap labor and electricity.”
“The state” never did anything for north Alabama. /sarc
In 1935, less that 4 percent of farms in the Southern states had electricity, including only 0.2 percent of farms in the Tennessee Valley, which was the poorest region in the entire United States under free-market capitalism. Elsewhere in the world, over 90 percent of farms in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Japan had electricity in 1935. The creation of the TVA, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1936, and the Rural Electrification Act established public regulation of electric utilities and brought electricity to rural Alabama for the first time. Sam Rayburn of Texas was the co-author of the Stock Exchange Act, Rural Electrification Act, and the Public Utility Holding Company Act.
In labor relations, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Social Security Act of 1935, the Walsh-Healey Act of 1936, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 introduced overtime pay, set maximum hours, established the minimum wage, and guaranteed collective bargaining for the working class and provided social welfare benefits for the elderly. The triumph of the labor movement during the Great Depression led to widespread unionization in Birmingham’s coal mining and iron and steel industries. Alabama also created its state income tax in 1933 and the Department of Labor in 1934.
In infrastructure, the New Deal era Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built thousands of miles of roads along with bridges, tunnels, airports, post offices, dams, and various other types of buildings and many of Alabama’s state parks. These agencies also replanted trees in deforested areas that had been clearcut by the Northern timber companies under free-market capitalism in order to fight and reverse the soil erosion.
By 1940, Alabama was 30 percent urban and enormous progress had been made in building the highway system, electrical grid, education and improving Mobile’s port facilities. During the Great Depression, unionization had laid the foundation of Birmingham’s industrial middle class and New Deal agricultural programs had begun to undermine the sharecropping and farm tenancy system. Alabama’s economy was poised for a takeoff and only needed a big push which the Second World War provided.
During the 1940s, average per capita income in the South tripled due to military spending on the Second World War and Cold War. As the Southern state with the most heavy industry, Alabama disproportionately benefited as much from the Second World War as it had been punished during the Great Depression. Once again, it was “the state” that lifted Alabama out of crushing poverty, not “free enterprise.”
250,000 Alabamians fought in the Second World War and 6,000 never returned home. As previously noted, Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and Fort McClellan in Anniston became permanent military installations during the 1920s. The Second World War added Fort Rucker in Enterprise, Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville and Craig Air Force Base in Selma (closed in 1977). Because of its cheap labor, cheap TVA power and industrial base, North Alabama benefited the most from wartime spending. Birmingham’s industries recovered and thrived during the war and Mobile became a major shipbuilding hub on the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1945, the University of Alabama’s School of Medicine moved from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham and became the foundation of UAB. The Alabama state legislature extended the school year to 8 months in 1943 and 9 months in 1948. The state government focused on education, infrastructure, jobs and public health. In 1935, the Alabama State Planning Commission was created, which became the State Planning Board in 1943 and later the Alabama Development Office.
Sen. Lister Hill of Alabama had a long and distinguished career in Congress. He sponsored the TVA bill, the GI bill, and the Hill-Burton Act which built hospitals in rural areas. He was heavily involved in the creation and funding of the National Institutes of Health. In the 1940s and 1950s, Alabama had the most “progressive” congressional delegation in the country because of Hill’s leadership.
Unionization drove blacks out of high-wage jobs in Birmingham:
“As unionism raised salaries for industrial workers, whites entered these jobs, pressuring blacks out of the work force. Black coal miners constituted 62 percent of the industry in 1930, 47 percent in 1950, and 39 percent in 1960. Black ore miners numbered 70 percent of the work force in 1930 but only 49 percent ten years later. Black steelworkers declined from 47 percent of all workers in 1930 to 32 percent in 1960. The percentage of blacks among all Jefferson County’s industrial workers fell from 54 percent in 1930 to 33 percent in 1960.”
Thanks to unionization, Birmingham was transformed into a White working class city with high-wage industrial jobs by the 1960s. It was this Birmingham that elected Eugene “Bull” Conner.
From 1940 to 1950, Alabama farmers went from using 7,638 to 45,751 tractors. The mechanical cotton picker was perfected in the early 1940s. After the 1940s, Alabama agriculture was never the same as sharecropping and farm tenancy system collapsed and farmers shifted to poultry, eggs, livestock, pulpwood, soybeans and peanuts. Mechanization rapidly changed things.
The early 1950s were the calm before storm.
In 1950, Birmingham was the third largest city in the South behind Atlanta and New Orleans. 43.8 percent of Alabama’s population lived in urban areas. By 1954, 80 percent of Alabamians were working in non-farm jobs as the sharecropping and farm tenancy system continued to collapse:
“A major factor in the growth of urban per capita income was unionism. Alabama contained a disproportionately large share of unionized manufacturing (iron and steel, tire factories, auto parts, and coal mining). In 1939 the state had 64,000 union members and by 1953 it had 168,000. The portion of union members among all non-agricultural workers increased from 16.1 percent in 1939 to 24.9 percent in 1953 – the highest percentage of any southeastern state. Thanks to the UMW, coal miners became the highest-paid production workers in the United States after 1945. Antiunion companies struck back in 1953 by forcing a law through the legislature that prohibited making union membership a requirement for employment.”
The creation of an industrial middle class in Alabama was intolerable and conservatives succeeded in forcing through a right-to-work law in 1953:
“Huntsville chartered the most unusual economic course thanks to cheap TVA power and assistance from the federal government. In 1950 the army transferred 500 military personnel, 130 German rocket scientists, 180 General Electric employees, and 120 civil service workers from Fort Bliss to Redstone Arsenal. In 1956 the army established at Redstone Arsenal the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which developed the Explorer and Pioneer rocket programs and the Jupiter family of rocket engines. The development marked the beginning of an incredible change in Huntsville that would not be fully realized until the 1960s.”
Werner von Braun and NASA transformed Huntsville from a sleepy working class textile town to Space City in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, Huntsville has one of the most high-tech economies in the United States because of decades of federal military spending. The University of Alabama Huntsville, which focuses on aerospace, was founded in 1950.
The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which was signed into law by President Eisenhower, kicked off the most massive “internal improvements” project in American history – the creation of the interstate highway system. Eisenhower had been impressed by German autobahn system while serving as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War. The interstate system was the crowning achievement of the American highway system and was built in Alabama between the 1950s and 1980s. We borrowed rocket science and interstates from the Nazis!
In public health, malaria, yellow fever, hookworms and pellagra had been eradicated in Alabama by the early 1950s, and polio would soon be eradicated as well. In the case of malaria, the National Malaria Eradication Program was ran by the CDC out of Atlanta, which was a new branch of the U.S. Public Health Service. Finally, Alabamians including my own grandfather served in the US military overseas in the Korean War which lasted from 1950-53.
The Governor, 1958-1987
For roughly 35 years, Alabama had made great strides in education, infrastructure and public health. The modern highway system, electrical grid and telephone system had been built in Alabama. The unionization of the industrial workforce had created a thriving middle class, the mechanization of agriculture had put an end to sharecropping and farm tenancy, and veterans paychecks had injected enough capital into the state that the economy had begun to recover from its post-Civil War hangover. Across the South, average per capita income which had tripled in the 1940s grew by 500 percent from 1950 to 1970.
Alabama had made an enormous contribution to the nation’s progress: the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 (Bankhead), the Glass-Steagall Act (Steagall), the Tennessee Valley Authority (Hill), Agricultural Research Act (Bankhead II), Agricultural Adjustment Acts (Bankhead II), Rural Housing Act (Hill), Rural Telephone Act (Hill), and the GI Bill (Hill). As I previously noted, Alabama had the most “progressive” congressional delegation in the United States from the Great Depression until the late 1950s.
“Big government” had been popular in Alabama when it had meant the triumph of labor unions over the Big Mules, good roads, rural electrification, the TVA, the regulation of the Wall Street casino, the eradication of terrible diseases, the end of sharecropping, but all that was about to be swept away in the backlash to the disastrous Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education which ordered the integration of public schools in 1954. BTW, 65 years later the Brown decision has done virtually nothing to close racial gaps in education, but it succeeded in polarizing our politics for a generation.
The Brown decision in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 swept Alabama into the maelstrom of the Civil Rights Movement which destroyed the New Deal coalition and completely changed state politics. A tremendous backlash to integration dominated Big Jim Folsom’s last term in office. In the 1958 gubernatorial election, John Patterson “out-segged” George Wallace who “promised to modernize the state’s economy, recruit new industry, build trade schools, raise teacher salaries, improve medical care, and provide higher pensions for the elderly.” Wallace was also for the TVA and good roads.
From 1962 until 1987, Gov. George Wallace who was from Barbour County where I am from utterly dominated Alabama state politics. “The Governor” was not only the longest serving governor in Alabama history (his wife Lurleen Wallace was also elected governor), but also one of the two longest serving governors in American history, and a national political figure who ran for the presidency four times in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976. As the leader of the Great White Backlash to the Civil Rights movement, it was Wallace who associated “big government” with forced integration in Birmingham and Selma. Barry Goldwater carried Alabama in the 1964 presidential election and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan co-opted Wallace’s rhetoric in order to create a conservative-populist coalition that transformed the South into a stronghold of the Republican Party.
By 1970, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Loving decision in 1967, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 had destroyed the Jim Crow system in Alabama. Blacks registered in enormous numbers and took over large swathes of the Black Belt and Birmingham after the election of Richard Arrington as mayor in 1979. Alabama politics, which had previously been highly regional and class-based, became racial head counts as the White tribe united behind Gov. George Wallace.
In 1960, Alabama finally became a predominantly urban state with 52 percent of the population living in cities and towns. Alabama’s urban population grew to 58.6 percent in 1970 where it has stagnated for the last forty years: 60 percent in 1980, 60.4 percent in 1990, 55.4 percent in 2000, and 59 percent in 2010. The long stagnation in urbanization since 1970 is connected to the decline in agriculture and manufacturing jobs. Since the 1970s, the iron and steel industries, mining, textiles and agriculture have lost jobs.
The number of farms in Alabama has dropped from 115,800 in 1960, 86,000 in 1970, 47,000 in 1990 to 43,000 in 2010. Total farm acreage has also dropped from 15 million acres in 1970 to 9 million in 2002 to 8.9 million in 2010. In 1970, the textile and apparel industry employed 87,000 people, 62,000 in 1990, and 27,000 in 2007. By 2010, there were only 4,212 coal miners in Alabama and the closure of the US Steel plant in Fairfield was the coup de grace to the iron and steel industry. From 1970 to 2010, the manufacturing sector of Alabama’s economy shrank from 29 percent to 16 percent.
This long term decline in the “old economy” after 1970 was driven by free-trade after the Kennedy Round of GATT. The iron and steel industry was decimated by foreign competition from Germany and Japan and later from China. The textile industry has since relocated to production sites in the Third World. As Flynt notes, many other low-wage, labor intensive industries have moved production to Alabama in the late 20th century only to pack their bags and shift their operations to exploit cheaper labor in Third World countries. Finally, this book ends in 1993 before the rise of the automobile industry.
1987 to 1993
The last few years of the late 1980s and early 1990s were a transition period in Alabama politics. Wallace Democrats who had voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 backed Guy Hunt who became Alabama’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction in 1987. Sen. Richard Shelby switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1994. Fob James, a Republican, was also elected governor in the 1994 election. It would take another 20 years, but the “yellow dog Democrats” of 1915 had become “yellow dog Republicans” by 2019. The “Solid South” has returned as a Republican stranglehold on White Southern voters, but a closer examination of our history reveals this is unlikely to prove enduring.
Note: A populist-progressive coalition once ruled Alabama and can do so again. Donald Trump proved that populists still outnumber conservatives in Alabama in the 21st century.