The Alabama Democratic State Campaign Committee did a literature drop in 1901 that said this:
White Supremacy, Honest Elections, and the New Constitution, One and Inseparable
Perhaps the Alabama Democratic Party of the time thought that was a bang up campaign slogan, but I bet most of us would call it an oxymoron. Just how does a state have “honest elections” while guaranteeing “white supremacy?”
And why did Alabama need a new Constitution in 1901 anyway? What could possibly have happened since 1875 that required such a big change?
As always, it depends on who you ask. Either it was those reformers who came close to uniting poor whites and blacks into a coalition against big business and big landowners or it was…. well…. no, that was the main reason. Monied interests in the state knew that their hegemony depended on continued racial strife.
“Divide and conquer.” It's not just a slogan. It's been the keystone of Alabama's system of government for over 100 years.
Before going farther, you might want to check out the first post in this series, “The Progressive Movement & Reuben Kolb,” for a retrospective of the Alabama Progressive movement that so terrified the Bourbons that they handed us this wreck of a state constitution.
Let's look first at the Constitution of 1875 – the one that had to be replaced. When you read about it in Harvey H. Jackson III's article, it sounds about like what we have now:
The Bourbon constitution of 1875 was a victory for prosperous rural and small-town Alabamians who did not want to pay taxes to improve the lives of those less fortunate than themselves and who did not want to finance commercial development that did not benefit them directly. In particular, it was a victory for planters and merchants who dominated the Black Belt economy and government and who expected to maintain that domination (along with their influence on the state level) by controlling the black vote in their region.
But everybody wasn't doing well. Not at all:
While planters and merchants were doing well enough, times were not good for Alabama's small farmers. Postwar taxes, a nationwide financial panic in the 1870's, high interest rates and general decline in cotton prices drove many once-independent yeomen off their land and into sharecropping and tenant farming, where landless blacks were already.
Those people, realizing they were shut out of conventional party politics, turned to the “Farmer's Alliance” and came close to gaining control of state government.
What really spooked the Bourbons (the big money guys) was that the Farmer's Alliance brought together the underclasses. If the poor white farmers were desperate enough to join with the black farmers and laborers, then the Bourbon's entire privileged way of life was threatened.
So it is not surprising that when Bourbons began talking of a new constitution that would disfranchise black voters and guarantee that no black-white coalition would defeat the Democrats, Black Belt leaders were less than enthusiastic. Outside the Black Belt, conservative Democrats had concluded that “honest elections” (elections they could win) were possible only if “corruptible voters” (those who might someday vote against them) were removed from the rolls.
They were not troubled by the fact that they seemed to be saying that the best way to keep the white man from stealing the black man's vote was to take the black man's vote away from him. Bourbon Democrats knew what they wanted to do, and intended to do it.
Or, as the Teacher's resource guide at the Alabama Archives Web site puts it:
The entrenched “Bourbons” had maintained control during that period through a combination of intimidating African Americans, raising the specter of “black rule” to keep whites within the party, and fraudulently counting votes for conservative candidates when all else failed. Uncomfortable with the turmoil and subterfuge of these campaigns, many leaders of the conservative Democrats embraced calls for a new constitution as a way to ensure “honest elections” — by legally taking the vote away from blacks so that they would not have to be stolen.
So they're uncomfortable with stealing votes, but not disenfranchising voters. Amazing, isn't it?
And so in November of 1900, the Legislature approved a statewide vote in April, 1901 call for a Constitutional Convention.
Opposition came mainly from North Alabama mountain areas and the Wiregrass – areas that didn't have a tradition of “plantation” life and large landowners, but was instead made up of small farmers. Those areas were, not surprisingly, strongholds of the Farmer's Alliance.
The Black Belt turned out in force for the Bourbon cause. Blacks voted, or were voted, in numbers that even caught the seasoned observers by surprise. In Lowndes County, where black voters held a 5 to 1 advantage over whites, 3,226 votes were cast for the convention and only 338 against it. In Dallas, Green, Perry, Hale, Sumter, and Marengo counties, returns were much the same.
The delegates went right to work in May, 1901 and produced a document that disenfranchised black voters and many white voters, and wrote the tax code into the Constitution, making funding for education and economic development difficult – if not impossible – for some counties:
Black disfranchisement took up much of the convention's time and was the subject of considerable debate, but it was not the only issue. Determined to preserve a status quo under which they had prospered, Bourbons refused to raise the tax ceiling to provide more funds for state and local governments and did not lift restrictions on state support for internal improvements. Counties could use local funds to build roads, bridges and public buildings, but limits placed on what they could borrow made such projects difficult to carry out.
Put simply, state and local governments would remain starved for revenue, and the service they provided, especially in education, would be underfunded for the foreseeable future.
One interesting aside….. the literacy requirements and other tests for voting were going to penalize poor whites just as much as black voters, so the writers placed several “exceptions” into the voting requirements:
Poor whites who might have been disqualified were allowed to slip through if they or an ancestor had served in the military (the “grandfather clause”) or, failing that, if they were of “good character” and understood “the duties of citizenship in a republican form of government” – qualifications that black Alabamians at the whim of white election officials had little hope of meeting.
Now, when I hear that something has been “grandfathered in” on existing legislation or ordinances, I'll always think of Alabama's 1901 Constitution.
Once written, it had to be ratified. Under the banner of “White Supremacy, Honest Elections and the New Constitution,” the Democrats rallied their forces. Opposition came from those who saw that, in time, suffrage restrictions would be applied to poor whites as well as to blacks. But opponents seemed to know that no matter how many votes their side received, the Black Belt would deliver more.
They were right.
The constitution was ratified 108,613 to 81,734 – a majority of 26,879. Outside the Black Belt, the constitution lost, but in the plantation counties, ratification got the votes to turn the tide.
And what's the result? Hill Carmichael, a great-grandson of one of the signers – Archibald Hill Carmichael – is one of the leading proponents for constitution reform in Alabama. In a 2007 op-ed piece he said:
The 1901 Constitution is no more personal to me than it is to hundreds of local leaders in Alabama who cannot do what they know is best for their cities and counties without first asking Montgomery for permission.
- It is personal to the thousands of Alabamians who, as they struggle to make ends meet, are forced to pay absurdly high sales taxes on basic necessities like food, medicine and baby supplies.
- It is personal to the public schoolteacher who holds her breath and crosses her fingers every year, hoping and praying that our highly volatile tax revenues are high enough to avoid another year of proration and outdated textbooks.
- And it is very personal to the thousands of schoolchildren languishing in underfunded schools in the Black Belt, for whom the American Dream will be deferred until the adults decide to scrap a system of taxation that is doing exactly what it was designed to do: keep the wealthy landowners in their rural counties from paying their fair share of taxes.
The Constitution of 1875 wasn't great. It concentrated power in Montgomery, robbing cities and counties of local control. Indeed, in 1900, there was already grumbling that “local bills” consumed the Legislature's time instead of dealing with pressing state matters.
But the framers of the 1901 Constitution refused to fix even that. They took a bad document and made it even worse. And they made it almost impossible to change the system.
Thus, Alabama has been burdened throughout the 20th Century with a document that should have shamed people who lived hundreds of years before. It's 2010 and – look! – we still have it, and not a single candidate for governor is willing to be the champion for reform.
It's time for citizens to say no. Yes, Alabama has pressing issues: education, economic development, transportation…. and every single effort to address them on the state and local level is hamstrung by our 1901 Constitution. Until we fix it, the state will continue to be almost ungovernable and the political system resistant to citizens' initiatives and calls for reform.
I'll let Hill Carmichael have the last word on this:
By our complacency, we reratify the 1901 Constitution every year.