From the StatehousePublished 5:59am Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Ever since Alabama’s creation as a state in 1819 there has existed a political rivalry between North and South Alabama. This tug of war has mostly been played out in the legislative arena. The North Alabamians have perceived — and rightfully so — that they have generally gotten the short end of the stick.
Historically, this advantage has gone to the area of the state known as the Black Belt. This area runs across the southern and middle portion of the state and has rich black soil. This fertile soil was conducive to growing cotton, which was the South’s staple cash crop for over 100 years. Therefore, the planters who owned this rich soil became rich from the cash it produced. They also owned all of the slaves in the state.
The plantation landowners migrated to the new state of Alabama mostly from the tidewater area of Virginia. They were landowners and political leaders and they expected no less in their new homeland. They understood politics and quickly devised a system to count their slaves as part of the population. This increased their legislative power at reapportionment time. Thus, these plantation owners controlled Alabama politics from 1819 through the Civil War, which ended in 1865.
If it had been up to their neighbors in North Alabama we would probably not have chosen to secede from the Union. The folks that settled North Alabama were yeomen farmers mostly from the Carolinas and Tennessee who owned 40 acres and a mule. The soil in the hill area of the North was more conducive to row farming and livestock. They owned no slaves. At the creation of the state the crafty Black Belters counted them out when it came to legislative apportionment. Even though they had more people they had less representation.
After reconstruction the same crafty Black Belters created a constitution adopted in 1901, which disenfranchised the black folks in the Black Belt, and also many of the poor farmers in North Alabama. Ironically, our 1901 Constitution was passed by chicanery and fraudulent voting in the Black Belt. They created legislative districts which stole power from more populated North Alabama. They refused to reapportion for over 60 years so they controlled the legislature. They would team up with the industrialists of Birmingham and pick a governor. This Bourbon rule existed from 1901 through the 1960s.
This system created some very powerful legislators from the Black Belt. Selma and Dallas County seemed to spawn the most, including legends like Walter Givhan and Earl Goodwyn. Wilcox County had the legendary Roland Cooper, known as the Wily Fox from Wilcox.
An interesting twist to this Selma power is that now that blacks vote and the area is majority black these black voters and their elected leaders control the politics of the Black Belt. Therefore, the most powerful senator in the state for years was a black Harvard educated lawyer named Hank Sanders. Selma still had the most legislative clout, but it was a black man yielding the power and not a white.
Selma, the historical heartbeat of the Black Belt, managed to retain its power. This legislative power was garnered not just by illegal malapportionment but also because the region would stick by its chosen senator and reelect him time after time. He would serve 30 years, learn the rules and dominate because of his knowledge and experience within the legislative system. However, North Alabama would change House and Senate members every four years.
As a young Page I observed this practice of South Alabama keeping their House and Senate members in place for decades. These South Alabama legislators usually ran without opposition and totally controlled legislative leadership. When the North Alabama legislators arrived they would hardly learn where the bathroom was located before they were back home and some new member was in their seat. I assumed that South Alabamians liked and understood politics better then North Alabamians.
I once made this assumption in a statement to Bill Baxley. Baxley quickly took opposition to that theory. He said folks in North Alabama like politics more. He explained that they will have three or four young lawyers running for a chance at a legislative seat so there is a bitter fight and bad blood spills over to the next election. Thus, these local fights killed off any potential for long-term senators and governors.
Regardless of the reason for the disparity in influence, it is only now that you see North Alabama garnering their rightful power.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.