The defeated: A brief history of Alabama's first 200 years
In the Lord I put my trust: how say ye to my soul, flee as a bird to your mountain? For lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the strong, that they may privily shoot at the upright in heart. If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?
James Wilson Shores used this text from Psalm 11 in at least four sermons in the Black Belt in 1853. All four times, the 25-year-old white minister preached it to the enslaved.
The Psalmist is confronted by the cries of a helpless person in a hopeless land, demanding to know why he shouldn’t run. The Psalmist only replies that in time, the wicked would be punished and the righteous rewarded.
Shores repeatedly turned to these texts of forbearance when he spoke before the enslaved in 1851 and 1853. He wrote that he “loved” preaching to those held in bondage: “They usually listen attentively and receive the truths presented readily.”
But white preachers were selective in the truths they presented. Outside the Psalms and the Book of Nahum (“The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and he knoweth them that trust in him”) Shores avoided the Old Testament and its stories of oppression, exodus and deliverance.
He likely carried a Methodist catechism written by Bishop William Capers. It was designed for the enslaved, and written in a question and answer format with simple, declarative sentences designed for memorization: teaching an enslaved person to read the word of God or any other book was a crime in Alabama. The catechism quoted Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, telling servants to obey masters "with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart." It left out Paul's admonition to masters about "forbearing threatening."
Q. What is a servant’s duty to his master and mistress?
A. To serve them with a good will heartily, and not with eye-service.
It was a two-tiered message of salvation — one for whites, one for blacks; one given the full Bible, one expected to trust the word of the powerful; one pulling the bowstring, one enduring the arrows.
The history of Alabama unfolds in the sale of men, women and children as young as 4.
It emerges in the protests of those cheated by the powerful.
It is heard in the ceaseless cries of white supremacy, echoing down the decades.
The 200-year history of Alabama is the story of a state at war with its people. It is the story of a government created to serve the needs of a wealthy white elite, all too often at the expense of the greater good.
It is the story of those who demanded better. It is the story of their defeats.
It is the story of a state whose steps toward a better future always lead it back to the sins of its past.
On May 20, 1818, Bolling Hall — a veteran of the American Revolution and a wealthy slaveholder in Autauga County — acquired four human beings.
A woman named Mary Ann, valued at $500.
Fanny, a girl no older than 14. $500.
Griffin, a boy. $575.
Emanuel, another boy. $600.
It's not clear from the records Hall kept if the four were related. Mary Ann, Fanny and Emanuel appear to have come from Petersburg, Virginia. Griffin's origins are not recorded. It's very likely at least one of these children was ripped away from their parents. It's certain they went to work against their will, the threat of the lash hanging over them.
The Alabama Department of Archives and History has more of these bills of sale.
A boy named Claiborn in Huntsville. $500.
A teenager named Flora in Monroe County. $500.
An unnamed mother, 40, and her 9-year-old child, possibly in Wilcox County.
A 4-year-old boy named Blount, sold at auction in front of the Clarke County Courthouse on June 5, 1848, for $173. An English naturalist named Philip Gosse, who lived in Alabama in 1838, learned that enslaved children were sold after being weighed like pieces of meat, fetching from $7 to $10 a pound.
Slavery preceded the state of Alabama. But the state government nurtured and protected it. In turn, slavery provided a significant portion of state revenue, and undergirded the plantation economy.
And whether or not they held people in bondage, whites were expected to defend the institution.
The 1833 slave code paints a picture of a police state. The movements of slaves were carefully regulated. Plantation owners faced fines if they allowed the enslaved from another plantation to stay on their property for more than four hours without passes. Enslaved people were often forced to attend worship services led by whites. Martha Bradley, a formerly enslaved women interviewed in Alabama in 1937, remembered having to show a pass as she and other enslaved individuals walked to the house of worship.
On paper, Alabama’s slave code protected “this useful but degraded class of men from cruelty and oppression.” But accounts from formerly enslaved people in the 1930s attest to starvation, exposure and, above all, whippings.
“The straps had holes in them so that they raised big blisters,” Carrie Davis told an interviewer in 1937. “Then they took a hand saw, cut the blisters and washed them in salt water. Our old mistus has put salve on a heap of backs so they could get their shirts off. The shirts’d stick, you see.”
All adult whites were expected to serve in slave patrols; enslaved people remembered many instances of cruelty, including dogs being set on runaways.
“The young men of a given neighborhood enroll themselves in a band, and scour the country by night, taking the duty in turns, to arrest every negro who is abroad without a written pass,” Philip Gosse, the English naturalist, wrote in 1838. “Armed parties frequently go in pursuit of runaways, who are shot down relentlessly if they oppose or refuse to surrender. The patrols are allowed this power, not indeed by law, but by public opinion.”
In fact, the law rewarded this violence. Under the 1833 code, slaveholders had to pay $6 for every runaway returned. For “out-lyers,” runaways who managed to live in a swamp or forest, the reward was $30 — equivalent to $800 today — paid out of the state treasury.
And still, enslaved people resisted. Some time in the 1840s, a doctor named B.R. Thomas told his estranged wife that an enslaved woman named Matilda had encouraged an enslaved man named John to run away. And, Thomas said, Matilda had done considerably more.
“I could have had Matilda hanged for attempting to poison me last summer by putting ginsum (sic) seeds in my coffee,” he wrote. “Also we did give beer to Roda (sic) which was analyzed by Dr. Bolling and contained a large portion of arsenic.”
Matilda fought a system that destroyed people. Nearly 60 percent of African-Americans born in the South in the antebellum era died before their 15th birthdays. The enslaved who survived faced physical and sexual violence.
“There was a slave what lived in Macon County,” Bradley said. “He run away and when he was catched they dug a hole in the ground and put him crossed it and beat him nigh to death.”
In 1829, 11 years after Bolling Hall bought Mary Ann, Fanny, Griffin, and Emanuel, Hall made a list of his slaves. The names “Fanny” and “Griffin” appear in the list. The names “Mary Ann” and “Emanuel” do not.
Reconstruction after the Civil War gave African-Americans the ballot, and they used it. Three African-Americans — Jeremiah Haralson, James Rapier, and Benjamin Turner — represented Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives. Haralson and Turner were former slaves; as a child, Haralson had been sold twice. Dozens of black representatives were elected to the Alabama Legislature, where they played a key role in establishing a statewide public education system.
But corruption with the Reconstruction governments; white Republicans increasingly ignoring the desires of their black colleagues, and political violence finally handed control back to Bourbon Democrats, dominated by former Confederates. They passed a new constitution in 1875 that sharply limited spending on public education, a move that dragged the state down and hit black children first, and hardest.
The state remained overwhelmingly rural through the end of the century. Farmers suffered from high tariffs on manufactured goods and falling cotton prices. Small landholders began to organize in the late 1880s, and soon had a champion in the state’s first commissioner of agriculture, Reuben F. Kolb.
Kolb had been a wealthy planter before the Civil War and fought in a Confederate artillery company. He became commissioner of Agriculture, the first in Alabama history, in 1888. Kolb aligned with the Farmers’ Alliance, which formed in the late 1880s to address farmers’ perpetual economic struggles. At first a nonpartisan group, the Alliance formed cooperatives that tried to maintain low prices on goods that often emptied farmers' pockets. But the enterprises clashed with established interests (including the Montgomery Advertiser) tied to the dominant Democratic Party.
As depression began to sink Alabama farmers, Bourbon Democrats showed more interest in protecting their privilege than providing assistance. The Alliance turned to direct political action, and Kolb became their candidate. He lost the gubernatorial nomination of the Democrats — effectively the general election — to Thomas Jones in 1890. In 1892, he made another run at the party nomination, but was thwarted by Democratic power brokers. When the party further refused to consider Kolb’s proposals, he and his supporters bolted, forming a “Jeffersonian Democratic Party,” which they contrasted with the “machine Democratic Party.”
“You need better schools and better roads,” he told allies in Montgomery on June 9, 1892. “You should demand the abolition of the prison convict system. We should send men to the Legislature who will enact such laws as will secure and enforce a fair ballot and an honest count.”
The two-month race was almost unlike anything Alabama had seen before. Jones and the machine Democrats played the white supremacy card. Kolb allied with members of the new Populist Party and what remained of the state Republican Party. He had been a white supremacist his entire life, but he made a play for black voters. One ally of Kolb’s told a rally of African-Americans that he would rather see “the banks of every river and creek lined with federal bayonets and crimson with blood, than see you deprived of the privilege of voting.”
In the August election, Kolb lost by just over 11,000 votes, out of more than 242,000 cast. Jones’ margin of victory came from the Black Belt, where planters stuffed ballot boxes to ensure his win. According to J.C. Manning, who wrote an account of the election the following year, an election manager in Montgomery County told Kolb “that there were about 200 votes actually cast in this beat in the August election, and that the Kolb ticket received over 150 of them, and Jones the balance, but the returns gave Jones over a 400-vote majority.” Kolb later denounced “a conscienceless and corrupt oligarchy” that “overturned the republican form of government in Alabama.”
Faced with this blatant cheating, the Montgomery Advertiser shrugged. Shortly after the August election, the Advertiser bitterly denounced Kolb as a "traitor to Democracy, a disorganizer."
"He has fooled many people a long time, but he will not be able to fool all of them all of the time," the paper wrote on August 6, 1892. "He is showing his cloven foot too plainly."
The previous day, the newspaper asked: “When will we ever get rid of this man Kolb? Is there no way to give us a rest from him and his methods?”
The answer came the following year. The Legislature passed the Sayre Act, which allowed the governor to appoint election officials — without any say from the opposing party — who could “assist” illiterate voters in marking their ballots. The measure legalized voter fraud, and sealed the reformers’ fates.
In 1894, Kolb’s allies dropped their pleas for black support, and even tried to encourage African-American voters to boycott the election, thinking that it might discourage fraud. But Black Belt Democrats continued to stuff ballot boxes, and Kolb lost by an even wider margin than in 1892.
Kolb gave up. He backed the regular Democratic ticket in 1896, turned away from voting rights, and in 1910 won election to his old office of agriculture commissioner. A few days after Kolb’s death in 1918, the Montgomery Times reprinted an article that said if Kolb had been treated fairly, “he would have been governor which would, in all probability, have saved the state a great deal of political turmoil.”
The revolt of Kolb, and the fusion of Populists, Republicans, and poor whites and blacks that challenged Alabama's ruling oligarchy, opened the door to the 1901 constitutional convention. It had one clear goal: To take the vote away from African-Americans. As one Birmingham supporter said: “We have disenfranchised the African in the past by doubtful methods; but in the future we will disfranchise … him by law.”
But doubtful methods were still useful. Despite large majorities of black voters in the Black Belt, planters there once again used fraud to secure the calling of a constitutional convention, making it appear African-Americans had voted to disenfranchise themselves.
“And what is it we want to do?” John Knox, the president of the convention, told more than 150 delegates in Montgomery on May 22, 1901. “Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”
The planters fused with industrialists to erect a series of voting restrictions that would make it impossible for most blacks in the state to cast ballots. More quietly, though not unnoticed, they allowed the Legislature after 1903 to impose onerous poll taxes, stripping poor whites of their ability to vote. They also squeezed the limited resources available to public schools still further.
Supporters of the new constitution — who included Reuben Kolb — made explicitly racist appeals to voters. Some opponents fought the disenfranchisement of poor whites. Few whites seemed to care about black voting rights, and some African-American leaders urged a boycott. In the end, fraud once again advanced the cause of the oligarchy. The 1901 Constitution remains the governing document of Alabama.
The Montgomery Advertiser screamed on Nov. 12: “THE CITIZENS OF ALABAMA DECLARE FOR WHITE SUPREMACY AND PURITY OF BALLOT: The Putrid Sore of Negro Suffrage Is Severed From the Body Politic of the Commonwealth.”
Bibb Graves is credited with coining the term “big mules” to describe the ruling interests in Alabama. In his 1926 campaign for governor, Graves used the term to describe Birmingham industrialists. They were, he said, like a big mule hitched behind a cart full of corn, contentedly eating its contents, while a much smaller mule struggled to pull the cart forward.
Very few reformers got far in 20th century Alabama politics. Those who did often had massive flaws. Graves belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, though he later tried to distance himself from it. James “Big Jim” Folsom got elected governor in 1946 and managed to get some reforms through, including an increase in education funding, the establishment of trade schools and even some halting efforts at increasing African-American voting registration. But Folsom’s personal and political weaknesses, along with the intransigence of the big mules, hampered him.
Elected to a second term in 1954, Folsom found his racial moderation anathema amid white hysteria over the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ordered school desegregation. Folsom’s one-time ally, George Wallace, would ride the hysteria to power.
As a state legislator, Wallace had helped champion trade schools, progressive taxation and African-American education, requesting appointment to Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). As governor, Wallace threw all of it out the window, becoming a face of defiance of voting and civil rights for blacks. His relentless need to campaign made him hopeless as an administrator: While interested in bills that could win votes, he was bored by governing. A state legislator later remembered a meeting with Wallace over a $100 million highway bond: “I looked around and the governor of this state was gone … he was standing over by the window eating a Baby Ruth.”
Term-limited in 1966, Wallace put his wife, Lurleen, up to run for governor in his place. Lurleen Wallace managed to secure increased funding for mental health treatment but died of cancer in 1968, elevating Lt. Gov. Albert Brewer to the office.
Brewer had long been an ally of Wallace’s in the Legislature and assisted his early efforts in the 1968 presidential campaign. As governor he fought for so-called freedom of choice bills, which in practice left schools segregated. But Brewer was no race-baiter, and managed to accomplish reforms that cut costs in government and improved education, increasing teacher salaries and establishing the Alabama Commission for Higher Education.
Brewer and Wallace faced each other in the 1970 Democratic primary for governor — at that time, the effective general election. Brewer promised to be a “full-time governor” — a jab at the always-campaigning Wallace — and ran on his record. At first dismissed as easy prey for his predecessor, Brewer proved to be a strong campaigner, drawing crowds throughout the state. He squeezed out a victory over Wallace in the primary, though he was forced into a runoff.
The campaign became one of the dirtiest election campaigns in American history. Near the end of the primary, Wallace started leaning hard into racist attacks. He said Brewer, who Wallace called “sissy britches,” would create a “spotted alliance” of African-Americans and northeastern liberals.
In the runoff, the racism increased. Wallace yelled about a “black bloc” of voters trying to take over the government, and was heard using racial epithets at two polling places on election day. His supporters flooded the state with leaflets titled “Blacks Vow To Take Over Alabama,” featuring a white girl on a beach surrounded by seven black boys. The Wallace campaign also took a photo of Brewer meeting Johnny Cash and his manager and altered it to make it appear that Brewer was meeting with Muhammad Ali and Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
Wallace’s operatives attacked Brewer’s family, sending operatives to trail his wife, Martha, and suggested, falsely, that she was drunk. When a black leader sought the hiring of 50 black state troopers, the Wallace campaign released a radio ad: “Suppose your wife is driving home at 11 o’clock at night. She is stopped by a highway patrolman. He turns out to be black. Think about it.”
In the end, Wallace won by 34,000 votes. At his victory speech, Wallace said “I consider Gov. Brewer and his family my personal friends, and I wish him success in whatever future endeavor he is involved in. I say that sincerely.”
Brewer, enraged at the attacks on his wife and daughters, could not hide his anger. "It was n-----, n-----, n----- all over again," he told an interviewer. "I hoped race would not become an issue in this campaign, but it boiled down to a hate and smear issue. And if that's what it takes to win, the cost is too high."
In July 1954, a century after James Wilson Shores’ had ridden the circuit, a 25-year-old minister, recently installed at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, delivered a sermon. He took as his text Psalm 8:4, rendered in the King James Bible as:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was 17 months away. But the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was thinking of justice as he pondered the mindfulness of God.
“The whole political, social and economic structure of any society is largely determined by its answer to this pressing question,” he said. “Indeed, the conflict which we witness in the world today between totalitarianism and democracy is at bottom a conflict over the question, ‘what is man?’ — whether man is a cog in the wheel of the state or whether he is a free creative being capable of facing responsibility.”
The Alabama State Capitol was physically close to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, but light-years away spiritually. No African-American had served in the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction. In 1952, only 5% of African-Americans in Alabama were able to vote, a low number even for the pre-civil rights era South. There had been recent efforts to reform the poll tax, but even this led to attacks: Mobile attorney Gessner McCorvey complained that it would allow a class of whites to vote “which has no business voting.” The domed and columned Capitol remained a fortress of privilege and racism.
But King did not preach forbearance. He spoke of growth, and creation, and the human potential to make a better world.
“He’s able to imagine a great civilization and create it,” King said. “Through his amazing capacity for memory and thought and imagination, man is able to leap oceans, break through walls, and rise above the limitations of time and space. Through his powers of memory man can have communion with the past; through his powers of imagination man can embrace the uncertainties of the future.”
And King and tens of thousands of other African-Americans would soon walk out from under the Capitol, and confront the government that treated them as a problem. They endured 382 days of physical threats and legal harassment to get a seat on a bus. King’s house was bombed. He left Dexter Avenue Baptist for Atlanta in 1960, but he would return to Alabama, first to integrate Birmingham businesses and then lead a march from Selma to Montgomery that would lead to the Voting Rights Act. At the end of that march, he would reflect on how “climatic conflicts always were fought and won on Alabama soil.”
Psalm 8 says that God made man “to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet,” but the Psalmist never answers that first question: why?
The history of Alabama is a history of dominion, of the strong demanding more from the weak, of the big mules taking more than they deserved. In his 1954 sermon, King recognized the “gonewrongness” of “every nation, every class and every man.”
And he saw, in the end, that these were choices.
“Man entertains ideals, and ideals become his inspiration,” he said. “Man can be true or false to his nature. He can be a hero or a fool. Both possibilities, the noble and the base alike, indicate man’s greatness.”
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Updated at 8:33 p.m. to correct that a story after Reuben Kolb's death was reprinted by the Montgomery Times, not the Montgomery Advertiser.