The original 1819 Alabama Constitution represented in 19th-century terms a model of progressive liberal democracy. The framers of that first state charter were steeped in the deeply democratic ideals of Thomas Jefferson. At the time, most white Alabamians were small farmers who owned their own farmland. They had a healthy disdain for any system of government that concentrated power in the hands of a few people who could in effect become tyrants.
The history of how this democratic organic document of government was replaced by the much less democratic 1875 Constitution and then by the completely antidemocratic 1901 Constitution is complicated to say the least. Alabama between 1861 and 1975 was wracked by first the Civil War and then Reconstruction, but that is not the whole story. The loss of land ownership for most small farmers and the move to tenancy farming and to jobs in industry also played an important role. Race divisions influenced events, as did a general political culture of tax aversion and lack of support for public education and infrastructure improvements. A populist uprising in the 1890’s terrified conservative interests and galvanized them into calling for the constitutional convention of 1901.
Alabama emerged from Reconstruction with the ratification of the 1875 Constitution, which was noteworthy because of its restrictions on the government’s ability to raise taxes, a feature carried over unchanged 26 years later when the current constitution was enacted. The prior 10 years of rule by Reconstruction Republicans, supported by freed slaves, was marked by an increase in support for public schools and the tripling of property tax rates. The white aversion to raising taxes, which was seen to primarily benefit freed blacks through social services and education, led to a backlash against Reconstruction tax hikes and the ratification of the anti-tax 1875 Constitution, the first post-war constitution approved without federal interference . Blacks retained the right to vote because in 1875 conservative Democrats, now firmly in control, were fearful of the federal government intervening to negate any open attempts to disfranchise blacks.
The years 1875 to 1900 were rife with corruption and election fraud aimed at preventing blacks from gaining political power. The rich planters of the Black Belt were joined by owners of railroads, mines, and factories in the new “Birmingham district” in supporting the causes of low taxation and fewer governmental services. Opposed to this new coalition of economic elites were the Populists led by Reuben Kolb, who championed the interests of tenant farmers as well as workers in the factories and mines of Alabama’s growing industries. Kolb ran for governor in 1892 and 1894 and was denied the governorship both times through vote stealing in the Black Belt counties controlled by the planters.
The planters and “Big Mules,” as the Birmingham industrialists were known, employed a number of devices to reduce the impact of the black vote. They gerrymandered voting districts to eliminate black influence, made many local positions appointive rather than elective, and passed a law making ballots and voter registration overly complex in hopes of reducing the number of uneducated freedmen voting.
None of these measures was effective. In 1900 more than 100,000 African-Americans were eligible to vote and, along with poor whites, had scared the elites to death by nearly electing Kolb governor in his populist uprising of the 1890’s. Lynchings were on the rise. Election corruption threatened to destroy any semblance of governmental legitimacy or orderliness. Even white church pastors and newspapers supported the illegal theft of black votes.
So it was as Alabama entered the 20th century its ruling elites were faced with a real threat from freed blacks and white tenant farmers, along with miners, railroad workers, and factory workers. These groups if left to vote freely were almost sure to wrest control from the planters and Big Mules and give it to some form of populist leadership. The strategy of vote stealing to fend off the threat would not work much longer. Something had to be done.
The senatorial election of 1900 became a referendum of sorts on the question of whether a new constitutional convention should be called. The pro-convention candidate won and a legislative poll of the electorate found that 60 percent of Alabama voters supported a new constitutional convention to disfranchise blacks. The heaviest support came from the Black Belt, with significant opposition in the northern hill counties and the Wiregrass counties of southeast Alabama, two areas which for decades had been a thorn in the planters’ side.
There were 155 delegates elected to the 1901 constitutional convention. Of these, 141 were Democrats, 7 were Populists, 6 were Republicans, and 1 was an independent. There were no women or blacks; 96 were lawyers, and 12 were bankers.
The first order of business was to elect a convention president, and the convention delegates selected an Anniston corporate lawyer named John B. Knox to lead the convention. Knox wasted no time articulating the main aim of the convention, stating in his presidential address:
And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State. This is our problem, and we should be permitted to deal with it, unobstructed by outside influences. But if we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law—not by force or fraud. These provisions are justified in law and in morals, because the negro is not discriminated against on account of his race, but on account of his intellectual and moral condition. There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro.
Knox and the rich planters and Big Mules that dominated the convention set to work to make Knox’s words a reality. Brushing aside populists who wanted to somehow disfranchise blacks without disfranchising many whites, the conservative majority approved state and county residency requirements aimed at disfranchising transient industrial workers and tenant farmers. To qualify to vote, a man had to be a resident of Alabama for at least two years and of the county in which he voted at least one year.
The new constitution also imposed a poll tax of $1.50 per year as a prerequisite to voter registration. This tax was cumulative, meaning if it wasn’t paid in one year, the next year the required tax was $3.00, up to a total of $36. You must keep in mind that in 1901 many workers made less than $100 per year, so this was a significant burden on such workers. The “crime” of vagrancy, mostly prosecuted against blacks, was a lifetime disqualification from voting, as were many other non-serious offenses.
The new constitution required voters to own property, and since by 1901 most farmers were tenants this provision effectively stripped most blacks and whites of the vote. Finally, there was a literacy test which few whites and fewer blacks could pass.
The new constitution also banned interracial marriage and required the racial segregation of schools.
Having stripped the right to vote from all except those deemed most worthy and established the basis of Alabama’s Jim Crow laws, the convention delegates turned their attention to the pesky problem of local governments. During the populist movement, one of the fears of the rich planters and Big Mules was the potential for counties and cities in the northern hills or the Wiregrass to pass laws raising local taxes to build infrastructure or improve schools. To prevent “radical” local officials from taking such actions, the convention delegates wrote provisions stripping local governments of all power. For any significant local law to take effect, it would have to go through the Legislature, most times as a constitutional amendment, and usually after a statewide referendum on the proposed amendment.
The reason centralized control was considered preferable is because it was and is easier to control 140 legislators and few other officials than to try to monitor and lobby in hundreds of local political races in 67 counties across the state.
Finally, the convention adopted essentially unchanged the low tax caps contained in the existing 1875 Constitution.
With the new constitution drafted, the only remaining task was to get it ratified, and it is here that the story turns truly nasty.
Former governor Joseph F. Johnson led the opposition on behalf of whites whose vote was about to be taken away. He found heavy support for the opposition movement in the populist strongholds of north Alabama and the southeastern Wiregrass region. Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institution and probably the most influential African-American in the U.S. at the time, led the opposition on behalf of blacks.
It was all for naught.
The planters and Big Mules stole the election.
Officially, the vote for ratification was 108,613 for ratification and 81,734 against. The vote in the 54 counties outside the Black Belt was 76,263 against ratification to 72,389 in favor.
The 12 Black Belt counties, two-thirds of the electorate of which was black, voted 36,224 in favor of ratification and just 5,471 against, and provided one-hundred percent of the margin of victory statewide.
That is impossible without election fraud, and modern historians agree on this point.
To take one example, consider Hale, Dallas, and Wilcox Counties. In those counties combined, 17,475 voted for ratification. That is 12,360 more votes than there were white registered voters in those counties.To believe the election was not stolen, you must believe that the blacks in these counties turned out in overwhelming numbers to vote for a document that would make sure it was the last time any of them ever voted.
So in 2015 Alabama is governed by a charter that was intended to strip the vote from all but the educated land-owning elites, ensure segregation, prevent the raising of taxes, and ensure that neither voters nor local officials have any power.
That charter was enacted by stealing an election, a theft perpetrated openly and on a massive scale.
And here we are, 114 years later.