Finally, north gets power

Published 12:00 am 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.

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 more than 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 owed 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 they were counted out by the crafty Black Belters 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 more than 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.

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 their 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.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.