On the afternoon of May 27, 1901, the clerk of the Alabama Constitutional Convention read out a letter to the delegates written by educator Booker T. Washington and signed by 23 other state black leaders. A couple of the delegates had objected to hearing it, as it was already past adjournment time, but Thomas W. Coleman, a Princeton-educated lawyer from the town of Eutaw, urged that they all stay and listen:
The author of that communication is the most noted man of his race in the State, and perhaps in the South, and under the circumstances, as we are considering a question in which he and his race are vitally interested, I for one would be pleased to hear it read.
And so it was. The gist of the message was that:
The negro is not seeking to rule the white man. In this State the negro holds not a single elective office. Whenever he votes, he usually votes for some white man …
The negro does ask, however, that since he is taxed, works the roads, is punished for crime, is called upon to defend his country, that he have some humble share in choosing who shall rule over him, especially when he has proven his worthiness by becoming a taxpayer and a worthy, reliable citizen.
The delegates listened till the end, then adjourned. The next day they went back to work devising a way to bar all but a few of the most educated, affluent Alabama blacks from voting, with Coleman, a Confederate army veteran in his late 60s, leading the way as chairman of the Committee on Suffrage and Elections. There was no chance they were going to do anything else, given that their main reason for gathering in Montgomery was, as convention president John T. Knox had put it in his opening address a week earlier, “to establish white supremacy in this State.” And establish it they did, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a federal court ruling in 1966 invalidated the constitution’s voting provisions.
In 1991, I spent two weeks at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery reading through the proceedings of the 1901 convention. I was a reporter in the statehouse bureau of the Birmingham News, and at the time Alabama reformers were pushing for changes in education and taxation that ran up against the bounds of the 1901 constitution, which apart from the voting bits was and is still in force, albeit with lots of amendments. I mostly concentrated on the convention debates on those two topics, which were eerily similar to what I’d heard during the legislative session earlier that year.
Still, I couldn’t resist putting that Booker T. Washington letter at the top of my story, and I’ve never forgotten it. The new uproar over Confederate monuments sent me back to my 1991 article, which I keep with all my old newspaper clippings in a box at home, and then to the proceedings of the 1901 Alabama convention, which are now available in their entirety online. The framers of the state constitution were of the political generation that began to carpet Alabama and the rest of the South with all those heroic statues of generals and soldiers and memorials to the lost cause. So what were they thinking?
The opening address by Knox, which begins on page 7 of the first book of the proceedings, offers a remarkable window. A corporate lawyer from Anniston, an industrial city about midway between Birmingham and Atlanta, Knox wrote clearly and in places quite well. His two big messages
- It was time for blacks in Alabama to be deprived of all political voice.
- It was time for those Northern meddlers to butt out.
Knox described the decisions to be made in Montgomery 1901 as the most important since the state voted to secede from the Union in 1861. “Then, as now,” he went on, “the negro was the prominent factor in the issue.” There was none of the nowadays frequently heard cant about the South’s cause being one of state’s rights. The South’s chief cause in both 1861 and in 1901 was, as Knox put it a few lines later, “white supremacy.”
That said, there would of course have been no need to fight the Civil War it if hadn’t been for those meddling Northerners:
Some of our Northern friends have ever exhibited an unwonted interest in our affairs. It was this interference on their part that provoked the most tremendous conflict of modern times; and there are not a few philanthropists in that section who are still uneasy lest we be permitted to govern ourselves and allowed to live up to the privileges of a free and sovereign people!
That this “we” who were to “be permitted to govern ourselves” should necessarily exclude the 45 percent of Alabama’s residents who were black was not quite so self-evident that Knox did not think it needed some elaborating.
So long as as the negro remains in insignificant minority, and votes the Republican ticket, our friends in the North tolerate him with complacency, but there is not a Northern State, and I might go further and say, there is not an intelligent white man in the North, not gangrened by sectional prejudice and hatred of the South who would consent for a single day to submit to Negro rule.
Knox probably had a point about the hypocrisy of Northern whites, but Alabama was so far from “Negro rule” in 1901 that it seems a little strange that he and his fellow delegates would be so committed to preventing it. As Washington was to say a few days later, there were no black elected officials in the state. There was not a single black delegate at the convention. Since the election of Democrat George S. Houston as governor in 1874, conservative whites had succeeded in reestablishing control over Alabama and — through gerrymandering, shifting public offices from elected to appointed, making voter registration more difficult, ballot-stuffing and outright murder
— succeeded in reducing black political participation to a meek minimum.
The reason this wasn’t enough, Auburn University historian Wayne Flynt argued in 2001, was that a populist political rebellion in the state’s northern hill counties and southeastern Wiregrass region had for a time in the early 1890s threatened that conservative white control, in part by appealing to black voters for support. That insurgency had faded by 1901, but the state’s political establishment was committed to preventing its recurrence. Wrote Flynt:
If whites divided politically, they invited black voters to control the balance of power. If freely allowed to vote, blacks could not themselves govern, but they could decide which of the two factions would rule.
That was unacceptable to the framers of the 1901 constitution, so they fixed it. Because the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barred them from explicitly denying blacks the vote, they used a poll tax and literacy and property requirements to do the job. Because these requirements would have also kept many whites from voting, they added a grandfather clause exempting those who had fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War or for the U.S Army in other 19th century conflicts, along with their descendants. That still wasn’t enough for many poor whites — the number of registered white voters fell from 232,821 in 1900 to 191,492 in 1903, according to the late University of Alabama at Birmingham historian Glenn Feldman. But this was nothing compared to what happened to blacks:
By the first day of 1903, the state had only 2,980 registered black voters, although at least 73,674 literate blacks were living in Alabama. Thus, there were fewer than 3,000 black voters in 1903 Alabama, compared with 140,000 in 1890 and over 100,000 in 1900.
Interestingly, before that could happen, the Alabama electorate — 100,000-plus potential black voters included — had to ratify the new constitution. They did so by a vote of 108,613 to 81,734, propelled by overwhelming margins in the 12 majority-black counties known collectively as the Black Belt (for the color of its soil, which was well-suited to cotton growing). The likeliest explanation, according to Flynt, was “incredible corruption” on the part of the region’s white leaders.
To review: Alabama’s politicians of 1901 wrote a new constitution chiefly for the purpose of keeping blacks from voting — with, as bonus features, a downgrade in the status of public education in the state, strict limits on property taxes and a reduced political voice for poor whites — then secured its ratification through epic voter fraud. Very fine people, right?
Anyway, these were the same people who decided to start putting up Confederate monuments right and left. That’s oversimplifying a little: The first great era of monument building ran from about about 1890 to 1920, and in some cases this was just a product of how long ago the Civil War had ended. The South’s economy had recovered from the disaster of the war and its aftermath and the Confederate veterans were dying off, so it seemed like it was time to spend some money on statues.
The 88-foot-high Alabama Confederate Monument near the state Capitol in Montgomery, for example, was actually conceived in November 1865 as a memorial to the state’s Civil War dead. But it took three decades to raise the money and get the thing built, and by the time the monument went up in 1898 it had evolved from somber remembrance of “the dead of Alabama” into a triumphal celebration of the Confederacy and the 122,000 Alabamians who fought for it, topped by a bronze sculpture of a sword-and-flag-bearing female figure dubbed “Patriotism.” Patriotism to what nation, exactly?
And so it went all over the South. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument that went up in downtown Birmingham in 1905, and is now the subject of a standoff between city officials who would like to remove it and have in the meantime covered it up with plywood and tarps and state officials demanding that it be uncovered, does not commemorate any actual soldiers or sailors from Birmingham who died in the war. It could not possibly do that, because Birmingham didn’t exist during the Civil War. And while lots of Civil War veterans and their offspring surely settled in the city during the boom decades that followed its founding in 1871, so did lots of ex-slaves and their offspring, not to mention thousands upon thousands of immigrants from Greece, Italy, Lebanon and Eastern Europe.
These monuments, then, were to a large extent political statements, akin to the statements that John Knox made at the beginning of the 1901 convention. They were a big “in your face” from newly confident Southern whites to their black neighbors and to the Northern states that won the Civil War. A second wave of monument construction in the 1950s and 1960s came as a reaction to and rejection of the Civil Rights movement — another “in your face” to more or less the same people. Now that many Southern cities are inhabited primarily by blacks, immigrants from other states and countries, and native white Southerners of a cosmopolitan bent, it really shouldn’t be at all surprising or disturbing that the politicians they elect would prefer to undo some of those statements.
There’s been an odd debate in the past week over the relative merits of slaveholder Founding Father George Washington and slaveholder Confederate General Robert E. Lee. I think the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer is right that Lee as a person fell short: Something went very rancid in Southern elite thought in the decades between the Founders such as Washington, who recognized that slavery was incompatible with the nation’s ideals and hoped — albeit far too tepidly — that it would eventually go away, and those of Lee’s generation who came up with ever more convoluted and hateful defenses of it. But the real issue is not whether George Washington was a better guy than Robert E. Lee. It’s what they’re known for, and why people chose to put up statues of them. In Lee’s case, I think most of the delegates in Montgomery in 1901 would have told you that what he fought for and what he symbolized was simply, as their leader John Knox summed up, “white supremacy.”
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To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at [email protected]