DIVIDE AND CONQUER:



                  BRAD LEWIS



                   DR. DUNAR

                 MARCH 17, 2005

          Divide and Conquer: The Purpose Behind the 1901 Alabama Constitution

           On May 21, 1901, one hundred and fifty-five delegates convened in Montgomery,

Alabama for the opening session of the new constitutional convention. This convention

would mark the sixth time in Alabama’s eighty-two year history that a new plan of

government would be established. Alabama’s previous documents had dealt with a

number of issues including frontier expansion, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The

Constitution of 1875, heralded as the “Redeemer” constitution, restored conservative

democratic government. However, in the minds of many elite planters and industrialists,

there was still one unresolved issue. During the second day of the proceedings,

Convention President John B. Knox of Calhoun County clearly explained the importance

of the issue, as well as the purpose of the convention. “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.”1 How did the delegates solve the problem? The

delegates addressed the question by disfranchising thousands of African Americans and

establishing a governmental system that prevented blacks from having any political

power. The primary purpose of the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention was to

abolish the right to vote for black Alabamians.

           Unfortunately, the 1901 Constitution continues to serve as Alabama’s plan of

government. This outdated document is by far the longest constitution in the United

States with over seven hundred amendments. For the past century, the Alabama

Constitution has been a source of tremendous controversy and continues to represent

many of the negative images associated with Alabama history and politics. Without a
    Alabama Constitution (1901), Official Proceedings, May 22, 1901, Vol. 1, 8.

doubt, the 1901 Constitution was conceived in the spirit of division and racism. This

constitution continues to haunt Alabama today and prevents its citizens from reaching

their full economic, social, and educational potential.

        Why did the delegates to the 1901 Constitutional Convention want to end suffrage

for all African Americans and many poor whites as well? To better understand the

answer to this question, one must understand the historical context of the 1901

convention. Historian Wayne Flynt summarizes this idea by explaining, “Specific events

tell us less about reality than the social, political, and cultural environments that produced

them.”2 This is definitely the case with the 1901 Constitution.

        During the late 19th century, three basic socio-economic groups divided Alabama:

wealthy white landowners and entrepreneurs, poor white farmers, and poor black farmers.

Wealthy whites were determined to maintain control of the economic and political

resources of the state. Poor white sharecroppers were struggling to get out of debt and

own their own land. For poor blacks, every aspect of life in Alabama was a struggle as

segregation replaced slavery. The possibility of black equality and the development of a

white middle class encouraged an increase in racial prejudice and class violence. William

W. Rogers points out “slavery had at least fostered familiarity, while segregation bred

suspicion through separation.”3 Populism, which developed as a result of the decline of

agriculture after the Civil War, helped foster racial fears and class conflict. Many white

  Wayne Flynt, “Alabama’s Shame: The Historical Origins of the 1901 Constitution,” Alabama Law
         Review, 53:1(Fall 2001): 67
  William W. Rogers, Alabama: The History of a Deep South State (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
         Press, 1994), 343.

Alabama farmers owned their land before the war. Wayne Flynt reports, by 1880 nearly

half of all farmers were landless tenants. Populism was born in this decline.”4

           While Populist demands varied, they were convinced that the new industrial

economy of the United States limited their financial growth. They wanted the

government to expand opportunities for everyday citizens. The growing popularity of

Populism appealed to many different groups including Democrats, Republicans, whites,

and blacks. This new class-based political platform frightened Alabama’s conservative

Democrats, especially the planters in the Black Belt counties. Many wealthy planters

feared the development of a new Reconstruction era where lower class whites and blacks

would gain more political power.

           As Populism grew in Alabama, the movement revealed serious factions within the

Democratic Party. The question of Negro suffrage became a key issue when the

Democratic or “white man’s” party divided. Malcolm C. McMillan explains, during the

1880s, to keep the party intact, Democratic leaders appealed to white supremacy to

prevent “Negro domination.” However, by 1890, deep-seeded economic conflicts rose to

the surface. The Populists or Jeffersonian Democrats began to challenge the authority of

conservative Democrats or Bourbons. “In many respects the revolt within the

Democratic party was essentially a reassertion of economic differences and social

animosities of earlier Alabama history.”5 The Civil War and Reconstruction forced white

Alabamians to put aside their differences and maintain white supremacy, but the

economic crisis of the 1890s forced the party to split.

    Wayne Flynt. Alabama in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 6.
    Malcolm C. McMillan, Constitutional Development in Alabama, 1798-1901: A Study in Politics, the
          Negro, and Sectionalism (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 227.

          The first effort to end black suffrage occurred just three years after the 1875

Constitution was ratified. In 1878, a Democratic caucus decided against a constitutional

convention due to fears of Northern involvement. Most Democrats believed the North

would not allow black disfranchisement. As time passed, more white Alabamians called

for a new system of law. In 1890, Mississippi called for a convention to disfranchise

blacks and Alabama Governor Thomas Seay encouraged the state legislature to follow

Mississippi’s example. The Alabama House of Representatives approved a bill calling

for a statewide vote for a convention, but the Senate opposed the measure.6 Many state

legislators were not willing to disfranchise blacks if it meant disfranchising poor whites.

          During the 1890s, Alabama experienced a Populist revolt and came close to a

political and economic revolution. The most influential Populist organization that

encouraged political action was the Farmer’s Alliance. According to Samuel L. Webb,

the Farmers’ Alliance created a movement opposed to the concentration of banking

powers in the Northeast. The Alliance wanted to reform the nation’s financial system

and provide better credit terms for farmers in the South and West. Southern farmers, who

supported the Farmers’ Alliance, experienced conflicts with conservative Democrats.

“The battle that inevitably ensued in the South was for control of the Democratic party.”7

          The Alabama Alliance began to challenge the local leadership of the Democratic

Party. Pro-Alliance and anti-Alliance factions developed in many counties. The first sign

of trouble occurred during the 1892 gubernatorial race. Reuben F. Kolb, state

commissioner of agriculture, came to the state convention with a plurality and a chance

for a first-ballot nomination, but the party hierarchy stopped him. During the Democratic

    McMillan, 249.
    Samuel L. Webb, Two Party Politics in the One-Party South: Alabama’s Hill Country 1874-1920
          (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 86-98.

State Convention, an anti-Alliance credentials committee prevented three county

delegations from voting for Kolb. After thirty-four ballots, L&N Railroad attorney

Thomas G. Jones of Montgomery defeated Kolb by a margin of thirteen votes. Kolb’s

controversial defeat led to further divisions in the state Democratic Party.

          During the 1892 general election, Kolb left the Democrats and represented the

Populist Party. The hill counties of north Alabama and the Wiregrass region of southeast

Alabama supported the Populist Party, while the Black Belt supported Jones. Kolb lost to

Jones by only 11, 435 votes. According to the Birmingham News, Kolb carried eight

more counties than Jones and received a majority of the white vote. Supposedly, Jones

was elected by the black vote. However, the Populists accused the Bourbons and the

Black Belt counties of voter fraud.

          In 19th century Alabama politics, the party that could “count in or out” the most

Negro votes won the election. Ballot box stuffing was a traditional Democratic Party

practice in the Black Belt in order to assure “white supremacy.” The Bourbons continued

the tradition to maintain conservative control of Alabama government.8 The black

population was concentrated in Bourbon Democratic counties and enabled the

conservative Democrats to win. “Ironically, the Democratic party, which claimed to be

“the white man’s party of Alabama,” remained in power by using the bulk of the Negro

vote.”9 The 1892 gubernatorial election revealed that Alabamians were evenly divided.

          The 1892 gubernatorial election had been too close for the Democrats and they

planned to stop the Populist opposition. During the 1892-1893 legislative session, the

    McMillan, 218.
    McMillan, 227-229.

Democrats passed the Sayre Election Law and placed balloting under greater state

control. In past elections, each party developed a color-coded ballot to enable illiterate

and semi-illiterate citizens to vote. Under the Sayre law, the state printed the ballots and

listed the candidate’s name in alphabetical order without party colors or symbols. Many

conservative Democrats boasted about the effectiveness of the Sayre law including

Russell M. Cunningham, president of the State Senate. In a speech, Cunningham

announced his continued support of the Sayre law “because it is the best and cheapest

method of swindling the white people have ever devised for the maintenance of white


        In 1894, Reuben F. Kolb once again ran for governor and again faced Democratic

Party fraud and corruption. Bailey Thomson explains, on November 6, 1894, the day

Alabamians went to the polls to elect federal officials, “a shooting war broke out when

Democratic Party officials at Shelby County’s Harpersville precinct refused to allow the

Populist Party to have an official observe the counting of the ballots.”11 Again,

accusations of voter fraud occurred throughout the state. In the end, Kolb lost again, but

by a wider margin. The Sayre law discouraged many Populist-minded farmers from

voting and voter fraud in the Black Belt gave the 1894 election to William C. Oates.

Oates won the election by 28, 583 votes; however, fifteen Black Belt counties gave him a

margin of 29, 722 votes over Kolb. In Dallas County more than 80 percent of the

registered voters were black, but Oates won by 6,517 votes to Kolb’s 167.12

   McMillan, 225.
   Bailey Thomson. A Century of Controversy: Constitutional Reform in Alabama, (Tuscaloosa:
         University of Alabama Press, 2002), 2-12.
   Thomson, 12.

            After the defeat of William J. Bryan during the 1896 Presidential election,

Populism declined nationally, but the Populist threat remained in Alabama. Populist

ideas continued to divide Alabamians and the Democratic Party. For Populists, the major

question in 1896 was whether to fuse with the Republicans. Fusion, cooperation between

Populists and Republicans, achieved success on the county and national levels, but not on

the state level. Alabama Populists remained divided over fusion and many opposed

national Republican policies. Reuben F. Kolb remained opposed to fusion but some

radical Populists challenged his leadership. Kolb stepped down and opened the door for

other Populist candidates. In 1896, the Populist nominated Albert T. Goodwyn for

governor and developed an extensive campaign to capture the black vote.13

            Joseph F. Johnston, a loyal and traditional party supporter, was the Democratic

nominee. Johnston divided Democrats when he utilized a free silver platform to attract

Populist voters. Regardless of the party confusion, Johnston won easily and captured

both the Black Belt and many North Alabama counties. As governor, Johnston

immediately called for a constitutional convention. During the last legislative session in

July 1898, the House passed a bill supporting a convention, but the Senate voted down

the proposal. With his eyes on the U.S. Senate, Johnston changed his position on the

convention issue and announced his opposition to a new constitution.

            At the beginning of the new legislative session, the Democratic Party held another

caucus on the convention issue. Although the group was divided, a majority pledged to

support the convention bill. After a lengthy battle, led by North Alabama representatives,

the Enabling Act narrowly passed the House by a margin of 52 to 41. The Senate passed

     Rogers,, 314 - 318.

the act by a vote of 18 to 11.14 Despite his earlier reservations, Governor Johnston signed

the Enabling Act and Alabamians moved closer to convening a sixth constitutional


        During the convention debate of 1898, Alabama elected Governor Johnston to a

second term; however, the state constitution prevented him from seeking a third term. As

mentioned earlier, the ambitious Johnston now set his sights on the 1900 U.S. Senate race

and was willing to make the convention question a campaign issue. He focused on

removing longtime Confederate hero John Tyler Morgan from the Senate, but the

struggle divided the Democratic Party and forced the state to choose sides on the

convention dilemma.

        The Morgan – Johnston conflict not only decided a Senate seat but also created a

referendum on the issue of black disfranchisement. Senator Morgan represented the “Big

Mule-Black Belt” team of North Alabama businessmen and Black Belt planters. This

wealthy group dominated the conservative wing of the Democratic Party and called for a

constitutional convention. Governor Johnston led the progressive faction of the

Democratic Party that appealed to Populists and opposed a new constitution.15 As

governor in 1898, Johnston supported a constitutional convention and signed the

legislative act providing for the convention. However, by 1899, the political scene

changed. In order to defeat Morgan for the Senate, Johnston needed Populist support

from North Alabama and the Wiregrass region. To improve his chances for winning,

Johnston called a special session of the legislature to repeal the Enabling Act.16 Although

   McMillan, 250 – 251.
   Joseph A. Fry, From Civil War to Civil Rights: Alabama 1860-1960 (Tuscaloosa: The University of
         Alabama Press), 173-176.
   McMillan, 255

the Democratic State Executive Committee disagreed with Johnston and opposed the

repeal, the special session voted to repeal the convention bill. Conflict and bitterness

grew between conservative Democrats and moderates. A Black Belt newspaper editor

anxiously awaited the next legislative session and predicted that Democrats will “be

found pulling together for white supremacy and purer politics.”17

         In 1900, Alabamians conducted campaigns for governor, the state legislature, and

the U.S. Senate and everyone focused on the convention issue. Sensing a unique political

opportunity, Black Belt Democrats convinced North Alabamians that black

disfranchisement would not take away the vote for poor whites. After a series of bitter

debates, Senator Morgan easily defeated Johnston, and the deciding issue was black

disfranchisement. Historian Joseph A. Fry explains, “While many white Alabamians

were ambivalent about a constitutional convention, most favored black disfranchisement,

and Morgan was much closer than the governor to the dominant trend in Southern race

relations.”18 The Johnston faction also lost the party’s nomination for governor. William

J. Samford, conservative Democrat of Lee County, won the nomination and the 1900

gubernatorial election. By December 1900, the conservative wing of the Alabama

Democratic Party controlled the state legislature and the governorship. Populists and

Republicans now posed only a weak threat. The last obstacles to a constitutional

convention were gone. Frank S. White of Birmingham clearly stated the key goal of the

Democrats by saying, “We have disfranchised the African in the past by doubtful

methods; but in the future we will disfranchise [him] by law.”19

   McMillan, 258.
   Fry, 195.
   Rogers,, 344-345.

          Alabama politics during the 1890s created a unique and confusing situation.

Democrats, Populists, and Republicans failed to develop alliances to accomplish political

and social goals. Bourbon Democrats from the Black Belt believed that black

Republicans and hill county Populists would unite and overthrow conservative

government. Populists disagreed with national Republican policies, but could not

adequately challenge conservative Democrats because of voter fraud in the Black Belt.

For thousands of black Alabamians, oftentimes, their vote did not count or it was used

against them. Some Populists returned to the Democratic Party while others cooperated

or “fused” with Republicans. Samuel L. Webb explains, many poor whites grew angry

over “Democrat’s efforts to limit the power of non-Democratic legislators”20 and

continued to seek a voice in Alabama politics. By the turn of 20th century, many

Alabamians, conservative and progressive, believed that black disfranchisement was the

only solution. Even some Populists supported disfranchisement of blacks in the belief

that division would end and political reforms would begin.

          The results of the 1900 Presidential election demonstrated obvious anger and

frustration among some white Alabamians. Nationally, blacks overwhelmingly voted for

McKinley, but Bourbons again controlled the Negro vote in the Black Belt. However,

McKinley won the majority of votes in fourteen white counties and received a large

number of votes in the Wiregrass region. Although the Populist threat was weak,

political discontent continued among many Alabamians. Regardless of the Democrats

efforts to end Populism during the 1890s, some Populists reemerged as part of the

Republican Party. The Alabama Populist Party was dead, but the ideals of Populism

were alive and well. The 1900 election frightened many Democrats and created new
     Webb, 165.

anxieties. These fears “led to the realization that disfranchisement was necessary to

insure Democratic dominance.”21 Democrats’ greatest fear focused on the growing

cooperation between poor whites from the hill counties and poor blacks. The Democratic

editor of the Anniston Hot Blast reported the election returns from the white counties

“point very clearly to a future coalition between white populists and Negro

republicans.”22 The Democratic Party’s fear of a new political machine consisting of

black voters and lower-class whites set the stage for the Constitutional Convention of


        During the 1890s, the Alabama legislature experienced much debate and

witnessed narrow voting margins. By December 1900, debate and close votes among

legislators no longer existed. The state legislature, with a larger Democratic majority,

passed a convention bill calling for a constitutional convention vote. The House vote was

65-17; in the Senate it was 22-8. Republican and Populist representatives opposed the

measure, but were simply outnumbered and ineffective. The Enabling Act allowed for

the election of 155 delegates, 100 of the delegates were to be chosen based on each

county’s apportionment in the House of Representatives. Based on the existing

apportionment in the House and Senate, the Black Belt and South Alabama received a

greater number of delegates and would control the convention.23 In April 1901,

Alabamians voted for a constitutional convention. Statewide, the final tally was 70,305

in favor and 45,505 against a constitutional convention. Once again, the Black Belt

region determined the outcome of the vote. Before the election, Democrats spoke with

confidence. As Tom Heflin of Chambers County described it, “we have a very patriotic

   Webb, 167.
   Webb, 168.
   McMillan, 259.

set of managers and probably all the Negroes will vote for the constitutional

convention.”24 The final breakdown of the 155 delegates elected to the convention

included: 141 Democrats, 7 Populists, 6 Republicans, and 1 independent. A majority of

the delegates were lawyers and no Negroes or women were elected.25

        The Alabama Constitutional Convention to end Negro suffrage opened in

Montgomery on May 21, 1901. In his opening statements, Convention President Knox

clearly outlined the purposes of the convention. Knox revealed his concerns over

Northern interference, the attitude of the Southern man towards the Negro, and the need

for white supremacy by law. Knox believed that Northerners did not want to really help

blacks, but only wanted to humiliate Southern whites. Knox also shared a story that

describes how the Southern man knows and cares for the Negro, but Northerners are not

familiar with the African race and cannot meet his needs. Finally, Knox describes the

current political, economic, and social issues facing Alabama and concludes that the

establishment of white supremacy by law is the only solution.26

        While the ultimate goal of the 1901 Constitution was black disfranchisement,

Knox and convention delegates presented several different arguments to justify their

actions. The greatest excuse for black disfranchisement was concern over “dishonest

elections.” As noted earlier, the Black Belt greatly benefited from black suffrage and as a

result of the black vote, won many fraudulent elections. After the disputed 1892 election,

in order to level the political playing field, many “white counties” prepared to stuff ballot

boxes and utilize the same methods implemented in the Black Belt counties.27

   Rogers, et,al, 345.
   Flynt, Alabama in the Twentieth Century, 7.
   Official Proceedings, May 22, 1901, Vol. 1, 7-10.
   McMillan, 230.

        Bourbon Democrats and many Jeffersonian Democrats argued that black suffrage

caused “dishonest elections.” In a 1901 Birmingham Age-Herald editorial, the author

argued that Alabama’s best men, including “ministers of the gospel,” had stolen votes to

maintain “white supremacy.”28 In a 1900 speech in Mobile, the Speaker of the Alabama

House of Representatives explained how Negro suffrage had encouraged whites to

commit crimes of perjury and larceny to prevent “Negro domination.” Even Booker T.

Washington expressed his concern over the impact that black suffrage had on the South’s

economic, social, and political systems.29 The convention delegates believed that black

disfranchisement would restore honest government and improve morality in Alabama.

        Another argument used to defend black disfranchisement was social Darwinism.

Most Alabamians, as well as many Americans, believed that blacks were racially inferior.

Knox defended past efforts to reduce black voting rights by explaining that suffrage was

not a natural right. Knox believed that each state should have the right to deny suffrage

to individuals who might endanger the common good of the majority. “To discriminate

against the Negro, Knox concluded, was not based on race, but on the Negro’s inferior

intellectual and moral condition.”30 Many convention delegates agreed with Knox’s

opinions and believed it was in the best interest of all whites to disfranchise blacks.

        However, the first issue of convention debate was not disfranchisement, but

stenography. On the fourth day of the convention, a special committee reported on the

cost and details of publishing the daily convention proceedings. Most delegates agreed

with the report and spoke of the importance of an accurate and historical record for the

convention. However, a minority report was submitted by John T. Ashcraft raising

   Flynt, “Alabama’s Shame”, 71.
   McMillan, 226.
   Flynt, “Alabama’s Shame”, 71

important points. Mr. Ashcraft’s point was simple. Did the delegates really want their

actual comments and remarks published? Most Alabamians, black and white, knew that

disfranchisement would be enacted during the convention, but did the delegates want this

information published for future generations? Delegate Long of Walker County shared

Mr. Ashcraft’s concerns by asking, “Suppose some delegates were to say that no one

should be allowed to vote except white men and Caucasians.”31

           Some delegates still feared Northern involvement in Alabama political affairs.

After reading the convention proceedings, would the U.S. Supreme Court recognize

Alabama’s new constitution? Would the 1901 Alabama Constitution pass the

constitutionality tests of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments? Chambers County

delegate and future U.S. Senator J. Thomas Heflin summarized the concerns of the

minority by saying, “There will be things done and said in this convention that we do not

want the Northern papers to have.”32 Heflin also predicted future legal battles between

blacks and whites and did not want the convention proceedings to be used against

Alabama before the U.S. Supreme Court.

           The majority of the delegates disagreed with Ashcraft’s minority report and

wanted the proceedings recorded. Most delegates did not fear Northern involvement or

interference from the U.S. Supreme Court. According to delegate T.M. Espy, everyone

“from the mountains to the seaboard,” knows that the primary purpose of the convention

is to disfranchise the Negro. Espy believed that Alabama had the right and responsibility

to disfranchise blacks. He finally summarized the majority view by saying, “If it is

morally right, and it is to the benefit of the people of the State of Alabama, we ought to

     Official Proceedings, May 24, 1901, Vo. 1, 59.
     Official Proceedings, May 24, 1901, Vol. 1, 71.

do it, and we ought to make a record of our actions, and file it in the archives of our

State.”33 The majority opinion prevailed and a record of each day’s convention

proceedings was recorded for posterity.

        Why did a majority of the delegates think that the federal government and the

U.S. Supreme Court would approve of Alabama’s new constitution and not intervene?

Most Alabamians did not fear Northern involvement based on the following four reasons:

1) social Darwinism, 2) Spanish – American War and Imperialism, 3) recent U.S.

Supreme Court cases, and 4) the 1900 Census and reapportionment.

        In 1901, many Southerners believed that America largely agreed with the South

concerning black inferiority. Social Darwinism and eugenicists used the idea of survival

of the fittest to “advance society by purging its inferior types.”34 Due to black migration

to Northern cites and the spread of de facto segregation throughout the North, many

Southerners believed that the North began to understand Southern race problems.

Convention President Knox shared this sentiment by saying the North “is fast yielding to


        Alabama convention delegates also pointed to the events of the 1898 Spanish-

American War and the acquisition of new lands such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the

Philippines. The Spanish – American War was the first U.S. war fought since the Civil

War and Americans and most Alabamians believed that the short conflict help reunite the

North and South. One Alabamian who received national acclaim during the war with

Spain was General “Fighting Joe” Wheeler. President McKinley commissioned Wheeler

as a major general in the volunteer U.S. Army. According to Warren W. Rogers, “it was

   Official Proceedings, May 24, 1901, Vol. 1, 72.
   Flynt, “Alabama’s Shame”, 70.
   Official Proceedings, May 22, 1901, Vol. 1, 8.

a shrewd move by McKinley, as Wheeler became a potent symbol of national

reunification.”36 McKinley’s efforts for reunification did not go unnoticed. While

political differences remained between the North and South, Convention President Knox

exclaimed that President McKinley “has shown himself capable of being President of the

whole country and not merely one section.”37 In the Southern mind, the Spanish-

American War brought the former Confederate states back into the Union fold and placed

the South on equal terms with the North.

        The Spanish – American War also influenced the debate on Negro suffrage. As

the United States acquired new lands and people, Southerners believed that the North was

forced to view racial problems objectively, without any Civil War and Reconstruction era

prejudices. Southerners reasoned that the U.S. government could not consistently support

white rule over other races and “deny Alabama the same privilege.”38

        Many Southerners believed American imperialism and the idea of the “White

Man’s Burden” had ended the threat of federal involvement in Southern affairs.

Northerners now faced cultural problems with islanders “outside the Caucasian race” and

sympathized with the South. Lauderdale County delegate and future governor Emmett

O’Neal reinforced this belief by telling the convention, the race problem was “no longer

confined to the States of the South.” Southern leaders reasoned that the North could now

relate to the race problems of the South and would overlook the 1901 convention


   Rogers, et, al, 339.
   Official Proceedings, May 22, 1901, Vol. 1, 8.
   McMillan. 231.
   R. Volney Riser, “The Burdens of Being White: Empire and Disfranchisement,” Alabama Law Review,
          53: 1 (Fall 2001): 243.

           Historical evidence clearly reveals the mindset of Southerners concerning

American imperialism and social Darwinism during the late 19th century. Most scholars

of Southern history including: C. Vann Woodward, Malcolm C. McMillan, Sheldon

Hackney, and Edward Ayers, believed that the U.S. government did not become involved

in Southern whites disfranchisement of blacks because of American territorial expansion

and imperialism. However, according to R. Volney Riser, the Southern view of

imperialism was not the viewpoint of the North or the federal government.

           Riser argues “the relationship between empire and disfranchisement was one-

sided.” The South needed justification for disfranchisement, so Southern lawmakers

created a debate focusing on the challenge of governing blacks or “White Man’s

Burden.” The United States government needed justification for imperialism and

expansion, so Congress also advocated the idea of the “White Man’s Burden.” However,

there was no single definition of “the burden.” The Southern definition was based on

racism and the solution involved disfranchisement and complete segregation of blacks.

The Northern or national definition was also based on racism, but the solution involved

teaching Christianity and democracy to the island populations. During the late 1800s and

early 1900s, there is no doubt that most Americans were racist toward non-white peoples,

but the racism found in the South was different from the racism found in the rest of the

nation. “To claim that the North had chosen to follow the South’s lead is a stretch.”40

           If racist ideas allowing disfranchisement and segregation in the South did not also

drive U.S. colonial policy, why did the North and the federal government not take action

and prevent disfranchisement in the South? Again, Riser explains, there is a far simpler

explanation why the North did not get involved: “Northern apathy – not approbation –
     Riser, 245 – 252.

encouraged the spread of disfranchisement.” Since the Compromise of 1877 and the end

of Reconstruction, the North steadily decreased involvement in Southern politics. By

1901, Alabama lawmakers believed that Northern apathy would continue.

           Another factor encouraging Alabama to disfranchise blacks was the philosophy of

judicial restraint practiced by the U.S. Supreme Court. Although the Fourteenth and

Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed citizenship and voting rights

for black men, the federal government and the U.S. Supreme Court did not enforce the

laws. According to R. Volney Riser, civil rights cases including the Slaughterhouse

Cases (1873) and the U.S. v. Cruikshank (1875) demonstrated the Supreme Court’s

limited scope of citizenship and constructed a distinct line between federal authority and

state rights.41

           By 1900, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, and North Carolina had

implemented the poll tax and literacy tests to disfranchise blacks. Louisiana also

invented the “grandfather clause” allowing illiterate whites to register to vote if they did

not meet other voting requirements. By 1901, the U.S. Supreme Court had not declared

any voting provisions unconstitutional. In Williams v. Mississippi (1898), the high court

also upheld the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 and the “understanding clause.” In his

opening remarks, Alabama Convention President Knox highlighted three Supreme Court

cases, including Williams v. Mississippi, allowing states to determine individual voting

rights.42 The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth

     Riser, 264.
     Official Proceedings, May 22, 1901, Vol. 1, 13.

Amendments allowed Southern states and Alabama the loophole needed to disfranchise


           The 1900 Census and reapportionment process was the final evidence convincing

convention delegates to disfranchise black Alabamians. In January 1901, Congress

defeated the Olmstead resolution and did not reduce the representation or electoral votes

of the four Southern states that disfranchised blacks during the 1890s. In a March 1901

letter written from newly reelected Senator John T. Morgan to an Alabama newspaper

editor, the Senator reported “that Alabama could proceed with her disfranchising

convention without fear of interference,” since reapportionment was completed and

Congress had taken no action against Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, or South


           Even before the 1901 Constitutional Convention began, the process needed to

disfranchise Alabama’s black citizens was almost complete. The real work was

accomplished by the Bourbon Democrats during the 1890s Populist revolt, by the four

Southern constitutional conventions, by the U.S. Supreme Court, and by Southern whites

divided by racial and class prejudice. The Alabama convention delegates only needed to

pass a resolution to end suffrage for blacks. However, there was one issue remaining.

Would the delegates also disfranchise poor whites?

           While a majority of delegates favored black disfranchisement, the issue of

disfranchising illiterate whites divided the delegates and the state. In an effort to calm

hill county fears, the state Democratic Party pledged not to disfranchise poor whites.

Convention President Knox announced to delegates “we are pledged, not to deprive any

     McMillan, 230 – 232.
     McMillan, 232.

white man the right to vote.” However, Knox opened the door for future

disfranchisement of whites by declaring the pledge does not extend “beyond the right of

the voters now living.”45 What was Knox trying to accomplish?

        John B. Knox of Anniston represented the industrial class of North Alabama

whose political and economic interests matched those of the Black Belt planter class.

Knox demonstrated great power and conservative beliefs with committee appointments.

The most important convention committee was the Committee on Suffrage and Elections.

The committee consisted of twenty-five men mostly from the Black Belt and the

industrial centers of north Alabama. The Committee on Suffrage and Elections was

charged with developing a suffrage plan providing “honest elections.” One test used by

hill county whites to measure any proposed plan was based on how the Black Belt was

“to use the fictitious or real Negro vote.” Black Belt delegates dominated the 1901

Convention, but Black Belt leaders knew concessions must be made to please the

Populist counties of North Alabama and Wiregrass region. Conservative Democrats had

to give up the fraudulent Negro votes of the Black Belt. However, in order to maintain

control of state government, the Bourbons wanted to disfranchise poor whites.46

        As discussed earlier, the Populist revolt of the 1890s terrified the Bourbons.

Lower class whites joined forces with Populist leaders and gained control of many county

governments. Poor whites challenged “planter and business hegemony.” Black Belt

Democrats efforts to limit voting rights based on property and education requirements

were defeated by Populists until the 1901 convention.47 Many planter elites wanted to

limit suffrage to the “virtuous and intelligent.” Wayne Flynt points out this attitude from

   Official Proceedings, May 22, 1901, Vol. 1, 15-16.
   McMillan, 268-270.
   Flynt, “Alabama’s Shame”, 72.

a quote by former governor William C. Oates who said, “there are some white men who

have no more right to vote than a Negro and not as much as some of them.”48

         The Committee on Suffrage and Elections first met on May 29, 1901 and met

throughout June. The committee oftentimes absent from the general sessions, kept no

meeting records and the press was not present. Committee members introduced various

resolutions based on Louisiana’s “grandfather clause” and the “understanding clause”

found in Mississippi.49

         On the thirty-third day of the convention, the suffrage committee presented a

majority and minority report. Committee Chair Coleman announced the main committee

goal “to eliminate the venal and incompetent from the exercise of the elective franchise.”

The majority recommended that voters must be 21 years old, meet county residency

requirements, pay a poll tax of $1.50 collected every February, read or write in English,

and have a net worth of $300.00 or forty acres of land. The property and literacy

requirements disfranchised a majority of blacks and a large number of illiterate whites.

However, the committee offered a “temporary plan” providing a loophole for poor

whites. The plan allowed any whites who served in an American war, was the

descendant of an American veteran, or anyone who displayed good character and

citizenship the right to vote. The “temporary plan” eliminated blacks from the electorate,

but also honored Democrat’s pledge to protect the white vote. The minority report

objected to the “temporary plan” and feared it would not be acceptable to the U.S.

Supreme Court.50

   Flynt, Alabama in the Twentieth Century, 8-9.
   McMillan, 274-280.
   Official Proceedings, June 29, 1901, Vol. 1, 1257.

         Many delegates believed the majority report including the “fighting grandfather

clause” met the criteria necessary to legally disfranchise blacks and protect poor whites.

However, a small group of delegates questioned whether the plan protected all lower

class whites. Most delegates understood that payment of the poll tax in February, when

harvest cash reserves were low, was difficult for many whites. Another argument

revealed that some poor whites would not meet suffrage requirements under the

“temporary plan.”51 Mr. Thomas L. Long of Walker County pleaded with the convention

not to impose voting restrictions based on educational and property qualifications. Long

considered literacy tests “repulsive” and “not Democratic.” Long also described the

desperate conditions existing in many hill counties. “So far the accumulation of property

is concerned, $300 worth of property, there is not one in ten who will ever own it.” 52

Most delegates realized the plan would hurt some whites, but believed it was necessary in

order to accomplish the main objective: the end of suffrage for blacks. President Knox

eventually summarized the majority opinion. The only way the convention “could place

the power of government in the hands of the intelligent and the virtuous” was to deny the

vote to “not only a large mass of Negro voters, but quite a number of white voters” also.53

         Debate on the “temporary plan” and the majority report lasted from July to

August. North Alabama delegates and Civil War veterans led the opposition, but it was

too late. The majority’s desire to disfranchise blacks overwhelmed delegates’ pledge to

protect white suffrage. The “temporary plan” passed by a vote of 104 to 14. After

   Thomson, 24-28.
   Official Proceedings, July 30, 1901, Vol. 3, 3137.
   Thomson, 26-27.

limited debate and minor adjustments to the majority report, the permanent suffrage plan

passed 95 to 19.54

        The final act to determine disfranchisement involved a statewide vote. It was the

final voting opportunity for many poor whites and most black Alabamians. Debate and

division continued throughout the state. Black Belt elites spoke of losing power in order

to achieve black disfranchisement. Reuben Chapman of Sumter County spoke of the

Black Belt’s “unusual gift” of turning over 25,000 to 50,000 votes to the white counties.

The Black Belt did not give up these votes without wanting something in return.

Representation and reapportionment would be based on the entire population and the

Black Belt counties would benefit the most.55 African-American leaders, including

Booker T. Washington, provided logical opposition that few whites acknowledged.

Washington argued that denying blacks educational and voting opportunities would be

dangerous to the state. “If Alabama was to advance, the black man must be allowed to

advance with it.”56 The Populist hill counties and Wiregrass region opposed voting

limitations on whites, but were confused by changing alliances. Former Populist leader,

Reuben Kolb, joined his former enemies and supported the new constitution over the

issue of race.57

        Many Alabamians argued that the 1901 Constitution was created to end dishonest

elections. Unfortunately, the vote to ratify Alabama’s new plan of government was filled

with fraud and corruption. The final vote was 108,613 in favor of ratification and 81,734

against. The total vote in 54 white counties was 76,263 against ratification and 72,389 in

   Thomson, 28-29.
   McMillan, 306-307.
   Thomson, 28.
   Flynt, Alabama in the Twentieth Century, 11.

favor. However, the Black Belt would once again provide the necessary margin for

victory. The total vote in 12 predominantly black counties of South Alabama was 36,224

for ratification and only 5,471 against. The Black Belt planter class had won again, but

the political gains this time were permanent. 58

           During the first seven decades of the 20th century, the 1901 Alabama Constitution

successfully disfranchised millions of black Alabamians and denied even more blacks

educational, political, and economic opportunities. Unfortunately, many poor whites

faced the same misfortune. During the first election conducted after the enactment of the

1901 Constitution, white voter turnout declined 19% and black voting decreased by 96%.

In a 1941-42 study, the Alabama Policy Conference estimated that the 1901 Constitution

disfranchised nearly 600,000 whites and some 520,000 blacks. Based on this study,

disfranchisement hurt whites more than blacks during the first half of the 20th century.59

           During the second half of the 20th century, north Alabama experienced

tremendous growth in industry and technology while the Black Belt witnessed steady

economic decline. In 2005, many north Alabama counties represent the economic wealth

of a new Alabama and the Black Belt counties represent one of the most depressed

regions in America. Over a hundred years ago, Alabama chose a path that not only

disfranchised many citizens, but diminished its hopes and dreams of a bright future.

The historical record clearly proves the purposes behind the 1901 Alabama Constitution

involved dividing citizens and conquering racial and political fears. Let us hope that

     Flynt, Alabama in the Twentieth Century, 12.
     Flynt, “Alabama’s Shame”, 75.

during the next one hundred years, history will reveal an Alabama dedicated to unity and

cooperation instead of bitterness and strife.


I) Primary Sources

Official Proceedings of the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention
(Volumes I and III) – UAH: JK 4525 1901 A15 V1 and V3.

II) Secondary Sources

Flynt, Wayne. Alabama in the Twentieth Century. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama
       Press. 2004.

Fry, Joseph A. From Civil War to Civil Rights: Alabama 1860-1960. Tuscaloosa:
        University of Alabama Press.1985.

McMillan, Malcolm C. Constitutional Development in Alabama 1789-1901: A Study of
      Politics, the Negro, and Sectionalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
      Press. 1955.

Rogers, William W., Alabama: A History of A Deep South State. Tuscaloosa:
       University of Alabama Press. 1994.

Thomson, Bailey. A Century of Controversy: Constitutional Reform in Alabama.
     Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 2002.

Webb, Samuel L. Two Party Politics in the One-Party South: Alabama’s Hill Country
      1874-1920. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 1997.

III) Journal Articles

Flynt, Wayne. “Alabama’s Shame: The Historical Origins of the 1901 Constitution.”
       Alabama Law Review, Vol. 53 Issue 1, 67-76. Fall 2001.

Riser, R. Volney. “The Burdens of Being White: Empire and Disfranchisement.”
        Alabama Law Review, Vol. 53 Issue 1, 243-272. Fall 2001.

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