Governor George Wallace stands in the doorway of a University of Alabama building in June 1963. He was fulfilling a campaign promise to resist integration at the state’s largest university, symbolically blocking James Hood and Vivian Malone from enrolling at the school.
I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
As Governor George Wallace spoke these now infamous words at his first inauguration in 1963, the Alabamians in attendance couldn’t have known that they were at a crossroads. To them, this was the latest in a long line of Democratic politicians winning the governorship. Wallace had known he would become governor since the conclusion of the Democratic primary contest the previous June, as Democratic disenfranchisement of black Alabamians had reduced the state to a single-party rule; Wallace won the general election with 96% of the vote.
But Wallace’s tenure as governor would prove to be more significant than they could have imagined. As those Alabamians cheered for segregation on a bitterly cold January day in 1963, the United States was on the cusp of a decade of change–and Alabama would soon find itself squarely in the middle of the national spotlight.
Today, the state of Alabama is relatively destitute. It consistently ranks poorly in metrics like unemployment rate, median income, health outcomes, obesity, education, and GDP growth. Comparing a state like Georgia, which has a similar climate, natural resources, and regional location, but much greater economic, education, and health outcomes may begin to show where Alabama’s problems come from.
This image showing the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing appeared on the front page of The New York Times on September 16th, 1963.
In the early 60s, the U.S. economy was still basking in its postwar productivity and Birmingham was poised to become a major center of economic activity in the burgeoning south. Nestled among the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Birmingham is the only place in the world that iron, coal, and limestone can all be found in close proximity. Similar to its British namesake, Birmingham, Alabama had became the largest industrial center in the region, and its considerable resources led the burgeoning city to explode in population and economic activity during the first half of the 20th century.
Today, Atlanta, Georgia could be called the New York City of the South. The comparison has been made both because of its size (5.7 million people live in its metropolitan area) and its position of cultural prominence rooted in its multi-ethnic background. Atlanta is quickly becoming a cultural hub with an influence that rivals every other city in America.
There was once a debate about whether Birmingham or Atlanta would emerge as the cultural capital of the region. The two cities, separated by only 120 miles of Interstate 20, had a lot in common. Both were hubs of transportation, had burgeoning banking and financial industries, and appeared poised to take advantage of the southern population boom in the mid-20th century.
But then 1963 happened. George Wallace was inaugurated in January, and for a country that had been watching Bull Connor spray peaceful demonstrators with water hoses and attack them with dogs for the last few years, electing the “segregation forever” governor cemented Alabama’s legacy.
In April, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” arguably the magnum opus for the nonviolent movement. In May, Ku Klux Klan assassination attempts on several leaders of the Civil Rights Movement sparked riots in the city. In June, Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door to prevent the integration of The University of Alabama. Then, on the morning of September 16th, Americans woke up to scenes of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a terrorist attack carried out by the KKK that left four black children dead and 22 more people wounded.
Though it was still two years before Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama’s fate was sealed by the end of 1963. Birmingham became Bombingham, and Alabama’s political leaders became the symbol of Jim Crow’s enduring power in the South.
For the better part of five years, Americans tuned in (seemingly nightly) to the news, only to be greeted by the horrific images of police brutality, violence, and terrorism during the Civil Rights Movement. A few years later, in 1968, Wallace ran a fairly successful third party campaign for president on his pro-segregation platform. He won 45 electoral votes, over 13% of the vote, and the state of Alabama became more entwined with his anti-integration platform.
Who would want to live or start a business in a city like that? The rest is history–Atlanta and Birmingham’s fates diverged. Atlanta was dubbed “the city too busy to hate” and racial strife took a backseat to economic growth. Atlanta, a city “south of the north, yet north of the south,” as W.E.B. Du Bois called it, became a southern success story.
Meanwhile, Birmingham filed the biggest municipal bankruptcy in history in 2011 and seems destined to forever be Atlanta’s little brother in the region.
The Heart of Dixie
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore standing beside a monument of the Ten Commandments. His refusal to remove it from the state judicial building that he had placed it in led to his removal from office in 2003.
If there’s an equivalent idiom to “shoot yourself in the foot” for the actions of state governments, it should be inscribed over the door of the capitol building in Montgomery.
The recent political history of Alabama shows that, like Governor Wallace, Alabama politicians refuse to put the economic well being of the state over their staunch socially conservative views and, often times, their huge personal egos.
Former Governor Robert Bentley is the latest politician to embarrass the state on a national level. His salacious sex scandal and the subsequent coverup resulted in his arrest. He’s the third of Alabama’s last six governors to be found guilty of a crime.
Bentley’s administration is under investigation under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for actions following the passage of a strict voter ID law in 2014. In 2015, the state shut down 34 DMV offices in predominantly black communities, making it that much harder for black Alabamians to vote.
Squad goals! 1. Former AL House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who was convicted of violating ethics laws that he passed and sentenced to four years in prison. 2. Former AL Gov. Robert Bentley, who pleaded guilty to ethics charges and resigned in April 2017, shortly after appointing Luther Strange to the U.S. Senate. 3. Former AL Senator Jeff Sessions, who was appointed as U.S. Attorney General by President Trump. 4. U.S. Senator Luther Strange, the former AL Attorney General who was investigating Gov. Bentley prior to being appointed U.S. Senator by Bentley. 5. Former AL Supreme Court Chief Justice, who has been removed from that office twice and is running in the special election to fill Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat.
There are also questions about Bentley’s appointment of Luther Strange to replace Senator Jeff Sessions, whose seat was vacated upon his promotion to U.S. Attorney General by President Donald Trump. Strange, the former Alabama attorney general, was likely involved in the investigation of Governor Bentley immediately prior to being appointed.
It doesn’t stop with the executive branch, however. Mike Hubbard, the former speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, was convicted on 12 ethics charges in 2016 and sentenced to four years in prison. In the midst of his investigation of the sitting governor, the Speaker of the House was removed from office.
Roy Moore, the chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court, was removed from office in 2016 for refusing to obey federal injunctions relating to same sex marriage in the state. This was over ten years after being removed from office during his first term for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the state judicial building. Moore is now mulling a special election run for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Jeff Sessions.
For those of you keeping track at home, you’re not mistaken; in the past year, the heads of all three branches of Alabama’s government were removed from office.
Stars Fell on Alabama
Former Governor Robert Bentley at an April 7, 2017 press conference in which he assured Alabamians he would not resign. He resigned three days later.
Politics in the state have long been considered a “good ol’ boys club” in a way that most other states are not. Alabama is stuck in a repeating cycle of bad politicians that are more concerned with personal relationships and special interests than improving the state, and there are no signs of this changing anytime soon.
As I write this, it’s the week of Confederate Memorial Day, a real state holiday celebrated in Alabama. It’s also The Daily Show’s “Alabama Week,” during which Trevor Noah will presumably poke fun at the ridiculousness of Alabama’s politics and culture, something that Alabamians are getting pretty used to.
For Alabamians, though, it’s not just a joke. There’s a lot to love about the Yellowhammer State, and the generosity and kindness of its people is high on that list. Unfortunately, the politicians that Alabamians select to represent them, and the policies they enact, consistently hurt the state, both directly and indirectly.
It’s 2017, and Alabama might be at a crossroads yet again. Alabamians could continue to elect unscrupulous and radically ideological candidates like Roy Moore to office, which will likely continue the cycle of poor leadership and national embarrassment. Or, they could instead begin to support reasonable candidates that are able to empower the state, conservative views and all.
Nothing encapsulates the contradiction of Alabama quite like a drive through my hometown of Mobile. For a second, I swell with pride as I look down from I-10 and see a growing downtown district, with tall skyscrapers and the beauty of Mobile Bay in the background. Then, I enter the George Wallace tunnel and remember how far we still have to go.