By Colin Woodward
For a few months this past winter, I was immersed in all things Alabama. Over the holidays, I finished Dan Carter’s terrific biography of George Wallace, The Politics of Rage. The only complaint I had with the book is that Carter finished it while Wallace was still alive. I would have liked to have read a chapter about Wallace’s death and his political legacy, especially given the rage many politicians–not to mention their constituents–have been in since the fall of 2008.
Carter shows that Wallace, while an extreme politician, represented the views of not just the far Right, but many American conservatives. In the 1960s, Wallace found friends in places like Wisconsin, which, despite being the home of progressives like Bob La Follette, also has its share of conservatives. American politics, Carter shows, isn’t so much purple (a blend of red and blue states) as it is schizophrenic.
When Wallace gave a speech at Harvard during the height of the civil rights struggle, Ivy Leaguers found him impassioned, clever, even charming. Wallace was many things, but he was no dummy. Northern intellectuals were expecting a freak, and what they encountered was a brilliant–albeit especially nasty–politician.
Wallace was fairly progressive as an Alabama judge. It was only when he wanted to “out-nigger” (Wallace’s term, page 96) his competition in the race for governor in 1962 that he became the symbol of white opposition to racial integration. He made headlines and gave the Kennedy family fits. Still, the man had no chance of ever becoming president–any more than Huey Long did in the 1930s.
Wallace was perhaps the last in a long line of southern demagogue governors like Long, Orval Faubus, and Lester Maddox. Wallace, like Long, was a spoiler. Long, however, never exploited the “negro question” to his advantage. His issues centered on class, not race. Yet, the Kingfish knew how to win publicity, even if that meant notoriety. And both Long and Wallace found themselves on the wrong end of an assassin’s bullet. Long was murdered by a deranged doctor; Wallace was nearly killed by a disturbed loner, whose life became the model of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.
From Carter’s book, we come to know Wallace very well, even understand him. But Carter does not sympathize with him. His anti-Wallace feelings are clear, though balanced. Wallace could be a mean SOB who had any number of redneck goons (Klansmen as well as others) willing to do his bidding, which meant cracking the heads of civil rights workers and practicing all kinds of dirty tricks. Anyone familiar with the Jim Crow South will not be surprised at how far white Alabamans went to uphold the racial status quo. However, even Wallace’s 1970 campaign for governor–by which time one would think Alabama had cooled off–was shocking and vile in its race-baiting.
Carter’s book is about as fair an account of Wallace as one could read. It would be absurd to accuse him of mistreating his subject. Wallace was a fascinating figure, but he was hardly one to appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”
From Carter’s biography I moved on to J. Mills Thornton’s Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860, which I have wanted to read for a long time. It’s one of those books a lot of historians finish in graduate school. But I’m glad I waited, because much of it likely would have gone over my head when I was in my early-20s. It’s a classic work, though a long and dense one.
Thornton says antebellum Alabama was a place “obsessed” with slavery, but he doesn’t devote most of his study to the politics of race (unlike Carter). Thornton mostly takes Alabamans’ pro-slavery convictions for granted. The state had nearly 50% of its population enslaved in 1860, and large planters dominated the state’s “Black Belt” (so named for its dark, rich soil, not its large African American population). Ideologically, the state developed during the Jacksonian period, when southern Democrats (and Whigs, too) were firmly pro-slavery.
Where Alabamans differed among themselves, Thornton shows, was in regard to the state’s economic outlook. The antebellum period was a time when new markets spread across the country with the help of steam locomotives and railroads, rich and vast farmland luring settlers west, and slave labor. Alabama didn’t achieve statehood until 1819, but by 1860, it could boast of rapid gains in education, finance, and infrastructure. The 1850s was a boom-time for the South. Southerners built more railroads in that decade than northerners did. Cotton production made some men vast fortunes, and even the lower classes were pursuing the American Dream in Alabama, which meant money gained through growing cotton and buying slaves.
Amid so many changes, Alabama politicians were concerned with issues of how much to spend and what to spend it on. As is the case today, there were those who wanted to expand and improve infrastructure and education, while others sought to keep government and state budgets very small. There were Whigs, many of them planters, who were more pro-government, though they usually saw government expansion chiefly as a means of helping business. Nevertheless, Alabama’s government only got bigger in the antebellum period. It began spending on education, though it was far behind states like Massachusetts, which established public education in the 1780s. By 1860, Alabama’s government–though tiny by today’s standards–could boast of significant achievements.
Secession, Thornton argues, was not a response to a weakening economic position for the South, but a gamble based on the idea that flush times would continue, provided southerners could pursue their interest free of northern interference. True, Alabamans feared Lincoln’s election would lead to abolition and slave unrest, but they felt they were acting from a position of strength, not weakness. A strong South must secede before the North enslaved its white population.
When it came to secession, Thornton argues that the only meaningful difference was between immediate secessionists (including men such as the Fire-eater William L. Yancey) and conditional Unionists, who dwelt more in Alabama’s northern, less slave-holding hill country. Thornton warns against reading back into the secession crisis for a strong Union contingent in the state. Unionists emerged during the war to be sure, when many whites grew angry and disillusioned with the Confederacy because of battlefield losses and harsh government measures. But Alabama’s Democrats, the author shows, were united during the secession winter.
Alabama society, Thornton shows, was a democratic one born of the Jacksonian era, when most adult white male southerners were–for the first time–allowed to vote and where people were highly suspicious of concentrated power. Politicians were responsive to the people. They made sure banks or other politicians didn’t become too powerful, even if that meant undermining economic development. Alabama had a high turnover rate for its representatives. These were not career politicians who were making decisions for the state.
Obviously, Alabama was not as democratic as it is today. Women, blacks, and Native Americans could not vote. But for its time, Alabama was democratic. Secession was not a conspiracy of planter elites, but a revolution of the people. The war that broke out was, Thornton states, the playing out of a “Jacksonian drama” in which the yeomen and planters played equal parts.
The Boys from Alabama
In January, as a conclusion of sorts to my foray into Alabama history and culture, I went to the Drive-By Truckers show in Little Rock. I’ve posted about the Truckers, who originally are from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, before. It might seem odd to blog about Dan Carter, J. Mills Thornton, and the Truckers in one essay, but they are not all that far apart, really.
The Truckers have written songs about George Wallace, who casts a long and dark shadow over Alabama. The band hails from the feisty hill country that Thornton talks about in Politics and Power, and the Truckers are exceptional in the sense of region and history they bring to their songs. The Truckers represent post-modern country at its finest, but the band also is made up of songwriters who seem to have old souls.
I had seen the Truckers before in Richmond, Virginia. And I must say, that while the Truckers are always fun to watch, the Richmond show was better. When I saw them in January, the Truckers were not having a good week. Their merchandise man, Craig Lieske, had died suddenly a few days before. Front-man Patterson Hood had had his beloved acoustic guitar stolen in Missouri (though he eventually got it back). The Truckers give you your money’s worth, but something seemed missing.
When I saw the band in Richmond, they still had bass player and singer Shonna Tucker, who is no longer with the band, as well as John Neff, who provides great guitar work, especially his slide playing. The Truckers’ new bass player is Matt Patton, who played well in Little Rock. But I miss Shonna, who balanced the heavy testosterone provided by founding members Patteron and Cooley with a much-needed female point-of-view. Former band member Jason Isbell has enjoyed success as a solo act with his band the 400 Unit. I hope Shonna will record something soon with her new band Eye Candy.
Another problem I had with the Truckers show was the set consisted mostly of the band’s older songs. The boys played a lot from Decoration Day, which, while a good album, I don’t admire nearly as much as some of the other Truckers’ records. There was very little from the post-A Blessing and a Curse period. I also didn’t think the band’s sound was great. Perhaps it had much to do with the venue. The Rev Room is pretty small. It was great that I was only a few feet from the stage. But often, the songs sounded like a ball of noise.
When I saw the Truckers in Richmond, the venue was bigger, the sound better, and the show more dramatic. Back in 2010, the band was touring in support of The Big To-Do (which I find underrated), and they played in front of a large, Gothic canvas done by the painter Wes Freed. In a moving end to the Richmond show, the band played “Angels and Fuselage”–about the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. One-by-one, the band members walked off the stage, leaving only the drummer pounding an ominous beat before silence descended.
I haven’t seen much of Alabama. I’ve been through it only a few times. Had things turned out differently as I was finishing grad school, I might be teaching at Auburn-Montgomery rather than living in Little Rock. But that didn’t work out. Hopefully, in the long run, I won’t have to experience Alabama only through books. Mobile, for one, looks interesting. And there’s always history to be had wherever you visit.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.