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Alabama at a glance

/ Source: National Journal

Beginnings matter, and Alabama had its beginnings in two surges of settlement. One was from the north, when Jacksonian farmers from Tennessee surged into the red clay hills from which their hero, Andrew Jackson, expelled the Creek and other Indians. You can see their early Greek Revival buildings in historic Huntsville, surrounded by the boom town that has grown up around the Marshall Space Center, but Jacksonian Alabama is anything but cool and classical: the settlers brought the fighting faith of the Scots-Irish, a hot-spirited willingness to fight to the death against any perceived insult or threat. The other surge of settlement into Alabama came a few years later, as entrepreneurial Southern planters brought slaves in to pick cotton in the fertile Black Belt (so named for its soil) east and west of Montgomery in the middle of the state. The interplay between the offspring of these two streams of settlers has been the stuff of Alabama politics ever since. The Jacksonians' fighting spirit led them to join the planters and support secession; the first Confederate Congress convened and Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederacy in the Greek Revival Alabama Capitol in February 1861.

After the Civil War, Alabama, like other southern states, became solidly Democratic, but with an angry populist accent. Birmingham, with its solid-iron Red Mountain, became the South's first steel producer in the 1880s. Alabama politics in the first half of the 20th century was a struggle between angry populists who favored New Deal government spending to help the little guy—Senator and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman, Governor "Kissin' Jim" Folsom and the local economic potentates they called the "Big Mules"—and the plantation owners of the Black Belt.

Then Alabama became one of the birthplaces of the civil rights movement. Down the hill from the Capitol is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where in December 1956 the 27-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. led the boycott that began when Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. A hundred miles north in Birmingham, while King was held in jail, Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor (then Alabama's Democratic National Committeeman) ordered police dogs and fire hoses to be turned on peaceful demonstrators in May 1963. Four months later four girls were killed when a bomb exploded in Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church (bombers were convicted in 1977, 2001 and 2002). In March 1965 a civil rights marcher was murdered in Montgomery two weeks after police beat dozens at Selma's Pettus Bridge; another activist was shot and killed in Lowndes County that August. These events had reverberations far beyond Alabama: in June 1963 John Kennedy endorsed what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in March 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

While Alabamians like Parks were leading the nation toward civil rights, Alabama's leading politician of the time, George Wallace, was leading the other way. Elected governor in 1962, he made national news in June 1963 by standing in a schoolhouse door and pretending to defy a federal court desegregation order. In 1964 Wallace ran in northern Democratic presidential primaries against Lyndon Johnson; in 1968 he ran for president as a third-party candidate and won 13.5% of the vote. He ran in the Democratic primaries again in 1972 and was partially paralyzed by a gunshot wound while campaigning in May; he took delegates to the national convention, and did not lose his force as a national politician until he lost to Jimmy Carter in the March 1976 Florida primary. But he remained the key figure in Alabama for three decades, running his first wife to succeed him in 1966 (she died in mid-term), regaining the governorship again in 1970 and (when second terms were allowed) in 1974, then running and winning one last time in 1982. He spent his last sad years apologizing for his acts, meeting with the student he tried to block in the schoolhouse door, and proclaiming, "The South has changed, and for the better," until his death in September 1998.

It was during Wallace's last term as governor, in 1983, that state government started publishing a black heritage guide. Today heritage tourism commemorating the civil rights movement is one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism business, and Alabama is leading the way. Montgomery boasts Maya Lin's circular Civil Rights Memorial, Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum, the Dexter Parsonage and the endpoint of the Selma-to-Montgomery trail. The Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, the Selma-to-Montgomery interpretive center in Lowndes County, the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site—all are on the Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail.

Economically Alabama lost important ground in the Wallace years. While Atlanta was peacefully desegregating and beginning decades of vibrant white-collar growth, Birmingham was violently resisting the civil rights movement, only to see the shrinkage of its once substantial blue-collar base—the steel industry—and an outflow of talented people of all races. But Alabama's economy has been moving ahead recently and has been growing in tandem with the nation's; in October 2006 it had its lowest unemployment ever, 3.2%. Big new auto plants have played a role, with Mercedes in Tuscaloosa, Honda in Talladega County and Hyundai in Montgomery. Alabama produced nearly 500,000 vehicles in 2005 and Hyundai plans to add 200,000 more in production in a few years. Two European companies are building facilities near Mobile: EADS is expanding its new aircraft factory and ThyssenKrupp plans to open its $3.7 billion steel-processing facility in 2010.

George Wallace delayed for a generation the move toward the Republican party in Alabama and in much of the non-metropolitan South. But in the quarter-century since he last appeared on the ballot, Alabama has developed a two-party politics and, in presidential elections, has completed its transformation from one of the nation's most Democratic states to one of its most Republican. But state politics remains competitive. On one side of this political conflict are the Democrats: Their voting base is Alabama's large black minority and the institutional base is the state's well organized teachers' unions and trial lawyers. On the other side are the Republicans: Their voting base is white evangelical Protestants and their institutional base is small businessmen and the affluent young families filling the fast-growing suburban areas outside Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Huntsville. The Republicans have tended to prevail, by large margins in presidential and Senate and state Supreme Court elections and by narrow margins in races for governor and statewide downballot offices. But the Democrats have fought back hard, holding onto the legislature and, since Wallace left office, bringing ethics charges against one Republican governor which led to his conviction and removal from office (Guy Hunt in 1993), defeating another (Fob James in 1998) and twice contesting election results with legal arguments (the Democratic runoff in 1986 and the general election in 2002).

The 2002 race for governor between Democrat Don Siegelman and Republican Congressman Bob Riley showed the close division between two Alabamas. Siegelman carried the central cities, the Black Belt and many of the poor-white rural counties in the north. This was the coalition of blacks and poor whites the political scientist V.O. Key, Jr., longed for in his mid-century classic Southern Politics. But it was not enough to win. Riley carried by big margins the suburban counties around Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville and the smaller, robustly-growing counties along the Interstate highways.

Alabama politics has continued to run into turbulence since. One controversy raged over Chief Justice Roy Moore's installation in July 2001 of a huge monument with the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court building. In 2002 a federal judge ruled that unconstitutional, and an appeals court affirmed the judgment and ordered him to remove the statue in 2003. Moore refused; the other eight justices complied; the Alabama Court of the Judiciary removed Moore in November 2003 and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in 2004. Another controversy came when Bob Riley put on the ballot a referendum on a $1.2 billion tax increase. Riley argued that his changes would reduce taxes on low-income people and that such a move was in line with Christian morality. Alabama's Jacksonians did not buy it: the proposition was defeated 67%-33%, and won by unimpressive margins even in black-majority counties and the state capital. It won only 14% in Winston County, an independent-minded hill county which seceded from secessionist Alabama during the Civil War.

Sparks threatened to flare in the 2006 Republican primary when Moore ran against Riley, but Riley won 67%-33%. Moore evidently struck even many of those who had voted against Riley's tax increase as too extreme. Almost as many Alabamians voted in this Republican primary (460,000) as in the Democratic primary (467,000) the same day, a stark contrast with 20 years before, when George Wallace was the retiring incumbent and turnout in the Democratic primary (830,000) dwarfed that in the Republican primary (25,000). Riley won the general election by a solid 57%-42% margin. Democrat Jim Folsom Jr., was narrowly elected lieutenant governor, and Democrat Sue Bell Cobb beat Chief Justice Ryan Nabers, who had beaten a Moore ally in the Republican primary; Republicans won most other statewide offices. Alabama's hard-fought judicial races, pitting trial lawyer-backed Democrats versus business- and cultural conservative-backed Republicans, are costly: At least $52 million has been spent by high court candidates there since 1993.