February 4, 1846 – Alabama Begins Statewide Convict Leasing

Alabama did not have a prison system at first. As the Alabama Department of Corrections recounts:

Surprisingly, especially when contrasted with today’s way of thinking, the people of the 1820’s and 1830’s did not want a prison system. As a general rule of the early Alabama frontiersmen, the administration of justice was best left in the hands of the local citizens, or when available, with county officials.”

Finally in 1839, the state legislature adopted a criminal code authorizing a state penitentiary system.

In October of that year, Governor Bagby laid the cornerstone of the Wetumpka State Penitentiary (WSP) and by 1841 the 208-cell prison surrounded by walls twenty-five feet high was completed. Notably, the first inmate to enter WSP in 1842 had received a twenty year sentence for harboring a runaway slave.

The prison was supposed to have operated self-sufficiently from the tax-payer’s support but that didn’t work out. Thus, on February 4, 1846, this day in history, an act was passed which permitted private individuals to lease WSP’s facilities and convicts.

In 1866, under the Reconstructionist Republican Governor Robert M. Patton, laws were enacted which permitted the convicts to be leased outside the prison facilities. The convict contracting system proved to be especially profitable in rebuilding the war-ravaged railroad system. To keep the laborers coming and to boost the popularity of the system, the convict population changed from the pre-Civil War number of 99% white to the postwar 90% black.

Indeed, the use of black prisoners for forced labor was so successful, and so rewarding for whites who resented having to pay blacks for labor, that the practice spread throughout the South.

In the Pulitzer Prize winning book Slavery by Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon describes how by 1900 the South’s judicial system was wholly reconfigured to accommodate this practice. Thousands of random indigent black men were arrested for anything from unemployment, to not being able to prove employment at any given moment, to changing employers without “permission”, or even loud talk. In other words, they were arrested for being young black men. They were sentenced to hard labor, and bought and sold by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day – “subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners – many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement.” Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located.

Breaking rocks, 1930s, Unknown location

According to ThoughtCo:

As an example of how the states profited from the process, the percentage of Alabama’s total annual revenue generated from convict leasing increased from 10 percent in 1846 to nearly 73 percent by 1889.”

Nevertheless, convict leasing was slowly phased out during the late 19th and early 20th centuries largely due to negative public opinion and opposition from the growing labor union movement. Alabama became the last state to end the official practice of convict leasing in 1928.

January 23, 1957 – Torture and Murder of African American Willie Edwards, Jr. in Alabama “By Mistake”

Willie Edwards, Jr., born in 1932, was a 24-year-old African American who was murdered by members of the Alabama KKK in a case of mistaken identity (i.e., he was black, and that was close enough).

As the Southern Poverty Law Center reported, the racial climate in Montgomery, Alabama was “palpably ugly” in early 1957:

A grass-roots movement of black citizens — led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — had recently forced the integration of the city transit system. The Ku Klux Klan reacted violently. Members of the Klan marched through Montgomery in an effort to terrorize black bus riders and bombed the homes and businesses of boycott supporters. Several members of a local Ku Klux Klan group decided that only the murder of a black would express their outrage.”

The Klansmen decided to look for a black delivery truck driver suspected of dating a white woman. In a fatal move, Willie Edwards Jr., was substituting for the driver on this night in history when the Klansmen pulled him over on by a bridge along the Alabama River outside Montgomery. They mistakenly assumed that Edwards was their target and tortured him at gunpoint, then ordered him to jump 125 feet off the bridge and into the river. His decomposed body was found three months later.

The investigation turned up no suspects and was quickly closed.

According to the New York Times:

Willie Edwards’s 23-year-old wife, Sarah Jean, frantic with grief and anxiety, said she ‘just about went batty with it.’ Alone with three small children to raise, she had very little money. No one had information for her, no lawyer would look into it and her husband’s employers offered neither help nor comfort. . . . She left Montgomery with her children in 1961 and never moved back.”

In 1976, then State Attorney General Bill Baxley re-opened the Edwards case. Four people were arrested and charged with Edwards’s murder: Sonny Kyle Livingston Jr. (38), Henry Alexander (46), James York (73), and Raymond Britt Jr. Britt broke the long silence with his affidavit (in exchange for immunity), dated February 20, 1976. In the statement to Attorney General Bill Baxley, Britt described how on the night of January 23, 1957, he along with three other men beat and forced Edwards to jump off the Tyler-Goodwin Bridge into the Alabama River. Alabama Judge Frank Embry, however, dismissed the charges, even with Britt’s sworn testimony, because no cause of death was ever established. He concluded that “merely forcing a person to jump from a bridge does not naturally and probably lead to the death of such person.”

December 14, 1819 – Alabama Joins the Union as the 22nd State

A mound-building Native American culture once flourished before the arrival of Europeans in what is now the southeastern United States. One of the major centers of this culture is today aptly named Moundville, Alabama, where some 29 earthwork mounds survive.

Moundville Archaeological Park in Alabama

The history of Alabama’s Native American peoples is reflected in many of its place names. Among the Native American people living in the area at the time of European contact were the Alibamu, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Koasati, and Mobile tribes.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to enter Alabama, claiming land for the Spanish Crown. They named the region “La Florida,” which extended to the state now bearing that name.

The English also laid claims to the region. Charles II of England included the territory of modern Alabama in the Province of Carolina, with land granted to certain of his favorites by the charters of 1663 and 1665.

The French came to Alabama as well. In 1702 they founded a settlement on the Mobile River near its mouth, constructing Fort Louis. For the next nine years this was the French seat of government of New France, or La Louisiane (Louisiana). In 1711, settlers moved the fort to higher ground in what eventually became Mobile, the first permanent European settlement in Alabama.

The French and the English engaged in competition for Indian trade in what is now the state of Alabama between roughly the 1690s and the 1750s. After that time, various conflicts resulting in the territory being divided among Britain, Spain and France, and eventually being ceded to, sold to, or taken by the United States.

By 1812, the whole area of the present state of Alabama was under the jurisdiction of the United States. Several Native American tribes still occupied most of the land, with some formal ownership recognized by treaty with the United States.

In 1817, the Mississippi Territory was divided. The western portion, which had attracted population more quickly, became the state of Mississippi. The eastern portion became the Alabama Territory, with St. Stephens on the Tombigbee River as its temporary seat of government.

Mississippi Territory changes 1798-1817

In 1819, on this day in history, Alabama was admitted as the 22nd state to the Union.

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act under the leadership of President Andrew Jackson, forcing the removal of southeastern tribes, including the Five Civilized Tribes of Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole. Further “removals” were enacted from 1832 to 1837.

After the eviction of Native Americans, white settlers arrived in large numbers, bringing or importing tens of thousands of African slaves in the domestic trade. By 1860 African Americans (nearly all slaves) comprised 45 percent of the state’s 964,201 people.

One of the largest slaveholding states, Alabama was among the first six states to secede, declaring its secession in January, 1861 and joining the Confederacy in February. Following the Civil War, though blacks had been emancipated, the whites in the South were unable to countenance the freedom of their former slaves. They tried to suppress blacks in every way they could, with many joining the newly formed Ku Klux Klan to ensure that blacks stayed “in their places.”

Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate Army General and 1st leader of the KKK

The Klan in essence launched a new civil war by clandestine means, with a violent spate of domestic terrorism, both against blacks, and against any whites who dared sympathize with them. Efforts by some in the North to deter the horrifying incidents of beatings, rape and murder in the South were thwarted by increasing moral fatigue and widespread racism.

From Harper’s Weekly, 1876

Birmingham was founded in 1871 by real estate promoters who sold lots near the planned crossing of the Alabama & Chattanooga and South & North railroads. The site also had rich deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone—the three principal raw materials used in making steel. Its founders adopted the name of England’s principal industrial city to advertise the new city as a center of iron and steel production. The population of this ‘Pittsburgh of the South’ grew from 38,000 to 132,000 from 1900 to 1910, attracting rural white and black migrants from all over the region. By 1915, twenty-five percent of the nation’s foundry pig iron was produced in Birmingham. By the 1920s, Birmingham was the 19th largest city in the U.S and held more than 30% of the population of the state.

Casting pig iron, Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, c. 1906. (Detroit Publishing Co., Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Meanwhile, “Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. In Alabama, Democrats pushed through a new constitution in 1901 that restricted suffrage and effectively disenfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites through requirements for voter registration, such as poll taxes, literacy tests and restrictive residency requirements. The damage to the African-American community was severe and pervasive, as nearly all its eligible citizens lost the ability to vote. In 1900 45% of Alabama’s population were African American and more than 181,000 African Americans were eligible to vote. By 1903 only 2,980 had managed to “qualify” to register, although at least 74,000 black voters were literate. The shut out was long-lasting. Disfranchisement also meant that blacks and poor whites could not serve on juries, so were subject to a justice system in which they had no part.

The volatile social environment of the early 20th Century contributed to a renaissance of the Ku Klux Klan after 1915. Tens of thousands of African Americans from Alabama joined the “Great Migration” of blacks out of the South from 1915 to 1930. They left for their own safety, as well as better opportunities in industrial cities, mostly in the North.

In the 1950s, many African-Americans became activists for civil rights, and Alabama was a center of such activity. The Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy (and begun after Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of the bus) was one of the most significant African-American protests against the policy of racial segregation in the state.

From 1947 to 1965, Birmingham suffered some 50 racially motivated bomb attacks. In 1963 civil rights leaders chose to mount a campaign in Alabama for additional desegregation, in schools, restaurants, department stores, and the police force.

In the spring and summer of 1963, national attention became riveted on Birmingham thanks to newspaper and television images of Birmingham police using police dogs and powerful streams of water against black protesters. The Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing during a Sunday service, which killed four African-American girls, also caused a national outcry and gained support for the civil rights cause in the state.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to ensure state and local governments did not pass laws or policies denying American citizens the equal right to vote based on race. But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, removing a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting. Under Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination had to seek pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect minorities. In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 4 — which determines the states and localities covered by Section 5 — arguing that current conditions required a new coverage formula, averring that “blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.” Since the ruling, several states previously delineated in Section 4, including Alabama, moved to restrict voting rights with tactics ranging from racial gerrymandering to closing poll sites. (A federal court found that Alabama legislators unconstitutionally relied on race in redrawing 12 state legislative districts.)

There are positive features about Alabama too, of course. A relatively new popular event takes place in downtown Mobile every year. Ever since New Year’s Eve in 2008, a twelve-foot tall electronic MoonPie weighing some 600 pounds is dropped from a 34-story building.

The event is known as “MoonPie Over Mobile.” (A traditional MoonPie consists of two round graham cracker cookies with marshmallow filling in the center, dipped in chocolate.)

MoonPie Over Mobile

MoonPie Over Mobile

Chattanooga Bakery started making MoonPies in 1917, in response to a request from local coal miners who wanted something they could eat without stopping for an actual break which they couldn’t take. When the bakery salesman asked how big this treat should be, a miner held out his hands, framed the moon, and said, “About that big!”


You may ask, isn’t Chattanooga in Tennessee? Why does a MoonPie drop in Mobile? The answer is related to Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration. Mardi Gras in Mobile is the oldest annual Carnival celebration in the United States, having started in 1703. This was fifteen years before New Orleans was founded, although today the celebrations in New Orleans are more widely known. (Mobile, it should be noted, was the first capital of French Louisiana, which is not the same thing as the Louisiana Territory. A map of French Louisiana is shown below).

French Louisiana was the name of French-controlled land in North America; this map shows territorial holdings in around 1750.

French Louisiana was the name of French-controlled land in North America; this map shows territorial holdings in around 1750.

In Mobile, some 33 different groups stage the major parades each year for Mardi Gras over a three-week periods.

Cache of Mobile Mardi Gras throws

Cache of Mobile Mardi Gras throws

During the parades, members of societies (“krewes”) on floats toss gifts known as throws to the public. The gifts have included plastic beads, doubloon coins, decorated plastic cups, candy, wrapped cakes/snacks, stuffed animals, and small toys, footballs, frisbees, or whistles. Cracker Jack boxes used to be thrown, but their rectangular boxes could injure people, and they were banned in the early Seventies. MoonPies had been used by a few groups as throws since the 1950‘s, but after the Cracker Jack ban, the soft wrapped treat took over as the signature throw. In 2012, more than 3 million Moon Pies were tossed from floats. With the MoonPie now being an unofficial emblem of Mobile, and Mardi Gras being very big business in Mobile, the MoonPie was first used for the New Year’s Eve drop in 2008. In addition, the Chattanooga Bakery creates a giant edible MoonPie to carve up for partiers.

50-pound MoonPie served to revelers on Dec. 30, 2008, in downtown Mobile

50-pound MoonPie served to revelers on Dec. 30, 2008, in downtown Mobile

September 16, 1963 – Civil Rights Lawyer Charles Morgan, Jr. Delivers Speech on the Meaning of the Birmingham, Alabama Church Bombing

Charles Morgan Jr., born in 1930, graduated from the University of Alabama, where he also received a law degree in 1955. A white man, he became a civil rights lawyer who won numerous landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He opened the American Civil Liberties Union’s Atlanta office in 1964 and became legislative director of the ACLU’s national office in Washington in 1972, defending some of the most controversial cases of the 1960s and 1970s. His most important case was the”one-man, one-vote” ruling he won in 1964 in Reynolds v. Sims (377 U.S. 533), which forced the Alabama legislature to create districts that were equal in population, giving black voters a better chance to elect candidates.

Charles “Chuck” Morgan, Jr.

Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center said [a bit optimistically, as it turned out] that the Reynolds case “was the death knell for voting discrimination in the South.”

Morgan also forced Alabama to integrate its prisons; successfully challenged the Southern practice of barring women and blacks from jury duty; and represented Julian Bond when the Georgia General Assembly tried to prevent the newly elected legislator from taking his seat after he spoke out against the Vietnam War. He also appealed the draft evasion conviction of heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who opposed the Vietnam War on religious grounds. [Morgan handled the appeal in district and appellate courts; he did not argue the case before the Supreme Court, where Mr. Ali was represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Chauncey Eskridge and others argued the case there, and the Court ruled in Mr. Ali’s favor in 1971. Nevertheless, ever ignorant of history, in June, 2018, President Trump said he was considering pardoning Ali.]

Muhammad Ali has a “no comment” as he is confronted by newsmen as he leaves the Federal Building in Houston during the noon recess of court, June 19, 1967. (Ed Kolenovsky, Associated Press)

But perhaps the most seminal moment in Morgan’s career came on this day in history. On September 16, 1963, the day after four young black girls were killed in the firebombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Mr. Morgan took the podium at the Birmingham’s Young Men’s Business Club to deliver his most famous speech, saying:

“We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry, and stand indicted before our young. We are cursed by the failure of each of us to accept responsibility, by our defense of an already dead institution. . . . Every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty as the demented fool who threw the bomb. . . .

Who did it? Who threw that bomb? The answer should be, ‘We all did it.'”

Charles Morgan, Jr. on the left and the victims of the church bombing on the right

He later recalled:

“I was mad as hell. I made a speech I’d written that morning. When I got through, everyone applauded, and someone moved to admit a Negro to membership in the club. Like everything else in Birmingham, it died for want of a second.”

The Atlantic reported:

Following the speech, the threats began almost immediately. The very next morning, at 5 a.m., Morgan received a call. ‘Is the mortician there yet?’ a voice asked. ‘I don’t know any morticians,’ Morgan responded. ‘Well, you will,’ the voice answered, ‘when the bodies are all over your front yard.’ Later, Morgan recounted, a client of his drove an hour to tell him to flee Birmingham. ‘They’ll shoot you down like a dog,’ the client told Morgan. Little wonder that Morgan quickly closed down his law practice and moved himself and his family to safety.”

Reflecting on what happened later, Morgan stated he did not feel that moderates in the South could be expected to be a powerful force for change. As he told The Harvard Crimson:

The fiction of the Northern liberal that the Southern moderate is going to rise up and speak out is silly. . . . A Northern liberal lawyer in the cool 4:30 comfort of his Madison Avenue bar says, ‘Why don’t you stay there and fight?’ Then that same lawyer will send his Southern business to a firm all of whose partners are racists, and, rationalize it by saying: ‘We want a firm that will win.’”

Morgan added:

When the federal government starts sending in registrars and enforcing the laws already on the books, when the North accepts the social responsibility that goes with the ownership of all the corporate wealth in the South, when Harvard and all the Harvards take the stewardship of their Southern investments as a social concern that is equal to their concern for the education of young men–that’s when someone in the South who’s a normal human being wedded to his hometown will be able to take the stances that are necessary to achieve change.”

In 1977, Morgan left the ACLU to go into private practice. As the New York Times related the story, Morgan experienced a growing disaffection with the national headquarters, which came to a boil in 1976:

‘At a Washington party, a New York liberal told him that he opposed Jimmy Carter of Georgia for president because, he said, ‘I could never vote for anybody with a Southern accent.’ Mr. Morgan replied, ‘That’s bigotry, and that makes you a bigot.’ When the encounter was reported in The New York Times, Mr. Morgan was reprimanded by Aryeh Neier, the executive director of the A.C.L.U., and Mr. Morgan resigned.”

The lawyer who led an early movement to impeach President Richard M. Nixon then astounded his friends by representing former attorney general John N. Mitchell in an unsuccessful attempt to shorten his prison term. He also represented the Tobacco Institute in a fight against a municipal ordinance banning smoking in public places and corporate clients accused of discrimination.

Morgan died at age 78 from complications of advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

April 10, 1956 – Birmingham, Alabama Racists Attack Nat King Cole on Stage

Nat King Cole

On this day in history, popular African-American singer Nat King Cole was attacked and beaten by a mob of racists while performing on stage in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham was very segregated, so Cole had two shows scheduled – an early show for whites, and a later show for blacks. According to an eye-witness, during the first show, four white men ran to the stage and started attacking Cole. Police rushed in and grabbed them. Cole was slightly injured in the fracas and considerably shaken up; he was taken to the hospital so could not perform for the second show. The witness reported:

Later, we learned from newspaper accounts that the four racists who launched the attack were local Klan members who cooked up this plan. They did some jail time for assault and battery or some such minor charge. The Birmingham police apparently had been tipped off that there might be trouble at the concert and were stationed backstage.”

Later in the year, on November 5, 1956, Cole launched a weekly television show on NBC television, making him the first African-American to host his or her own show on a major national network. From 1956-57, Cole hosted some of the most revered names in jazz and pop on his NBC series: Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mercer, Mel Tormé and Peggy Lee, among others. Many television stations in the South, however, refused to carry the show.

March 7, 1965 – Bloody Sunday in American Civil Rights Struggle in Selma, Alabama

On Sunday March 7, 1965 about six hundred people led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams began a fifty-four mile march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. They were demonstrating for African American voting rights and to commemorate the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot three weeks earlier by a state trooper while Jackson was trying to protect his mother at a civil rights demonstration. On the outskirts of Selma, after the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were brutally assaulted by heavily armed state troopers and deputies in plain sight of photographers and journalists.

Alabama State Troopers Attack John Lewis at the Edmund Pettis Bridge

Alabama State Troopers Attack John Lewis at the Edmund Pettis Bridge

The state troopers threw tear gas into the crowd, and as the crowd fled back toward downtown Selma, mounted possemen swung clubs or homemade flails of rubber hose laced with spikes. Taylor Branch, in At Canaan’s Edge, reports:

“By 3:30 p.m., more than a hundred troopers, possemen, and sheriff’s deputies pursued the marchers over the mile back to the neighborhood around Brown Chapel [the starting point of the march], where they attacked stragglers in a frenzy. Some drove their quarry indoors; others yelled for Negroes to come out. Down the block, troopers threw one teenager through a ground-floor window into the basement of First Baptist Church. … Thirty minutes after the marchers’ encounter with the troopers, a Negro could not be seen walking the streets.”

Doctors and nurses worked all night on more than one hundred patients, who were only accepted at one hospital – a Catholic mission facility in a black neighborhood. The most common injuries were lacerations and broken bones, but there were also fractured skulls and injuries secondary to tear gas.

ABC News interrupted the Sunday night movie, Judgement in Nuremberg, to show footage of violence in Selma to forty-eight million viewers. Within two days, demonstrations in support of the marchers were held in eighty cities, and thousands of religious and lay leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, flew to Selma. On March 9, Dr. King led another group to the Pettus Bridge where they knelt, prayed, and returned to Brown Chapel.

Allowing CBS footage of “Bloody Sunday” as evidence in court, Federal Judge Frank Johnson, Jr. ruled on March 17 that the demonstrators be permitted to march. Under protection of a federalized National Guard, voting rights advocates left Selma on March 21 and stood 25,000 strong on March 25 before the state capitol in Montgomery.

Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy on the Resumed March

Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy on the Resumed March

As a direct consequence of these events, the U.S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, guaranteeing every American aged twenty-one and over the right to register to vote. During the next four years the number of U.S. blacks eligible to vote rose from 23 to 61 percent.

January 16, 1832 – Alabama Passes Laws Restricting Rights of the Native Tribes

When Alabama became a state in 1819, its white residents eagerly anticipated the eventual expulsion of Native Americans in order to have access to their rich agricultural land so they could grow more cotton. Whites argued that Indians were racially inferior and incapable of land management because they viewed land holding very differently from European Americans, and besides, they simply wanted to take their land. State leaders began to insist that Indian nations were not really sovereign; therefore their land was rightfully owned by the states. To encourage Indian emigration, the federal government began offering western territory in exchange for Indian homelands. Most Cherokees refused to emigrate, however, and by the 1820s the Cherokee Nation under its leader John Ross vowed it would not give up one more foot of land.

Cherokee Leader John Ross

Cherokee Leader John Ross

On this day in history, the General Assembly of Alabama enacted provisions prohibiting the Creek and Cherokee from practicing customs or making laws that conflicted with Alabama law. The provision stated, “All laws, usages and customs now used, enjoyed, or practiced, by the Creek and Cherokee nations of Indians, within the limits of this State, contrary to the constitution and laws of this State, be, and the same are hereby abolished.”

This statute followed one passed three years earlier that effectively extended the jurisdiction of Alabama into Creek territory. The Creek Nation had repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for assistance and protection.


Creek leaders continued organizing efforts to secure their tribal lands,but the 1832 law also declared it illegal for tribal leaders to “meet in any counsel, assembly, or convention” and create “any law for said tribe, contrary to the laws and constitution of this State.” Punishment for violating this law was imprisonment “in the common jail of the proper county, for not less than two, nor more than four, months.”

The 1832 law also provided that the Cherokee and Creek could only testify in court in suits involving other Cherokee and Creek, effectively ensuring that Creeks defrauded and illegally deprived of their land by white intruders would have no recourse in the Alabama courts.

In 1832, in the decision Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that individual states had no authority in American Indian affairs. President Andrew Jackson reportedly responded: “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” While there is no proof he actually said this, his administration made clear that was their policy. In fact, from 1814 to 1824, Jackson was instrumental in negotiating nine out of eleven treaties which divested the southern tribes of their eastern lands in exchange for lands in the west. Many of those treaties had been made not only by using bribery, but by negotiating with members of tribes not authorized to enter into negotiations. The government of course didn’t care, as long as it got the land.

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully

In 1830, just a year after taking office, Jackson pushed though Congress legislation called the “Indian Removal Act,” giving the U.S. President power to negotiate removal treaties with Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi. States like Alabama tried to make staying more unpalatable, but the tribes resisted removal; by 1838 only 2,000 had migrated; 16,000 remained on their land. The U.S. government sent in 7,000 troops, forcing the Cherokees into stockades at bayonet point. They were not allowed time to gather their belongings, and as they left, whites looted their homes. They were then marched out in what became known as the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease on their way to the western lands.

By 1837, the Jackson Administration had removed 46,000 Native American people from their land east of the Mississippi, opening 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery.

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835.

Map of United States Indian Removal, 1830-1835.

March 25, 1965 – (Yet Another) White Civil Rights Worker Murdered in Alabama

On this day in history, Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist 39-year-old civil rights activist from Michigan, and mother of five children, traveled to Selma, Alabama to help coordinate logistics for civil rights initiatives. On a trip to the Montgomery airport to shuttle fellow activists she was shot while driving by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Viola Liuzzo

Viola Liuzzo

Mrs. Liuzzo had been inspired to go to Alabama after watching television footage of state troopers attacking freedom marchers on “Bloody Sunday” on March 7. Hours after the successful Selma-to-Montgomery march ended, Mrs. Liuzzo and Leroy Moton, a nineteen-year-old local black activist, were driving back to Montgomery to pick up the last group of demonstrators waiting to return to Selma.

Four Klansmen chased down Mrs. Liuzzo’s car. About 20 miles outside of Selma, the Klansmen pulled up beside the car and one aimed his pistol out the window and shot Mrs. Liuzzo, shattering her skull. Moton grabbed the wheel and hit the brakes, and the car crashed into an embankment. When the Klansmen walked over to inspect their work, Moton faked his death while they shone a light in the car. As soon as they left, Moton flagged down a truck carrying more civil rights workers, and although he was terrified, he was uninjured. Viola Liuzzo was dead.

One of the drivers of the car carrying the Klansmen, and possibly Mrs. Liuzzo’s shooter, was Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., an FBI informant who had participated in the 1961 beatings of Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned that Mr. Rowe’s history of violence against civil rights activists and close ties to the FBI would harm the agency’s public image, proceeded to “leak” reports about Mrs. Liuzzo as being an unstable woman who had abandoned her husband and children and traveled to Selma for interracial sex and drugs.

None of these reports were proven or substantiated in any way.

Mr. Rowe later testified against the three other Klansmen who were with him on the night of Mrs. Liuzzo’s murder. They were acquitted by an all-white jury but were later convicted of federal civil rights violations. This was the first conviction of murder in a civil rights case and was a landmark in southern racial history. It was also the first time the federal government successfully prosecuted a case of civil rights conspiracy.

In 1978, investigations revealed that Rowe, the FBI informant, may have been involved in the bombing of a church in 1963 where four black girls were killed. In November of 1978, a grand jury indicted Rowe for the murder of Viola Liuzzo, but he fought the extradition proceedings against him. In 1980, an FBI file revealed that Rowe had clubbed Freedom Riders and that the FBI had paid his medical bills and given him a $125 bonus. The Liuzzo children sued the FBI for $2 million, blaming Rowe and the FBI for the murder. A federal judge blocked Rowe’s extradition to Alabama. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Liuzzos got Rowe into court, but the judge threw out the case and ordered the family to pay back the government $80,000 in court costs. The family appealed and the fine was voided.

February 18, 1965 – Peaceful Black Civil Rights Protestor Beaten and Killed By Police in Alabama

Jimmie Lee Jackson was a civil rights activist in Marion, Alabama, and a deacon in the Baptist church.

Jackson had tried to register to vote in Alabama without success for four years. He was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., who had come with other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) staff to Selma, Alabama, to help local activists in their voter registration campaign.

Jimmie Lee Jackson

Jimmie Lee Jackson

On this night in history, about 500 people organized by the SCLC left Zion United Methodist Church in Marion and attempted a peaceful walk to the Perry County jail, about a half a block away, where young civil-rights worker James Orange was being held. The demonstrators planned to sing hymns and return to the church, but the processional was interrupted by Marion police, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers, who stopped the marchers and then began to beat them.

Police later said that the attack was based on their belief that the crowd was planning a jailbreak. Among those beaten were two United Press International photographers, whose cameras were smashed, and NBC News correspondent Richard Valeriani, who was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized. The marchers turned and scattered back toward the church.

Richard Valeriani filing from his Selma hospital bed on Feb. 19, 1965 (photo courtesy NBC News)

Richard Valeriani filing from his Selma hospital bed on Feb. 19, 1965 (photo courtesy NBC News)

Jackson, his mother Viola Jackson, and his 82-year-old grandfather Cager Lee, ran into Mack’s Café behind the church, pursued by state troopers. Police clubbed Lee to the floor in the kitchen; when Viola attempted to pull the police off, she was also beaten. When Jackson tried to protect his mother, one trooper threw him against a cigarette machine. A second trooper, James Fowler, shot Jackson twice in the abdomen. The wounded Jackson fled the café, suffering additional blows by the police, and collapsed in front of the bus station.

Jackson, who had been unarmed as were the other protestors, died eight days later in the hospital. Jackson was buried in Heard Cemetery, an old slave burial ground, next to his father, with a headstone paid for by the Perry County Civic League. His headstone has been vandalized, bearing the marks of at least one shotgun blast.

Jackson’s death was part of the inspiration for the Selma to Montgomery marches in March 1965, a major event in the American Civil Rights Movement that helped gain Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 2007 former trooper Fowler was indicted in Jackson’s death, and in 2010 he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to six months in prison.

September 3, 1901 – Alabama Constitutional Convention Adopts Its Constitution “To Establish White Supremacy in this State”

On this day in history, Alabama adopted its current constitution, set to come into effect on November 28 of 1901. It is the longest still-operative constitution anywhere in the world. With more than 800 amendments, it is 12 times longer than the average state constitution, and 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution.

It is also notable for its provisions allowing for racial discrimination, some of which have still not been eliminated, although many of them have been made moot by amendments to the federal constitution, passage of federal laws, or United States Supreme Court decisions.


At the 1901 Constitutional Convention, the President of the Constitutional Convention, John B. Knox, a Calhoun County attorney, stated in his inaugural address that the intention of the convention was “to establish white supremacy in this State,” “within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution.” This was an undoubtedly important consideration since the 1900 population included 1,001,152 whites and 827,307 African-Americans.

John B. Knox

John B. Knox

Knox maintained that the people of Alabama had confronted no more important issue than disfranchisement since the 1860 secession vote:

So long as the Negro remains in significant minority, and votes the Republican ticket, our friends in the North tolerate him. . . . But if we would have white supremacy we must establish it by law — not by force or fraud.”

As Wayne Flynt, Distinguished Professor of History, Auburn University wrote, Knox justified discrimination not on “race” per se, but on “the Negro’s inferior intellectual and moral condition”:

[There was] in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the Negro. Before the art of reading and writing was known, the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon had established an orderly system of government . . . the Negro on the other hand, is descended from a race lowest in intelligence and moral perceptions of all the races of men.” (See “Alabama’s Shame: Historical Origins of the 1901 Constitution” by Wayne Flynt, online here.)]

Thus, Knox successfully guided the convention to enact constitutional provisions requiring voters to pass literacy tests in order to register, establishing a poll tax, outlawing interracial marriage, and requiring public education to be racially segregated.

In 1956, subsequent to the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483, 1954), in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, the Alabama legislature passed a constitutional amendment supporting the formation of private, tuition-based schools to evade desegregation.

Members of the Alabama National Guard mark time outside an armory in Birmingham, Ala. as they prepare to go on duty at three schools which have been ordered integrated, Sept. 10, 1963. Gov. George Wallace, who barred black students from the schools, called the guard to duty. (AP Photo)

Members of the Alabama National Guard mark time outside an armory in Birmingham, Ala. as they prepare to go on duty at three schools which have been ordered integrated, Sept. 10, 1963. Gov. George Wallace, who barred black students from the schools, called the guard to duty. (AP Photo)

Alabama’s schools remain highly segregated to this day. As “Atlantic Magazine” reported in a 2014 story about Tuscaloosa, Alabama:

Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, typically as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s — back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.”

The author added:

… the overwhelming body of research shows that once black children were given access to advanced courses, well-trained teachers, and all the other resources that tend to follow white, middle-income children, they began to catch up.”

Just in April, 2017, a federal judge’s ruling allowed a predominantly white Alabama city to separate from its more diverse school district. The Trump Justice Department, which under the Obama administration had opposed the separation, declined to comment on the ruling.

Then there is the issue of interracial marriage.

The state constitution outlawed interracial marriage (Section 102). This provision was rendered inoperative by Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1, 1967), but was not removed until November, 2000 by Amendment 667.

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967

As originally enacted, Section 102 held:

The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.”

As recently as 1998, Alabama House leaders successfully killed attempts to remove Section 102. By the time of the 2000 ballot referendum, interracial marriage had been legal in every state for more than three decades. After the 2000 vote of 59% supporting removing the language, versus 41% opposed, Alabama became the last state officially legalizing interracial marriage.