- Mobile and the Boswell Amendment
More than any other alabama city, mobile played a central role in the history of the Boswell Amendment, a short-lived codicil to the Alabama Constitution designed to prevent African Americans from registering to vote. The Boswell Amendment fueled one of the first significant confrontations of the post-World War II civil rights movement in Alabama. In Mobile, the battle over the amendment exposed deep divides, both among local Democrats and within the city’s black community, that signaled the beginning of even broader political changes for the Port City and the state of Alabama.
America’s entry into World War II had a lasting effect on Mobile and set the scene for the Boswell Amendment fight. Historian Allen Cronenburg argues that no American city was as dramatically transformed by World War II as Mobile. During the war years, the city’s population rapidly rose from 78,000 to 125,000, amplifying class and racial tensions as white and black workers fought over contested jobs and physical space. By 1943, Mobile was one of the most crowded cities in America. Surveying the scene, author John Dos Passos said Mobile looked “trampled and battered like a city that’s been taken by storm.”1 Wartime production transformed Mobile into a center of shipbuilding along the Gulf Coast. At the height of the war, a new ship was launched from Mobile every [End Page 205] week.2 Even greater than the economic changes were the social effects of the war on Alabama’s Port City. The war upended the southern seaport town’s social and racial status quo. “Native” Mobilians generally spurned contact with the masses of transient war workers, both black and white, who were mostly transplants from the Alabama and Mississippi hinter-land and west Florida. One schoolteacher described these workers as “the lowest type of [people]. . .They prefer to live in shacks and go barefoot. Give them a good home and they wouldn’t know what to do with it,” she said. “I only hope we can get rid of them after the war.”3
Perhaps the greatest change wrought by war was in race relations in Mobile. Historian Melton A. McLaurin writes that Mobile “uniquely exemplified the impact of World War II on the South’s black community.” During the war years, the African American population in the city grew from 29,000 to 46,000. Some were attracted to Mobile because of the city’s defense contracting firms. Others, like Joseph Williams, saw the city’s crowded streets as a unique business opportunity. During the war, Williams moved from Birmingham to Mobile and opened a small restaurant on Jefferson Davis Avenue, the heart of the city’s African American business district. By war’s end, Williams was making seventy thousand dollars a year selling sandwiches and barbeque plates to dockworkers.4
Racial tensions flared often in the crowded city as black and white workers fought for entry-level positions in the local shipyards. The war fueled an unprecedented increase in membership of the Mobile NAACP, which had been ably led by postman John L. LeFlore since 1925. Emboldened [End Page 206]
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by his organization’s expanded membership, LeFlore advocated for more equal treatment of the city’s black workers. He encouraged local businesses to employ more blacks, urged restaurants to accept black patronage, and lobbied federal agencies to provide better training for African Americans to prepare them for more skilled positions. His untiring efforts often proved fruitful. The War Manpower Commission and National Defense Advisory Commission, for example, established a school in Mobile to train black welders.5
Outbursts of racial violence during the war prompted LeFlore and the Mobile NAACP to demand more than just economic equality. In 1942, the organization led a short-lived boycott against the...