Alabama Politics, J. Thomas Heflin, and the Expulsion Movement of 1929
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Alabama Politics, J. Thomas Heflin, and the Expulsion Movement of 1929

The fall of the Bourbons from power in Alabama after the turn of the century was more a voluntary than a forced abdication. Ever pragmatic in their approach to politics, the majority of the Bourbon elite took the lesson of the populist period to heart. Without the Negro vote, they could not maintain themselves in power. But as long as Negroes remained legal voters, there was always the danger that a dissident white group might capture the Negroes’ confidence, and with these allies go on to effect a complete revolution in state government. Clearly, the way to prevent such an eventuality was to admit to some degree of power the excluded white groups from whose ranks dissident movements had time and again arisen, while concurrently eliminating the Negro from politics. Of course, such a program meant a considerable diminution of power for the Bourbons, but, “half a loaf was better than none.” The result was the Constitution of 1901. The Bourbons contented themselves with disproportionate power in the mal-apportioned legislature, while largely—through the institution of the direct primary—abandoning executive offices to the formerly excluded white groups. The Negro was removed as a possible bone of contention between the two segments of the white electorate by his disfranchisement.

By the time of the Henderson Administration (1915–1919), it was clear that the Bourbon ploy had been successful. North [End Page 10] Alabama, home of the dissident whites, had accepted the degree of power that the Constitutional Convention had granted it, and made no further attempts to dislodge the Bourbons from their remaining strongholds. Bourbons continued to control Black Belt county governments. The Black Belt bloc was unrivalled within the legislature for its coherence, consistency, and continuity. But very few of the intellectual heirs of the old Bourbon elite ever again achieved statewide eminence.1

By the end of the twenties the number of important officials who might fairly be called descendants of the old ruling class was small indeed. Henry De Lamar Clayton II, after a distinguished career in Congress culminating in the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act, was now one of Alabama’s federal judges. Chief Justice John C. Anderson of Demopolis dominated a Supreme Court made up largely of North Alabamians by his sheer legal brilliance. William A. Gunter, Jr., mayor of Montgomery, controlled with genial paternalism Alabama’s most famous city machine, and his influence spread far beyond his city’s boundaries. J. Lister Hill, scion of a distinguished Black Belt family, represented Alabama’s second district in Congress. Edmund W. Pettus II of Selma, grandson of Alabama’s longtime United States Senator and son of a former [End Page 11] Speaker of the Alabama House and President of the Alabama Senate, served as chairman of the state Democratic Executive Committee. These men and others like them had just lived through a decade that had left them apprehensive for their positions—and with good reason.

The twenties were hard times in Alabama. Like their forebears of the nineties, North Alabamians were growing restless under a Bourbon-engineered order. Though they might control the governorship, they seldom saw the legislature pass any laws regarded by the Black Belt bloc as radical. If North Alabamians were ever aroused and organized, there was danger that they might force the adoption of a program that would be anathema to the remnants of the Bourbons. The levees of power, however, had been carefully and lovingly constructed at the turn of the century. Only by breaking clear of, or taking over entirely, the Democratic Party and striking out as a self-consciously revolutionary force could North Alabamians hope to disturb the political status quo. The remaining Bourbons, aware of this fact, sought constantly to emphasize the necessity for white solidarity and party unity. It was particularly important to prevent the Republican Party from becoming a socially acceptable alternative to Democracy. But any organization that tended to give structure and purpose to North Alabama frustrations was characterized by the Bourbons as dangerous.

At the dawn of the twenties, the Republicans were still regarded as...