- A Tribute to Mills Thornton
Alabama is fortunate in having a number of extraordinary historians. In fact, it is an especially wonderful place to study history because the community of historians here is such a thoughtful, engaged, and generous group of people. Each member brings special gifts of insight, interest, and expression. But within this community, J. Mills Thornton, III, has a special place. For more than thirty years, his work has helped shape the understanding of Alabama history in a powerful way, and through its depth, it has influenced the study of American history.
For most of us, history is a continuing study to understand more fully how our lives today grew out of the past. Because the past is so vastly complex, we have to work with stories and patterns that reduce it to something our minds can grasp. The challenges for the historian are to be as truthful as possible to what happened and to provide insights that are as meaningful as possible for people today.
Mills has performed this service for Alabama history with a depth of insight, a range, and an intellectual rigor that I think are amazing. He moves seamlessly from individual details to an overarching structure that is brilliantly conceived and informative. He covers a great range of subject material. And he always helps us see the roots of important issues facing us today.
His first book, Politics and Power in a Slave Society, grew out of the dissertation he wrote at Yale under the oversight of C. Vann Woodward. Many Southern historians regard Woodward as the great figure in our field during the mid-Twentieth Century, and a friend of his once told me that Woodward regarded Mills as one of his best students. [End Page 4]
Politics and Power was a major work for a young historian not long out of graduate school, and a model for writing modern state history. It helped explain the dynamics of the struggles between planters and yeoman farmers and the particular way these struggles played out in antebellum Alabama, from settlement all the way through to secession. Politics and Power has been influential nationally in the study of American history, helping shed light especially on early class tensions in America, the character of Jacksonian democracy, and the coming of the Civil War.
The late David Lewis taught for many years at Auburn and was a distinguished scholar with a national reputation. One of his major books was a history of Sloss iron works in Birmingham. David’s manuscript had already been accepted for publication when Leah Atkins told him he needed to read Politics and Power. After finishing it, David withdrew the manuscript and completely re-worked it to reflect the deeper level of understanding of Alabama history that Politics and Power had provided him. David’s story is just one Alabama example of the wide impact of Mills’ first book.
After Politics and Power, Mills turned to another important study, a work on the civil rights movement in Alabama entitled Dividing Lines. As in his other studies, Mills’ focus and approach differed from that of most of his colleagues. Instead of looking at the civil rights movement as a great national rising—which in many ways it was—he started Dividing Lines by asking why some of the most momentous events in American history took place in three Alabama towns: why Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, as opposed to, for example, Huntsville or Mobile or Columbia, South Carolina, or any of the hundreds of other places where the same structures of segregation were in place and where blacks felt the same kinds of discontent?
What Mills found was that each of these three cities stood at a moment of historic political transition, with its existing structure of municipal power in the process of being replaced. It was this transition in each city that facilitated the emergence there of the black challenge to the social order. And while all three cities reflect this broader pattern of opportunity in a time of transition, each city’s [End Page 5] story is also a rich, fascinating study of unique people and circumstances, some...