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Using Primary Sources in the Classroom:
The Alabama Constitution of 1901 Unit

Introduction

As the 20th century dawned in Alabama, demands to redraw the basic framework of state government grew. The "Redeemer Constitution" of 1875 had effectively wrested political control from the coalition of Republican "scalawags" (native Republicans), "carpetbaggers" (Northern opportunists), and newly freed blacks who had briefly held power during Reconstruction. However, its limits on state support for commercial development through river improvement and railroad construction, and its low tax ceilings which kept schools poor increasingly drew criticism from reform-minded Alabamians.

 

Of greater importance to the politically powerful was the need to better control who voted in the state, a legacy of the tumultuous 1890s when the conservative Democrats were challenged by the Farmers' Alliance/Populist movement. The entrenched "Bourbons" had maintained control during that period through a combination of intimidating African Americans, raising the specter of "black rule" to keep whites within the party, and fraudulently counting votes for conservative candidates when all else failed. Uncomfortable with the turmoil and subterfuge of these campaigns, many leaders of the conservative Democrats embraced calls for a new constitution as a way to ensure "honest elections" -- by legally taking the vote away from blacks so that they would not have to be stolen.

 

Closely contested elections saw a convention assembled and a new Constitution adopted in 1901. Generally supported by the conservative "Bourbon" planters of the Black Belt counties and their allies in the rapidly industrializing Birmingham area, both the convention and the proposed Constitution had significant opposition from poor farmers and African Americans afraid of losing their already tenuous political identities. The resulting 1901 Constitution fulfilled their fears as a host of stringent suffrage restrictions effectively denied great numbers of both classes the right to vote.

 

Accurately described by present-day historians as "designed to freeze change in desirable channels," the 1901 Constitution not only restricted suffrage but also did little to make government more responsive to the challenges of a new century. The 1901 Constitution was more a code of laws than a framework for government, as the Legislature retained near complete control over local affairs, making necessary hundreds of amendments over the succeeding decades.

 

For more information see:

Alabama Moments in American History: Alabama's 1901 Constitution


Go to Lesson 1: A Map Can Tell a Story
Go to Lesson 2: Petticoat Power!
Go to Lesson 3: "We have...no member...who can speak"
Go to Lesson 4: An Opposite View
Go to Lesson 5: Voting After the Constitution of 1901
Go to Lesson 6: Fact versus Opinion