“Alabama: The Making of an American State”
Author: Edwin C. Bridges
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
Pages: 241 pp.
Price: $39.95 (Cloth); $19.95 (Paper)
For thirty years as the Director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Ed Bridges was immersed in Alabama history. Now Director Emeritus, Bridges has finished his magnum opus, a narrative history of the state from 11,000 B.C. to the very present, in time for the Alabama Bicentennial in 2019.
This is not in the strictest terms a scholarly book. Bridges has read and digested scores of books and articles on Alabama history—indeed he helped to create a goodly percent of that original scholarship—and here, with due acknowledgements to the academic historians, especially J. Mills Thornton and Leah Rawls Atkins, he has told the story of our state, in his own pleasing style, for a general audience.
This highly readable, smooth, one-volume study should be read by all Alabamians, especially those who wonder, as we often do, how did we get to this spot?
In his Introduction Bridges acknowledges that he has highlighted Alabama’s “conflicts” because, he believes, those “conflicts,” which in the context of Klan terror, lynchings and bus burnings is a gentle enough word, are what make the state’s history so “rich and dramatic.” Bridges is also suggesting that previous histories, especially those written for Alabama classrooms, glossed over the darker places in our history and whitewashed other spots, such as the strength of the unionists in north Alabama, the perpetual quarrel between north Alabama yeoman farmers and Black Belt planters, the distortion of the politics of Reconstruction into carpetbaggers, scalawags and insolent freedmen, and the deification of the Democratic conservatives as “Redeemers.”
Bridges uses his discussion of the 1901 constitution to illustrate these points. Onerous voting requirements eliminated almost all black voters. Of the 200,000 black men eligible in 1903, only 2,980 were registered.
(Women, by the way, could not then vote and although some women in the mid-20th century actually held statewide offices such as secretary of state or state treasurer, they were not allowed to serve on juries until “Crook v. White,” 1966.)
The $1.50 per year cumulative poll tax drove tens of thousands of poor whites off the rolls. Control was solidly in the hands of the Bourbons and Big Mules. And, with some adjustments, remains there.
Still, Bridges insists his goal is to understand our past, so we can move more successfully into the future, not to assign blame, or open old wounds. He understands that “all people have reasons for what they do that make sense to them. Other people may or may not approve of those reasons, and people may even deceive themselves about what their true reasons are.” In his “Afterword” Bridges urges readers to “not only accept, but celebrate the remarkable social changes of the last sixty years. Our old racial divisions were not only wrong and unfair they also were constant barriers to progress.”
But back to the beginnings.
Many Alabamians have been to Moundville. That is what we know about Indians. The first 55 pages of this work will change that. Bridges quickly tells the story of whole distinct eras of Native American culture, including of course the cruel and duplicitous ways in which Indians were lied to, cheated and exiled as their destiny at least became manifest.
One is reminded here of how fantastically profitable cotton was in the antebellum years. Before The War Alabama was one of the richest states, then, slavery abolished, Jim Crow in place, just about the poorest. Bridges doesn’t pull any punches here. Slaves were driven by the whip and The War was fought to preserve slavery, not vague notions of states rights.
The chapters on our 20th century–WWI and II, The New Deal, Civil Rights, the Wallace years, Huntsville and the Space Age are familiar enough to mature citizens, although what youth may know is anybody’s guess.
One has heard many times, in partial jest, that Alabama was so poor in 1930 nobody noticed the Great Depression. Bridges makes it clear that was not so. “Commodity prices, including cotton, plummeted from a WWI high of 35 cents per pound to “a nickel in 1932.” “Between 1929 and 1933, half of the state’s mines and mills closed. By 1934, a quarter of Birmingham’s work force was unemployed…Roosevelt called Birmingham the ‘worst hit town in the country.’”
No discussion of this book should end without the highest praise for the illustrations.
Bridges, the archivist, has assembled the best imaginable collection of maps, documents, paintings, photographs–many never published before. Each one, from photos of convict labor camps to the burning bus in Anniston, to a chicken farm in Monroe County, evokes its time and place with great power.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.