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Mon April 12, 2004
i>Inside Alabama is "a commentary, an extended essay on events and attitudes that I think made and make Alabama what it is today."
By Don Noble
Jackson begins by telling his readers what kind of book this is, what they can expect. Inside Alabama is "a commentary, an extended essay on events and attitudes that I think made and make Alabama what it is today." Professional academic historians may find fault with the informal, personal tone of this volume, including the fact that much of it is delivered in the first person. They may be unhappy that each sentence does not carry a footnote. Too bad.
This book is the kind of history that everyone should read and everyone can read with profit and more to the point, maybe, enjoyment. Jackson has a narrative conversational style that reads as smoothly and as entertainingly as light fiction, but make no mistake, this book is serious business and will cause some ruffled feathers among its readers.
Jackson takes only 86 pages to get Alabama to the Civil War, but the story of Native Americans and Alabama frontiersmen and the difficult, violent, and sometimes shameful interaction between the two is told straightforwardly and honestly. And although it is an overview, one learns new things.
For example, Francis Scott Key was sent from Washington, D.C. to Alabama-he had already written "The Star-Spangled Banner"-to mediate a land dispute with the Creeks at the time of the removal, the Trail of Tears. No wonder F. Scott Fitzgerald felt so comfortable in Alabama. His "people" had been here in 1832.
The chapters on slavery and the Civil War are also fairly brief. After all, most people know, or think they know, an awful lot about those years. Still, it was interesting to be reminded that Alabama lost 34,000 of her 90,000 enlisted men and led the Confederacy in the percentage of its population that wore the gray-and that doesn't count the three thousand white and ten thousand black Alabamians who fought for the Union.
Jackson tells the reader that politics will be the backbone of this volume and so it is. But politics in Alabama goes hand in hand with taxes: "who taxes whom reveals where the power lies." Thus it was, Jackson tells us, before the War, and it still is.
But what is clear from Jackson's book is the depressing consistency of Alabama political history. In the 1890s the Black Belt Bourbons voted their self-interest. "They feared that reform forces might . . . raise property taxes, upgrade schools and roads, and so improve the quality of life. . . . In other words, the Bourbons would be forced to pay for reforms that would create an electorate that would keep the Bourbons out of office. Who could blame them for wanting to nip such reforms in the bud?" Who indeed?
But the more mystifying question is how the "interests" got the "masses" to vote against their self-interests. Jackson traces the history of Alabama politics, demagogery, and race from the Civil War to the present and, lamentably, it has almost always boiled down to race. Jackson tells, as economically as I have ever seen, the story of segregation and civil rights. In Lowndes County, in 1965, no African American had voted in more than fifty years.
Much of Alabama's woe, cultural and fiscal, could have been prevented or mitigated by enlightened leadership. Those who hold Guy Hunt, Fob James, John Patterson, George Wallace, or a host of other Alabama governors in high esteem will not be comforted by Jackson's account.
And yet, the book ends in hope. There have been changes for the better, and there may be more. A new constitution? Tax reform? Increased harmony and understanding between the races? All is possible, and Jackson, a native son, cannot refrain from optimism.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.