Birthday for 2 separate, but equal, Alabamas
By H. Brandt Ayers
Alabama, the state we love (in spite of itself) had a birthday last month, its 185th. In my lifetime, there have been two radically different Alabamas: a leader and a laggard, a state of demigods and of demagogues.
The modern history of the state is cleaved in two by the events of 1964, a year of personal loss for this reporter's family, and a year in which the state lost its reputation for progressive national leadership.
That was the year we lost Dad, the late Col. Harry M. Ayers. It was the year President Johnson signed the Equal Accommodations Act, and little "Reserved" signs sprouted on local restaurant tables, put there by nervous owners who feared black diners would drive out white customers.
It was also the seminal political year, the line drawn between the state as a national leader and as a laggard in the South and the nation.
George Wallace was running his first third-party campaign — red meat to racists. But in July he dropped out of the race. From then on, the bitter-end segregationists were Goldwater men.
Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the Republican nominee, was the darling of white voters in the Deep South. He had broken with the Senate Republican leadership and voted against the Omnibus Civil Rights bill.
The rock-jawed, wavy-haired senator was no racist, but his far-right conservative principles rejected federal enforcement of civil rights. Further, he knew where the votes were.
At a 1961 Atlanta meeting, the senator said the party was "not going to get the Negro vote in 1964 or 1966, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are." He carried Alabama by 77 percent of the white vote and swept the white vote in the Deep South by a similar landslide, 71 percent.
The hinges of history are hung backward in the Deep South. The doors opened inward to Goldwater in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, welcoming him into the Balkans of America with its never-forgotten history and prejudices.
Everywhere else but his native Arizona, the doors opened outward. The whole continent welcomed President Johnson and his sense of the rights of man. Unwittingly, Sen. Goldwater led a motley parade of White Citizens Councils, Kluxers and old-line segregationists out of the Democratic Party to install racial prejudice as the core of the Southern Republican Party.
"It still is," Jimmy Carter told me recently. "It has been; it always has been, ever since 1964. That's right. I agree completely." The former president and Nobel Laureate spoke with some heat.
The front page of The Star on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 1964 was a poster for the opposite paths taken by the nation and the Deep South. The lead story detailed the historic Johnson landslide and the off-lead story was about five Democratic congressmen caught in the Goldwater riptide.
Among them was our own Congressman Kenneth Roberts, who would have chaired the House Commerce Committee in the new Congress. Roberts contributed to his defeat by a desultory campaign and infrequent visits to his district.
The victor was billboard advertising executive Glenn Andrews, a nice man who had been a lonely, good-natured GOP pioneer in the days of the one-party Democratic South.
The conservative prairie fire, fanned vigorously by George Wallace, had already consumed Rep. Carl Elliot of Jasper, author of the National Defense Education Act, and Rep. Albert Rains who, absent the race issue, could have contended for Speaker of the House.
Alabama gained a new majority party but lost national influence and prestige
A publication of vestal non-partisanship, Congressional Quarterly, said, "Rains, Elliott and Roberts were among the most admired members of the House, influential with both Southerners and Northerners."
Alabama was never able to recover its favorable national reputation. In 1970, when most Southern states elected forward-looking governors, Alabama couldn't break free from its lethargy, and still lags behind.
And so we say, Happy Birthday Alabama, the Laggard. We wish you would lift up your eyes and see what is possible to achieve. You are hard to love, Alabama, but damn your downcast eyes, we do.