Hill politics
by John Fleming
Editor at Large
Aug 10, 2008 | 3157 views |  0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
John B. Knox. Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County
John B. Knox. Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County
Gov. T.E. Kilby (top right) and family at home, 1921. Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County
Gov. T.E. Kilby (top right) and family at home, 1921. Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County
The politics of Anniston and its surroundings is different from other regions of Alabama.

One observer cites people and the power of ideas as the prime motivator for public policy.

In northeast Alabama's hard-scrabble fields of the late 1800s, the small landowner, the yeoman, tilled mostly for himself, quite different from the landed of the Black Belt and the owners of the rolling farmlands of the Wiregrass.

Alabama's expert on the times and Anniston native, former Auburn history professor Wayne Flynt, points out in his book Poor But Proud, that Calhoun County didn't pin its livelihood on cotton, but was instead a classic mixed economy. The small holders grew corn and wheat and raised livestock. And while plantations flourished down in some of the valleys, the hills were full of what he calls "Jacksonian farmers," a populist allusion to the one-mule homesteader.

In that way, at least, Anniston and northeastern part of the state is not like the rest of Alabama and certainly not like the stereotypical image of the Deep South.

The yeoman farmer didn't own slaves. Spanish moss doesn't sway from live oaks in front of grand plantations. That's not northeast Alabama's culture. Motivation for war — the one Between the States — for most of the people of this region, was therefore different from the cotton farmers of lower Alabama.

A lack of enthusiasm for war, brought on by the burdens by an economic reality and work ethic that dictated you pick your own corn, did not, however, keep Calhoun County from voting to secede — the northernmost county in the state to do so.

Those kinds of conflicts, with ourselves and with each other, are part of our definition.

But the region is defined by something more prosaic, more abstract. It does not stand at any major crossroads, geographically or historically. It does not naturally and easily project influence because of what we have been through or where we sit on the map.

Instead, as former U.S. Rep. Glen Browder argues, the region asserted itself through individuals and institutions contributing to the flow of ideas. Those ideas shaped public policy and challenged the state, the nation and the establishment to think about the future in a way that has brought about mostly good, but sometimes bad, wholesale change.

Shaping a city Even in the beginning, there was the power of the individual.

Samuel Noble helped shed the darkness of Reconstruction.

Outside the Model City, the small land-holders were scattered across the countryside like chicken feed. In town, the city of the coming century chiseled out of nothing in an unremarkable place, was ground zero of a brave experiment in industrialization birthed with Yankee money and Southern ingenuity.

Anniston's foundries and the muscle of up-and-coming Birmingham worked like coke and iron ore to bring about a steely power in north Alabama that, in time, fell into league with the traditional Big Mules across the center and the south.

The new money begat influence that made it so, but the raw power in the late 19th century also began to coalesce around a magical notion that people mattered.

Travel to the basement of the Calhoun County Courthouse and see testament to this awakening. Here are rivals to The Daily Hot Blast, the unapologetically partisan sheets dedicated to the cause of what can generally be called the Populist and Progressive movements.

In the pages of The Alabama Leader, The People's Journal, The Argus and others can be found the fumes and rants aimed at the establishment.

The bankers, the Big Mules, the industrialists were in alliance to keep the little man down, and perhaps the only way out, proclaimed these broadsheets and some electrifying orators of the day, was for blacks and poor whites to work together to climb out of that miserable ditch together.

It was to be a short-lived period. Nationally the movement began to fade near the turn of the 20th century.

In Alabama, it came to a screeching halt in 1901, upon the adoption of the new state constitution.

Sadly, Calhoun County has some solid ownership to this travesty through the actions of the constitutional convention's president, Anniston railroad attorney John B. Knox. With a crafty and determined way, Knox engineered the approval of a document that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites and continues to cripple the state to this day.

Party in power

The new century brought with it a continuation of the dominance of the Democratic Party in the South, especially after the demise of the Populists. Virtually every officeholder from county sheriff to U.S. senator was a Democrat, and it was to stay that way for decades.

One of them was the only governor to come from Anniston, Thomas Kilby, who served from 1919-1923. (B.B. Comer, who served as governor from 1907-1911, lived in Anniston in the 1880s when he was in the grocery business, but moved to Birmingham soon afterward.)

On the surface, Gov. Kilby's wrong priorities appeared askew. He entered office a staunch proponent of prohibition and helped secure its ratification, but he was a fence-sitter when it came to suffrage.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you begin to see something else. Indeed, Wayne Flynt puts him squarely in the Progressive tradition.

Kilby reformed the state budgetary process, endorsed and fought for a graduated income tax and a tax on coal mining, instituted public education reforms and changes in the state prison system, got the Legislature to pass a workers' compensation act, secured pensions for Confederate soldiers, increased funding for child welfare and tried, but did not succeed, to abolish the convict lease system in the state.

He also failed to win a U.S. senate seat in 1926, when he lost in the Democratic primary (the only election that mattered then) to Hugo Black.

His gubernatorial campaign manager was the owner of The Anniston Star at the time, Col. Harry M. Ayers, an influential man heading an influential institution. He made his presence known in many ways. As for public office, he served on the state School Board for nearly 25 years.

The only U.S. senator in modern times to come from Calhoun County was Anniston attorney Donald Stewart, who served from 1978 to 1981.

Stewart, like many other successful politicians in the state, first emerged on the political scene at the University of Alabama. During his presidency of the Student Government Association, Stewart worked to keep the peace during integration of black students to campus in 1963.

Thirteen years later, in 1976, Cleo Thomas would become the University of Alabama's first black SGA president. The Anniston High School graduate went on to become a lawyer. He narrowly lost a state Senate contest to Del Marsh in 1998.

A number of institutional leaders who arguably had national impact during the civil rights movement were the Revs. N.Q. Reynolds, William McClain and Phil Noble Sr. They were supported by a city administration led by Anniston Mayor Claude Dear and helped to fend off violence at a crucial moment during the movement. John Nettles, who later helped organize an area chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was also instrumental in the movement.

Earlier in the 20th century Charles R. Bell, the pastor at Parker Memorial, was arguably one of the most liberal church leaders of his time and a champion of the social gospel. He voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for president every term from the 1920s to the '40s. He was also ardently opposed to war, speaking out against the nation's involvement in World War II.

Of course the county has had many other influential politicians, including Jim Campbell, a former state legislator, and Doug Ghee, former state senator. J.J. Willett was the long time influential chair of Democratic Party in Calhoun County.

In other parts of the state, the politics tend to be more predictable than they are here. In Anniston and the surrounding area things are slightly more complex. It isn't just any community, after all, that can produce both a committed socialist and committed right-wing conservatives.

Seeming contradictions, of course, but they make sense when you understand that the inner and outer social, cultural and political struggles marking the area's history and geography.

Not everyone, remember, wanted to secede from the Union on the eve of the Civil War. But, then again, just barely enough voted yes for the measure to pass.

It seems, in some ways, the region has been conflicted ever since.
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