A man and daughter hold an "I heart AL" sign in protest of Alabama's HB 56 law.

(Dave Martin/AP Photo)

When I tell people that I was raised by Alabama Baptists, people sometimes think that I am joking. When I assure them that I really was raised by Alabama Baptists, people sometimes give me their condolences. Better to have been raised by a pack of wild wolves, some people seem to believe, than to have been raised by Alabama Baptists. That belief has always struck me as strange.

People who live in Alabama sometimes boast that it is the “Heart of Dixie.” The boast isn’t groundless. Alabama is bounded by Mississippi on the west, Tennessee on the north, Georgia on the east, and Florida and the Gulf of Mexico on the South. It is the epitome of a Deep South state. In 1819, Alabama became the twenty-second state to be admitted to the Union and in 1861 it became one of the first to secede. It was readmitted to the Union in 1868. The Civil War had catastrophic effects on Alabama’s economy and Alabama has remained a relatively poor state up until the present day. As of the 2010 U.S. Census figures, Alabama’s median household income hovered at $40,000; only three states—Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee—had lower incomes. But some of the counties in Alabama (Madison and Shelby, for instance) are prosperous, and some sectors of Alabama’s economy (such as retail trade and automobile and other durable goods manufacturing) are fairly strong. Like most states, Alabama has an official bird (the yellowhammer), flower (the Japanese camellia), tree (the southern longleaf pine), and motto (“We dare maintain our rights”). The state also has an official creed, which begins: “I believe in Alabama, a state dedicated to a faith in God.”

Alabama is, of course, one of the least secular states in the United States. Gallup polls report that 76 percent of the population declares themselves Protestant (the highest in the country) and only 6 percent identify as nonreligious; 82 percent of residents say religion is an important part of their day-to-day life. More than half of them say that they attend religious services at least once a week, and many attend a house of worship far more often than that. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Methodists all play an important role in shaping religious life in Alabama. But the state is unquestionably dominated by Baptists. In 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention had 1,380,121 members in the state, almost three times the next two largest denominations combined (Catholic and United Methodist). In his book Alabama Baptists: Southern Baptists in the Heart of Dixie, Wayne Flynt observed, “Every aspect of the state’s life—its politics, commerce, and education—is closely interwoven with the Baptist community.” Indeed if you wanted to learn more about the state of Alabama, the best place to start might well be Flynt’s book; his brilliant analysis of the history of Southern Baptists in Alabama sheds light on the social and cultural history of the entire state.

Yet there are even more football fans in Alabama than there are Baptists. Many Alabamans’ attachment to college football is passionate enough to be classified as quasi-religious. The annual contest between the Auburn Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide might not exactly be a sacred ritual. But it is certainly close to one. And Alabama’s sacred order is also defined, I suspect, by Alabamans’ deep attachment to a complex set of rules connected with hospitality, courtesy, and deference. Alabamans who don’t know how to “ma’am” and “sir” are almost as rare as those who don’t know how to pass the time of day by talking about football.

Of course Alabama’s sacred order is not defined exclusively in terms of courtesy, football, or Protestant Christianity. It is defined, too, by race. More specifically it is defined by the concerted attempt to create a society in which there were only two perceived races—white and black—and in which every human being could be firmly placed in one racial category or the other. In such a society there is no room, of course, for the Muskogees, Cherokees, and Choctaws, who once populated large swathes of what is now the state of Alabama. During the 1810s, when what would became Alabama was still only the eastern half of the Mississippi Territory, a process that might be called ethnic cleansing was already gaining momentum. In 1814, at what is sometimes called the Battle of Tohopeka and sometimes the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, a band of white settlers under the command of Andrew Jackson ruthlessly crushed a group of Muskogee warriors. (This story is recounted in Joel Martin’s classic Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World). Over the next three decades, the Muskogees, Cherokees, and Choctaws were forced to cede millions of acres of land to the United States and move beyond the borders of the state of Alabama. In the process of becoming Alabama, Alabama became a place where there were virtually no Indians, where virtually everyone was legally classified as either black or white, and where people who were deemed black were subject to the control of people who were deemed white.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the energy that whites have poured into campaigns to preserve the racial scheme that has shaped every era of Alabama history. In 1861, whites who were determined to preserve racial slavery engineered the state’s secession from the Union and then flocked to the State Capitol to see Jefferson Davis sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America. In 1901, white Alabamans contrived to have a new state constitution adopted, which (among many other things) disenfranchised nearly all black voters. In subsequent years white Alabamans joined the Klan, killed labor organizers, stood in schoolhouse doors, firebombed buses, unleashed dogs on protestors, and created scores of segregated Christian academies to preserve what they could of the state that had been established in 1819. The story is as dismal as it is familiar.

Of course, not all white Alabamans were strongly committed to white supremacy. And of course there has never been a time when black Alabamans were not subverting, resisting, and negating the schemes of white supremacists. Civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth was, after all, just as much an Alabaman as Bull Connor. Resistance may have been costly, but it was far from futile. Legal segregation has been eradicated and African Americans have gained a modicum of political power in the state. As of last year, eight of the 34 state senators are African American, as are 27 of the 105 delegates to the state’s House of Representatives. African Americans have a great deal of power in many of Alabama’s cities and counties and they have considerable influence within Alabama’s Democratic Party. But they have very little power within Alabama’s Republican Party—a party whose strength has been growing steadily since the early 1960s. Six of Alabama’s seven congressional representatives are Republicans, as are both its senators. Republicans control both houses of the state legislature. The governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, and auditor are all Republicans. So are all nine members of Alabama’s Supreme Court. Since Jimmy Carter, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state.

Yet when Barack Obama was inaugurated as president, the benediction was delivered by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, a native son of Alabama. Lowery was born in Huntsville and attended the State Agricultural and Mechanical Institute for Negroes (now Alabama A&M University). A Methodist minister and civil rights leader, he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Fred Shuttlesworth, helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott, and led the march from Selma to Montgomery. On that January morning in 2009, Lowery’s benediction concluded: “Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen! Say Amen! And Amen!”


A FEW YEARS BEFORE Lowery delivered his benediction, I visited Alabama to spend time with my family and to give a lecture a private university in a Birmingham suburb. During the trip, I bought a baseball cap at a convenience store. The cap wasn’t at all expensive, but it was beautiful. It was blue and it had a large patch above the brim that was decorated with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Convenience stores stocking such hats are indicative of one of the major transformations Alabama has undergone since I was a boy. In the 1960s, Alabama was made up almost exclusively of people who were classified as either white or black. Water fountains were marked either “white” or “colored.” So were bathrooms. There was no third option. Things are different now. The 2010 Census revealed that 1.5 percent of the 4,779,736 people who lived in Alabama identified with two or more races; 1.1 percent were Asian, 0.6 American Indian, and 3.9 percent Hispanic or Latino. These are not large numbers. But they are large enough to destabilize the simple black-white dichotomy the state tried to naturalize.

The disruption of this unnatural order has become most evident in the state’s draconian and now infamous immigration law. In June of last year, Governor Robert Bentley signed House Bill 56 (The Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act) into law. HB 56 makes it a crime to “harbor,” “shield,” or “transport” an illegal immigrant. It requires immigrants to carry identification papers with them at all times. Police must stop suspected illegal immigrants, detaining those who cannot prove they are legal residents. Public schools must determine the immigration status of their students, and illegal immigrants are barred from attending public colleges and universities. HB 56 prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits from state and local governments. It makes it unlawful for them “to knowingly apply for work, solicit work in a public or private place, or perform work as an employee or independent contractor.” Whatever else it is, and of course it is many other things as well, Alabama’s HB 56 is an attempt to buttress a binary racial system that has begun to collapse.

HB 56 is generally purported to be the toughest immigration law in the country. It has been denounced by civil rights advocates, labor leaders, business executives, and legal experts. Yunte Hang, who teaches English at University of California, Santa Barbara, called it “xenophobic.” Editorial boards claimed that that the law threatened to make Alabama the “the laughingstock of the nation” and called it shameful and the result of “counterproductive cruelty.” Wayne Flynt said that HB 56 was “the most mean-spirited, hateful thing” he’d ever read.

HB 56 has been condemned by a number of the state’s religious leaders. Bob Terry, president and editor of the Alabama Baptist, wrote in his publication’s pages that Southern Baptists believe Christians have a duty to minister “to all persons, regardless of country of origin or immigration status.” He asserted that HB 56 barred Christians from doing that and that whenever “the government attempts to tell the Church with whom it may share the gospel, that government is out of bounds.” Three Alabama bishops—a Methodist, a Catholic, and an Episcopalian—filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the law from going into effect. The suit claimed that Alabama’s “merciless anti-immigration law” would do “irreparable harm” to both the Hispanic and non-Hispanic members of their denominations, and that it would also make it “a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans.” One of the bishops, Catholic Robert Baker, compared undocumented immigrants to Jesus. He noted that when Mary and Joseph took their son to Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution, “Jesus did not have a green card.”

Supporters of HB 56 say that it is a rational response to a dangerous situation. They claim that the money Alabama school districts spend educating illegal aliens diminishes the money they can spend on deserving students. They argue that Alabama cannot tolerate the climate of “lawlessness” the presence of illegal immigrants creates. And they claim that the state has an obligation to prevent illegal immigrants from imposing economic hardships on everyone else who lives in the state. But there are relatively few undocumented immigrants in Alabama: only about 120,000 of the state’s 4.8 million residents. It seems doubtful that the 2.5 percent of Alabama residents who are undocumented immigrants actually pose a grave threat to other 97.5 percent of the people who live there.

In June, when the Supreme Court ruled on Arizona’s tough immigration law, deeming key provisions unconstitutional, the fate of HB 56 seemed even more uncertain. Litigation on HB 56 has continued to move forward and the law itself is tied up in the courts and appeals process. The pieces of the legislation that have been implemented thus far have had some embarrassing results. There was, for instance, the arrest (in the course of a routine traffic stop) of a German auto executive who was legally present in the United States. And although the final outcome of the various suits filed against HB 56 will not be determined for a number of years, it is clear that some federal judges have a good deal of sympathy for the law’s critics. Last December, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson blocked a provision of the law, based in part on his belief that “discriminatory bias against Hispanics” played a role in the law’s passage. He noted that state officials who supported the law sometimes used the terms “Hispanic” and “illegal immigrant” as though they were completely interchangeable. And yet bills to repeal HB 56 have failed in the state legislature. Instead, during their last session, state lawmakers proposed a new, tougher version of the bill—HB 658—which Governor Bentley signed into law in May. It has yet to go through the litigation process.

I think that it is quite likely that the worst provisions of HB 658 will never go into effect. Indeed given the way that the Supreme Court’s ruled in Arizona et al v. United States, it is hard to see how they could. I also think that it is possible that that Alabamans will eventually come to their senses and realize that pouring energy into trying to prop up an old racial binary puts them on the wrong side of history.

But what I know about Alabama’s past makes it hard for me to see that the telos toward which history is inevitably moving is one of justice. In Alabama when things get better they usually do so in fits and starts. Alabamans like Lowery pray for justice. They don’t assume that it is on its way. 

David Harrington Watt is a professor of history at Temple University.