| Home | Contents | | The Great Depression, The New Deal, and Alabama's Political Leadership |
[ADAH Logo] Alabama Moments in American History US/Ala flags
| Quick Summary | Details | Bibliography |

Details gif
The Great Depression, The New Deal, and Alabama's Political Leadership

The Great Depression had no specific beginning date, despite various attempts to assign a specific moment (the October 1929 stock market crash). For most cotton farmers the origins go back to 1920 when the boll weevil and falling cotton prices ruined many farmers and sent the rate of tenancy soaring after several years of decline. By 1930 Alabama contained 207,000 cotton farms, 70 percent of them worked by white and black tenant farmers.

Non-farm employment declined by 15 percent between 1930 and 1940, the highest rate for any Southern state. The Birmingham industrial district was particularly hard hit, with employment declining in the city of Birmingham itself from 100,000 to only 15,000 full time employees. Some national observers contended that Birmingham was the major American city most affected by the Great Depression.

During early stages of the national Depression (1929-1933), both private charity and state relief were overwhelmed by the magnitude of suffering in Alabama. Families were disrupted. During a four-month period in 1933, detectives working for the L&N Railroad expelled more than 27,200 transients illegally riding freight trains within the state's borders. Many transients (between 40 and 45 percent) were teenagers.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal brought renewed hope to Alabamians, who voted overwhelmingly for him in four consecutive presidential elections. In return, New Deal programs dramatically changed the state.

Alabama's congressional delegation during the 1930s was one of the most liberal and influential of any Southern state. John H. Bankhead Jr., Hugo Black, and Lister Hill provided firm support for F.D.R. in the U.S. Senate, as did a succession of able Congressmen in the House of Representatives (notably, Henry B. Steagall of Ozark, who, as chairman of the powerful House Banking and Currency Committees, drafted the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation guaranteeing bank deposits). Other powerful congressmen included Bob Jones from the Tennessee Valley and George Huddleston Sr. and Luther Patrick, both of Birmingham. Roosevelt also appointed Hugo Black to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he became one of the most influential justices, particularly on issues involving First Amendment rights (especially separation of church and state and religious freedom). Governor Bibb Graves (1934-1938) also worked closely with the New Deal and the more progressive wing of the Democratic party.

New Deal programs particularly helpful to Alabama included both temporary relief projects such as the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which employed 129,000 Alabamians at its peak, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed nearly 67,000 young Alabama men in forestry and recreational work. The Resettlement Administration and Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act sought to help small farmers acquire their own land and unemployed industrial workers obtain housing. Perhaps in the long run, the most important New Deal measure for Alabama was creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority that electrified the northern third of the state. This federal program not only brought lights and power to farms, but also created cheap electricity that attracted much industry to the Valley and dams on rivers that created major recreation areas and reservoirs.

Most federal programs have unintended consequences, and that was certainly true of the New Deal. Damming the Tennessee and other rivers changed the river environment and inundated ancestral homes, churches, and cemeteries. Department of Agriculture policies of paying landowning farmers to withdraw land from production often caused them to fire tenants and invest their federally-provided money in tractors and later in mechanical cotton pickers. The consequence was the displacement of hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers and the beginning of the end of farm tenancy in the state.

Roosevelt and the New Deal also liberalized the dominant Democratic party in Alabama. During the 1930s and afterward, fierce battles raged within the party between its conservative and liberal factions. New Deal labor programs significantly strengthened organized labor, which became better organized than in any Southern state except Kentucky. African American voters shifted allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic party, although few could vote in Alabama because of the poll tax and other constitutional restrictions. Even the Communist party established a Southern headquarters in Birmingham and tried to organize unemployed workers and sharecroppers.