How Black Belt’s influence waned

Published 7:45pm Monday, January 16, 2012

Last week I discussed the inordinate power Black Belt senators wielded in the Legislature during most of the past century. This power was garnered through the practice of Black Belt counties’ wisdom in keeping their legislative delegation in place for a long time. They seldom would be opposed and would usually die in office. This created a wealth of knowledge, experience and seniority for the region. However, the primary reason was the state legislature was egregiously malapportioned.

The Legislature was malapportioned from the beginning of the 1901 Constitution and because the Legislature refused to reapportion for over 60 years it became unbelievably out of balance. Even though North Alabama had more people, they had less representation. This terrible injustice was finally rectified in the 1970’s. It was done by the federal courts.

The courts drew the lines to give representation to black Alabamians. In the process they also gave fair and equal representation to North Alabama.

The change in power in the Legislature also came in the mid 1970’s. When the courts mandated legislative reapportionment, the Black Belt lost its power.

The last hurrah was the 1974-1978 quadrennium.

The House was controlled by two Black Belters who had immense power and came from the same sparsely populated southwestern part of the state. Joe McCorquodale, who was the Speaker, came from Jackson in Clarke County and his able ally, the Speaker Pro Tem, was the veteran Rick Manley from Demopolis in Marengo County.

Both men were perfect examples of Black Belt power. Their counties adjoined each other and had less then 25,000 people.

Both men served for many years and mastered the rules. They were dominant but after the 1970’s their power was gone forever. With the fall of white Black Belt legislative domination, also began the demise of the power of Farm Bureau, or now the Alabama Farmers Federation. They are still powerful, but not the Kings of Goat Hill that they were for decades.

With the 1970’s reapportionment mandate the Alabama Education Association replaced Alfa as the dominant special interest group.

An ironic twist in the traumatic 1970’s shift of power due to reapportionment is played out by two sets of characters. The McCorquodale and Manley duo were the dominant controlling leadership during the 1974-1978 quadrennium.

There were two freshmen House members elected that year, Roy Johnson from Tuscaloosa and Jimmy Holley from Elba. They were a different breed. The Alabama Education Association elected them.

Dr. Paul Hubbert helped them get elected and he chose them as his boys. He took them under his wing and coached them in the rules of the House. They ate dinner together every night. They were diligent and quick studies.

Johnson and Holley became a pain in the neck to the Black Belt duo of McCorquodale and Manley. They would fight and question the Speaker on every issue. The Black Belt team would beat them and swat them like flies but Johnson and Holley would fight day after day. The McCorquodale/Manley House was extremely anti-AEA.

The Black Belt delegation still had the votes and the power. They ran roughshod over Johnson and Holley but through these defeats they gained immense knowledge of the legislative process. Hubbert schooled them well.

By 1982, school was out for the large farm interests and the Black Belt. Johnson and Holley became the new leadership as AEA took control. Hubbert’s boys, Johnson and Holley, put the knowledge Hubbert imparted to good use. They became powers.

I had the chance to serve with Holley for eight years. He is still is one of the best legislators I have ever seen. He knew what was in every bill. I saw him build an entire school system in Elba one year when floods devastated their schools. They did not need insurance they had Holley.

Johnson became Speaker Pro Tem in the 1982-1986 quadrennium and was arguably the most powerful legislator in the state. He left the House to become head of the state junior college and trade school system where he became extremely greedy. His is now in prison.

The mid 70’s was a watershed era in Alabama political power. The shift in power created by reapportionment was dramatic and profound. However, the change that occurred last year with the Republican takeover was even more seismic.

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