Irony, paradox, and political expediency characterize David Bibb Graves’s two terms as governor, 1927-1931 and 1935-1939. Graves supported a reform agenda that abolished the state’s convict lease system, substantially increased state funding for education, and elevated the states’ normal schools at Florence, Jacksonville, Troy, and Livingston to four-year state teachers’ colleges. He is recognized along with Braxton Bragg Comer and Thomas E. Kilby as one of the state’s three reform-minded governors of the early 20th century. Although Graves supported reform, he used the issue of race for political expediency—he was an active leader in the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s and used Klan connections in his campaigns for governor. As governor, Graves appointed Klan members to state and local offices. During his second term as governor, Graves refused to release and pardon the defendants in the Scottsboro case, in spite of evidence that the defendants were falsely accused and wrongly convicted.
A graduate of the University of Texas and Yale Law School, David Bibb Graves (a native of Montgomery county) first ran for governor, unsuccessfully, in 1922. In the 1926 campaign for governor, Graves assembled an eclectic coalition that included World War I veterans, public school teachers, organized labor, evangelical Protestants, and the Ku Klux Klan (Graves was a member of the Montgomery klavern). This coalition supported Graves’s reform agenda, including tax and educational reform measures, unlike Black Belt planters and the “Big Mules” (Graves’s reference to Birmingham industrialists) who supported Graves’s Democratic primary opponent (Lt. Gov. Charles McDowell). The planters and “Big Mules” vigorously opposed Graves’s reform agenda, believing it would cost them money in higher taxes and would threaten their supply of cheap, uneducated labor. Graves won the 1926 election, running well in each area of the state except the Black Belt counties.
Graves worked with the state legislature to abolish the state’s convict lease system in 1928. He maneuvered tax reform measures through the legislature—the additional revenue supported educational reforms and public services. His educational reforms were significant and included passage of the largest educational appropriation in state history in 1927--$25 million (over four years) which more than doubled the previous administration’s educational expenditure with $9 million from 1923 to 1927. The state’s normal schools at Florence, Jacksonville, Troy, and Livingston became baccalaureate-degree granting state teachers’ colleges. A “Division of Negro Education” was added to the Alabama State Department of Education. Increased funding for public health led to expanded public health services, the construction of a 225-bed hospital for African Americans in south Alabama (Mount Vernon), and additional money for Bryce Hospital. Increased funding for the Child Welfare Department (established in 1919 during Kilby’s 13 administration) expanded child welfare services and supported the employment of social workers in fifty-four counties.
Alabama was in the trough of the Great Depression when Graves was elected to a second term in 1934 Graves was the first governor to be elected to a split, second term under the 1901 Constitution. Alabamians welcomed New Deal relief and recovery programs, and Graves was a staunch supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Although the economic crisis limited his agenda, he established the Alabama Department of Labor and the Department of Public Welfare in 1935 to administer new labor regulations and the Social Security Act. The state began providing free textbooks for elementary school children, and a seven-month school term became a minimum requirement for public schools. Labor relations were tense in the state during the 1930s, and strikes erupted, particularly in the textile industry. During textile strikes in 1936 and 1937, Graves sided with workers.
The interest and support that Graves gave to educational reform, public health, child welfare services, and workers’ needs, appear at odds with his connection and membership in the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s racism, nativism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, support of Prohibition, and defense of traditional moral values inspired thousands of middle and working-class people to join. Membership in the Klan also provided an opportunity to challenge the political domination of the state’s wealthy elite—the Black Belt/ “Big Mule” alliance. Alabama’s Klan membership rose to over 100,000 by 1925 and represented a politically powerful statewide constituency; in Birmingham, for example, 18,000 of the city’s 32,000 registered voters were KKK members. For aspiring state and local politicians during the 1920s, the choice was between standing with the Black Belt/”Big Mule” alliance who supported the status quo and opposed any and all change, or political expediency—siding with a violent organization that had a vast, statewide constituency.10
During the 1926 election, Bibb Graves (Montgomery cyclops) and Hugo Black (member of the Birmingham klavern and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice) used Klan connections in their successful campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate. As governor, Graves frequently appointed Klansmen to local and state offices. Graves’s success and the political reforms he initiated, came at a high price—rampant and extreme
violence. As one historian concluded, “Although Graves stood for economic liberalism in Alabama, he often closed his eyes to the reign of terror imposed by some of his hooded political backers.”11
Although Graves was out of office when the Scottsboro case began in 1931, he became involved in the case following his second inauguration in 1935. The Scottsboro case involved the arrest and trial of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women. The state’s mishandling of the case led the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn convictions twice (Powell v. Alabama and Norris v. Alabama). During subsequent trials, the accusers’ testimony was discredited. Nevertheless, the state of Alabama continued to prosecute, and all white juries persisted in convicting the young men of a fabricated crime. In 1937, a compromise agreement was reached between the prosecution and defense; the agreement freed four young men on the same evidence that was used to convict the others. Although Graves initially agreed in 1938 to pardon the five young men who remained imprisoned, he reneged on his promise. Fear of public and legislative backlash led Graves to change his mind and keep the defendants in prison. The last of the nine Scottsboro defendants was freed in 1950.
Dr. Lynne Rieff, Professor of History, University of North Alabama
William Warren Rogers, et al., Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, Bicentennial Edition (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2018), pp.422-425, 500; Wayne Flynt, Alabama in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), pp. 63-64.
Glenn Feldman, Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999), pp. 117-119; Rogers, et al. Alabama: The
History of a Deep South State, 431-432.
Feldman, Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949, pp. 35, 86, 120.
Dan T. Carter, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), pp. 23-37, 232-234, 376, 381-390, 396-397, 413.
For Further Reading:
Burge, Daniel. “Senator Graves’s Speech: Dixie Bibb Graves and the Changing Conception of ‘The Southern Lady.’” Alabama Review 66, no. 4 (2013): 253–77. https://doi.org/10.1353/ala.2013.0026.
Cain, Lee Clark. Alabama Public School Progress under the Governorship of David Bibb Graves, (1927-1931) (1935-1939), 1962.
Clayton, Bruce, and Glenn Feldman. “Politics, Society and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949.” The American Historical Review 105, no. 4 (2000): 1343.
“David Bibb Graves (1927-31, 1935-39).” Accessed July 26, 2020. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1565
Gilbert, William E. “The First Administration of Governor Bibb Graves, 1927-1930,” M.A. thesis, University of Alabama, 1953.
Hamilton, Virginia Van Der Veer. Hugo Black: The Alabama Years. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2014.
Jackson, Helen Hunt. Inside Alabama a Personal History of My State. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2003.
Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
Metcalf, Doris, ed. “Bibb Graves: Namesake for Public University Buildings.” TimesDaily, May 2, 2013.
Peirce, Neal R. The Deep South States of America: People, Politics, and Power in the Seven Deep South States. New York, NY: Norton, 1974.
Puckett, D. J. “Reporting on the Holocaust: The View from Jim Crow Alabama.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 25, no. 2 (2011): 219–51. https://academic.oup.com/hgs/article/25/2/219/575756
Webb, Samuel L., and Margaret E. Armbrester. Alabama Governors: a Political History of the State. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Webb, Samuel L. “Hugo Black, Bibb Graves, and the Ku Klux Klan: A Revisionist View of the 1926 Alabama Democratic Primary.” Alabama Review, vol. 57, no. 4, Oct. 2004, pp. 243–273.
Jonathan Gilbert, Graduate Student, University of North Alabama