March 30th, 2010

Larry Lee is the director of the Center for Rural Alabama and a good friend to APP.  He can always be counted on to give me feedback on our APP newsletter, and I appreciate his honesty.

That honesty is readily apparent in his must-read account of Alabama’s economic development history,The Legacy of a Cotton Culture.  He has a great deal of insight into why Alabama has the second greatest job loss in the country.

During the first half of the 1900s, Alabama tried to join the “New South” by looking at New England and chanting, “Cheap labor, cheap land, low taxes.”  And for awhile, we were awash in cotton and garment industry jobs.  But those days are gone.

In 1949 the good citizens of Andalusia thought the factory whistle would blow until Gabriel blew his horn.  But it fell silent 20 years ago.  Today across Alabama, buildings where workers once breathed cotton dust and risked arms and hands, stand empty only to be visited by the occasional school boy hurling rocks to break out another window.  And low-slung buildings where sewing machines once whirred watch as kudzu creeps across empty parking lots.

Today there are 23 counties where unemployment is 14 percent or higher.  All are rural.

They had 19,000 textile jobs in 1950 and 334,300 acres of cotton.

For decades, the future was no farther than getting to the end of the next cotton row or putting the mule in the barn as sun set.  The children of sharecroppers were far more likely to hear the rasp of a cotton pick sack being dragged on sandy soil than the ringing of a school bell.

This is the first part of a three-part series.  I can’t wait to read the next installment.

Posted by Kristina Scott