Part 2: What was the “dead shoes primary”?
By Dr. Bill Stewart
As noted last week, Alabama has been the only state in the Union to hold a primary in anticipation of the death of one or more incumbent officeholders. That is what happened in this state 112 years ago when two men were elected in anticipation of the deaths of two other men. The primary election – and in those days, winning the Democratic primary was “tantamount” to election, just as winning the Republican nomination is today – was jokingly referred to as the “dead shoes” primary because for those elected in the special vote in 1906 to take office, Edmund Pettus and John Tyler Morgan, the two men who then occupied the state’s two U.S. Senate seats, would have to die – a very serious matter.
Neither Pettus nor Morgan lived during the lifetime of anyone who is alive today. Neither senator was notably influential as our senior senator, Richard Shelby, a stanch conservative Republican for many years, is today.
A well-known Alabama political columnist recently asserted that with a senator as powerful as Shelby, the state only needs one senator. This was a gratuitous put- down of Alabama’s junior senator, Democrat Doug Jones, who was elected a year ago.
Sen. Jones is a far different type of Democrat than Democrats Pettus and Morgan. In their time, in the 1890s and early 1900s, the Democratic Party – at the national but especially at the state level in Alabama – was very conservative. In Alabama, the Democratic Party touted the supremacy of whites and forbade African Americans from being Democrats. Both Pettus and Morgan were associated with the notorious Ku Klux Klan, which operated as a terrorist organization against black Alabamians.
Both Pettus and Morgan are largely unknown to the present generation of Alabamians.
Although in life he worked in the shadow of Morgan, in death the use of his Pettus’ name greatly exceeds that of Morgan. In 1940 a new bridge across the Alabama River in the hometown of both Morgan and Pettus, Selma, was dedicated to the memory of Pettus. His name is now closely associated with the civil rights movement.
“Bloody Sunday,” when protestors against racial barriers were violently put down on March 7, 1965, occurred largely in the vicinity of Edmund Pettus Bridge. Efforts to get a new name for the bridge because it was named for a racist politician have been opposed by both races. The name of Pettus is inextricably
linked with the civil rights movement, and no other name for the bridge would carry anywhere near the amount of symbolism as the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The name of John Tyler Morgan is rarely used in the national media.
The John T. Morgan Academy in Selma, critically referred to as a “segregation academy,” was named for Sen. Morgan. He is a member of the Alabama Men’s Hall of Fame located at Samford University. The mansion where Sen. Morgan lived in Selma when Congress was not in session has been restored to its pristine condition and is a must-see on a tour of Selma.
The country of Nicaragua has honored Morgan because it was his preferred location for an interoceanic canal that was ultimately built through Panama. Morgan Hall – including Morgan Auditorium, where some of America’s gifted speakers and chamber musicians have appeared – is located on the University of Alabama campus.
John H. Bankhead Sr., and Joseph F. Johnston were the winners of the “dead shoes primary.” The name of Bankhead should be familiar to all Enquirer subscribers – that of Johnston, less so. More on them next week.