William Jelks (1855–1931) rose from humble beginnings to be a newspaper owner and editor in Eufaula. He was an outspoken advocate of white supremacy, which he promoted as a state senator and as governor, helping to guide through the legislature the 1901 Constitution that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. After leaving the governor's office, Jelks founded and ran a successful life insurance company in Birmingham.
William Dorsey Jelks was born on November 7, 1855, at Warrior Stand in present-day Macon County, to Joseph William Jelks and Jane Goodrum Frazer Jelks. Jelks's father, a Confederate Army captain, died in 1862 from wounds incurred in the war. Widowed with four young children, Jane Jelks married Major Robert Green Wright of Union Springs, in Bullock County, in January 1865. As a youth, Jelks helped support his family with odd jobs and with the fish and game he brought in from the surrounding countryside. Rising from this hardscrabble background, the ambitious young man displayed such exemplary work habits and academic potential that patrons from Union Springs awarded him a scholarship to Mercer College in Macon, Georgia. There, Jelks developed the writing skills that laid the groundwork for his future career in journalism.
After earning his degree in 1876, Jelks returned to Union Springs, served on the town's council, his first elective office, and acquired co-ownership of the Union Springs Herald and Times with his future brother-in-law Edward H. Cabaniss. In August 1880, with the support of Congressman William C. Oates, Jelks purchased the Eufaula Times and News, and relocated to Eufaula, where he would eventually establish a newspaper monopoly. In June 1883 he married Alice Keitt Shorter, whose powerful family connections included her father, a wealthy Eufaula attorney and president of the state railroad commission; her uncle, Civil War governor John Gill Shorter; and a cousin, Populist leader Reuben Kolb.
White supremacy was one of Jelks's lifelong obsessions, and he expressed his views in numerous editorials in the Daily Times. As early as 1883, he advocated "cleansing" the political arena by relocating blacks to other areas of the United States and encouraging "industrious" white immigrants from western Europe to settle in the South. He approved of lynching as a means of controlling the black population and promoted the popular white myth of the pervasive potential dangers of black rapists. When he later realized how such views, and the violence they engendered, tarnished the state's public image and discouraged economic investment in Alabama, Jelks adopted an anti-lynching stance.
Through his newspaper, Jelks built a broad political base and made influential friends. With their support, he won a two-year term in the state senate in 1898. Jelks helped guide through the senate a referendum on whether Alabama should have a constitutional convention aimed at disfranchising poor whites and black voters. The opposition of Governor Joseph Johnston led legislators to reject the convention in 1899, but the constitution issue was far from dead. Confederate hero and former congressman William J. Samford won the 1900 nomination and endorsed a constitutional convention to disenfranchise black voters.
Shortly after his election, Samford was stricken with acute heart disease, touching off a political crisis in the state because the 1875 constitution included no provision for a lieutenant governor. The president of the senate was next in line, and the selection process became the major issue of the day when the new legislature convened in November 1900. Jelks had been reelected to the legislature, and he was strategically chosen senate president. Over incumbent governor Johnston's opposition, legislators also rushed through a succession bill that provided for the senate president to become temporary governor if the governor could not assume office because of illness, resignation, or absence from the state for more than 20 days.
On December 1, Governor Johnston formally relinquished his office to Samford, and two days later Samford asked Jelks to take temporary control of the office. During the next 23 days, Jelks forwarded Samford's recommendations for several appointments to state commissions and boards to the Senate and joined him in expressing alarm that the legislature was spending money the state did not have. On December 11, 1900, Jelks signed into law the bill authorizing a constitutional convention in 1901. It was his last official deed as acting governor.
In late December 1900, Jelks relinquished the governor's office to Samford and expressed his dissatisfaction with his duties, saying if he was to be governor at all, he preferred to be "governor in fact." He returned to the Senate presidency, where he expressed frustration at Samford's style, particularly his lack of commitment. On June 11, 1901, Samford died, and Jelks became "governor in fact." He served out the remaining 18 months of Samford's term, a period consumed by emotional debate over the proposed new constitution and a bitter factional fight within the Democratic Party during the political campaign of 1902.
Jelks watched with satisfaction as voters, on November 11, 1901, approved the new constitution containing proposals to disfranchise blacks and poor and illiterate voters. Proponents argued that disfranchisement would usher in a new era of political reform and "clean government." Yet, during the legislative session of 1901-1902, the House and Senate rejected bills to regulate child labor, guarantee compulsory school attendance, and insure minimum funding for education. The new constitution increased the term of elected state officials from two to four years, and in 1902 Jelks sought a full term. Former governor Joseph F. Johnston, who opposed the 1901 constitution, also sought another term. During the summer and autumn of 1901, Johnston's forces had backed a statewide direct primary only for white voters. Noting the popularity of the primary, Jelks endorsed the proposal, effectively undercutting Johnston's attempt to style himself as the reform candidate. The primary was adopted, and both men ran as reformers. Jelks reminded voters that he supported "the new order of things."
On August 25, 1902, Jelks easily won the Democratic nomination, with Johnston carrying only four of the state's 67 counties. Almost 50 percent of the qualified voters did not participate in the primary, and thousands were disfranchised by the poll tax and other suffrage restrictions in the new constitution. Jelks's well-financed organizations in each county, his close alliance with Alabama's congressional delegation, his apparent support of railroad regulation, and his manipulation of the issue of white supremacy served him well. He and physician Russell M. Cunningham, who won the lieutenant governor's nomination (the office of lieutenant governor was constitutionally reestablished in 1901), carried the November election easily against weak Populist-Republican opposition.
As governor in his own right, Jelks focused on policies and programs designed to bolster the state treasury. With the state debt at $9.4 million in 1903, the governor launched an ambitious program to re-fund the debt by getting the legislature to adopt a series of bond issues. By the end of Jelks's term his efforts on this issue yielded positive results, and when he left office the state had a surplus of almost $2 million.
The governor also believed that state programs such as education and convict leasing should be administered according to business principles to produce substantial savings for taxpayers. Ironically, his narrowly focused approach ultimately produced some limited reforms. His restructuring of the convict-lease system resulted in better living conditions and health care for convicts, and he introduced cost-saving measures for the distribution of textbooks, which increased funding for public education. On labor, however, Jelks was a hardliner, as evidenced by his support of the Anti-Boycott Act of 1903, which created fines and imprisonment for inciting or supporting boycotts.
In the spring of 1904, Jelks contracted tuberculosis and traveled to the New Mexico Territory for treatment. He then developed a viral infection requiring surgery and did not return to his office for nearly a year, leaving Lieutenant Governor Cunningham in charge. During his absence, Jelks became deeply despondent but corresponded frequently with Cunningham about pending bond issues, appointments to office, politics, and personal family matters. Upon his return in 1905, he became ill again and spent several more weeks recuperating out of the state. When finally able to resume his duties, he became mired in his own racist obsessions.
Although he had been a strong advocate of lynching prior to his governorship, between 1903 and 1905 Jelks gained national attention as an antilynching crusader. He advocated the judicial process, which he reminded voters usually led to death sentences anyway, and said that the real horror of lynching was that innocent men were occasionally murdered. Journalists proclaimed his bravery in the face of mob violence as exemplifying a new progressive spirit in the South. However, in a Memphis newspaper in 1905, Jelks restated his old belief that lynching black men accused of rape was justified. He made equally outrageous remarks in 1906 when he shared a platform with Booker T. Washington at Negro Day at the state fair. Jelks used that opportunity to denounce education for blacks because he believed it took them from their labors in the field and led to idleness, vagrancy, and crime.
After leaving the governorship, Jelks did not seek public office again. He served as Alabama's representative on the Democratic
National Committee from 1912 to 1916 and advised Governor Charles Henderson on various financial matters. He put most of his energy into private business, establishing the Protective Life Insurance
Company in Birmingham in 1907. By the time Jelks retired in 1929, the company had branch offices in six other southern states and more than $7
million in assets. On December 15, 1931, Jelks died of a heart attack in Eufaula at the age of 76 and was buried at Fairview
Alsobrook, David E. "William Dorsey Jelks: Alabama Editor and Legislator." Master's thesis, West Virginia University, 1972.
Henry D. Clayton Jr. Papers. University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
William D. Jelks Biographical File. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery.
William Dorsey Jelks Official Papers, 1901-06. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery.
David E. Alsobrook
History Museum of Mobile
Published January 22, 2008
Last updated September 30, 2014