Benjamin Meek Miller (1864-1944) served as governor of Alabama during the worst years of the Great Depression. A large, bespectacled, dignified man, Miller had a long legal career before and after his term as governor of a state that was among the most severely affected by the Depression. In that difficult era, the man and the times did not perfectly meet, as he approved tax legislation relieving the burden on the poor but also backed business interests, using the state militia against striking coal, iron, and textile workers.
Miller, called "Meek" by his friends, was born in Oak Hill, Wilcox County, on March 13, 1864, to Sara Miller and Reformed Presbyterian minister John Miller. He attended public schools at Oak Hill and Camden after his father took a pulpit there, which he held for 31 years. In 1884, at the age of 20, Miller graduated with his Bachelor of Arts degree with class honors from Erskine College in South Carolina and became a high school principal, a position that ideally suited his sober and dignified appearance if not his ambition. He left that position in 1887 to enter the University of Alabama School of Law and earned his degree in 1889. While a law student, Miller was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives from Wilcox County and served from 1888 to 1889. Upon graduation, he established a law office in Camden, and in 1892 he married Margaret Otis, with whom he had two children.
For the better part of the next four decades, Miller practiced law, served in various judicial capacities, and oversaw his family's large land holdings in Wilcox County. Miller won his second elective political office in 1904, when he was chosen judge of Alabama's Fourth Judicial Circuit. In 1920 he was elected to serve as associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court but was defeated for reelection in 1926.
It was during the bitter and divisive 1928 presidential election between Protestant Republican Herbert Hoover and Catholic Democrat Al Smith that Miller made his political name. New York's Governor Smith was not Miller's choice, but bolting the Democratic Party jeopardized the solid hold Democrats had long held over the South. At the core of Southern Democrats' concerns was maintaining white supremacy and political power. Miller and other party loyalists invoked the race issue as they opposed the Hoovercrat "bolt," which was led in Alabama by U.S. Senator Tom Heflin, Birmingham attorney Horace Wilkinson, and gubernatorial aspirant Hugh Locke.
Smith narrowly won in Alabama, but fallout from the rancorous 1928 campaign haunted state politics for a time. A fierce struggle within the State Democratic Executive Committee for control of the party's machinery in 1929 led to the ouster of Heflin and Locke as retribution for their parts in leading the revolt. The expulsion movement was considered mandatory punishment for the two politicians whose action placed solid Democrat control and white supremacy at risk. Locke and Heflin were refused places on the 1930 Democratic primary ballot, so they joined others to form an independent movement and announced themselves for state office as Jeffersonian Democrats, a conscious attempt to rekindle Populist memories.
Miller declared himself a candidate for governor in the Democratic primary and made opposition to the waning Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its "loose-spending" governor, Bibb Graves, the centerpiece of his campaign. He promised fiscal responsibility and the firing of state employees known to have KKK associations. Miller's opposition to the Klan, like that of other wealthy white supremacists, had little to do with racial tolerance and more to do with maintaining political power. The planter-industrialist, or Black Belt-Big Mule, coalition, of which Miller was a part, eventually rejected the 1920s version of the Klan because it represented a direct threat to their power over poorer and middle-class whites. Many Alabama Klansmen participated in violence and terror during the decade, but the Klan also made itself influential by forming political coalitions with farmers, prohibitionists, women, and unions. These alliances threatened the control that planter-industrialists had exercised in Alabama politics.
The 66-year-old Miller also used his vaunted personal and political frugality as a campaign issue and was not at all embarrassed when it became widely known that he still used oil lamps instead of electricity on his Wilcox plantation in order to save money. A staunch prohibitionist, Miller was fond of quoting Proverbs as an argument against repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Editor Grover C. Hall swung the Montgomery Advertiser's full weight behind Miller with a glowing editorial. Miller promised no new taxes, better roads, improved public health, and added child welfare, all within the vital pledge of strict fiscal responsibility. In August 1930 Miller narrowly defeated a field of five other candidates to win the Democratic primary.
For the first time since the Populist revolt of the 1890s, the Democratic primary did not end the gubernatorial campaign. The general election featured some of the dirtiest campaigning since that era. Even the dignified Judge Miller found himself getting down in the political dirt of 1930. He accused his opponents of favoring alcohol, being tools of the Klan, and benefiting from graft and corruption in Graves's administration. Miller easily defeated his third-party opponent, Locke, in a general election that drew more voters than usual to the polls.
Once in office, Miller's well-known parsimony remained the most prominent aspect of his early days as governor. His inaugural parade featured only two automobiles in order to conserve gasoline, and he brought his favorite cow to the capital from Wilcox County in order to provide the governor's mansion with milk and butter. By the time he took office in 1931, the Great Depression had settled across the state, and Alabama's starving urban populations and habitually impoverished farmers desperately needed government services. As a fiscal conservative battling a mountain of debt and fears of even more debt, however, Miller was reluctant to add to the state's financial difficulties by any act that might, in retrospect, be considered reckless.
Nonetheless, after campaigning against Graves's propensity for debt, Miller immediately borrowed $500,000 to keep the state's social service agencies functioning, and he advocated raising the state's borrowing limits. The governor coupled new debt with a commission of the Brookings Institution to study Alabama's finances and governmental systems. The study called for an almost complete overhaul of state government and recommended increased property taxes to meet a state debt the institution estimated to be in excess of $18 million. During Miller's tenure, however, the legislature refused to adopt various reform measures drawn from this study.
In an attempt to balance the state's budget, Miller eliminated hundreds of state jobs and limited the use of state automobiles. His no new taxes pledge soon evaporated in the arid financial climate of the Great Depression. He sought a two-cent hike in the gasoline tax, which eventually passed as a one-cent increase. To the surprise of many, Miller opposed a sales tax because it was regressive and would harm poorer consumers. His opposition to this form of taxation demonstrated that the governor was not the absolute tool of the conservative Democratic oligarchy that had put him into office.
Instead, Miller favored raising taxes on the wealthy and recommended a constitutional amendment to allow a graduated income tax that would tax higher incomes at higher rates, to generate needed revenue for the state. He stumped the state for passage of the income tax amendment even though many of his strongest supporters opposed it. After bitter defeats through voter referendums in 1931 and 1932, Miller finally won his income tax in 1933. As an incentive for voters to ratify the income tax amendment, the legislature enacted the Budget Control Act of 1932 that required revenue to be in the state's treasury before it was expended. In 1933, lawmakers sent to the voters an amendment to the state's constitution that insured that this "balanced budget" measure would be difficult to eliminate. Voters approved both the income tax and the balanced budget amendments and added their ratification to the Twenty-first Amendment repealing prohibition, an action the "dry" Miller decried.
In the midst of Miller's term, Alabama Democrats reunited to help elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt president in 1932. Even before FDR's New Deal economic recovery program was put into action, Miller had reduced the salaries of state employees and was paying teachers in state paper (IOUs) known as "scrip," which many landlords, grocers, and others were unwilling to accept in lieu of money. County schools moved to shorter terms, and some closed altogether.
As with his predecessors, Miller's administration was charged with cronyism. The governor rewarded newspaper editor Grover Hall for his vocal support by appointing him probate judge of Montgomery County. Even Julian Hall, Grover's nephew and editor of the Dothan Eagle, published a "Shame Sheet of Alabama" listing the most prominent beneficiaries of Miller's largesse, including the Dothan editor's own future bride. Another black eye for Miller was his administration's laxness in dealing with vigilantism. Although he intervened to prevent two lynchings in 1931, Miller allowed a particularly gruesome event to occur in 1934. With police connivance, public approbation, and official approval, an interstate mob tortured and lynched Claude Neal, a black man accused of rape who was moved from Pensacola, Florida, to Brewton, Alabama, for safekeeping. Newspapers advertised the intention to carry out the lynching for several days in advance, yet neither Miller nor his Florida counterpart sent militia to prevent the torture and murder. Instead, Miller sent the state guard to Brewton to quash black protests over the incident. In another case that drew negative national attention to the state, the governor repeatedly denied state protection to the various Communist attorneys representing the wrongfully accused black defendants in the Scottsboro Trials, despite mob hysteria surrounding the courthouse. He and his successor, Bibb Graves, refused to commute the sentences of the men because of the involvement of Communists who supported them.
Miller was an avowed opponent of organized labor and did little to endear himself to the working classes with insensitive remarks such as: "[A] dollar a day [is] enough for any working man." In 1933 and 1934, Miller responded to intense pressure from Alabama coal mine owners, iron companies, and textile mills by repeatedly using the state militia to crush labor strikes. Birmingham executives enjoyed close cooperation and assistance from state government in their efforts to defeat union organizers, whom they called "invaders," "communists," and "outside agitators." One important reform that Miller and the state legislature did accomplish, with the governor's strong support, was the abolition of the first- and second-choice voting systems in Alabama's Democratic primaries. Beginning in 1934, and in every primary since, gubernatorial candidates have been nominated by a majority of the voters.
Miller returned to his law practice at the end of his term as governor. Ten years later, on February 6, he died at the age of 80 at his daughter's home in Selma, Dallas County, and was buried at Camden Cemetery. Miller's legacy as governor is one shared by many of the state's governors. He was unable to see that the same consumers he defended in his fight against a state sales tax might be equally hurt by an unyielding fiscal conservatism that did not adequately value or fund social services and programs. Nor did he understand that his unyielding opposition to trade unionism denied ordinary citizens a tool to counter the power of big business. The conservative ideal of fiscal responsibility and corporate profit at the expense of virtually all else places Miller's administration among those of numerous like-minded Alabama governors.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama Governors: A Political History of the State, edited by Samuel L. Webb and Margaret Armbrester (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001).
Dobbins, Charles C. "Alabama Governors and Editors, 1930–1955: A Memoir." Alabama Review 29 (April 1976): 133-54.
Feldman, Glenn. From Demagogue to Dixiecrat: Horace Wilkinson and the Politics of Race. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995
Flynt, Wayne. "The New Deal and Southern Labor." In The New Deal and the South, edited by James C. Cobb and Michael V. Namorato, 63–96. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
Moore, Albert B. History of Alabama. 1934. Reprint, Tuscaloosa: Alabama Book Store, 1951.
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Published May 12, 2008
Last updated September 30, 2014