Among the Native American people once living in the area of present day Alabama were Alabama (Alibamu), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Koasati, and Mobile. Trade with the Northeast via the Ohio River began during the Burial Mound Period (1000 BC-700 AD) and continued until European contact. The agrarian Mississippian culture covered most of the state from 1000 to 1600 AD, with one of its major centers being at the Moundville Archaeological Site in Moundville, Alabama. Artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations at Moundville were a major component in the formulation of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Contrary to popular belief, this development appears to have no direct links to Mesoamerica, but developed independently. This Ceremonial Complex represents a major component of the religion of the Mississippian peoples, and is one of the primary means by which their religion is understood.
The French founded the first European settlement in the state with the establishment of Mobile in 1702. Southern Alabama was French from 1702 to 1763, part of British West Florida from 1763 to 1780, and part of Spanish West Florida from 1780 to 1814. Northern and central Alabama was part of British Georgia from 1763 to 1783 and part of the American Mississippi territory thereafter. Its statehood was delayed by the lack of a coastline; rectified when Andrew Jackson captured Spanish Mobile in 1814. Alabama was the twenty-second state, admitted to the Union in 1819. Its constitution provided for universal suffrage for white men.
Alabama was part of the new frontier in the 1820s and 1830s. Settlers rapidly arrived to take advantage of its fertile soil. Planters brought slaves with them, and traders brought in more from the Upper South as the cotton plantations expanded. The economy of the central "Black Belt" was built around large cotton plantations whose owners built their wealth on slave labor. It was named for the dark, productive soil. Elsewhere poor whites were subsistence farmers. According to the 1860 census, enslaved Africans comprised 45% of the state's population of 964,201. There were only 2,690 free persons of color.
In 1861 Alabama declared its secession from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America. While few battles were fought in the state, Alabama contributed about 120,000 soldiers to the Civil War. All the slaves were freed by 1865. Following Reconstruction, Alabama was restored to the Union in 1868.
After the Civil War, the state was still chiefly rural and tied to cotton. Planters resisted working with free labor and sought to re-establish controls over African Americans. Whites used paramilitary groups, Jim Crow laws and segregation to reduce freedoms of African Americans and restore their own dominance.
In its new constitution of 1901, the legislature effectively disfranchised African Americans through voting restrictions. While the planter class had engaged poor whites in supporting these efforts, the new restrictions resulted in disfranchising poor whites as well. By 1941, a total of more whites than blacks had been disfranchised: 600,000 whites to 520,000 blacks. This was due mostly to effects of the cumulative poll tax.
The damage to the African-American community was pervasive, as nearly all its citizens lost the ability to vote. In 1900, fourteen Black Belt counties (which were primarily African American) had more than 79,000 voters on the rolls. By June 1, 1903, the number of registered voters had dropped to 1,081. In 1900, Alabama had more than 181,000 African Americans eligible to vote. By 1903, only 2,980 had managed to "qualify" to register, although at least 74,000 black voters were literate. The shut out was long-lasting. The disfranchisement was ended only by African Americans leading the Civil Rights Movement and gaining Federal legislation in the mid-1960s to protect their voting and civil rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 also protected the suffrage of poor whites.
The rural-dominated legislature continued to underfund schools and services for African Americans in the segregated state, but did not relieve them of paying taxes. Continued racial discrimination, agricultural depression, and the failure of the cotton crops due to boll weevil infestation led tens of thousands of African Americans to seek out opportunities in northern cities. They left Alabama in the early 20th century as part of the Great Migration to industrial jobs and better futures in northern industrial cities. The population growth rate in Alabama (see "Historical Populations" table below) dropped by nearly half from 1910–1920, reflecting the effect of outmigration.
At the same time, many rural whites and blacks migrated to the city of Birmingham for work in new industrial jobs. It experienced such rapid growth that it was nicknamed "The Magic City". By the 1920s, Birmingham was the 19th largest city in the U.S. and held more than 30% of the population of the state. Heavy industry and mining were the basis of the economy.
Despite massive population changes in the state from 1901 to 1961, the rural-dominated legislature refused to reapportion House and Senate seats based on population. They held on to old representation to maintain political and economic power in agricultural areas. In addition, the state legislature gerrymandered the few Birmingham legislative seats to ensure election by persons living outside of Birmingham.
One result was that Jefferson County, home of Birmingham's industrial and economic powerhouse, contributed more than one-third of all tax revenue to the state. Urban interests were consistently underrepresented in the legislature. A 1960 study noted that because of rural domination, "A minority of about 25 per cent of the total state population is in majority control of the Alabama legislature."
Because of the long disfranchisement of African Americans, the state continued as one-party Democratic for decades. It produced a number of national leaders. Industrial development related to the demands of World War II brought prosperity. Cotton faded in importance as the state developed a manufacturing and service base. In the 1960s under Governor George Wallace, many whites in the state opposed integration efforts.
During the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans achieved a protection of voting and other civil rights through the passage of the national Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. De jure segregation ended in the states as Jim Crow laws were invalidated or repealed.
Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, cases were filed in Federal courts to force Alabama to properly redistrict by population both the state legislature House and Senate. In 1972, for the first time since 1901, the legislature implemented the Alabama constitution's provision for periodic redistricting based on population. This benefited the many urban areas that had developed, and all in the population who had been underrepresented for more than 60 years.
After 1972, the state's white voters shifted much of their support to Republican candidates in presidential elections (as also occurred in neighboring southern states). Since 1990 the majority of whites in the state have also voted increasingly Republican in state elections, although Democrats are still the majority party in both houses of the legislature.