William Dorsey Jelks (November 7, 1855 – December 13, 1931) was an American Democratic politician who was the 32nd Governor of Alabama from 1901 to 1907; he had been a newspaper publisher and editor. He also served as acting governor between December 1 and December 26, 1900 when governor William J. Samford was out-of-state seeking medical treatment (Alabama law at the time required the governor to relinquish authority of the office if he left the state for any reason for more than 20 days). When Samford died on June 11, 1901, Jelks became governor. In 1904, Jelks fell ill and left the state for treatment; Russell Cunningham acted as governor in Jelk's absence from April 25, 1904 to March 5, 1905.

William D. Jelks
William D. Jelks.jpg
32nd Governor of Alabama
In office
June 11, 1901 – January 14, 1907
Russell M. Cunningham
Preceded byWilliam J. Samford
Succeeded byB. B. Comer
Personal details
Born(1855-11-07)November 7, 1855
Warriorstand, Macon County, Alabama[1]
DiedDecember 13, 1931(1931-12-13) (aged 76)
Eufaula, Alabama
Political partyDemocratic

Early life and educationEdit

Jelks, an Alabama native, graduated in 1876 from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, where he was a member of the Chi Phi Fraternity. In 1879, Jelks acquired a substantial interest in the Union Springs Herald; later that year he bought and became the editor of the Eufaula Times. During his residence in Eufaula, Alabama, Jelks served on the board and as superintendent of education for the city schools.

As editor of the paper, Jelks called for Blacks to be deported from the state and praised lynchings.[2]

Political careerEdit

Elected to the Alabama Senate from Barbour County, Alabama in 1898, Jelks served as chairman of the Committee on Constitution, Constitutional Revision and Amendment. In 1900, he was elected President of the Senate. Alabama did not have an office of lieutenant governor under the State Constitution of 1875, thus, Jelks, by virtue of his position as President of the Senate, served as acting-governor during the temporary incapacitation of Governor William J. Samford from December 1–26, 1900, and succeeded to the office on June 11, 1901, after Samford died.

As governor, Jelks played an active role in securing the ratification of the State Constitution of 1901. The new constitution reinstated the office of lieutenant governor and established the term of office of governor as four years. Developed according to the Mississippi model, it established requirements for voter registration that effectively disfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites.[3][4] Blacks were disfranchised for more than 60 years, until after passage in the mid-1960s of federal civil rights legislation. Elected to his first full term in 1902, Jelks was the first Alabama governor elected to serve a four-year term.

Significant accomplishments during Jelks' administration include the passage of legislation limiting and regulating child labor; the establishment of the State Textbook Commission; the reforms of the State Railroad Commission and the convict lease system; the renovation and expansion of the State Capitol, and the creation of Houston County.

  • The legislature prohibited manufacturers from employing children under twelve years of age or working them more than sixty-six hours per week.
  • The State Textbook Commission was established to provide a uniform series of textbooks for use in the state's public schools. According to Owen, the state realized a savings of several hundred thousand dollars in this way.
  • Public indignation with the high freight rates charged by the railroads resulted in a reform of the State Railroad Commission, whereby the commissioners began to be directly elected in 1903. Jelks' understanding of the workings of the commission was inadequate and, although he was apprehensive about popular election of the commissioners, he signed the bill into law.
  • He ordered a review of the bookkeeping practices and greater accountability to be applied to the state's convict lease system. A larger percentage of the proceeds from the hire of county convicts was returned to the counties, the state assumed greater responsibility for the care and feeding of convicts contracted to mine operators and lumber camps, and the overall health of state convicts improved. Efficient administration of the convict system net the state nearly $400,000 per year between 1901 and 1906.
  • A legislative appropriation in 1903 of $150,000 for expansion and renovation of the State Capitol enabled the state to acquire a block of houses directly south of the Capitol, on which were constructed additional offices for state officials. The recently established State Department of Archives and History was provided offices and storage space in the new wing of the Capitol.

Jelks strongly advocated white supremacy; he played a key role in adoption of constitutional provisions that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites, following brief political gains by the Populist Party. He supported lynchings, stating that lynching black men accused of rape was justified. Briefly during his governorship he opposed lynching, preferring the judicial process. It usually resulted in death sentences as, unable to vote, blacks were excluded from serving on juries. They were also excluded from local offices. Jelks opposed education for blacks, believing that it took them from their "labors in the field" and led to idleness, vagrancy, and crime.[5] On at least one occasion in 1902 he pardoned members of a lynch mob convicted of murder. In a newspaper report from 1905 he defended the murder of a Black man accused of rape.[6]

Nevertheless, according to The Literary Digest, Jelks managed to win votes from African-Americans against his Republican opponent, John A. W. Smith, the son of William Hugh Smith. The reason being Smith ran on the Lily-white movement against Civil Rights. Jelks praised certain members of the African-American community. According to The Mobile Press, it was said that any African-American who voted for Smith was "a blatant fool."[7]

When Jelks left office in 1907, he had served longer than any governor before him. He left a cash balance in the treasury of $1.8 million, which he recommended be spent on education. Later he organized the Protective Life Insurance Company in Birmingham, Alabama and served as its first president. He was a delegate to the 1912 Democratic Convention in Baltimore, Maryland that nominated Woodrow Wilson to the presidency. Jelks died on December 13, 1931, early in the Great Depression.


  1. ^ "Alabama Governor William Dorsey Jelks". National Governors Association. Retrieved August 28, 2013.
  2. ^ Lyman, Brian (January 10, 2018). "The lynching of Robin White and the confession of George Howard". Montgomery Advertiser. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  3. ^ J. Morgan Kousser. The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974
  4. ^ Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disenfranchisement (sic) in the South, 1888-1908, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001
  5. ^ [1], Encyclopedia of Alabama
  6. ^ Lyman, Brian (January 10, 2018). "The lynching of Robin White and the confession of George Howard". Montgomery Advertiser. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  7. ^ Split in the Southern Republican Party. The Literary Digest. Volume 25. New York: Funk and Wagnalls. November 1, 1902.

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
William J. Samford
Governor of Alabama
Succeeded by
B. B. Comer