Benjamin Meek Miller
Governor of Alabama from 1931-1935
Benjamin Meek Miller was born March 13, 1864, in Oak Hill in Wilcox County, Alabama, where his father, Rev. John Miller, was pastor of the Bethel Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Young Miller, called “Meek” by friends and family, attended schools at Oak Hill and Camden. In 1884 he graduated from Erskine College in S.C. and returned to Wilcox County where he was principal of Lower Peachtree Academy until 1887. Miller later attended law school at the University of Alabama, graduated in 1889 and established a law practice in Camden with his brother, Joseph Neely Miller.
The 1930 gubernatorial election pitted Miller against W.C. Davis (his strongest opponent), Woolsey Finnell, Watt T. Brown, J.A. Carney and Charles C. McCall in the primary. In his campaign Miller attacked the extravagant reforms of the Bibb Graves administration and the political power of the Ku Klux Klan. Although he won the 1930 Democratic primary which in Alabama usually guaranteed election, the former judge faced a formidable obstacle in the general election in the Jeffersonian Democratic candidate, Hugo Locke. Miller’s victory was a strong blow to this third party, the Anti-Saloon League, extreme prohibitionists and the Klan.
When he was inaugurated on January 19, 1931, the new governor inherited a desperate economic situation. Alabama, like the rest of the nation, was in the midst of the Great Depression. As a result, the state debt was massive, revenues were at an all-time low and schools were on the verge of closing. Miller considered reducing the state debt to be his primary concern and devoted most of his attention to this duty at the expense of thousands of out-of-work Alabamians.
He managed (after three attempts before the legislature and a statewide speaking tour) to secure passage of a law that allowed the state to collect an income tax. A state inheritance tax was also passed, claiming revenue from estate taxes that had previously gone to the federal government. To prevent the state from spending beyond its incoming revenues, a budget control act was adopted. The salaries of state employees were cut drastically and in 1933 state representatives finally agreed to reduce their own expenses. Interestingly enough, Miller did not consider his budget and income tax laws to be his greatest accomplishment as governor. He was most proud that he declared a bank holiday in the state of Alabama in March 1933, eight days before President Franklin D. Roosevelt did so for the nation.
Miller sought outside help to identify problems in the state governing system in an attempt to achieve more efficient administration of government. The Brookings Institution of Washington, D.C., an organization of scholars and government experts, studied Alabama’s governing process and made several recommendations, which the legislature never adopted.
The economy-minded governor did little to support education or provide relief to the jobless of Alabama. This help came from the federal government through Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created during this time. The Agriculture Adjustment Act helped farmers by limiting cotton acreage which in turn led to an increase in market prices. The establishment of the Civil Works Administration provided temporary jobs that helped thousands of Alabamians get through the winter of 1933-34.
Also during the Miller administration, the double primary was reinstated and a jury board consisting of three members per county was created to encourage selection of a fair and impartial trial jury. On July 18, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, repealing prohibition, was approved by Alabama voters.
An often overlooked incident of national significance occurred in Alabama soon after Miller became governor when nine black youths were accused of raping two white women on a train that was stopped at Paint Rock in Jackson County. As a result of the publicity garnered by the famous “Scottsboro Boys Case,” Miller was besieged with letters and other forms of communication from around the world pleading for the pardon of the defendants.
At the completion of his term Miller returned to his law practice in Camden. He married Margaret Otis in September 21, 1892. They had two children: Margaret Otis and Benjamin Meek, Jr. On February 6, 1944, Governor Miller died at the home of his daughter in Selma, Alabama. (GPS coordinates N31.992000,W87.289222).