Alabama, ca. 1980

During the time that Generation X was growing up, Alabama had 3.89 million people living here, more than 900,000 of them age 15 or under. In 1980, about 40% of Alabamians lived in rural areas, 45% lived in towns of 25,000 to 100,000 people, and only 15% lived in one of the state’s urban areas.  Combining those facts and figures would mean that relatively few GenXers grew up in one of Alabama’s four major cities – 15% of 900,00 is 135,000 – while the vast majority grew up in the country or around smaller towns.

In addition to being largely not-urban, the Alabama of Generation X’s youth was also not-diverse. In the state, 2.88 million people (73%) were white, 996,000 (26%) were black, and 33,000 (1%) were Hispanic. (Asians / Pacific Islanders did not show up as group on this report.) Only 39,000 Alabamians were “foreign born,” and the majority of them lived in cities. Nearly half of the state’s immigrants were Europeans, though over 9,000 people had moved to Alabama from Asia, more than 4,000 from Central or South America, and nearly 1,500 from Africa. A look at the 1980 census’s sections on languages spoken shows that very few Alabamians spoke a language other than English. 

So, most of Alabama’s Generation X grew up in a small-town world with medium-sized cities nearby, where three-quarters of the people were native born and white. That was the old Alabama holding strong, as anyone can see from this image from a Ku Klux Klan rally in downtown Mobile in 1980. The next year, 1981, saw the lynching of Michael Donald there as well.

However, other aspects were changing, like educational attainment. No GenXers had yet finished high school in 1980, but for those slightly older (born between 1955 and 1960), high school graduation rates were about 78%, up from the Boomers’ rate of 71%. (Our grandparents’ rates were half that or less.) On Table 201A of the census, we see that 98% of GenXers between ages 7 and 14 were enrolled in school, though that number dropped off after age 14— 96% at age 15, 90% at age 16, 81% at age 17, and 63% at age 18. The dropout age was 16 at that time, but the diminished percentage of 18-year-olds could be the fact that some students, like me, graduated at 17. Among the demographic groups, there wasn’t much difference in who was staying in school or dropping out: boys, girls, white, black, the numbers are close to the same. 

Looking at the changes in population and the composition of state leadership points to other changes occurring in Alabama. According to the 1980 census, the state population rose by 13% from 1970 to 1980, a marked difference from the four previous decades, when the population grew 5% to 8% each decade. That growth had to be due to an influx of outsiders rather than higher birth rates, since Generation X is a noticeably smaller generation. The newcomers may have affected the state’s politics. As the 1980s began, the governor was a party-switching former Auburn football player named Forrest “Fob” James, but by ’83, the old school George Wallace was back for one term. Then in 1987, voters chose Guy Hunt, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. (In 1992, Hunt was convicted on ethics charges and removed from office by a Democratic attorney general.)

In the 1980s, the state also experienced major changes in the dynamics of its football culture. The Crimson Tide had won national championships in 1978 and 1979, then legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant retired after the 1982 season, ending his career with a loss to Auburn. He died in January 1983, and the Tide did not win another championship until 1992. By contrast, Auburn won six of the ten Iron Bowl games in the 1980s and had Heisman Trophy-winning running back Bo Jackson on the team from 1982 through 1985.

For more on Alabama in the 1980s, see al.com’s “Vintage photos show what Alabamians were up to in the Eighties,” from February 2020.

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