By Dr. Bailey Thomson
Journalism, University of Alabama
Thirty-four years ago I sat where you are now as
a delegate to Boys State. We were in this same auditorium, although
the political and social climate in Alabama was vastly different then.
Our state did not have strong leadership to guide us
through the crisis of racial integration. Instead, politicians often
exploited citizens fears of the unknown. Our Boys State convention
was a part of its time, just as your convention reflects the age in
which you live.
As I share these reminiscences, I see a much more hopeful
future for you, in part because our state has managed to put many
of those old fears behind it. But much still remains to be done if
we are to achieve the great potential that Alabama represents.
Since I was a delegate here, Ive learned that leadership
is about taking risks for great causes. It is also about motivating
people to seek the common good.
As I look upon Alabama here as we begin a new century,
I wonder: Where are the leaders who might encourage our states
citizens to do whats right for themselves and their posterity?
Certainly, I hear officials say they are doing what the
people want them to do, although its not always clear just who
those particular citizens are. But too few of our elected leaders
dare to get out front ahead of the opinion polls and the old
tired wisdom that says nothing changes in Alabama.
As I travel around Alabama, I often hear people say:
"We cant expect our politicians to take the lead on this particular
issue. We have to figure out a way to give them cover."
Translated, that line means citizens who are trying to
address serious problems have to go first and draw the fire before
they can expect politicians to join the battle.
In Alabama, we now have a vigorous and competitive politics
arising from a genuine two-party system. But a common feature of our
campaigns is a reluctance to talk candidly about serious problems.
Certainly, some of this caution among politicians is
Even a courageous candidate can take on only a few major
issues at a time. And campaigns are outrageously expensive. Someone
who wants to run for governor and stand a chance of winning can expect
to spend upward to $10 million. A state Senate seat could cost $300,000.
But prudence too often becomes timidity.
Many politicians are reluctant to say or do anything
that might lower their polling numbers and jeopardize the steady flow
of money they need to run. As a consequence, we dont hear enough
of them talk about tax reform, home rule and other fundamental issues.
The public, meanwhile, has to be educated. This can be
difficult during a campaign when political discourse often is squeezed
into sound bites of less than a minute.
It doesnt take much longer than a minute, however,
to realize Alabama is in trouble deep trouble. We have not
done those things that a well-constituted citizenry should do.
Consider our wretched tax system. Alabama has had two
blue-ribbon groups study this problem in the last decade, and theyve
both said the same thing: The system rewards the wealthy with low
property and income taxes, and it punishes the poor with high sales
taxes. Yet our state staggers from one crisis to the next, as our
leaders try to patch an unfair system rather than reform it.
For example, Georgia has a broader tax base that provides
about $500 more per capita to invest in schools and other services.
Its probably no coincidence that Georgias economic growth
rate consistently exceeds the national average, while Alabamas
rate regularly falls below the U.S. benchmark.
Ill be more specific about tax fairness.
If you own land in Alabama, you pay the lowest property
taxes in the country. But if you are poor, you pay some of the highest
sales taxes ‹ even on your groceries and non-prescription drugs.
For example, owners of timberland in Cleburne
County, Alabama, pay about $1.85 per acre each year in property taxes.
But if you step just across the state line into Haralson County, Georgia,
the tax rate is about $7 per acre.
Now Georgia is not a high-tax state. Its just that
in Alabama, special interests have insisted upon ridiculously low
property taxes, while socking the poor with high sales taxes.?
The result is not only that our state has an unfair tax
system but it also starves critical public services such as schools
and law enforcement.
A good example can be found in our prison system. We
dont have enough guards. We can build new prisons, such as the
one at Brent, Ala., but we have to hold our breath that the inmates
wont take it over.
At the local level, meanwhile, officials lack the authority
they need to address the runaway sprawl that afflicts our urban counties
with traffic jams and environmental damage. Without what we call home
rule, local governments cannot begin to manage growth properly.
Tax reform and local home rule are both part of a bigger
issue. To fix those problems, we need to revise our states bloated
constitution. It presents the biggest single barrier to our progress.
If there is one great thing my generation needs to do
for your generation, it is to draft a modern state constitution ‹
one that will encourage and enable you young leaders to build a state
worthy of your aspirations.
From following the news, you probably know that groups
around the state are calling for constitutional reform. Chambers of
commerce in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville sponsored rallies this spring
to demand reforms such as home rule for counties and a fair tax system.
Im going to tell you in a minute why I expect this
movement to continue growing. But first, let me briefly tell you where
the problems lie with the current document, which reformers have been
assailing almost from the day it was ratified.
Lets begin with the immoral purposes behind the
The 1901 state Constitutions main purpose was to
deny black citizens the right to vote in Alabama. In case you didnt
hear me, let me repeat that:
Framers of the present constitution assembled in Montgomery
in 1901 with one main goal in mind: to deny former slaves and their
children the rights they gained under the 14th and 15th amendments
of the U.S. Constitution.
As long as blacks voted in large numbers, the big planters
and even the industrial bosses of Alabama felt threatened. After all,
blacks might team up with working class whites to demand fair labor
laws. Or they might want fair property taxes to pay for schools.
So the planters and the industrial bosses got together
and decided to take away black peoples right to vote. They did
this through a variety of clever means, but the effect was to remove
black people as a political force in Alabama. The constitutions
framers could do this because by 1901 the federal courts were willing
to look the other way, to their lasting shame.
In my mind, denying a citizen the right to vote just
because he is black is immoral. But thats what the framers of
this document did. And they were proud of it.
But this constitution would never have been ratified
in an honest vote of the people. For one thing, working class white
people quickly caught on that they might lose their right to vote
as well. These same restrictions aimed at black people would apply
to them as well.
So for good reasons, counties that had white majorities
and mostly small farms opposed the 1901 Constitution. They were fearful
of how it would centralize power in the hands of a small elite. The
victory margin for the new Constitution occurred in the Black Belt
counties, where there were great plantations worked by black laborers.
These counties naturally had large majorities of African-Americans.
Thus we are expected to believe that black voters in those plantation
counties overwhelmingly chose to disfranchise themselves.
Of course, they didnt. The vote for ratification
was a massive fraud, perpetrated by powerful whites who stole votes
to guarantee they would control things in the 20th century.
And they did a good job. Just as opponents had feared,
hundreds of thousands of working class whites were driven from the
voting places, just as black citizens were. In fact, full voting rights
were not restored in Alabama until Congress and the federal courts
intervened in the 1960s.
This 1901 constitution often has reflected the desires
and agendas of special interests ever since, rather than the needs
of the citizenry. But history is not the only reason we need to replace
Our state constitution is a bloated, almost unreadable
document. Because it severely limits the right of local government,
counties and cities have been forced to seek relief though constitutional
Thus, our state constitution now has around 665 amendments.
Altogether, the document has about 310,000 words. It is by far the
longest constitution in the United States and probably in the Western
For example, Alabamas constitution is nearly 40
times longer than the U.S. Constitution. You can put the U.S. Constitution
in your shirt pocket. Alabamas Constitution, by contrast, is
about the size of a Danielle Steele novel, give or take a few bedroom
In studying civics you learned that a constitution is
supposed to be a broad framework for organizing government and protecting
citizens rights. It is supposed to be organic law that rises
above petty everyday matters to address the broad issues in our society.
But not in Alabama. Our state constitution reads more
like legislative laws dealing with minute issues. For example, Alabamas
constitution addresses matters such as whether counties can have bingo
games or whether they can raise their school taxes. It gets even more
specific. Amendment 489, for instance, authorizes the country music
hall of fame in Colbert County to purchase CDs.
But one of the biggest problems is what the Alabama constitution
doesnt say. As I mentioned earlier, it does not give counties
the right to govern themselves.
Instead, the document concentrates power in Montgomery,
forcing local officials to come begging their legislators for authority
to perform even the most mundane local jobs.
For example, the Baldwin County Commission cannot protect
groundwater. Nor does it have authority to control stray animals.
It cant even pass a tree ordinance to protect the countys
When counties do seek relief from the Legislature, they
are at the mercy of their local delegations. A single senator can
kill any local bill ‹ an abuse of power can invite vindictiveness
and petty politics.
Reformers have tried since 1915 with Gov. Emmet ONeal
to rewrite this document. In 1932, the Brookings Institute did a major
study of Alabamas government at the request of Gov. B.M. Miller
and concluded the state needed a new constitution.
More recently, Gov. Albert Brewer in 1969 made reform
a priority. A commission headed by Judge Conrad Fowler here in Shelby
County did outstanding work and drafted a model constitution. Unfortunately,
Brewer was no longer in office when the commission concluded its work
and that effort died.
From such efforts, we can conclude that special interests,
combined with citizens apathy, have kept the 1901 constitution
So why try again to do what seems to be the impossible:
That is, to bring Alabamas blueprint for government into the
Several reasons come to mind:
Alabama is widely recognized for having one of the most
inefficient and poorly organized governments among the states. Indeed,
a survey by the respected Governing magazine recently ranked our state
at the bottom. Besides the hardships this inefficiency imposes upon
our people, are we likely to attract the best companies and their
high paying jobs when we do such a poor job of governing ourselves?
Many of the crucial improvements we need to make, such
as school reform, hinge on revising our Constitution. For example,
we have to develop a fair taxation system to support schools and other
vital public services.
The current constitution has reflected bad faith toward
government since its fraudulent ratification. We need to change this
attitude. We need to draw our citizens into the political process
and create a new system one that can educate our people to
govern themselves wisely and to live and work in a global economy.
You may ask, Where are the politicians who will step
forward and tell the truth - that we cannot fix our many problems
in Alabama until we first revise our constitution?
Im afraid that most of them are waiting on somebody
else to jump up and lead.
Therefore, we citizens have to make something big happen.
We have to demand that our elected leaders in Montgomery empower us
to write a new constitution.
The Legislature can do this by calling a convention of
citizens. Then the people of Alabama can vote on whether they want
to accept this conventions work.
I believe a convention would be harder for special interests
to control than having the Legislature rewrite the constitution article
by article. More important, a convention would invite more good people
to get involved in civic affairs. We might see capable new leaders
enter the arena.
Yes, it is tempting to walk away and disengage from the
problems that beset our state. Its easy just to look the other
way and accept things as they are.
But I believe we the people can challenge our circumstances
and change them, if only we do not give up. We have to be strong citizens
and do whats right for our community.
And some of us have to be strong leaders, to help educate
our fellow citizens and inspire them to take action.
Since I was your age, I have seen a great deal of change
in Alabama ‹ most of it for the better. Many of the old fears that
abounded when I grew up have diminished. And theres hope for
an even better Alabama, which you will inherit.
During your week here at this beautiful campus of Montevallo,
I urge you to learn all that you can to prepare yourself for leadership.
And above all, I urge you to think boldly about the possibilities
for that new Alabama you will inherit.
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