By Dr. Bailey Thomson
Journalism, University of Alabama
I am proud to be associated as a volunteer and board
member with Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. From a rally
in Tuscaloosa on April 7, 2000, ACCR has grown into a non-profit public
interest group, with close to 2,000 membersacross Alabama.
It has anoffice in Montgomery with several full-time
staff members. They receive help from volunteers in five local groups
that are affiliates. Meanwhile, many other groups as diverse as the
Higher Education Partnership, the League of Women Voters and the state
Chamber of Commerce provide have made constitutional reform their
issue too, and they workclosely with ACCR in promoting events.
For financial support, ACCR looks to its members and
to public-minded corporations and foundations. Many have made long-term
commitments to see ACCRs work completed and a new state constitution
ratified by the citizens.
What we have finally in Alabama is a grass-roots movement
to bring our state government and our fundamental state laws into
the 21st century. If we succeed, and I believe we will, Alabama will
position itself to compete in a world that will be dramatically differentfrom
what we knew just a generation ago. More important, our state will
open possibilities for our people to be more than simply numbers to
be manipulatedon election day. They will have the opportunity to be
full citizens in a democracy that encourages their participation at
all levels of government.
I believe these two goals, the modernization of our state
and the empowerment of ourcitizens, are worthy of every ounce of energy
that reformers have expended thus far. Our movement has succeeded
in lifting the political discourse of thisstate to a level heretofore
From the marble halls of state government to the modest
coffee shops of our communities, citizens are deliberating about what
they want Alabamato be. It is a conversation that is long overdue
in a state where too often politicians have sought to divide us, and
wealthy interests have sought to exploit us. Thank God for this opportunity
to talk together and decide what is good for Alabama and especially
the generations that will follow us in this new century.
I would not want to be anywhere else at this time but
right here in my native state. We have the means to show not just
our fellow Americans but freedom-loving people all over the world
how a democracy can rejuvenate itself. In the process, we can make
Alabama an attractive place for the world to do business, with the
assurance that our people will be educated and trained sufficiently
so that are first in line to receive the blessings of economic advancement.
Contrast this situation, if you will, to Alabama in 1901,
when the framers of our present constitution met in Montgomery.The
155 convention delegates, while elected, came mostly from well-to-do
circles of planters, lawyers and business.
No African-Americans served in that body, and certainly
no women, who had yet to gain the right to vote. There were a few
dissident voices, men who were concerned about the worsening plight
of small farmers and workers. And there were even a few Republicans,
who dared to challenge the notion that only one party, a party for
white men only, should rule the state.
The leaders of that convention made no effort to hide
their intentions. Indeed, you can read what they said in the published
records of the convention. They meant to establish rule not just for
white people but for only a certain class of white people. They wanted
nothing to do any more with the democracy of Andrew Jackson and Abraham
Lincoln.Instead, they drafted and approved the most restrictive voting
rules of any state in the nation. They meant to take away the franchise
not from African-Americans, who had continued to vote up until that
time but also from the poorer whites, who had dared rise up in the
1890s and challenge the rule of the elites politicians.
The conventions leadership had another major goal
in mind. They wanted to fix as firmly as they could their economic
mastery of the state. Thus these industrialists and planters, acting
in a coalition, strapped Alabama with a set of laws that would keep
the state tied to the 19th centurys way of doing things. For
example, the new constitution forbade the state from building roads,
bridges, docks and other internal improvements. It forbade local governments
from entering into partnerships with corporations. It lowered property
tax rates from levels that already were shamefully inadequate to educate
children. In fact, both planter and industrialist agreed that schooling
only ruined a good worker, whether his labor be in the mill or the
The people whom this new document would hurt were never
blind to its consequences. Historians have concluded that in a fair
election, the majority of Alabamians would have turned down the constitution.
But there was not a fair election. Through massive voter fraud, particularly
in the plantation sections of the state, supporters achieved ratification.
The courts refused to intervene, and the new constitution established
a pattern for Alabamas development, both politically and economically,
that would continue to this day. Almost immediately, 98 percent of
eligible African-Americans lost their right to vote. Only federal
intervention in the 1960s would finally correct this injustice.
Meanwhile, an even larger number of whites became non-voters,
as impediments such as the poll tax and property requirements drove
them away. As early as 1914, governors called for the documents
replacement, complaining of its hopelessly antiquated nature. To get
around the constitutions many deficiencies, particularly its
failure to grant counties the right to pass their own laws, voters
have approved 713 amendments to date.
As a consequence, the Alabama Constitution is the longest
in the nation. Worse, it is a virtually impenetrable thicket of ordinary
statutes posing as fundamental law. For example, our state constitution
hails and promotes the catfish industry but fails to grant our counties
the power to plan for orderly development. It discourages dueling
but is silent on the equal protection for citizens. It describes state
boundaries that no longer apply but provides citizens with no means
to initiate laws themselves.
A modern constitution would establish broad principles
under which government would operate. For example, it would recognize
that local problems need to be solved at home and not in faraway Montgomery.
It would protect our rights. It would organize government into efficient
branches that could be held accountable for the expenditure of tax
dollars. And it would say that education is every citizens right
as well the states first obligation.
A modern constitution needs only to authorize certain
types of taxation. It does not need to be a tax code itself, as is
the Alabama Constitution, with all of its minute rules, right down
to assessing motor vehicles. Constitutional reform is not about raising
taxes. But it is about encouraging Alabama to develop a rational and
fair tax system, a process that can be achieved bestoutside of constitutional
And finally, a modern constitution needs to speak to
our aspirations as a democratic people. The U.S. Constitution is the
model for the world precisely because it represented the hope for
thefuture. Yes, it has its flaws, but its principles are so clear
and its purposes so compelling that it has needed amendment only 27
times, 10 of which occurredat the documents ratification.
Contrast that beautiful achievement with our state constitutions
shameful attempt to roll back democracy and freeze into place conditions
that denied people their chance to be productive workers and citizens.
If we draft and approve this kind of constitution, we will prepare
our state to operate in a world in whichchange comes ever more rapidly.
For example, we will not force our local governments to wait on the
Legislature to address compelling local problems. We will not require
state government to depend upon a crazy quilt of constitutional amendments
to achieve results that citizens now routinely expect. And we can
have a tax code that meets our states needs while treating taxpayers
These changes, then, are the key to modernizing our state.
These kinds of reform would bring tangible results. Better schools,
more efficient government, fairer taxes, local accountability.
But what about the intangibles of reform, those qualities
that more easily fall under the rubric of policies rather than of
benefits? Are these intangibles worth fighting for, too? Will they
make us proud to be Alabamians? Will they help modernize our state,
make it stronger? I believe the answer is just as unequivocally yes.
We suffer in Alabama from low participation in civic
life. For too many of our people, politics is a dirty business that
is best confined to Montgomery.They fail to connect the rights and
duties of citizenship with the political process itself. Thus in our
recent run-off for the primaries, just 18 percentof voters showed
up, although many important races remained to be settled.Candidates
for office typically get blank looks from people when they ask for
donations. Yet these same citizens may complain of the inordinate
influence that big-moneyed interests exercise in government.
One of the toughest jobs these days is to get people
to turn out for any political or civic event. While this phenomenon
is hardly confined to Alabama, political participation has decreased
across the country, we see our politics drifting more and more toward
television ads and away from face-to-face interaction between candidate
and voter. Because TV ads often exaggerate whats wrong with
politics, our system becomes trapped in a vicious cycle whereby people
often vote with a negative frame of mind rather than a positive. Thus
faith in our democraticinstitutions declines, along with participation.
As a member of the Exchange Club, I know it is also difficult
to attract people to civic endeavors. In his book Bowling Alone,
author Robert Putnam carefully documents how civic participation has
declined dramatically and across the board since about 1970. As a
result, our citizens have less attachment to one another at a time
when our social problems grow more complex.
Now what does this trend have to dowith a new constitution? Simply
By encouraging our citizens to think about the kind of state and community
they want and then to deliberate among themselves, just as you are
doing today, we are taking back ourdemocracy. We are taking it back
from those private interests that manipulate politics, particularly
in Montgomery, in ways that often are not beneficial to our state.
We are taking back our democracy from public relations
experts who care more about selling the image of the politician than
the substance of the candidate. And we are taking back democracy from
those politicians who seek their own glorification and ambition at
the expense of leadership and vision.
I dont wish to have a state where fear and greed
drive politics, instead of thoughtful debate. I dont want to
lower expectations for the future simply because some private interest
group will always oppose progressive change.
And I dont want to write off my fellow Alabamians
as being incapable of good government because we have enjoyed it so
seldom in the past.
To a large measure, this 1901constitution is responsible
for our political mess. Its primary mission, stated so brazenly by
its framers, was to remove citizens from the voting process. Along
the way, it starved our schools for funding, discouraged economic
development and denied democracy at its most local and immediate level.
What other outcome would have been possible under these
circumstances? In that sense, the framers accomplished their mission
beyond even their intentions. And the dissidents at that 1901convention
were wise beyond their own realization in opposing this dreadful document.
But we dont have to live under this shameful legacy.
We have in the year 2002 the capacity as well as the obligation to
replace this document with a new constitution. It can be a constitution
that incorporates the wisdom of our nations democratic experience
while embodying the values that Alabamians hold dear. And best of
all, it can be a constitution that holds out hope for our states
progress, rather than excuses for its backwardness.
How we achieve this great thing is still to be decided.
The Legislature can call a constitutional convention, as has happened
six times previously in Alabama.Or if our citizens prefer, the Legislature
can empower a commission to draft a new document, which can then be
put to the voters for their approval. The latter method probably would
require a constitutional amendment to pass legal muster, but that
is not a large obstacle if the Legislature truly wants reform to happen.
The point I wish to leave with youtoday is that whatever
process we choose, the end results could have dramatic and beneficial
results for our state. In fact, I know of no comparable action we
could take as citizens that could move our state forward more rapidly
than drafting a new constitution. We are 100 years overdue for this
kind of reform. And God willing, this time we are going to do it.
We are going to do it because its the smart thing
to do, its the right thing to do and its the only thing
that promises to make Alabama a leader in the 21st century.
Thank you for your time and for your good civic work.
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