Alabama — A place for
involved citizens to call home”
Speech to Monroeville Kiwanis

By Dr. Bailey Thomson
Associate professor, 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 ACCR’s 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 largely untouched.

   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 elite’s politicians.

   The convention’s 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 century’s 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 cotton field.

   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 Alabama’s 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 document’s replacement, complaining of its hopelessly antiquated nature. To get around the constitution’s 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 citizen’s right as well the state’s 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 law.

   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 document’s ratification.

   Contrast that beautiful achievement with our state constitution’s 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 state’s needs while treating taxpayers fairly.

   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 what’s 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 this:
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 don’t wish to have a state where fear and greed drive politics, instead of thoughtful debate. I don’t want to lower expectations for the future simply because some private interest group will always oppose progressive change.

   And I don’t 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 don’t 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 nation’s 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 state’s 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 it’s the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do and it’s 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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Montgomery, Alabama 36101-0034

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