“A call to civic action”

From the Rally for Constitutional Reform, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, April 7, 2000

By William Winter
Former Governor of Mississippi

   As one who lives over across the border in Mississippi, I recognize that this is a very presumptuous thing that I am doing today.

   Let me say that I justify this appearance on your program only by imagining that I am looking into a mirror and that I am talking about my own state. For we have some of the same identical problems that you have and a state constitution even older and more outdated.

   After all, our states are very much alike. In fact, as you know, we used to be one until some engineer who couldn't run a very straight line drew a border between us. Maybe we should have just stayed together and combined our resources and solved our problems together. But history doesn't permit us the luxury of retracing our steps, although we are pretty good at rewriting it when it suits our fancy.

   Let me say here, though, that I don't want to try to repeat a lot of that history. As one who grew up in the Great Depression and the days of Jim Crow, I recall how it was then, and with all of our problems today, I'll take what we have now and be grateful that I have been permitted to live in this golden age... and that is where I think we are.

   But because things are now a lot better than they used to be does not mean that we have gotten to where we ought to be. In the past, we lost so much time and energy battling old ghosts and resisting change that now we are called on to make up for those wasted years. Now we are called on to move to a new level of thinking and achievement.

   Carl Carmer, who lived in Tuscaloosa back in the thirties long enough to write a book about your state, wrote this in Stars Fell On Alabama: "Against a background of lazy serenity and of happy-go-lucky ease, the inevitable reaction to any unusual stimulus was to do some- thing about it, something physical and violent." I hope that now we are still willing to act to do something about the challenge that confront us, except this time the reaction has to be astute and rational.

   It is my understanding that this is what this rally is all about... the charting of a wise and sensible course that will help this state to be better able to compete in the twenty-first century and to ensure that this generation of young Alabamians will have the brightest possible future.

   What is important now is developing our ability to bridge the differences that so frequently in the past have kept us apart and prevented us from achieving our ultimate destiny. Those differences have been between white and black, between urban and rural, between the privileged and the underprivileged. But not the least of the factors that thwarted our progress has been the inability of people living in a given area to recognize their common goals and interests.

   Your coming together in this rally today is a significant step in breaking down these old barriers.

   I do not underestimate the difficulties of this effort. I can testify to this problem out of my own experiences in the politics of my state. It is not always simple to get people and communities to lay aside their age-old perceptions of self-interest... to ignore short-term results... to forget old rivalries... to alter long-held beliefs and ways of doing things. We folks in the Deep South are bad about hanging on to old ways, but now the time has come to create some new and better ways. Those ways start with the process of working together.

   It is not enough, though, simply to pledge that we are going to do better. We must also understand what it is that we expect to accomplish out of our common efforts. Let me paint with a broad brush this afternoon.

   You will fine-tune the process, but the bottom line seems to be that to achieve our maximum destiny, your state, like mine, needs to upgrade and modernize and make more effective our state constitutions. I shall not be so presumptuous as to suggest specific details. You know much more about that than I do.

   Let me deal with some ideas regarding how we go about this process of change. For it to be effective, it obviously has to have the understanding and support of the people. It cannot be perceived as being manipulated by some elitist group. Somehow, we have to overcome the cynicism and the skepticism that a lot of people in politics have about our capacity for citizen- driven civic change. Many political leaders pass it off as the well-meaning efforts of a scattered group of do-gooders who don't understand how the real world operates.

   In bringing together so many citizens from across the state here today, you are on the right track. You already have found a successful formula. You have created the basis for the kind of civic renewal that can extend across this state and that can elevate the level of political thought.

   It does not take huge numbers of people to make this happen. It does take dedication, discipline and the tenacity of enough of you who understand the basic organizational principles behind this effort.

   I saw this happen very dramatically in my state in the passage of education reform when I was governor. In the face of both cynical indifference and downright hostility, we were able to mobilize in every county a small but determined and fearlessly dedicated group of average citizens who came together to form the most effective political force behind a specific public issue that I have ever seen.

   It was not the numbers so much, although we had more than 30,000 people who were actively involved, but it was the logic and intensity and selflessness of their efforts that made the difference and turned the legislature completely around.

   Permanent innovative change has to be based on the development of broad-based participation that will not be dependent over the long haul on the direction and leadership of a single individual or party or political administration. It cannot be jealously and closely guarded but must be shared with the larger community. It will require a high degree to collaboration. It can never be based on a concern as to who gets the credit.

   With your initial effort based on these guiding principles, let me now suggest what the larger, permanent mission must be. It is to create a clear picture of what most people in Alabama want this state to look like ten or twenty years from now and let that be the basis for an extensive... even massive... program of education for civic change. Let me try to define that mission of civic education.

   When I speak of education for civic change, I am not talking about a dogmatic or sanctimonious kind of approach that suggests arbitrary and simplistic solutions to very complex problems. I am not talking about a paternalistic, condescending approach that only serves to frustrate and divide.

   Rather, I am talking about the communication of a vision that makes people dissatisfied with a status quo of easy accommodation and self-serving. I am talking about the transmission of an understanding of how much better and more fulfilling life can be for everybody if we put aside some of our personal hang-ups and self-serving interests and work a building bridges across the fault lines that have held us back in the past. It is, to put it simply, education for the highest office in our society... the office of citizen. It is an education that has as its center, a recognition of the worth and dignity of every human being. It is a commitment that we put more into our society that we take out.

   It is an understanding that each generation must bring a new and fresh vitality to the process of renewing and reviving and expanding the values that maintain our stability as a people. For as John Gardner reminds us in his book, Self Renewal, "the moral order is an ever changing thing, never any better than the generation that holds it in trust."

   In our country, it has been this element of public decision-making through involvement of average citizens and the engagement of civic and humanitarian institutions that has maintained our stability as a nation. I believe that this was really the force, stronger than the military that was the decisive element in the long struggle with cynical forces of communism. We were able to create ways to solve public problems through responsible citizen action and build a sense of community that made the ultimate difference.

   A democratic society cannot leave grave public issues to be determined by blind chance or individual impulse. We have to work at it together. There must be a shared vision that recognizes our mutual interdependence, and advancing and clarifying that vision must be our common purpose.

   For those of us who have been so greatly favored to have been the beneficiaries of a good education and the opportunity to enjoy social and financial success there is an obvious element of self-interest in all of this.

   Because we have so much, we have more to lose if there develops a basic distrust of our political system, if there is a sense that it is out of sympathy and out of sync with the needs and hopes of ordinary citizens, if we get hopelessly divided between the have and the have-nots But for most of you, there surely must be a motivation in this effort that is beyond self-interest. That motivation, in the final analysis, will ultimately determine what kind of people we are and whether the ideals of truth and equity, that we profess to believe in, will be strengthened and preserved.

   It will determine most importantly what kind of society we bequeath to our children and grandchildren. That is the only inheritance that really matters. It must be an inheritance that combines a commitment to social and economic justice, environmental integrity, the education and development of all of our people, and in an increasingly diverse society, the recognition and celebration of our common humanity.

   That is a cause worth fighting for. It is the cause that inspired our earliest beginnings as a people and, in spite of all of the mistakes and setbacks along the way, it is a cause that will ultimately prevail. Your inspiring efforts here in Tuscaloosa herald the coming of that day.

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