Great-grandson of 1901 Alabama Constitution author wants it rewritten
The Birmingham News
Sunday, November 25, 2007

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Archibald Hill Carmichael was born in 1864. He grew up during Reconstruction, became a lawyer and entered politics. His political career would take him both to Montgomery, where he became speaker of the Alabama House, and Washington, D.C., as a U.S. representative for Alabama's 8th Congressional District.

Archibald Hill Carmichael was also one of the 155 favored men who convened in the summer of 1901 to write a new state constitution to replace the Alabama Constitution of 1875.

Centralized power:

According to convention President John B. Knox, the delegates set out "to establish white supremacy in this state." To accomplish their goal, the delegates devised a system of government designed to centralize political power in Montgomery, strip cities and counties of the authority to make their own decisions, and discourage black and poor white voters from participating in the democratic process. No constitution is perfect, but the 1901 Alabama Constitution, which remains in effect today, has been almost perfect in achieving what it set out to do.

I am the great-grandson of Archibald Hill Carmichael. I share his name - he was the first, I am the fourth. I am neither a lawyer nor a politician. Instead, I work at Greater Birmingham Ministries, where my sole focus is to coordinate a statewide campaign to create and adopt a new state constitution. So there is something personal about this campaign to educate Alabama citizens about the 1901 Constitution, because my name is literally on it.

But your name is on it, too, as is the name of every Alabamian who allows the 1901 Constitution to remain in effect. By our complacency, we reratify the 1901 Constitution every year.

The 1901 Constitution is no more personal to me than it is to hundreds of local leaders in Alabama who cannot do what they know is best for their cities and counties without first asking Montgomery for permission. It is personal to the thousands of Alabamians who, as they struggle to make ends meet, are forced to pay absurdly high sales taxes on basic necessities like food, medicine and baby supplies. It is personal to the public schoolteacher who holds her breath and crosses her fingers every year, hoping and praying that our highly volatile tax revenues are high enough to avoid another year of proration and outdated textbooks. And it is very personal to the thousands of schoolchildren languishing in underfunded schools in the Black Belt, for whom the American Dream will be deferred until the adults decide to scrap a system of taxation that is doing exactly what it was designed to do: keep the wealthy landowners in their rural counties from paying their fair share of taxes.

In his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recalled the "sacrificial spirit" of the early church - that it "was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society." Today, thousands of Alabamians are uniting in that sacrificial spirit for the sake of the call of adopting a new state constitution. Greater Birmingham Ministries has signed up more than 5,000 local community volunteers across the state to spread the message of constitution reform. The College Council for Constitutional Reform has organized students at 22 Alabama colleges as part of the mission. The Constitution Convention Coalition, comprised of more than 30 nonprofit organizations that recognize the need for a new and better Alabama, calls for a new constitution. More and more, Alabamians have awakened to the call that they not merely act as thermometers, but as thermostats.

"Small in number, they were big in commitment," noted King about the early church. The growing popular movement to write a new state constitution finds its origins in the hearts of a small number of deeply convicted and dedicated persons and organizations that understood, like the early church, tradition for tradition's sake makes no more sense than change for change's sake. They, like the early church, have recognized they do not disgrace or abandon their heritage by shining the light toward a better way. Instead, they honor those who have come before them by grasping the baton and running the race that has been set before them. Because of their efforts, thousands of Alabamians now run the race alongside them.

Today, I honor my great-grandfather for his service to his country and his state. Though I never knew him (he died 30 years before I was born), I know he was both great and flawed, no more or less a product of his culture and upbringing than any one of us. I have no doubt that as he neared the end of his life, he looked back over his 83 years with a strange mixture of pride and shame, a sensation familiar to all of us as we confront our past.

What a metaphor:

What a metaphor for our great state of Alabama, for the South and for our nation. We are great not because we are perfect, but because we are good. We are good because we believe it matters whether we live in a just society. We are good because we believe there is a difference between right and wrong, and that it matters which one we choose. We are good because, as Alabamians, Southerners and Americans, we desperately desire to resolve the tension between what we believe and what we are. We are good because we have a conscience.

Indeed, this campaign is personal to every Alabamian because this is, ultimately, a matter of conscience. For much of our state's history, many of us have rushed by on the other side of the road as our fellow Alabamians have been broken, bloodied and robbed by the structures and systems made possible by our shameful 1901 Constitution. Certainly, many have yearned to reach out, but were paralyzed by the uncertainty of how to help.

Finally, the first-responders are on the scene, and they have diagnosed a major part of the problem: our outdated and irrational 1901 Constitution. Treatment of the problem, however, calls for genuine commitment from the citizens of Alabama. Will you pass by, or will you help? Hill Carmichael is the campaign coordinator of Greater Birmingham Ministries' Constitutional Reform Education Campaign. E-mail:

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