Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780

 

Century of Controversy' distills call for constitutional reform

The tragedy for the people of Alabama, of course, is not that the state entered the 21st century under an illicit constitution. It is that the constitution is so repressive.

 
A Century of Controversy: Constitutional Reform in Alabama
Edited by Bailey Thomson U. of Alabama Press, $24.95

Reviewed by JIM AUCOIN  
Special to the Mobile Register  


        The single most important political decision the people of Alabama can make to improve their quality of life is to rewrite the state's outdated, repressive 1901 constitution. A new book explains why, and shows how.
        Enlist some of Alabama's more thoughtful observers of the state's history and politics - scholars such as Wayne Flynt at Auburn University, Harvey Jackson at Jacksonville State, Brad Moody at Auburn-Montgomery, and Sam Webb at the University of Alabama-Birmingham - and focus their attention on Alabama's 1901 constitution. The result is "A Century of Controversy," a collection of essays exposing the document's sullied history, showing its devastating effects and offering a coherent prescription for reform.
        Reform is not about raising taxes, as opponents would have us believe, though rewriting the constitution could give the Legislature the flexibility to redistribute the tax burden if it so chooses. Written by self-serving men to tie the hands of government, the constitution dictates governmental decisions that shouldn't be matters of constitutional concern. A constitution should give broad outlines of authority and direction, not picayune directives as the 1901 constitution does.
        This constitution hamstrings state and local government and is fundamentally antidemocratic. The oppressive nature of the document has required state and local officials to seek amendments to carry out mundane matters of government. Amendments are needed if counties want to offer a bounty on beaver tails, regulate billboards or prevent a topless bar from opening. If a county wants to control urban sprawl, it has to seek a constitutional amendment, which requires legislative approval. Consequently, few urban counties, including Mobile County, have land-use planning and zoning authority and urban sprawl creeps across the landscape harming the environment and requiring expensive infrastructure and new schools that county or school officials have no say over, but their constituents have to pick up the bill.
        Now with more than 700 amendments, the constitution is unwieldy and difficult to comprehend. Its parts are contradictory and obtuse, leading to inefficient and foolish government. Joe Sumners, director of the Economic Development Institute at Auburn University, acknowledges that the obsolete 1901 constitution isn't the state's only problem. "But it is a fundamental problem," he says.
        Ironically, the constitution that causes such problems for Alabama is illegitimate, approved in a rigged election. Its shameful history is the subject of historian Harvey Jackson's essay. The conspirators were powerful, wealthy men - planters from the Black Belt and industrialists from Birmingham, merchants and landlords - who manipulated the rewrite of the 1875 constitution. Their explicit motive was to subjugate blacks and poor whites, many of whom were attracted to the Populist movement sweeping the nation, and to protect their own privileged interests. Black Belt officials, who had been stealing state elections for years on behalf of the planters and the Democratic Party, engineered ratification of the 1901 constitution. "Take the Black Belt's (rigged) votes out of the equation," Jackson writes, "and the constitution would have failed ... . The 'art' that Black Belt leaders had perfected over the years and which other Democrats had readily endorsed was practiced once more ... . In this fashion, Alabama got a new constitution."
        The tragedy for the people of Alabama, of course, is not that the state entered the 21st century under an illicit constitution. It is that the constitution is so repressive. Flynt explains the consequences in his essay. Concentrating political power in the Legislature (rejecting home rule) ties up legislators on local issues when they should be dealing with statewide problems. Moreover, with power pooling in Montgomery, special interest lobbyists efficiently dominate the legislative process and county officials can't serve the needs of their constituents. Restrictions on taxation written into the constitution force state and local officials to pay for necessary government services largely through unstable sales tax revenues. Meanwhile, wealthy landowners skate by under unconscionably low property taxes and the state's poorest citizens pay disproportionately large tax bills when they buy groceries and pay income taxes. In every substantive public responsibility, including education, economic development, public health and safety, and environmental protection, Alabama officials fail, largely because of the state's ill-conceived, restrictive constitution.
        Fortunately, reform is possible, should right-thinking Alabamians care enough. In fact, a rewrite of the constitution can do for all aspects of state and local government what a sensible 1973 revision did for Alabama's system of justice. As Robert Schaefer of the University of Mobile shows in his essay, changes to the constitution's judicial article - orchestrated under the leadership of Howell Heflin, then chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court - turned the state's court system from the worst in the nation to the best.
       The constitution can be reformed in a number of ways - amending it article by article; allowing legislators to revise the entire document through a single amendment (a process that requires a constitutional amendment itself); or calling a constitutional convention of citizens. Howard Walthall Sr., a law professor from Samford University, explains in his essay how each option would work and offers a cogent argument that the best alternative is a constitutional convention.
        Though written by academics, the essays are accessible to the average reader, and together they provide a valuable service to Alabamians. Adding to the essays by Sumner, Jackson, Schaefer and Walthall are illuminating chapters by other scholars. Webb writes of the Populist Revolt in Alabama during the late 19th century that sparked reactionary plans by the Democratic Party and the wealthy for disenfranchising blacks and poor whites. Flynt writes of the aftermath of the constitution's ratification, how it led to a century of inefficient, illogical government that cripples the state's ability to progress. William Stewart, a University of Alabama political scientist, details earlier attempts to rewrite the document and why they failed. Moody shows how the constitution has created a dysfunctional state government. James Williams Jr., executive director of the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, links the state's recurring revenue crises to the constitution's restrictions on taxation. Anne Permaloff, a political scientist at Auburn University at Montgomery, shows how the constitution causes economic, cultural and political problems. And G. Alan Tarr, a political scientist from Rutgers University in New Jersey, discusses the rewrites of other states' constitutions.
        The most elegant writing in the book, however, comes from Bailey Thomson, a former Mobile Register editor who teaches journalism at the University of Alabama. In 1994 Thomson directed an in-depth study of the 1901 constitution and its flaws, published by the Register as a special section, "Sin of the Fathers." His 1998 Register editorial series on the consequences of the constitution was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
        In the final chapter, "Whose Government Anyway? A Call for Citizen-based Reform," Thomson urges his fellow Alabama citizens to call a constitutional convention to revive democracy in the state, weaken the grip of special interests on state officials, and provide the resources for public services and self-government. "Fat cats," Thomson writes, "have more access to our elected leaders" and also "are first in line to reap government's benefits."
        "I am often amazed at how much money the state can waste, particularly on big items such as highways, simply because a governor or some other leader wishes to reward his large contributors with lucrative contracts," Thomson declares. "Reforming political methods alone, however, would still leave Alabama laboring under a state constitution that is antidemocratic in nature and antiquated in practice."
        Thomson argues, correctly, that Alabama needs "a constitution that will express the hopes and aspirations of the future -- not the prejudices and injustices of the past." Rejecting cynical views that reform cannot be achieved in Alabama, Thomson asserts that it can because "in the reformers' favor is the power of truth." Through the "force of moral leadership," he insists, a crusade for constitutional reform can "stretch across party, class and racial lines to unite Alabamians for positive change."
        Thomson was active in the formation of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a grass-roots organization that grew out of a Tuscaloosa rally sponsored by that city's chamber of commerce. It is headed by Thomas E. Corts, president of Samford University, and provides a citizen platform from which to lobby for reform. Thomson feels encouraged that constitutional reform has wedged itself into the gubernatorial platforms of both parties this year. Gov. Don Siegleman and Republican challengers Rep. Bob Riley and Lt. Gov. Steve Windom all called for constitutional reform. With continued voter pressure, constitutional reform can be a major issue in this year's gubernatorial campaign.
       Because of its comprehensive, authoritative essays, "A Century of Controversy" will likely become the manifesto of Alabama's constitutional reformers. If the crusade succeeds, future Alabama historians and political scientists will undoubtedly point to its publication as a milestone in a citizen revolution that carried off the most meaningful political reform in the state's history.

        Jim Aucoin teaches journalism and mass communication at the University of South Alabama.

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