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:
Edited by Bailey Thomson U. of Alabama Press, $24.95
Reviewed by JIM AUCOIN
Special to the Mobile Register
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to improve their quality of life is to rewrite the state's outdated, repressive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.
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.
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.
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,"
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
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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