Bob Davis: Hearing Knox’s uncomfortable words
Sep 25, 2011 | 2145 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
BIRMINGHAM — John B. Knox never stood a chance.

The late Anniston attorney and president of the Alabama constitutional convention in 1901 was put on trial Friday at the Bailey Thomson Awards Luncheon at Samford University, an annual event sponsored by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

Knox’s prosecutor is himself an accomplished man of the law, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Gorman Houston. As any talented attorney with the facts on his side would, Houston skillfully tied the defendant’s own words around his neck.

In this case, it was Knox’s opening remarks to the assembled constitutional convention. No embellishment was needed. No courtroom theatrics were required. A wink or raised voice for emphasis would have been over the top.

Knox’s goal, as expressed to the 155 white men gathered to write a new constitution for Alabama, was plainly expressed. “And what is it that we want to do?” Knox asked these so-called founding fathers. “Why, it is within the limits imposed by the federal constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”

This goal was singularly cruel: Destroy what little freedom black men and women were beginning to feel in their lives. To Knox and his fellow constitution writers, democracy and civil rights were a zero-sum gain. More power for blacks meant less power for them. They feared the consequences of losing their comfortable positions to working-class blacks and whites. They were disgusted by the notion that their tax dollars would improve the quality of life of everyone in the state. Why would they look after the best interest of everyone in the state when they considered those with black skin to be inherently inferior? Blacks were “descended from a race lowest in intelligence and moral perceptions of all the races of men,” Knox said.

With white men in full control of Alabama, Knox said, the state had a shot at “rest and peace and happiness.” What was the prescription for this nirvana in the heart of Dixie? Simple, Knox said, keep blacks from easy access to the ballot. The right to vote — democracy’s great equalizer — would be denied to blacks. In this, Alabama would follow its neighbor Mississippi (a “pioneer,” according to Knox) by establishing a poll tax to retard if not completely kill turnout of former slaves and their descendants.

In uncomfortable minute after uncomfortable minute, Houston persisted in reading the speech. Knox’s words landed hard on 21st century ears. They were the patois of the time, defenders of Knox might argue. Offensive as they are today, they reflected the broad sentiment of white Southern men in the early 1900s, the argument goes. Denouncing a man dead for the past 76 years is like shooting fish in a barrel. Besides, they’d continue, the most vile parts of the 1901 Constitution are a dead letter, rendered null and void by countless laws and court cases.

Houston’s response came following his recitation of Knox’s opening speech. He began by saluting the work of the state’s new commission looking into amendment-by-amendment correction of the 1901 document, an effort promoted by Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, a Republican from Anniston. Houston wished the members well in their efforts. If strengthening home rule for local governments, officially overriding the racist language and other fixes means even more amendments, so be it, Houston said.

However, the ex-chief justice added, fixes in the form of amendments will not clean or remove the awful stain of racism that is at the heart of the 1901 Constitution. All 155 delegates agreed that Knox’s opening remarks serve as the preface to whatever work they accomplished. That is what we might call getting off on the wrong foot. “Our state has a soul,” said one of the Bailey Thomson Awards winners, Bishop Henry N. Parsley of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. A sick one, the Rev. Parsley added, in need of cleansing redemption when it comes to its constitution.

Though a man of the cloth was at the head table Friday afternoon, it was Houston who put forth the strongest benediction. “Let the turnaround begin,” he said. “Alabama needs a new constitution.”

Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@annistonstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.
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