The question nagged at me Thursday at the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform’s annual luncheon here.
Considering the rights Alabama’s 1901 Constitutions takes from its residents, perhaps the state should reconsider its motto. Either that or start, you know, actually defending our rights.
Surely, the good folks committed to creating a better state constitution are daring to defend. Yet, most of the state and the political class are not yet persuaded.
At the outset, let’s acknowledge many Alabamians have traditionally treated our motto as a warning to Washington. Alabama has a long history of wariness of the federal government (“gub’mint”). Often we’ve done this defending while swimming against the tide of good government, tolerance of differences and old-fashioned common sense. We are seemingly always up for a fight to keep somebody from Washington from taking something of value from us.
We’ve never been nearly as concerned about what 155 constitutional delegates took from us in 1901. The authors of the state Constitution did plenty in the rights-taking department, probably more than any stereotypical Beltway bureaucrat could dream of.
The insult to the injury is that the thing almost surely would have failed ratification had it not been for massive voter fraud, says Birmingham attorney Ed Gentle, last week’s recipient of the Bailey Thomson Award given by the ACCR. Other winners Thursday were: filmmaker Melanie Jeffcoat (Educator of the Year); reform activists Hill Carmichael and Mark Berte (ACCR Foundation Spirit Award); and Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham (Partner of the Year).
What these and others know is that the 1901 Constitution robs Alabamians of precious gifts.
At the time of its passage, the most vile was the rights of blacks to vote, something voiced by Calhoun County’s John Knox, president of the constitutional convention, when he said the delegates wished to “establish white supremacy in this state.” Worse still, they succeeded.
Defenders of Alabama’s constitutional status quo will undoubtedly sputter that those racist portions of the document are null and void today.
Optimistic advocates for real change will point out it took that old federal government to force our hand.
They can also point to countless other alive-and-kicking portions of the Constitution that keep today’s Alabamians down.
How? Well, for starters, it centralizes decision-making in Montgomery, where the power players can keep a close watch on 140 state lawmakers. Local decisions that ought to be under the authority of local officials aren’t. It was and is easier for the powerful operators who prefer the 1901 Constitution to control the statehouse than it is to try to keep their thumbs on 67 counties and scores of cities.
Then there’s what it does to essential state services, starving them of adequate funding sources. The state’s public schools, for instance, are run on the cheap thanks to the stingy Constitution. We can speculate about the 1901 Constitution’s author’s reasons. For starters, they and the monied interests behind them had no interest in parting with some of their riches to create great schools. (It’s probably not a difficult leap of logic to neglect educating the state’s people if you already consider one portion of the population automatically inferior.)
That same selfish mindset was likely the reason why Alabama is stuck with a tax system that demands more of the poor than it does of the wealthy, or why transportation-related taxes cannot be spent on public transit.
The keynote speaker at Thursday’s ACCR luncheon was Dr. David Mathews, the CEO of the nonprofit Kettering Foundation and former president of the University of Alabama.
The way to fix the state’s broken Constitution, Mathews said, isn’t to change our politicians; it’s to “change the nature” of our political culture. A state with a different mindset from the one that wrote the 1901 Constitution will no longer find it of any use today.
Mathews is on to something.
Maybe as more and more Alabamians realize the rights taken away from them in 1901, they will rise to defend themselves in hopes of seeing a state where democracy flourishes. Then we can have a new state constitution and a motto we’ve lived up to.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.