State haunted by 1901 constitution
Press-Register
Sunday, January 07, 2007 By ROBERT M. SCHAEFER
Special to the Press-Register
Mobile, Alabama

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According to the Alabama Constitution of 1901, "The state shall not engage in works of internal improvements."

What an amazing document. It clearly and unabashedly prohibits our state from improving itself.

Why does our constitution forbid improvement, when no other state constitution prohibits progress? The answer is simple: The framers of Alabama's infamous fundamental law did not want to benefit the citizens in any way, shape or form.

Many of the delegates at the 1901 constitutional convention in Montgomery were plantation owners who missed the "good old days" prior to the Civil War. They understood that "progress" might mean paying for roads. Or sewers. Or public education. And they very much believed that "education ruins a good field hand."

The other notable participants at the convention were the new industrial class from the recently founded city of Birmingham, who wanted to take advantage of the tremendous resources Alabama had to offer: uneducated and low-paid workers.

The industrialists were either from, or tied to, banking interests in New York. The Northern capitalists understood a good thing when they saw it: Whip the Southerners in the Big War and then profit off of them in the decades to come.

What the plantation owners and industrialists could not allow for, under any circumstances, was democracy.

Although many of today's critics of the 1901 Constitution tend to focus on its racist origins, what they overlook is the more fundamental goal of restricting blacks and whites from the political process. And why not? Citizens might actually vote to build roads, promote economic development and do other things that a free people consider good.

The goal of the 1901 Constitution was then, and is now, to undermine democracy.

Hence the mess we have today.

Consider the unfortunate case of Prichard. Two years ago, the Prichard City Council approved a "free trade zone" allowing for growth of local industrial property. The folks in Prichard voted overwhelmingly to support the zone.

Alas, any major issue allowing for economic prosperity ("internal improvements") requires special permission from the Legislature. Legislators granted approval, but regrettably the amendment failed when the voters in Mobile County turned it down. Mobilians apparently mistook the amendment for a tax increase.

The Alabama Foreign Trade Investment Zone amendment was approved again earlier this year by our masters in Montgomery. Unfortunately, Sen. Hank Erwin Jr. from Montevallo cast the only vote requiring that the amendment be voted upon statewide.

Ironically, it was approved by the voters in Mobile County, who in the interim had been educated about the benefits of free trade zones. But it was defeated statewide by a narrow margin. (Indeed, the margin was so narrow that every county in the state had to recount the votes.)

It makes no sense for people in Montevallo to decide how Prichard rules itself. Yet if local communities want to build a fire department or promote the sale of cattle or create a free trade zone, they need special permission from Master Erwin and the other rulers in Montgomery.

Constitutional reform is not about increasing taxes, as many of the demagogues falsely argue; it's about democracy.

Who else is against reform? Well, some of the timber barons fear change. But their position is understandable considering that timberland -- thanks to our constitution -- is nominally taxed.

Equally significant, yet more difficult to grasp, is the fear of change that grips most Alabamians. Tradition is a big factor in the hearts and souls of Alabamians, and we are hesitant to do anything different.

The Alabama Legislature is also hesitant to allow for a new constitution. They dislike the idea of giving up power over local matters.

With the status quo, very important issues, such as prostitution in Jefferson County, can only be governed by the Wise Ones in Montgomery. (In case you are worried, Amendment 688 now outlaws prostitution -- in Jefferson County.)

More good news for Jefferson County: It is blessed with the authority to "prohibit the overgrowth of weeds." Talk about progress.

What is truly remarkable is that our Legislature is not powerful. Yes, our lawmakers can fret about litter, bingo and hunting; but compared to the legislatures in the other 49 states (and Cuba, come to think of it), they have little power over important issues. Ninety percent of the Alabama's budget is earmarked. My teenage daughter has more authority over her bank account than the Legislature does over its money.

My favorite anti-democracy group includes those who claim that a new constitution would "remove references to God." We ought not alter such a godly document, they argue.

Thus far, I've discovered only three references to God in the 1901 Constitution: once in the Preamble, where "the favor and guidance of Almighty God" is requested, and again in Section 279, where the standard oath of office is required for elected officials.

The third and most striking reference is in Section 186, which pertains to the board of registrars. The registrars were required to "test" potential voters and ensure that they were not "idiots," "sodomists," "tramps" or married to persons of color.

Sadly, the primary responsibility of the registrars was to disfranchise black voters. But before white supremacy could be accomplished the registrars needed to take an oath: "I solemnly swear I will speak the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God."

God was part of the voting process. Blacks were not.

Let there be no confusion: Alabama can no longer discriminate against blacks, due to the Yankees who, yet again, came down to our state during the 1960s with their guns drawn and insisted that things change. But local democracy is still missing.

So, where do we go from here? The primary answer is twofold: education and politics.

Education is the most important key for change. Alabamians need to learn that a new constitution will benefit them in terms of economic development, better schools and zoning.

The strategy of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform is to continue promoting a grass-roots organization of individuals, businesses, public organizations and non-profit groups to develop a major lobbying effort in the 2007 legislative session to pass legislation calling for a constitutional convention.

Last year's reform bills, which called for a people's convention, included three separate votes by the people. First, there would be a vote as to whether or not a convention would occur, followed by a vote for the delegates to the convention, and a third vote allowing citizens to accept or reject the constitution proposed by the delegates.

Another goal is to put pressure on legislators and make them aware that a majority of Alabama citizens are unhappy with the current situation.

We in ACCR acknowledge that powerful interest groups, such as the Alabama Farmers' Federation, will spend massive amounts of money to undermine progress. But our legislators who are beholden to special interests need to understand that Alfa does not cast ballots at election time; the people of Alabama do.

An important new voice promoting change is the Alabama Constitution Convention Coalition, recently founded to educate the public about the need for reform. It consists of 29 diverse non-profit groups who appreciate the need to give up the ghosts of the Civil War and think about the 21st century. Also the Alabama State Bar recently released a report calling for reform (www.alabar.org).

The aspiration of these groups is to spur all of us to participate in this vital discussion. Things will not get better in our state unless we dedicate ourselves to learning more about democracy and other issues that are in our interest.

Our future depends upon it.

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