Reading for reform
Tuscaloosa News
Article published Oct 25, 2006

By Adam Jones
Staff Writer Tuscaloosa News

TUSCALOOSA | Matthew Lewis brought blankets with him, ready for the cold night that lay ahead as he and about 45 University of Alabama students settled in to read the state’s constitution on the steps of Reese Phifer Hall.

For the second consecutive year, UA students are attempting to read the constitution in its entirety – a daunting task considering it’s the nation’s longest – or get as close as possible in 24 hours. This year, students at 14 other institutions joined in one of the few, if not lone, events this election season to call for constitutional reform.

Four years ago, then-Gov. Don Siegelman and Republican challenger Bob Riley both talked of reforming the state’s 105-year-old constitution, and Riley mentioned the topic in his 2003 state of the state speech.

Four years later, Riley and his opponent, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, have barely touched the issue.

“It is an issue, but it’s not one you’re reading about a lot from the candidates," said Lenora Pate, co-chair of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. “[The students’] marathon is calculated to bring the issue up between now and the election."

Lewis, president of UA chapter of Alabama Students for Constitutional Reform, organized the statewide effort and said educating students and local communities is the goal of the reading. Students started Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. and read in 30-minute blocks in a comfy, cushioned rocking chair through the night.

“All the discussions and debates candidates have, they all tie back to the constitution, the governing document," the 22-year-old junior from Prattville said. “We’re trying to raise awareness to really get people to realize the problems with the state constitution."

Though numerous Alabamians, including some past governors, have called for rewriting or reforming the document, the movement to do so stalled repeatedly with few reforms.

The coalition of former Alabama politicians, university professors, attorneys and business leaders that formed ACCR in 2000 introduced legislation that would allow voters to call on a constitutional convention, but each bill has died.

Pate said the movement is essentially where it was four years ago, a “very loose organized grassroots effort" hoping to influence leaders.

For Lewis, that makes the readings on the college campus more important.

“I definitely get a feeling that our generation is the generation that is going to change it," he said. “We have enough people over more than 10 campuses in this state to come together to say 'this is a problem and we want to do something about it.’"

Gerald Johnson, ACCR board member and professional polltaker for the Alabama Education Association, said constitutional reform is supported in the state. In a poll Johnson completed in February, 72 percent of Alabamians surveyed supported a vote for a constitutional convention.

A similar survey in April headed by Larry Powell, a University of Alabama at Birmingham professor, showed that 58 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans favored a convention.

Despite the numbers, the movement has been pushed to the backburner of this election, Johnson said.

“The topic of constitutional reform or a constitutional convention has not been made a major part of the candidates campaigns, and certainly, it was the hope of ACCR that this election, the candidates running for office and part of the election itself would be a referendum on constitutional reform," Johnson said. “But for a variety of reasons that has not occurred, and the effort is, at this point, going to be made in the first year of the new [legislature]."

Johnson said the bill has a better chance of passing in the first year after an election, and ACCR is gearing up for the coming session.

For now, though, college students are carrying the banner of the movement, something Pate said is desperately needed weeks before the Nov. 7 election.

“We’re motivated by the students and their enthusiasm," she said.

Besides UA, students at Troy University, Judson College, Faulkner University, Samford University, Miles College, Alabama A&M University, Drake State Technical College, Athens State University, University of Alabama in Huntsville, University of Montevallo, University of Alabama at Birmingham, University of Mobile, and Bishop State Community College were planning events.

Reach Adam Jones at or 205-722-0230.

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