The struggle in Alabama for constitutional reform.

AuthorThomson, H. Bailey

On January 31, 2003, Alabama's new Republican governor, Bob Riley, convened a diverse group of citizens in Montgomery to begin deliberating changes he proposed for the state's 1901 Constitution. Thus he fulfilled his promise that constitutional reform would be the first item on his agenda to make Alabama more competitive for jobs and its government more efficient. In creating by executive order the Alabama Citizens' Constitution Commission, he gave the group ninety days to draft five changes he wanted to propose during the 2003 legislative session: providing "limited" home rule for counties on a local option basis, lessening reliance on designating revenues for particular purposes, strengthening the governor's veto power, recompiling the 1901 Constitution to remove amended language, and requiring a three-fifths majority of the Legislature to impose new statewide taxes. Riley said he would ask the commission members to look at other areas of the 1901 Constitution as reform moved forward.

Riley argued, as have many other Alabamians, that the 1901 Constitution's restrictions and antiquated provisions hinder efforts to move forward the state's public life. As a result, Alabama fares poorly in comparisons even with neighboring states. In particular, Riley has pointed to North Carolina's economic success to show the connection between progressive government and concrete results. By contrast, one would be hard pressed to find a politician from another state who held up Alabama as an inspiration. The U.S. Census Bureau reported, for example, that Alabama lost 12,200 people in 2001-02. Yet the state is the geographical heart of a booming region. Why are people going elsewhere? Analysts and business leaders attributed the trend to declining prospects for good jobs. As one exclaimed in exasperation, "It's disheartening that we're not growing as fast as Mississippi." (1)

This article explores how constitutional reform has emerged from 2000 to 2003 as a centerpiece for political, economic, and social change in a state that typically addresses its most serious issues only after the federal courts require a response. Repeated failures to revise or replace the 1901 Constitution, beginning within less than a generation of its ratification, illustrate the difficulty of achieving broad reforms, particularly when issues of race cloud discussions about substantive progress. Meanwhile, the Legislature and local governments have resorted to, as of early 2003, 743 amendments to patch the Constitution and evade its restrictive language. As a consequence, Alabama's Constitution has ballooned to nearly 350,000 words, making it by far the nation's longest. One wag noted the document is about the length of Moby Dick, give or take a few whaling chapters. (2)

Since 1914, advocates for constitutional reform have arisen mainly from among the state's business progressives, with the exception of Governor James E. Folsom Sr., whose two administrations in the post-World War II years revived populist themes that had lain dormant since the 1890s. What separates present attempts from previous ones is that for the first time advocates managed to create a dialogue at the grass-roots level, mainly through the founding of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. The non-profit organization and the movement it has helped inspire have enjoyed extraordinary coverage and support from the state's newspapers, in contrast to lukewarm interest in previous reform efforts. This article examines the present movement's birth and tactics--a subject that the author approaches from first-hand experience as an advocate and cofounder of ACCR. Further, it looks at prospects for reform under the new gubernatorial administration. But first, let us briefly review the history of the 1901 Constitution and the earlier efforts to revise or replace its provisions.


Alabama has had six constitutions, all written by conventions. Historians have praised the first document, which accompanied the state into the Union, for providing universal manhood suffrage for whites and embodying the aspirations of Jacksonian democracy. The next three constitutions reflected the state's experiences in leaving the Union and its forcible reintegration during Reconstruction. The 1875 Constitution, in turn, represented the return of conservative Democrats to power with the strong support of white yeoman farmers, who favored minimal government and low taxes. The new document limited the state's taxing authority, reduced the number of state offices, cut public salaries, and prevented local governments from lending credit to or subsidizing private corporations. The 1875 Constitution even forbade the state from engaging in internal improvements--a reaction to development schemes during Reconstruction that had more than quadrupled the state's debt. (With good reason, Governor Joseph E. Johnston, elected in 1896, called the 1875 document a "constitution of prohibition.") (3)

African-Americans continued to vote after the 1875 Constitution signaled the return of conservative rule, but the removal of federal soldiers from the state made them easy targets for intimidation. In the Black Belt region, where many of the state's plantations lay, local whites actually came to value African-Americans as voters--but only in a fictitious sense. Having regained control of the election machinery and having largely forced independent-minded blacks from politics, these whites developed ballot fraud into an art form. Their purpose no longer was to seize power from blacks, who made up about three-fourths of the plantation region's population; they already had accomplished that goal. Instead, conservative Democrats wielded the Black Belt's heavily black voting rolls as a club against other parts of the state, particularly those counties where the populations were mostly white and agriculture was dependent on small farms. As one observer explained to Booker T. Washington, the famous black educator at Tuskegee, "[The black man] not only does not vote where his vote is regarded as dangerous, but upon the contrary, his vote is usually 'counted' wherever it is needed, upon the side of [D]emocratic candidates. They would rather count the Negro in as a democrat than count him out as a [R]epublican." (4)

Fraudulent voting became particularly critical for the plantation interests when agrarian unrest swept Alabama, as it did in many other southern and western states, in the late 1880s. Caught between falling prices and rising costs, small farmers demanded the government's help to stabilize incomes and battle what they perceived to be greedy corporations, especially railroads. The movement split the Democrats into warring factions and eventually inspired the formation of the Populist Party. The agrarians' champion, Reuben Kolb, twice sought the governorship during the emotional and sometimes violent campaigns of 1892 and 1894. At one point, three different parties competed: the conservative Democrats, the Populists, and the Republicans. (5)

Faced with this threat to their power, conservative Democrats began toying with disfranchisement. Particularly worrisome to them was the agrarians' appeal across racial lines for class solidarity between white and black farmers. Conservatives in the Black Belt even considered surrendering their fictitious black majorities in return for stripping African Americans elsewhere from the voting rolls. Moreover, they reasoned that voting restrictions such as literacy and property requirements eventually would snare most poor whites as well, thereby devastating the agrarians' electoral base. A legislative act passed in 1893 made voting more difficult, especially for poorly educated citizens, and thereby diminished the agrarians' resistance. Finally, in 1901 the conservatives rolled up sufficient majorities in the plantation districts to carry an election calling for a constitutional convention in Montgomery. They brazenly hoisted the banner of white supremacy to cover a political agenda that went far beyond race. (6) Advocates of this strategy were emboldened in 1898 when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Mississippi's disfranchisement plan to stand on the dubious notion that the state had not targeted blacks per se when it imposed literacy tests and the payment of poll taxes upon citizens who wanted to vote. (7)

The convention's 155 delegates, while elected, came mostly from well-to-du circles of planters, lawyers, and businessmen. No African-Americans served in that body and certainly no women. There were some dissident voices, men who were concerned about the worsening plight of small farmers and workers. And there were even a few Republicans who challenged the notion that only one party--a party for white men only--should rule the state. (8) Leaders of the convention, however, offered no concessions nor did they hide their determination to establish white supremacy. "There is a difference...between the uneducated white man and the ignorant negro," declared John B. Knox, a railroad lawyer, in his presidential address to the delegates. "There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro." (9)

As the proceedings of the convention indicate, the framers meant to establish rule not just for whites but for only the right kind of white people. While quickly eliminating blacks' participation at the polls, the nation's most restrictive voting rules eventually would disfranchise an even larger number of poor whites. Suffrage provisions, for example, went beyond literacy and property holding to require that voters pay $1.50 annually in poll taxes. The tax was accumulative until the age of 45--a feature that put the cost of voting at $36, well beyond the means of many small farmers. The new rules also disqualified, under section 182, anyone from voting who had been convicted of a crime from a long list of offenses, which...

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