After A Century, Where is Constitutional Reform in Alabama?

~ Jerald Norris, Chair of GBM's Constitutional Reform Task Force

A persistent notion in Alabama appears to be, simply, if we just perform minor tune-ups on our archaic 112-year old Alabama State Constitution, all will be well.  However, the 1901 State Constitution, a patently racist, anti-poor document conceived in the infamy of exclusion and perpetrated by the fraud of vote theft continues to negatively impact the quality of life for all of our families and communities throughout the state.

 What vote theft? Speaking to calm the fear that Black voters would likely reject a state constitution that would permanently deny their right to vote, Cotton Tom Heflin said immediately prior to the vote, “We have an over patriotic set of managers (referring to white polling officials in the Black Belt), and probably all the Negroes will vote for the Constitution”. Vote theft was so prevalent in sixteen counties of the Black Belt that they had more votes cast than there were voters. Without those stolen votes, the 1901 Constitution would not have passed.

 Greater Birmingham Ministries cannot see how there can be meaningful, just and inclusive constitutional reform in Alabama without a broad coalition of persons and groups informed by common interests and motivated by shared hopes for a better Alabama.  Alabama citizens, business communities, educators, civic groups, and our faith communities must all be effectively engaged.  Since the late Bailey Thompson, an award-winning Alabama journalist, organized the constitutional reform takeoff rally in Tuscaloosa in April 2000, GBM has worked with others to deepen and broaden such a coalition of mutual interests.  GBM has always gone where the rubber meets the road, where the hopes for a better life in Alabama for ordinary Alabamians can be channeled into informed and engaged civic participation sufficient to overcome the fears and divisions that has thwarted constitutional reform for more than a century.

 Alabama’s constitutional reform movement reached gridlock twice this decade over a “right” to a public education.  Some influential Alabama conservatives mounted effective opposition in 2004 because, they said, the proposed amendment’s wording would allow activist judges to cause taxes to be raised. Later, reform of the Education Article was blocked again in 2012 because many believed it would deny the right to an education.

 After numerous meetings and back and forth dialogue, the Alabama Constitutional Revision Commission is trying again.  However, recently the addition of the reactionary language, “nothing in this section shall create any judicially enforceable right or obligation,” has brought significant constitutional reform to yet another impasse. When equitable and adequate education is not a right for all of the people, it can be treated as a privilege for some of the people. Alabama has been there and done that and as a result the state still suffers.

 Alabama’s 1901 constitution, by centralizing power in the legislature, distancing people from their own self-governance and confounding efforts to modernize it, leads to conditions where people do not want to even touch it, much less change it.

 In 2019, we Alabamians will be celebrating our 200th anniversary as a state. Greater Birmingham Ministries will continue to work with others until women and men of all faiths, races and walks of life can find paths to adopt a new constitution for a new century that really values families, communities, public education, economic opportunity, civic participation and stewardship of our beautiful and diverse portion of God’s creation.