Comebacktown published by David Sher & Phyllis Neill to begin a discussion on better government for our region.
Today’s guest blogger is John Northrop.
If Birmingham is a “comeback town,” what do we want to come back to? Surely not the days and ways of Bull Conner. Nor of chain gang labor in coal mines. Nor as a mere colony in a 19th-century steel empire.
Birmingham’s “good old days” were better for some than others. The same can be said of Alabama as a whole. Long before the Magic City’s birth in 1871, the big planter crowd farther south built an economy on slavery, helping sow the whirlwind of 1861-65.
Two traditions of privilege—industrial and plantation—met in Montgomery in 1901 to write Alabama’s sixth constitution, a real stinker. The verbatim record shows that 155 white men of property set out to advance what they called “white supremacy.” They strangled African American suffrage. They concentrated power in Montgomery with tight limits on home rule. They laid the foundation, fully realized in later decades, for one of the most regressive tax systems in America. They set means to invest in rural roads and highways, never bethinking the need (even the possibility) of urban mass transit.
By mid-20th century, the U. S. Supreme Court was crushing the overtly racist provisions in our constitution, but problems persist. In particular, Alabama remains one of four states investing NO state funds in mass transit. We remain bound constitutionally to low property taxes, strongly benefitting big landowners, in-state and absentee. This places a greater tax burden on the poor, fosters public school spending gaps, and reinforces economic segregation. In Birmingham, the core city loses population as those with means exit. Desperate neighborhoods become blighted, more violent, a hidden drag on the regional economy, and a potential menace to other life and property only short drives away.
Alabama’s 19th century governing framework enshrines 19th century attitudes—above all, the notion that the better people live apart from and above the unworthy. Our continuing separation is rooted in racism, but economic prejudice began early, too. Now, more of us seem willing to bridge racial, economic and political gaps. But we also still seem to fear linking too closely with anyone or anything we think might hold us back, drag us down.
Some business urges constitutional revision to promote flexible growth. I urge a full constitutional reboot, because I believe that without it our metro and statewide dreams will continue to bend under the weight of a dead (I hope!) age. I believe a 21st century convention would prove diverse enough to negotiate a new governing contract more in tune with modern realities, including urbanization. Whether Alabamians would ratify such a constitution is an open question—but if progressive metro money spoke large, we’d have a good chance.
And would a new constitution guarantee a strong Birmingham “comeback”? No. Even best case change will be slow. But without a new constitution, I believe change will come even more slowly. We shall remain even longer a “city of perpetual promise,” in thrall to the better people of 1901 and their spiritual heirs.
John Northrop is a retired school administrator with experience in Birmingham, Arizona, California, Georgia and Kentucky. As a member of the Birmingham Metro Diversity Coalition, he has joined in urging creation of a Birmingham human rights commission. His photo essay “Red State Blues” will appear with works by artist Jose Torres-Tama in an exhibition at Space One Eleven, a visual arts organization in downtown Birmingham, April 19-May 17
David Sher is a co-founder of Buzz12 Marketing and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (ONB), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).