How 155 white guys are ruining Alabama


John Northrop

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

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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).

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11 thoughts on “How 155 white guys are ruining Alabama”

  1. *Thanks, John. I do not have an adequate response to “moving” the powers that be, and the voting public to renew the state constitution. However, at the heart of many citizens is some affiliation with a faith-based institution (churches, temples and mosques). Yes people are moved to act, through the Power greater than human. A concerted effort to address this issue of renewed state constitution can begin with reaching Immams, rabbis, deacons, and priests. fr alex steinmiller

  2. Great blog.  I agree the 1901 Constitution is holding us all back.  It is central to what ails us in B’ham.  Our ineffective and dysfunctional Jefferson County legislative delegation has too much power over what happens – or doesn’t happen! – in B’ham, and that is made possible back a lack of home rule here.  We don’t have efficient and effective mass transit – and this is one of the key issues that holds B’ham hostage.  Our roads and interstates are littered with potholes and trash, and traffic issues abound.  Our air is too polluted, and there is a proposal to strip mine coal on nearly 2,000 acres next to one of B’ham’s key water supplies.  Our education system is not up to muster because those who pulled out don’t understand the importance to the region of reinvesting in B’ham.  Many of those same interests stand to gain from our constitution which is focused on benefiting large landholders – mostly white men.  

    Those key players – our region’s “leaders” – also want to put the majority of our region’s economic energy into building the most expensive highway in state history – the Northern Beltline – to the tune of $90 million per mile, or a total of $4.7 billion.  Will it help B’ham?  No.  Will it pull more opportunity and money out of downtown?  Yes. Will it solve our traffic problems?  No.  Will it help B’ham’s low income neighborhoods get to jobs?  No.  Will it help invigorate B’ham’s education system?  No.  Will it take money away from our much needed, current transportation priorities such as fixing traffic, safety, and maintenance issues on I-59, I-65, and Hwy. 280?  Yes.

    Our region’s “leaders” are interested in personal profit, not public gain.  That’s what is wrong with Birmingham, and that’s what is wrong with Alabama.  We have world-class infrastructure in place in B’ham that is waiting to be utilized.  If we reinvest in the region’s core, it will pay dividends.  The Logans are showing true leadership by doing so ahead of the gang.  It makes absolutely no sense to continue sprawling outside of B’ham to the detriment of existing neighborhoods and businesses – that is not neighborly, and this practice will continue to foster the decline of B’ham.   

  3. I strongly agree. Our state constitution has caused so many ills in our society and has hampered so much possibility. Let’s keep the hope alive for a new constitutional convention.

  4. Thanks John,

    I agree too! Something must change-we have created institutions that should
    support and lift up humanity and they have become instruments for oppression,
    separation, and evil. How can we love a God that we have never seen and treat
    our brothers and sisters like trash daily? I ready to see good people with love
    and compassion move out of the shadows into leadership roles in our community.
    Then together we will be able to address roots causes for failing schools,
    unsafe communities, contaminated environment, inadequate access to health /mental care, and an
    unreliable transit system.

  5. *Great article.  The control continues in Montgomery with 87.1% men serving in the Legislature.  Alabama has improved since 1901 with women now representing 18 of the 140 Legislators; however, Alabama ranks 48th in the nation for the number of women in state Legislative positions.  A more diverse Legislature proportionate to the diverse state citizenry  could change the conversation in the Legislative chambers.  A state constitution for the 21st century begins in the Legislature.  There will be no change until the Legislature changes.

  6. *John is so on point.

    Who are the white guys today ?

    I doubt if any of them would agree with these facts?

    What is their solutions for the magic city called Birmingham-the city of  perpetual promise?


  7. *John, so well said!  Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights.  Also, if people have not seen your exhibit at Space One Eleven, they are missing a very interesting and thought-provoking experience.  You have “spoken” clearly with the visual in a unique way.  Thank you for sharing in both ways!

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