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Constitution of 1901 controlled by 'Big Mules'

By Staff
There has been a lot written and said the past couple of years about the need for Alabama to have a new Constitution. There is indeed some groundswell to a revamp or rewrite of our antiquated 1901 Constitution.
Our 1901 Constitution was written at a time when Alabama was an agrarian state. It was also at a time, which was not far removed from the aftermath of the Civil War, which had only been over for 35 years. It was even more closely attached to a time when the throes and harsh penalties of Reconstruction had been placed on Alabama. Birmingham was the fastest growing city in the South. The big industrialists, capitalists and bankers took control of the new Magic City. The city was built with cheap labor. It was the Pittsburgh of the South with its steelmaking. The big industrialists, primarily U.S. Steel, owned it all. They teamed up with the big planters in the Black Belt and built a coalition later referred to by Big Jim Folsom as the Big Mules and the Big Planters. This coalition of big mules from Birmingham and big planters of the Black Belt took control of Alabama politics around the turn of the twentieth century. These big industrialists and big planters controlled the Constitutional Convention, which wrote the 1901 Constitution.
This coalition also controlled the Legislature, the Judiciary, and the governor's office. The Alabama Farm Bureau became the most powerful lobby group and represented the largest group in the state-the farmers. However, they were primarily interested in the big farmers or big planters.
The document that was born as our 1901 Constitution was the child of the big mules and big planters. It was a racist document, which was representative of the views of the white southern voter of that day. The racist language is one of the reasons that present day reformers point to as a need for change. When in essence most, if not all, of the actual discriminatory laws have been stricken down by federal courts and legislation. However, the intention of the constitution of that day was to not only keep blacks from voting but also poor whites. You had to own forty acres of land and a mule, be able to read and write, and pay poll tax before you could vote. The poll tax was $1.50 per year and was cumulative. Most Alabamians, even those who owned forty acres and a mule, could not afford the luxury of voting. Percentage wise the 1901 Constitution disenfranchised more whites than it did blacks. Whichever group, poor whites or blacks, was actually disenfranchised the most is subject to debate. However, there is no question that if you study the statements and actions surrounding the 1901 Constitution the intent of the entire convention was to permanently disenfranchise black voters.
Our original 1901 Constitution is the most amended in the country. It has been amended over 600 times. That, in itself, may be reason for a rewrite. However, most of those amendments are there because Alabama counties lack home rule and a constitutional amendment is needed to enact a local ordinance or initiative. Home rule may be an impetus for a new document.
It will take a major commitment from the governor to get any significant reform of our constitution. At this time it appears that the Governor has not made a commitment one way or the other on his position regarding the constitution. We will wait and see how constitutional reform progresses. Like I said, it is not a new issue but it has generated a ton of editorial ink from the daily newspapers for several years. However, in order for it to progress further the governor will have to propose. The Legislature will have to dispose and the Alabama voter will have to approve.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers writes a weekly syndicated column on Alabama politics. He served 16 years in the Alabama House of Representatives. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.