This week’s and next week’s columns are written by former Governor Albert Brewer who is a proponent of a new Alabama constitution.

For the past several years a citizens’ group, Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, has been pressing the legislature to allow the people of Alabama to vote on the issue of calling a constitutional convention to revise the constitution. One might ask: why a revision movement? Why does Alabama’s constitution need rewriting? To answer these questions, one must look at a brief history of the present constitution and its impact on our state.

In May of 1901, when 155 delegates assembled in Montgomery to write a new constitution, Alabama was an agricultural society. The state was still feeling the economic ravages of reconstruction. The state debt was overwhelming. In fact the state was insolvent. The former slaves had been granted the right to vote, but their votes were being manipulated and even stolen to support an entrenched power structure consisting primarily of the planter and industrial interests.

Election fraud became so widespread that there was virtual unanimous agreement that the suffrage provisions of the constitution had to be revised. Unfortunately, the form of revision focused on the recently franchised former slaves. The result was a dark chapter in Alabama history. The primary objective of the 1901 Convention was to deal with what was commonly called “The Negro Problem.”

In his remarks accepting election as President of the Convention, John Knox said, “In my judgment, the people of Alabama have been called upon to face no more important situation than now confronts us, unless it be when they, in 1861, stirred by the momentous issue of the impending conflict between the North and the South, were forced to decide whether they would remain in or withdraw from the Union. . . Then, as now, the Negro was the prominent factor in the issue. . . And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”

The Convention dealt with the “problem” by incorporating in the new constitution disfranchising provisions such as requiring property ownership, educational requirements, residency requirements, the payment of poll taxes, and no convictions of certain enumerated crimes. The poll tax and property requirements not only disfranchised the former slaves but also thousands of white people, particularly in North Alabama. In addition to the suffrage provisions, there was a raft of blatant racist provisions which, though held unconstitutional by courts over the years, nevertheless still appear in the text of the constitution.

In the name of economy the 1901 Constitution brought forward from the 1875 Constitution the prohibitions on public improvements: “The state shall not engage in works of internal improvement, nor lend its credit in aid of such; nor shall the state be interested in any private or corporate enterprise, or lend money or its credit to any individual, association or corporation.” These same restrictions were placed on local governments.

Similar restrictions prohibited the state’s incurring debt, placed ceilings on the ad valorem taxes which could be levied by state and local government and, by Amendment 25, ratified in 1933 limitations on income tax rates.

These restrictions meant that the constitution had to be amended in order for the state to engage in internal improvements, such as state docks at Mobile and authority for the state to build and maintain public roads. In fact, the first amendment proposed to the 1901 Constitution was to enable the state and counties to build public roads. Indeed more than one hundred amendments have been adopted permitting state and local governments to engage in public works. Over 180 other amendments have been adopted to authorize property taxes for local schools, libraries, hospitals, public utilities, and economic development projects.

The problem of local legislation concerned many of the delegates to the convention. Emmett O’Neal, chairman of the committee on local legislation, and later governor, denounced the evils of local legislation stating, “There is no reform in the constitution we are now framing more important than a check upon the evils of local and special legislation. . . The framers of the Constitution of 1875 had undertaken to check, and as they supposed had prevented, this class of legislation. They had provided that the General Assembly should pass no local or special law on a subject which should be provided for by a general law, but the decisions of our Supreme Court . . . rendered their efforts in this direction fruitless.”

We will continue with Gov. Brewer’s thoughts on the Constitution next week.