Effort To Scrap Alabama's Constitution

Alabama's Constitution, written in 1901, is 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution and has been amended more than 700 times. Wayne Flynt, a retired history professor at Auburn University, says it ought to be scrapped. He and others are suing to make it happen.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Since it is evidently doubtful that there really is a Chinese curse that says, may you live in interesting times, and since that doubt doesn't stop people from citing that supposed curse, here's what I'll call an Alabama curse: May you live to be a scholar of the state constitution.

If you do, you might have to know your way around Amendment Number 492, promotion of catfish industry, which runs over 400 words. And you might have to learn the eight clauses of Amendment 674, bingo games in Lowndes County.

The constitution of Alabama is over 300,000 words long. That's 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution. And according to people who claim to know such things, it is the longest constitution in the world.

According to some Alabamians, like historian Wayne Flynt, who's a retired Auburn University professor, its origins are so shabby that the 1901 constitution, with its hundreds of amendments, ought to be scrapped, and they're suing to try to make that happen.

Welcome to the program, Professor Flynt.

Professor WAYNE FLYNT (Historian): Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, why does it take Alabama so many pages to do what every other state does with relative brevity?

Prof. FLYNT: Well, the constitution of 1901 stripped local communities of home rule so that cities, towns, counties do not govern themselves. We're governed essentially by their legislative delegations. And to change any law, even to pay a probate judge or to establish a bingo game, you have to amend the 1901 constitution.

SIEGEL: 1901 was during the Jim Crow era. Blacks, I saw, are referred to as negroes, with a lower-case n, throughout.

Prof. FLYNT: I wish that were the only problem; actually, that's a minor part of the problem. In addition to that, the constitution provided, in Section 102, that the legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a negro, or descendent of a negro. And under Article 14, the education section, it provides that separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.

SIEGEL: Well, take us back to 1901. How did the constitution get adopted, and why are there grounds in that process for you to try to overturn the constitution?

Prof. FLYNT: Well, the motive for the 1901 constitution is fairly simple. People who had lots of property didn't want to pay property taxes. And the best way to make sure they didn't pay property taxes was to make sure that no African-American voted, because African-Americans didn't own a lot of property and therefore, were anxious to tax it in order to provide decent public schools, not only for their own children but for white children as well.

So the core of the issue is, basically, the way in which white property owners were trying to protect their property, and the best way to do that was to disenfranchise blacks.

SIEGEL: And your reason for wanting to overturn the constitution isn't just to set the record straight historically; you have present-day concerns.

Prof. FLYNT: That's absolutely right. The result of the way in which the tax structure was developed out of the 1901 constitution is that the tax rate was shifted from property to, first, personal income taxes and corporate income taxes and then finally, and most dramatically, to sales taxes during the 1930s, so that a poor person in Alabama pays about 11 percent of his or her income on state and local taxes and a wealthy person pays about 3 percent. So, we basically shifted the tax structure for public schools from those who have money and property to those who don't.

And our attempt is to actually create a more equitable constitution. In the original constitutional convention, there were 155 delegates. All 155 were white. All of them were males. Ninety-six of them were lawyers and bankers. And a fourth of them were Civil War veterans. That's not exactly what you'd call a representative constitutional convention.

SIEGEL: Now, one could argue that every American document of the country's first century and a half was largely or entirely the work of white male Protestants. If that invalidated documents, we'd have to check out the Declaration of Independence.

Prof. FLYNT: That's correct. However, the Constitution of the United States has been changed by both statutory amendment and also by federal law, whereas the funding base for taxes in Alabama and the funding of education, those systems still pertain in Alabama. The tax structure is still there.

SIEGEL: Do you think people in Alabama are still paying for the sins of 1901, in that case?

Prof. FLYNT: That's correct. But the country has changed and hopefully, the courts have changed. And hopefully, this will be struck down.

SIEGEL: But you have this state constitution, which is so encyclopedic that it does everything from banning duels to explaining how - one of my favorites -how Alabama would acquire foreign territory. I don't fully understand that.

If you throw out the constitution, wouldn't there be a thousand holes in state law that the legislature would then have to pass by statute?

Prof. FLYNT: What you're really saying is, then we would have to actually pass a modern constitution that would allow local counties, local municipalities to solve their own problems, and not have the people in my county, Lee County, vote on the prohibition of weeds, junk, motor vehicles and litter in Jefferson County. That's Amendment 497, which is really not of great interest to the people down in my area, and yet we have to vote on that.

And of course, that's the reason we have more than 800 constitutional amendments in a constitution that is longer than "Moby Dick" and the Bible, among other books.

SIEGEL: Well Professor Flynt, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. FLYNT: Thank you for calling.

SIEGEL: That's Wayne Flynt, a historian and retired professor of history at Auburn University.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.