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Demagogues Keep Alabama at the Back of the Line

“Demagogue: a person who stirs up the people by appeals to emotion and prejudice in order to become a leader and achieve selfish ends.”

That’s the Webster’s New World Dictionary definition of demagogue. It is a strange word bequeathed to us by the ancient Greeks, and it has a sad history in Alabama. Although we didn’t invent political demagoguery, we certainly perfected it.

During World War I, Alabama-born Baptist preacher (and Florida governor) Sidney J. Catts barnstormed across Alabama blaming Catholics for every witch’s-brew at every crossroads (of course all in the name of Jesus).

One of his demagogic speeches in Birmingham set the stage for a Methodist minister’s murder of Catholic priest James E. Coyle. The national press pilloried Birmingham for weeks afterward, calling the city the “American hotbed of anti-Catholic fanaticism,” where the “murder of a priest had been added to the achievements of bigotry.”

A decade later Alabama’s U.S. Sen. J. Thomas Heflin gained national notoriety for his attacks on the Knights of Columbus and Catholics in general (all in the name of Christ and conservative Protestant Christianity).

Again the state became a national laughing stock. A Maryland senator dismissed Heflin’s views as “the flimsiest bubble that ever found lodgement in an empty head.” The New York Sun added: “The feeling of most Americans toward Heflin is one of undescribable loathing.”

Three decades later it was a new trinity of demagogues and a different issue that besmirched the state’s reputation. Gov. George C. Wallace, Selma’s sheriff James G. Clark Jr. and Birmingham’s police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor represented Alabama to a national audience, all in the name of lily-white Christianity.

Accusing Birmingham’s African Americans of being “impudent, unruly, arrogant, law breaking, violent, and insolent,” Connor turned a thriving metropolis that in the 1950s contained only 15,000 less people than Atlanta into a backwater city smaller than Atlanta by a quarter-million people in 1970.

The 2004 election cycle has supplied Alabama yet another generation of demagogues led by Roy Moore, Tom Parker and John Giles. With a vote for Amendment 2 that would have removed racism from Alabama’s constitution, the state had the opportunity to close the door on a wretched past and begin the 21st century with a new message and a clean image. Without Moore, Parker, Giles and their lesser Republican henchmen railing against it, Alabamians would have done just that.

One part of that racism was Amendment 111, passed in 1956 as a piece of last-ditch segregationist legislation. That amendment even revoked the obligation of Alabama to educate its children. Let those who could afford education send their children to private schools, the logic went, and let black children grow up ignorant.

Enter messengers Moore, Parker, Giles and their cohorts. Passing Amendment 2 (which would have repealed that 1956 law) would harm home-schoolers, lead to free adult education, prepare the way for federal or state courts to increase taxes for schools, they harangued.

That lots of uninformed Alabamians believed such rubbish is obvious. That lots of white racists still live between the Chattahoochee and the Tombigbee rivers is equally obvious. That many Alabamians would rather see their children half-educated and woefully unprepared for the modern economy rather than pay more taxes is slowly dawning on more and more of us. That many citizens care more about the future of middle-class children than about the children of poor people is also apparent. And to be fair, many progressive voters now believe, with considerable evidence in their favor, that the only way to force a new constitution is to vote down every amendment to the current one.

But voters didn’t decide the fate of Amendment 2 based on their careful reading and reflective thought about a vague 1956 law. They were misinformed and demagogued by Roy Moore, Tom Parker and John Giles.

These three men (like Catts, Heflin, Wallace, Clark, and Connor before them) are not stupid. They know full well the racist origins of the 1956 law. They know that no “clean” new amendment in 2005 can leave the 1956 law intact and still remove racism from our constitution. They know that a circuit court judge in 1993 struck down the amendment they cherish. They know the state Supreme Court twice upheld that ruling. They know that the state recently passed an amendment requiring that any court-authorized tax increase be referred to a statewide referendum so no judge can unilaterally raise taxes. And they know that the consequence of their demagoguery will be a national campaign of ridicule unparalleled in recent Alabama history.

Shortly after the Nov. 2 election, a professor in California called the vote “absolutely astonishing,” the “kind of thing people use in university classes to present the backwardness of the state.”

North Carolina’s Charlotte Observer pondered why Alabama could not muster enough votes “to obliterate antiquated and unenforceable Jim Crow laws….” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorialized that for reasons Northerners could not fathom “Alabama is still wrestling with ghosts other parts of the South exorcised decades ago.”

“CNN Headline News” led a segment on Sunday night, Nov. 28, with a story about Alabama voters refusing to take racism out of their constitution. The Washington Post led its front-page that day with the same story. The following evening, the nationally syndicated Bev Smith talk radio show spent two hours informing Americans about Alabama’s backward state constitution and its racist voters.

As Moore, Parker, Giles and their allies celebrate their Nov. 2 victory, they might ponder a few additional matters:

–Alabama’s 2000 income growth trailed in 50th place among all states;
–Alabama’s low per-capita income and loss of 100,000 manufacturing jobs during the past 15 years;
–The decline from 22nd largest population in 1990 to 23rd in 2000;
–The state lags behind all Southern states other than Louisiana in population growth;
–The problems UAB medical center and the state’s universities have recruiting and retaining top researchers;
–Frequent anecdotes from economic recruiters about the way the state’s poverty, inadequate schools and blemished reputation complicate attracting new businesses and creating new jobs.

They might even ponder what message it sends the rest of the world when demagogues boast that Alabama has no obligation to its own children.

When your newly graduated son or daughter sadly informs you that despite love for family, kin and community they have decided to strike out for greener pastures elsewhere, blame Roy Moore, Tom Parker, John Giles, et al. They have been accused of racism. I am convinced they are innocent of that charge. But they have proven themselves (all in the name of Christ) guilty of demagoguery, which is alive and thriving in the Heart of Dixie.

Wayne Flynt is a member of First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala., and a professor at AuburnUniversity. The column appeared Dec. 5 in the Anniston Star and is used here with permission.