The 155 White guys who penned the 1901 Constitution are accused of creating structures which have crippled Birmingham in 2013: a concentration of power in Montgomery, a regressive tax system that favors large landowners, a ban on internal improvements, black disenfranchisement, etc.
Last night, I waded through this line of reasoning in the opening chapter of Wayne Flynt’s Alabama In The Twentieth Century, and I wasn’t in the least bit impressed by it. I was saving my thoughts on this for the upcoming review, but I will go ahead and explain now why I disagree.
1.) First, Birmingham’s population grew under the 1901 Constitution from 38,415 in 1900 to 340,887 in 1960. After nine consecutive decades of population growth (including sixty years under the 1901 Constitution), the population of Birmingham declined in the 1970 Census to 300,901.
The 1970 Census was the turning point. Birmingham’s population has declined in every subsequent census from 300,901 in 1970 to 212,237 in 2010. Obviously, the 1901 Constitution didn’t inhibit the growth of “The Magic City” from 1900 to 1960, so it seems unreasonable to blame the 1901 Constitution for a decline that began roughly sixty years after it was passed.
2.) Second, Birmingham’s downward spiral isn’t reflected in other Alabama cities, which are similarly governed under the 1901 Constitution:
The population of Huntsville has grown from 72,365 in 1960 to 180,105 in 2010. The population of Montgomery has grown from 134,393 in 1960 to 205,764 in 2010. The population of Dothan has grown from 31,440 in 1960 to 65,496 in 2010. The population of Tuscaloosa has grown from 63,370 in 1960 to 90,468 in 2010.
Closer to home, there were 668 people in Hoover in 1960, but there were 81,619 there in 2010. There were 1,623 people in Alabaster in 1960, but there were 30,352 there in 2010. There were 4,029 people in Vestavia Hills in 1960, but there were 34,033 there in 2010. There were 12,680 people in Mountain Brook in 1960, but 20,413 in 2010.
The population of Mobile, however, has declined from 202,779 in 1960 to 195,111 in 2010, after a similar period of meteoric growth from 38,469 in 1900. Like Birmingham in 1979, Mobile elected its “first black mayor” in 2005, Sam Jones.
3.) Birmingham’s violent crime problem can’t be blamed on the 1901 Constitution: in Bull Connor’s Birmingham, the homicide rate per 100,000 was 13.49 in 1951, but it had grown to 36.28 in 2012, which is down from its highwater mark of 53.01 in 1991.
4.) The blighted neighborhoods in Birmingham – like their counterparts in St. Louis, Newark, and Detroit – are a symptom of their abandonment by the White population since the 1960s. Sixty years ago, when the 1901 Constitution was in effect, places like Ensley, Elyton, Gate City and West End were described as safe and prosperous.
5.) From the 1950s to the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court systematically gutted the 1901 Constitution. The Jim Crow system was completely destroyed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Bull Connor was removed from power in 1963 and was replaced by liberal mayors like David Vann who aligned themselves with the black community.
6.) Federal spending in the 20th century also completely altered the nature of Alabama’s economy and overwhelmed the internal improvement provisions of the 1901 Constitution: the largest employer in Birmingham is UAB, Montgomery has Maxwell-Gunter Airforce Base, and Huntsville’s aerospace driven economy is based on NASA, Redstone Arsenal, and Cummings Research Park.
Alabama in 2013 is crisscrossed by interstates and U.S. highways and county roads that date back to the New Deal. The state lavishes incentive packages on the likes of Mercedes and Airbus to lure foreign manufacturing to Alabama. Something like 45% of black people now live off the SNAP EBT food stamps program.
Birmingham’s precipitous decline can be laid at the doorstep of its black population whose “capacity for government” was found “wholly wanting” by the architects of the 1901 Constitution.
The Birmingham City School system, which JFK used the military to integrate in 1963, is 98% black. Birmingham has been governed by black mayors for the last 34 years. The Birmingham City Council is majority black. The Birmingham Police Department and the Birmingham Water Works Board are majority black. Birmingham has a black congressman and black state senators and representatives.
The violent crime problem in Birmingham is exclusively black. The blighted neighborhoods are almost exclusively black. Way back in 1964, the White suburbs refused to consolidate with Birmingham because of their fear of black governance.
It was black people in 1963 whose demonstrations and disruption of commerce overwhelmed the Birmingham Police Department which was attempting to maintain law and order. It was the conspiracy between the black population and the business elites to integrate Birmingham without the consent of its White working class majority that destroyed confidence in the city and resulted in its abandonment.
155 White guys didn’t destroy Birmingham in 1901 … that was the handiwork of MLK and Fred Shuttlesworth in 1963, Sidney Smyer and the Chamber of Commerce, the Warren Court and the Southside liberals, and Richard Arrington, Jr. and his illustrious successors like Larry Langford.
There is a slogan on the wall of the Birmingham City Council: “Cities Are What People Make Them.” The state of Birmingham in 2013 is what the alliance between the black population, White liberals, and the business community has produced after vanquishing the segregationists in the 1964 elections.
For ninety years, the trajectory of Birmingham had been upward and upward … and then, the White liberals got their way in 1963, and the integrated paradise of their dreams came true.