He saw a problem — a state Constitution that is holding Alabama back in oh so many ways — and wanted to change it.
However, he understood there were many who liked the 1901 Constitution as it is. Though the document may hold back the state, it grants certain groups benefits they do not want to lose. Those groups may have different agendas but they are united in their desire to prevent a constitutional rewrite that might affect them.
Therefore, the only practical way to revise the Constitution was to change only those things on which there was a consensus for change or which no one particularly cared about. To do this, Marsh and his allies created the 16-member Constitutional Revision Committee, which would slowly amend the antiquated document.
(That this process of amendment and referendum was itself one of the things that made the original document so cumbersome, and that by adding amendments they would only make the overly long Constitution even longer, did not seem to trouble supporters of this strategy. “You dance with what brought you,” the saying goes.)
Plunging ahead, the commission changed what the Constitution said about telegraph lines and railroads (big deals in 1901, not so much today). It ran into a roadblock when it tried to remove the racist language that authors put there in 1901 because racism was what motivated them in the first place.
Because everyone seemed to feel the language should go, it looked like a slam-dunk. But when the revisions were proposed, some saw in the changes a way for state courts to mandate how public schools were funded. They raised a hue and cry about government interfering in how we educate our children and making us raise our taxes to pay for it. Naturally, the plan was rejected in 2004.
(What happened to the guy who led this successful appeal to illogic? Those same people elected him chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.)
So the commission rewrote the proposal to take out the racist language as well as the language that offended earlier opponents. Then those who had supported the first proposal rallied to defeat the second effort. Marsh can’t buy a break.
Today, the racist language remains.
Although the Constitutional Revision Commission looks like a practical approach to solving Alabama’s constitutional dilemma, it isn’t. And it never will be so long as there are powerful forces that oppose any change that weakens their position or improves that of someone else.
If you want to know why constitutional revision and reform will fail despite the best efforts of the Constitutional Revision Commission, just make a list of the special-interests groups that have flourished under the 1901 Constitution. Put the state’s central government — the Legislature and its attendant bureaucracy — at the top and work your way down.
Fearing one change might lead to another, these interests and individuals are primed and ready to defend the status quo. And unless some of them break ranks and considers what is good for Alabama rather than what is good for themselves, they will prevail. Just as they always have.