In 1937, a man named E.E. Callaway — lawyer, preacher, author, orator — included that passage in a lengthy letter to the editor to The Star. The CliffsNotes version: Though still mired in the Great Depression, pre-war Alabama owns great natural wonders, splendid expectations and a bright future, but demagogues, bigots and political fools neuter its potential.
“I have said on thousands of platforms … that Alabama is the richest state in the Union in resources and opportunities,” he wrote.
Callaway was outspoken, prolific and Republican, but he was no fool. From what I can tell, he may be the same E.E. Callaway who in the early 1970s wrote a small book, In The Beginning, claiming God had led him north from southern Florida, where he’d found the biblical Garden of Eden in that state’s Apalachicola Valley. He also may be the same E.E. Callaway who, in 1973, gave a tiresome interview to researchers at the University of Florida in which he said he was the son of a Baptist preacher from Coosa County, graduated from Alabama State College in Jacksonville (Alabama, not Florida) and, among hundreds of other things, he said this about his time in his native Alabama:
“All my folks were Democrats, Republican-haters and Yankee-haters. But every time a man ran for governor on the Democratic ticket, or for Congress, or for some other office, he always pictured his people as being poor, the down-trodden, the forgotten man, in other words, the bums.”
So he left Alabama. Became a lawyer. Moved to Florida. And “crawled out from underneath these Democratic bums and common people.”
Nevertheless, judging by his 1937 essay in The Star, he never stopped thinking about his native Alabama — his pre-George Wallace, pre-Bull Conner Alabama — and why it had the eternal habit of impeding its own progress.
If only E.E. Callaway were alive today.
Alabama 2012 isn’t the Alabama of 1937. Jim Crow’s dead — though Juan Crow, thanks to the state’s evil illegal-immigration law, is taking his place. Democrats no longer rule state politics. Tried-and-true Yankee-haters, if they still exist, are a dying breed. The state’s natural resources aren’t wholeheartedly ignored: think the Talladega Natural Forest, the tourism of the state’s Gulf Coast beaches, the efforts to protect the cleanliness of its waterways. Its global reputation — business-wise — is that of a low-tax, low-union state friendly to international corporations and fond of offering tax breaks to incoming European and Asian companies.
Oh, and the “Democratic bums and common people”?
That’s where Callaway might be disappointed.
Our politics … Umm … Let’s just say they’re still a big-boys’ game where it’s not unusual to read of demagogues and federal agents in the same sentence. It might curl Callaway’s hair to hear that Republicans control the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. (Yes, live, breathing Republicans!) Or that Alabama is now, in essence, a one-party state in which Democrats are houseguests and Republicans are Egyptian kings, ruling from on high. Or that Alabama politicians still try to appeal to the “common people” when campaigning; it doesn’t matter the candidate or the office, state-level political ads often carry three visuals: the candidate talking to farmers; the candidate hunting or holding a rifle; the candidate talking to assembly-line workers.
My assumption is that E.E. Callaway’s comments weren’t popular when The Star printed them 75 years ago. He comes across as a former Alabamian who didn’t like what he saw and high-tailed it out of here in search of progressiveness and opportunity. If he’s so thoughtful, so educated, why doesn’t he come home and become part of the solution instead of being an out-of-state critic?
I bet, too, that Callaway didn’t intend for his letter to be anything other than an insightful, heart-felt plea to his native state — a state he clearly wanted to prosper, if possible.
Generically, our Alabama resembles Callaway’s Alabama. Its politics create strife. Demagogues damage us. We’re not as good — in business, in education, in social services — as we could be. Our children deserve better.
Perhaps we need to be a little more like the best parts of E.E. Callaway’s writings: Caring about our state, questioning our repeated missteps, and committed to making it better tomorrow than it is today.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.