For nearly 200 years, Alabama has too often embraced the toxic mixture of resistance to change and an acceptance of mediocrity. Despite its beauty and its people’s doggedness, Alabama’s worst struggles have a lineage tracing back to bad decisions and tepid, if not demagogic, leadership.
Somewhere in that lineage rests the legacy of former Gov. Albert Brewer, who died Monday. He was 88. Brewer was one of Alabama’s outliers, a progressive leader who put people over career, improvement over re-election. His time in office was brief, born out of the death of Gov. Lurleen Wallace, yet altogether noteworthy.
Today, as we mourn Brewer’s passing, we can’t help but wonder:
What if Brewer had served as governor longer than 33 months? Would Alabama had taken a different political path in the 1970s and 1980s? Would the state have been spared the return of George Wallace and his presidential ambitions to the governor’s mansion? Would the state’s course not taken it toward the election of Guy Hunt (who resigned after being found guilty of conspiracy and ethics violations) and Fob James (who couldn’t decide if he was a Republican or Democrat)?
We’ll never know, of course. Brewer served the remainder of Lurleen Wallace’s term and then lost his two attempts, in 1970 and 1978, to claim the governor’s office for a full four-year term. (Author and political scientist Kerwin C. Swint has called the Wallace-Brewer match in ’70 “the last openly racist campaign in America,” with Wallace famously using Brewer’s embrace of black voters against him.)
For a glimpse into what could have been for Alabama, we need only consider Brewer’s work after his political career ended. Brewer, an attorney by trade, became the state’s leading advocate for smart government and constitutional reform, a leftover from his two-plus years as governor.
Alabama’s 1901 Constitution is an over-amended, laborious document written by white supremacists who wanted to restrict access to the ballot box (for blacks and poor whites) and centralize control of most decisions in Montgomery. Brewer, as did others, saw the state Constitution for what it is: A rotting albatross hanging from Alabama’s neck.
Brewer helped form Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, which still advocates for lasting change in that area. He served on Gov. Bob Riley’s constitution-reform commission in the 2000s. Perhaps most important, he founded the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, a nonpartisan group whose work is considered invaluable by those seeking in-depth data about all facets of our state.
In that sense, Brewer’s legacy is crafted more by his work as an advocate than his time in office.
George Wallace’s nasty victory over Brewer in 1970 robbed Alabama of four years, if not eight years, of this style of moderately progressive leadership that New South states welcomed during the Seventies. Brewer saw a better Alabama, an improved Alabama, a repaired Alabama, and wanted all to realize their full potential. Albert Brewer made our state better. It could use more like him even today.