Wed May 18, 2005
Alabama in the Twentieth Century
Wayne Flynt's latest, most comprehensive examination of the state's virtues and vices. "Required reading" for Alabamians who want "to vote, or even talk about Alabama sport, religion, politics, taxation, or laws."
By Don Noble
Wayne Flynt, a native son and Auburn University historian, has been preparing to write this book all his life.
He has written books on Alabama?s poor whites, on Alabama religion, on a dozen different aspects of Alabama history, but here is the magnum opus, the big one.
This book ought to be required reading in the sense that no one should be allowed to vote, or even talk about Alabama sport, religion, politics, taxation, or laws, until he has read it.
And it is not an easy read. It is a painful read, painful because readers in Alabama will not like what they are being told.
This history is organized by subject, not chronology. Many readers begin the book by reading the chapter on sport.
At Auburn, many amateur scholar-athletes under Pat Dye were given $600 per month, some with additional Christmas bonuses and additional payments for touchdowns, interceptions, and big hits.
And Flynt reminds us that for seven years in the 1980s, the graduation rate for the UA football team was 28%. The graduation rate for the basketball team was, however, zero.
The first chapter of the book concerns the racist 1901 constitution. This, like the rest of the 531 pages of closely reasoned argument, cannot be quickly summarized, but Flynt?s statement that "most, if not all of the state?s formidable problems had their origins in the 1901 document" is a fair start.
That constitution was meant to restrict voting and keep the wealthy safe from taxes, and it has served admirably in those ways for over a century. By 2000 we had "the nation?s most regressive and unfair tax system."
Alabama?s wealthiest one percent paid three percent in taxes. The poorest 20 percent paid 12 percent. So it goes.
And some of the injustices are new. The 1978 current use bill taxes undeveloped land, even in the Spring Hill section of Mobile or at Gulf Shores, as if it were rural timberland.
We pay a huge percent of our taxes in sales tax, but it is sometimes difficult in some places to fund schools adequately. There are, lamentably, only two cash registers in Coosa County.
Without being redundant or sadistic, let?s just say that because there is so little money raised, Alabama underfunds everything.
The sections on prisons, mental health, race, public schools, infant mortality, children in poverty, Alabamians without insurance, workplace safety, state troopers, you name it, are depressing and frightening.
And there is adequate blame to go around, but Flynt states, "ALFA could rightly claim credit for much of Alabama?s backwardness."
And what about the hated federal government?
For every dollar Alabama sends to DC we get
back $1.30. In 1992, "Federal funds accounted for 58 percent of Alabama?s budget." Still, in spending per pupil we ranked 48th, in personal income 42nd, in aid to dependent families, 50th, and in adequate number of corrections officers, 50th.
At different times the state?s mental health system and branches of the educational system have fallen under judicial rule, costing the state hundreds of millions in legal fees.
On the bright side, we rank first in driving to work, 96 percent; 99 percent of Alabamians believe in heaven, and 66 percent are born again, according to one survey, and a majority of the residents of Birmingham said their favorite pasttime was reading the Bible.
In 2000 Alabama had the nation?s fourth highest divorce rate, 40 percent higher than the national average.
Flynt ends his book with an upbeat chapter.
Alabama does, for whatever mysterious reasons, generate musicians, writers, painters, and photographers in abundance; particularly mentioned are Chip Cooper, William Christenberry, and Mary Ward Brown. They mostly go to live elsewhere, but they were formed here.
Of course, there are other positive chapters in this book, including one on the military. Alabamians are a patriotic bunch and have contributed disproportionately to the armed services, both enlisted men and officers.
But alerting people is more beneficial than stroking people. Flynt quotes L. L. Gwaltney, editor of The Alabama Baptist: "We love Alabama . . . well enough to see her faults as well as her virtues."
The same is true for Flynt. God help Alabama if our history were ever written without love. It?s hard enough to bear this way.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.