The U.S. Capitol at night. (Russ Rohde/Getty Images)
If the state of Alabama had been around in 1776, elected officials here would have blasted Congress for the Declaration of Independence.
Dangerous overreach. Revolutionary. We’re tired of Washington ordering us around.
That’s what our leaders do.
It’s a long Alabama political tradition. Maybe even a rite of passage. No conservative official in this state gets attention until they perform the sacred act of facing north-northeast and shaking a fist at the Potomac, blaming it for all the problems we’ve brought on ourselves.
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When Gov. Kay Ivey called a special session last week to redo the state’s congressional maps – after the conservative U.S. Supreme Court determined that they violated the Voting Rights Act – she first made sure to utter a loud sigh.
“Our Legislature knows our state, our people and our districts better than the federal courts or activist groups do,” she said in a statement. (The “activist groups,” in this case, being Black Alabamians — including legislators — justly arguing that the original maps locked Black voters out of the political process.)
The next day, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville greeted the release of federal money for infrastructure by saying it was great to see Alabama “receive crucial funds to boost ongoing broadband efforts.” Amid extensive (and sometimes gleeful) criticism from Democrats for voting against the bill that made that money available, a Tuberville spokesman told multiple media outlets that the original bill “wasted Alabamians’ tax dollars” but that he just wanted Alabama to get their “fair share.”
Our leaders hate the federal government. But they need it. We need it. Without Washington, Alabama would be a Mad-Max-style Thunderdome.
Take Alabama’s health care system. My colleagues at the Reflector spent a week going over the myriad ways it fails Alabama women. But one program that helps is Medicaid. More than 1.3 million Alabamians are eligible for the program, most of them children, the elderly or those with disabilities. It pays for at least half the births in the state.
Is this an oppressive burden on Alabama taxpayers? Hardly. The federal government pays for 73% of the program. Alabama gets an even sweeter deal because hospitals and nursing homes pay a tax to keep the program going. If Alabama ever expanded Medicaid, the feds would pick up at least 90% of the tab.
But that’s just Alabama’s fair share, right? What our leaders really don’t like is when Washington interferes with the decisions they believe rightly belong to them.
And yet, history shows that federal intervention generally makes Alabama a better place.
When the feds step in
For a brief period after the Civil War, federal soldiers protected the right to vote in Alabama against murderous racist thugs. At the turn of the 20th century, the federal courts were the only places the victims of Alabama’s horrific convict lease system could get (limited) justice.
In the 1950s and ’60s, U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson swept away Jim Crow statutes with a fearless disregard for the thugs who threatened him over it. The 1965 Voting Rights Act — and federal oversight — restored republican government to Alabama after 100 years. Alabama’s awful school funding disparities, a long legacy of Jim Crow, only began to close when federal education programs started up in the 1960s.
Federal intervention wasn’t inevitable. State leaders could have chosen to build a state on equity and the rule of law, one that reflected the needs and desires of the governed. You know: a democracy.
But from territorial status onward, Alabama’s elites created a system with two aims: protecting their status and guarding their property. Voices outside those small circles were at best irrelevant. Sometimes they provoked our leaders to start shouting or draw their pistols.
You can still see this attitude today. Alabama’s prisons are horror shows of physical and sexual violence. But to hear state leaders talk, the real horror would be the federal government forcing us to do something about it. Attorney General Steve Marshall in 2020 described it as submitting to a “hall monitor.”
Yet with a handful of exceptions like former Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster and Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, legislators refuse to treat the issue with any seriousness. And prior federal interventions have worked.
One initiated by Johnson in 1976 led to major improvements in health and safety in state prisons. Alabama did little to address the sexual abuse and harassment of female inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka until the U.S. Department of Justice forced the state’s hand in 2015.
It feels like we’re headed toward another intervention. The DOJ is suing Alabama over inhumane conditions in state prisons. If the Corrections Department commissioner can tell legislators that the system denied medical furlough to a terminally ill inmate, without any questions from lawmakers, we’re going to need someone to step in.
Just as we need the federal government to ensure some basic level of decency in the state.
If our schools function; if we have any degree of political freedom; if Alabama is a bit less cruel to minorities than our leaders would like, it’s because Washington got involved.
So as you enjoy your July 4 holiday, turn north-northeast and salute the flag. The federal government makes life in Alabama possible.
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