This is an opinion column.
After winning by a wide margin on Tuesday night, long-time Alabama House member Merika Coleman was sworn in Wednesday morning at the Jefferson County Courthouse, along with new Bessemer Cutoff House members Ontario Tillman, Fred Plump, and Patrick Sellers. Sen. Coleman—”Yes, I am,” she said when we spoke— was grateful she did not wake up, with just a couple of hours of sleep behind her, to news of the defeat of the Constitution of Alabama 2022. Not after leading the bipartisan effort to exorcise the embarrassing and amorphous document of the racist words and racist intent embedded by its racist creators.
“Wow,” Coleman said. “If it had been voted down yesterday, I would have hated to see the national headlines today—especially after the ignorant comments Sen. Tommy Tuberville made insinuating people fighting for reparations are criminal. I’m glad the citizens of the state of Alabama wanted to right that wrong.”
Nearly eight in ten Alabamians (76.49%, 886,270 voters, according to the secretary of state’s office) chose Tuesday to flush the state’s 1901 constitution and adopt the new version crafted by state legislators tasked with making the obese document at least slightly easier to digest.
“Now we’re all part of history,” she added. “How many times in our lives do we get a chance to say we’re part of changing something as significant as a state constitution?”
Call the Democrat an idealist. It’s happened before. “Once or twice,” she said with a laugh. She’s served in the state legislature for two decades and recalls speaking several years ago on what she wanted to accomplish as a legislator, which included addressing the state’s wretched constitution. “One of the male members told me, ‘You’re an idealist,’” she recounted. “The way he said it, he definitely did not mean it as a compliment. But I took it as a compliment because when any of us can see the possibilities, the best outcomes, we dream for that. We take that as a roadmap towards something you aspire to be. If you’re not willing to dream about something bigger than yourself, that’s a sad person to me—and a sorry elected official. I wear ‘idealist’ as a badge of honor.”
Idealism often snuggles with naivety. The constitution is only a document, a (very tall) stack of papers that does not address the ills of our state, does not right the wrongs endured every day by Alabamians whose children are hungry and (despite recent improvements) still struggle to read and do math, who do not have access to adequate healthcare, who live in poverty, who live in fear of revealing themselves.
A document, Coleman knows, that “did not change hearts and minds”.
“That percentage of the population that is just racist, we’re not going to change [them],” she admitted. “That is something we have to work on as a community, building individual relationships with people and finding out we have more in common that brings us together than actually separates us. We will have a lot of work to do.”
Idealism can easily be diluted by reality. In just a few months, the next legislative session will commence. Republicans still hold a super majority, which too often allows the loudest, most conservative, wings of the party to out flap those willing to explore pathways that elevate Alabamians across disparate communities.
I told Coleman I’d check in with her in a few months to see how her idealism is holding up. “Maybe sooner than that,” she laughed.
“I serve in a new [legislative] body as a Black woman and a super minority,” she said. “As a Democrat who is actually more moderate than people would know, finding commonalities with a supermajority of Republicans now that are Trump leaning. We’ve got some work to do. One of the things I have seen with this legislative body is that when it comes to major industry and major events, we come together. I can pat some of my colleagues on the back and remind them of their support on [the constitution] and hopefully open the door for some conversations on other social justice issues that impact low-income communities, communities of color, women, and the LGBTQ plus communities because they’re all Alabamians, too. We’re all Alabamians.”
“It’s an entry point,” Coleman said of the new constitution. “We still have people attacking a woman’s right to choose what’s right for her, her family, and with her doctor. So we still have some major challenges out there, but this is an entryway for us to show what we can do when we actually listen to voices outside of our silos. What we can do on other issues when you actually open your heart and your mind to somebody who doesn’t look like you, somebody who doesn’t think like us, somebody who doesn’t love like you, somebody who doesn’t have your social or economic background or education level.
“If we all have a common goal of trying to do what’s best for most of the people, we really believe we can get to the same page on some issues.”
If Tuesday’s vote was an idealistic statement about who we no longer are, then we must now be real, Alabama, about who we want to be. As idealistic as it may be.
More columns by Roy S. Johnson