Editor's note: Howell Raines, an Alabama native, is an author and former executive editor of The New York Times. He is working on a novel set during the Civil War.
(CNN) -- At a recent neighborhood meeting in Birmingham, Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell said the harsh anti-immigrant law promoted and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley is embarrassing Alabama in the eyes of the nation.
"We're solving a problem that was not a problem,'' she said, according to The Birmingham News.
Sewell was commenting on Bentley's crusade against the hard-working illegal immigrants in Alabama, but she was also channeling her state's history very accurately. Embarrassing gubernatorial behavior has long been an Alabama tradition. For decades, Alabama governors have specialized in the exact tactic employed by Bentley: proposing police-state solutions for nonexistent problems.
Bentley was a fast learner. Only three days after his inauguration, he made national news by declaring that those who had not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior were "not my brother ... and not my sister." He has really hit pay dirt with the immigration legislation — the most restrictive of the omnibus immigration laws passed in five states this year. Among other affronts, the Alabama law makes DWH — driving while Hispanic — a chancy undertaking, since it gives police new powers to check drivers' citizenship status. A federal court in Atlanta put on hold the provision making schoolteachers function as immigration police. But the economic damage and community anguish are mounting among whites and Hispanics.
Alabama has only one immigration-related problem of pressing importance right now. Legal Alabama residents won't take the jobs that are unfilled, now that fearful Mexicans are scrambling back to their own country. Alabama has an estimated 120,000 illegal immigrants.
Criticism from the business community has rained down on legislators and Bentley. Grow Alabama, a farmers' lobby, says its members lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in unharvested crops. In a test arranged by Grow Alabama director Jerry Spencer, 25 Alabamians picked fewer tomatoes per day than one four-man crew of Hispanics. The brutal stoop labor broke down many of the 25 physically, and they quit right away. "They're just not capable," Spencer said.
Corporate chicken-processing firms, the lifeblood of many small towns where Hispanic families have long lived in harmony with local residents, may close or cut production after losing a huge portion of their labor force. In urban centers like Birmingham, building contractors say their industry is stalling without immigrant workers, whatever their legal status.
The excuse that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from native Alabamians has been blown to smithereens. One state survey in neighboring Georgia, with its own harsh law, found that the state was short some 11,000 workers to harvest crops.
Alabama Gov. Bentley's response to complaints by employers and displaced workers alike was casual: "Those stories are anecdotal stories," he told the Dothan Eagle editorial board. "It'll work itself out."
With that kind of thinking, Bentley, a political unknown a year ago, is challenging George Wallace, who held office in the 1960s, in the state's endless most-embarrassing-governor sweepstakes. Wallace, of course, played to pre-existing racism. Bentley has one-upped him by attacking a problem that no one was worrying about.
Alabama has been welcoming migrant farm workers since the 1950s, originally to pick potatoes in coastal Baldwin County. Now, the fields are giving way to waterfront condos for retirees. Guess who mows the golf courses in a place where some Anglo managers speak fluent Spanish to resident workers, whose kids star on high school soccer teams?
How entrenched is Alabama's tradition of gubernatorial malice or the plain old goofiness of bumpkin politicians? The prototype for the latter was "Kissing Jim" Folsom, renowned for his hard drinking and womanizing. But things took a more serious, and usually unconstitutional, turn when the genial Folsom left office in 1954.
That year, John Patterson, whose prosecutor father was assassinated by gangsters, swept into office as a crime fighter. There was no shortage of corruption to be sniffed out in Montgomery and wide-open Phenix City, but Patterson opted to pass a law outlawing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His expensive legal war on "communist" race agitators hurt Alabama's economy and, as it happens, took Patterson off the list of rising Democrats who might have played a role in national politics.
In 1958, jealous of Patterson's Klan support, Wallace resurrected the pre-Civil War doctrines of "nullification" and "interposition" — "states rights" gambits that would allow states to oppose federal action and refuse to enforce federal law. He turned the highway patrol into "State Troopers" that sometimes shut down small-town schools when local officials there had opted for peaceful integration. That led to the nationally televised spectacle of Wallace's "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" at the University of Alabama. The law school there seemed not to have taught him that nullification and interposition had been defeated politically, militarily and constitutionally in the previous century.
By this time, anti-Wallace forces headed by the Birmingham business establishment had declared both the governor and the city's police commissioner, Bull Connor, as certified embarrassments and tried to promote the state's cultural and scenic resources. Civic leaders accused the national media "outsiders" of coming to Alabama only for opportunities to hurt the state's image. In fact, Wallace courted them. It wasn't journalists' fault that the Birmingham Art Museum couldn't compete for network air time with the governor's latest racial spasm and the attendant police brutality.
Finally, the serial embarrassments of the '60s seemed to fade with the election in 1978 of Forrest Hood James as governor. Looking back, it could have been an omen that this promising political novice was named, respectively, for the Confederate Army's most flagrant racist and its worst field commander. But James, campaigning in a yellow school bus, convinced the state's leadership that he would improve Alabama's education system, top to bottom. Too late it emerged that one of James' educational interest was in defying the constitutional ban on school prayer, imitating an ape to rebut the theory of evolution and allowing the first lady, Bobbie James, to purge the mansion of "demonized" art.
In his best-selling 1934 book "Stars Fell on Alabama," Carl Carmer claimed that there was a craziness in the state's people that led to embarrassing outbursts now and then. History, though, shows that the craziness in Alabama is mainly a gubernatorial virus.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.