August 30th, 2011
Published: Sunday, August 28, 2011, 5:45 AM
By Bob Blalock — The Birmingham News
If Wayne Flynt was the angel perched on the state’s shoulder whispering (OK, shouting) into its ear about doing right, the devils roosting on the state’s other shoulder were howling another, less selfless message.The devils usually won. But they knew they’d been in a battle with Flynt, who rightly has been called the “conscience of Alabama.” Flynt, a Distinguished University Professor at Auburn University, wasn’t outfought, just outgunned.
At a dinner in his honor Tuesday night, Flynt, who retired from AU in 2005 after 28 often-stormy years, made clear he is not through standing up for what he believes is right for Alabama. But there was no mistaking some weariness, and resignation, in Flynt.
It will not ruin Flynt’s fascinating new memoir, “Keeping the Faith, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives,” to reveal the ending. He did it himself to an adoring crowd of about 100 at the dinner hosted by the Alabama Poverty Project, which Flynt helped found.
“I really don’t need assurance of victory for my causes or dreams in my lifetime anyway,” Flynt writes. “I only need fidelity to those beliefs that define me as a person.
“In 1951 my favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote a prayer that admonished readers to live in a different dimension of time from people who view life in other ways: ‘Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love.’
It’s no wonder Flynt believes he won’t win some of the battles he has fought so courageously during his lifetime. He has chosen monumental challenges against entrenched opponents so powerful that victory may not come in his children’s or even his grandchildren’s lifetimes.
That’s what happens when you fight to relieve poverty, to make an unjust Alabama tax system fair, to jettison a fraudulent state constitution, to improve Alabama’s public schools. The special-interests groups that would have to pay higher taxes and give up some of their power lined up against Flynt, protecting their own selfish interests instead of pushing for Alabama’s best interests. It is a clash rooted in many ways in the 1901 Constitution, which wealthy white men who controlled the state wrote to safeguard the status quo. Much of that status quo remains.
As Flynt told the dinner crowd Tuesday night, “We are engaged in a titanic battle for Alabama’s soul.”
Lest that sound like hyperbole, understand just a little of what Flynt has been through. He has taken on governors, lawmakers, judges, trustees, university presidents and others, and learned just how vindictive many of them could be. An example: Flynt dared suggest raising Alabama’s lowest-in-the-nation property taxes to pay for better schools, and the Alabama Farmers Federation retaliated. Alfa tried to intimidate him into backing down by turning the screws on him at Auburn. Flynt managed to hold his ground then, but Alfa still has a firm upper hand in the war over property taxes.
What drove Flynt to fight? Growing up poor and proud in Alabama surely had something to do with it, as did the hot-headed Flynt genes. But so, too, did his strong belief in God.
He writes: “To live as a morally responsible person in Alabama and not challenge injustice would have made a mockery of my faith.”
Somehow, amid all his extracurricular battles, Flynt managed to teach — his first love — and earned the reverence of students, who showered him with awards. He wrote stellar history books about Alabama and Alabamians, telling history through ordinary Alabama families like his own in “Poor but Proud,” “Dixie’s Forgotten People” and others. He helped birth a wonderful online reference, the Encyclopedia of Alabama, that tells the story of this state and its people (full disclosure: I contributed an essay).
In 2000, after The News’ Ron Casey died too young, Flynt wrote a moving eulogy in which he called Casey “a man in full,” borrowing the title of a Tom Wolfe novel popular at the time.
This column is no eulogy for Flynt, who is very much alive and kicking. But he, too, is truly “a man in full.” Thankfully, he is far from done.
He may not achieve everything he believes is worth doing in his lifetime. But for the many people like him who want to make Alabama a better place, Wayne Flynt has offered hope. And faith. And love.
Bob Blalock is editorial page editor of The News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: blog.al.com/bblalock.
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