6 months ago

The Loss of American Civility…And is Alabama Next?

There are few places left in America where one consistently encounters friendly faces, warm smiles, courteous neighbors, and hospitable strangers. Alabama is one of those places, but in a world that’s increasingly losing its civility, we must ask ourselves, what makes Alabama different and how long can it last?

As this first week of October has unfolded, we’ve been confronted with the heinous news of the Las Vegas massacre, the sad news of  Tom Petty’s passing, and the heartbreaking loss of one of Alabama’s finest sons, Rep. Jim Patterson.

Given the timing, I couldn’t help but juxtapose these three events and reflect on the implications.

Sunday night In Las Vegas, a psychopath murders helpless people who’d gathered for an evening of fun and entertainment, 45 minutes after they sang God Bless America, unified in appreciation of everything our nation once stood for, and the hope of what it can again become.

The next day, Tom Petty passes from this earth, and millions of Americans take to social media to remember his songs and the emotions they evoked. And on that same day, one of Alabama’s finest sons passes as well, leaving friends and family to grieve, but with a certain hope.

While crazy people like the Las Vegas murderer Stephen Paddock have always existed, events that outrageous do beg the question—how has America fallen so far? The answers to this question are complex, debatable, and multi-faceted, and I don’t pretend to know even most of them.

One factor that is beyond reasonable doubt, however, is that America has lost its sense of civility because America is increasingly losing its families. The connection between the two is that the family is where civility is fostered because it’s where broken human beings learn to overcome selfishness, forgive wrongs, and genuinely regard others as more important than themselves.

Yet, the thriving family that was once the epicenter of American life is slowly but steadily slipping away. A few statistics make this point.

Fewer people are marrying than ever before in America: Pew Research says the share of Americans who are married is at its lowest point since at least 1920. Half of Americans 18 and over were married in 2015, compared with 72% in 1960. In 1950, that number was about 78%. One factor driving this change is that Americans—particularly men—are staying single longer. According to Pew, “In 2012, 78% of 25-year-old men had never married compared with 67% of their female counterparts, and by 2016, the median age at first marriage had reached its highest point on record: 29.5 years for men and 27.4 years for women.”

More children are fatherless than ever before in America: According to the National Center for Fathering, more than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. The social maladies that flow from children growing up without a father are staggering.

Granted, people like Stephen Paddock are still statistical anomalies, notwithstanding the increase of such horrific incidents in recent years. For this reason, let’s throw him out of the discussion and consider the lives of Tom Petty (or at least those represented in his songs) and Jim Patterson.

I’m sure the slightest hint of anything negative about Tom Petty will draw the outrage of many, which I completely get. I really liked most of his music, and he was a great at what he did—making us turn up the radio and sing along. But let’s have the courage to examine a few facts for the sake of a cultural discussion.

As soon as I heard the news of Petty’s passing, the song that instantly came to mind is one of his greatest hits, Free Fallin’. So let’s recite its lyrics, which I suspect many (including me) know by heart:

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

It’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda
There’s a freeway, runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy, cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart

And I’m free, free fallin’
Yeah I’m free, free fallin’

All the vampires, walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura Blvd
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
And the good girls are home with broken hearts

According to SongMeaning.com, here’s what Free Fallin’ means:

The bottom falls out as one bad boy realizes that in pursuing the ideal of freedom, he sacrifices meaningful connection.

Reseda was a family-oriented suburb of LA when the song was written
Freeways in LA cut right through residential areas in some places
West down Venture leads out of the suburbs
Mulholland is a district of LA and a highway that leads west

Figurative Language:
Bad boys are vampires because they exploit women for sex, money, or experiences and then leave them hurt

Meaning of final verse:
The lines “I wanna free fall out into nothin’ / Gonna leave this world for awhile” express escapism. His lifestyle is idealized as the pursuit of freedom and superficial experience, which he realizes through his fling with the good girl lacks meaningful connection. This realization hurts him, and these lines reveal the true face of his lifestyle: an escapist’s addiction, an ephemeral place of loneliness and worthless experiences. But he lacks the courage to return to her (I’m gonna leave this world) and decides to continue his pursuit of freedom (fall out into nothing).

The final chorus is a bittersweet reaffirmation of his freedom, now that he realizes it isn’t the high ideal he had thought it was.

I am not saying that Free Fallin’ is a summation of Tom Petty’s life, not at all. What I am suggesting is that these lyrics provide a compelling snapshot of American culture. Its misguided notions that love is but an illusion and the best kind of connection anyone can hope for is one that’s fleeting—the kind that leaves a hole in a person’s heart—have shaped the last couple of generations, and the slope seems more slippery by the day.

I believe the evidence of just how deeply those notions have grasped American culture is reflected in the statistics above—fewer marriages, far more children left to figure it out on their own, and far less lasting love.

As a result, an American boy’s best play is to stand in the shadows, like a vampire, and break a good girl’s heart.

This tale of such foreboding hopelessness is quite stark when compared to the life of Jim Patterson, who left this earth the same day as Tom Petty. Facebook was replete with tributes to Jim that said the one thing he always did was gloat about his beloved wife, Susan, and their three children whom he adored.

In other words, Jim Patterson’s life was the converse of the anonymous American boy in Free Fallin’.  Jim was a man who devoted his life to lasting connection and thriving community. He was a man who spent his life protecting, pursuing, and providing for the hearts of those he loved, not breaking them.

He was also a great friend. As Rep. Donnie Chesteen told me today, “There is a void in my life that will probably never be filled. Jim truly was my best friend and brother, but I know he would not want us to be sad because he lived life to the fullest.”

Now for those who don’t know Donnie, he’s a man’s man—an ole football coach, a husband, dad, and a leader of men. In other words, Donnie Chesteen is the epitome of true masculinity. Yet, today, he tearfully mourns the loss of his buddy Jim Patterson because they both understood the value of a friend who sticks closer than a brother—and that kind of friend doesn’t come along every day.

And I can say with confidence that they are both that kind man because they realized a long time ago that they were not placed on this earth to merely serve themselves, to use other people, to accumulate things, or even to find happiness. They understood as boys the age of Tom Petty’s mythic character that the real joy in life comes in sacrificial friendships, volitional commitments, gracious forgiveness, and abiding love.

That is the fountain from which Alabama’s most redeeming qualities flow, and it’s a fountain that I hope will one day soon flow freely again across America. For that to happen, however, we must restore the value of families who raise sons like Donnie Chesteen and Jim Patterson. If we don’t, countless more lost souls will  stand in the shadows waiting to break a good girl’s heart, because no one ever told them a better life awaits.

The good news is, as Jim Patterson well knew, God offers us all—even the vampires in the shadows—a certain hope that makes men (in the words of Tim McGraw) both humble and kind, and that is a fountain that never runs dry.


15 mins ago

Alabama House rejects bill to track race in traffic stops

Alabama lawmakers on Thursday refused to debate legislation that would have required police officers to collect data about race and traffic stops.

The bill sought to require police agencies to record data about the race and ethnicity of stopped motorists. The Alabama Senate had unanimously approved the measure, but it hit a roadblock in the Alabama House of Representatives.


Representatives in the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly voted down a procedural measure needed to bring the bill up for debate. The House vote was largely split along racial and party lines. Only five Republicans voted for the measure.

“After the vote, Democratic Rep. Merika Coleman from Pleasant Grove said lawmakers were sending a message that, “Bama is still backwards.”

Coleman said the bill collects data to determine if there are problems.

“When you vote against a bill that simply collects data, just data on who is being stopped, why they are being stopped and who is stopping them, there is something wrong with that,” Coleman said.

African-American lawmakers had shared stories of being stopped by police during debate on the bill as it moved through the Alabama Legislature.

The bill’s defeat sparked a filibuster by African-American legislators and threatened to cloud the remainder of the session. It eroded warm feelings that had filled the chamber moments earlier when lawmakers broke out in applause after voting to create a state holiday honoring civil rights icon honoring Rosa Parks.

The bill drew opposition from some law enforcement representatives who said departments already have policies against racial profiling and the bill would require additional paperwork.

Rep. Connie Rowe, a former police chief, said she was concerned that officers, assigned to work in mostly minority neighborhoods, could wrongly appear to be targeting minorities if the data was collected.

Rep. Allen Farley, a former assistant Jefferson County sheriff, was one of the Republicans who voted for the bill.

“This to me protects the good guys,” Farley, a Republican from McCalla, said. Farley said bad officers need to be identified.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, who voted against the bill, said he wanted to meet with lawmakers to see if they could work out a compromise plan.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

Jeana Ross is a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact

An Alabama program called First Class Pre-K is seeing such extraordinary results that Harvard University is producing a documentary about the effort and more than 30,000 four-year-olds were pre-registered last year in hopes of snagging one of the less than 17,000 available spots state-wide.

The program is overseen by Alabama Secretary of Early Education Jeana Ross, a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact, who has seen First Class Pre-K’s attendance increase by 374 percent under her leadership, while maintaining the highest possible ranking for quality by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Alabama hosts the program in more than 950 classrooms statewide and is one of only two states to meet all 10 of the institute’s quality benchmarks.


Ross told Yellowhammer News that the most rewarding part of her work is seeing firsthand the impact that skilled teachers can make, inspiring “a sense of wonder, joy, creativity, achievement and success” in a student’s learning.

“I care about children and their right to reach their greatest potential,” Ross said. “Education can and should provide children a powerful opportunity to find purpose and success for their future lives.”

Studies measuring results from tests such as the Alabama Reading and Math Test and the ACT found that First Class Pre-K alumni outperformed their peers who did not attend the program, according to the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.

Ross helped secure a $77.5 million preschool development grant to help fund the state-funded program, which also requires local communities to provide at least 25 percent of the funding to participate.

Also under her leadership, the Office of Early Learning and Family Support division of her department has expanded to serve 4,289 vulnerable families and children through more than $12 million in federal awards.

In all, Ross has led her department in writing and receiving federal grant awards totaling more than $100 million.

She attributes much of her success to the partnerships she has built with other groups serving children and families in Alabama to build a cohesive support system.

“My success has been achieved in a collective effort of devoted educators who, regardless of pay or recognition, work to create experiences where children enjoy through natural curiosity and joyful exploration a love of learning that lasts a lifetime,” Ross said.

Ross is a member of Governor Kay Ivey’s cabinet and was appointed by Governor Bentley in 2012. She advises the governor and state legislature in matters relating to the coordination of services for children under the age of 19 and, among her divisions, also oversees the Children’s Policy Councils, the Children First Trust Fund and the Head Start Collaboration office.

Ross previously served in a variety of education roles in Alabama, including as a central office administrator, assistant principal and classroom teacher. She holds a master’s degree in education leadership from the University of Alabama and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from UAB.

“My hope for education in Alabama is for every child to have a competent, sensitive and responsive teacher every day, every year,” Ross said.

As other states look to Ross’s success in Alabama’s early education, she offered three recommendations in a 2017 U.S. Department of Education interview:

“Set high-quality standards, communicate what those are, and demonstrate what they look like; involve parents, businesses and industry leaders in the initiative; and provide supports such as coaching and monitoring to maintain quality,” she said.

Ross and her husband live in Guntersville and Montgomery and have two adult sons and two grandchildren.

Join Ross and special guests from across the state for a Birmingham awards event March 29 honoring the 20 Yellowhammer Women of Impact whose powerful contributions advance Alabama. Details and registration may be found here.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is managing editor of Yellowhammer News.

1 hour ago

Reward offered in 6-year-old case of Baby Jane Doe

Police found the bones of a little girl six years ago in an Alabama trailer park right next to a long-sleeve pink shirt with heart buttons and a ruffled neckline.

The unidentified girl in the unsolved homicide case has been dubbed Baby Jane Doe. The Lee County District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday up to a $5,000 reward for information leading to an involved person’s conviction.


Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes says authorities can begin holding perpetrators accountable once the child is identified.

Opelika Detective Sgt. Alfred White says they have the child’s DNA, but nothing to compare it to. The Opelika-Auburn News reports that police suspect the girl suffered abuse and malnutrition. Police Chief John McEachern says the girl could have easily spent her entire life in captivity.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

2 hours ago

Alabama Secretary of State to Facebook: ‘Don’t say you helped us with something if you didn’t help’

Secretary of State John Merrill challenged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s revelation that his company helped disrupt the spreading of false information during Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election last December, telling Yellowhammer News that he has been shown no evidence to support Zuckerberg’s claim.

In an interview published Thursday, Zuckerberg revealed to the New York Times that his company targeted and eliminated a “significant number of fake Macedonian accounts that were trying to spread false news” about Alabama’s election.

Merrill’s office spoke with Facebook’s Government and Politics Team on Thursday to follow up about Zuckerberg’s claims.


“We said, ‘we don’t know what you’re talking about.’ We wanted one specific example,” Merrill said.

Just a week before the election in December, a deceptive campaign ad implying that voters’ ballot selections would be made public was spread on Google and Facebook. Merrill’s office contacted both Google and Facebook and asked for the ad to be removed. Google removed it, but Facebook did not.

Merrill said Facebook never responded about the ad.

“We believe that people in each state need to have accurate information that’s truthful,” Merrill said. “If [Facebook] can’t use their platform for that, they shouldn’t allow that kind of content be published.”

He continued, “For future races, I think it’s important that Facebook be available to address serious issues, for candidates, for officials, and be responsive in that they hear what the accusations are and evaluate merits of the claim.”

Facebook is receiving pressure from all sides after recent reports revealed that it allowed Cambridge Analytica, a private data firm associated with President Donald Trump’s campaign, to mine data of more than 50 million of the platform’s users without their permission.

Merrill said that he hopes the pressure will lead to some change.

“I think they’ll be more responsive,” he said. “The people will hold them more accountable. I hope people will hold them more accountable.”

@jeremywbeaman is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News

2 hours ago

Lawsuit over HealthSouth fraud cleared to move forward

The Alabama Supreme Court says one-time employees of the old HealthSouth Corp. can move ahead with a lawsuit over the fraud that nearly wrecked the Birmingham-based company.

The justices overturned a lower court decision blocking the lawsuit in a decision Friday.


HealthSouth survived a massive fraud scandal in the early 2000s that resulted in the ouster of founder Richard Scrushy. The company now calls itself Encompass Health.

One-time employee shareholders filed suit in 2003 over the fraud, but the case was delayed 11 years. The court now says the latest version of the lawsuit is related to the original complaint and can go forward.

Encompass Health operates 127 hospitals and 237 home health and hospice locations in 36 states and Puerto Rico.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)