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How Will Future Alabamians View the Legacy of Today’s Leaders?

By Stephen Stetson

Today, April 26, is the birthday of one of Alabama’s greatest governors: Charles Henderson.

Henderson was far from perfect, and judged by contemporary standards, he certainly had many of the failings on race and other issues that you might expect of a person born in Alabama in 1860. But in other areas, he was also quite ahead of his time. His birthday can be an occasion for looking at where Alabama stands in relation to many of the issues that defined his career.

I’m particularly interested in Henderson because we both grew up in Pike County. I graduated from a high school in Troy that bears his name. His name also is attached to an important child health care clinic in Troy, and many of the institutions he founded still exist in some form or another. Unfortunately, despite a legacy of leaving behind a great financial trust to promote the education, health and well-being of Alabama children, many folks outside of Pike County have never heard of Henderson.

In some ways, Henderson embodied many of the values that Alabama celebrates today. He was an incredibly successful capitalist, taking over his father’s business and helping it grow substantially. He sold groceries and fertilizer, and helped bring electricity and telephones to his part of the state. He was also civic-minded, leading in all sorts of municipal arenas, including service as Troy’s mayor. He helped found what is now Troy University.

But in other ways, Henderson’s legacy feels out of step with modern trends. His concern for the health of Alabama’s poorest children appears to be at odds with a Legislature seemingly determined to cut Medicaid. The health care clinic bearing his name – not to mention hundreds of thousands of low-income children, seniors, and people with disabilities throughout the state – would bear a huge burden if today’s lawmakers decimate Medicaid.

The high school bearing Henderson’s name also relies on lawmakers in Montgomery to provide suitable salaries for teachers and administrators. Unlike some contemporary leaders, Henderson felt strongly that public funding for schools should be a paramount priority for the state. Given his agricultural background, he understood that today’s planted seeds become tomorrow’s crops.

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Alabama has changed tremendously in some ways since Henderson was governor, from 1915 until 1919. Those were difficult years, with our nation at war in Europe, and our state struggling with racial strife and the strains of industrialization.

But in many ways, the issues that Henderson confronted are still with us today. Will today’s leaders devote their time, energy and resources to ensuring the needs of Alabama’s future generations are met? Or will they continue down the current path of slashing services for vulnerable Alabamians while continuing to hand out huge tax breaks to big businesses?

Charles Henderson was born 156 years ago today. In 156 years, what will folks in Alabama be saying about today’s leaders?

Stephen Stetson is a policy analyst for Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of 150 congregations and organizations promoting public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. Email: [email protected].

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