As a journalist, educator, and proponent of constitutional reform, Bailey Thomson (1949-2003) was a stalwart advocate for Alabama's poor and middle classes at the turn of the twenty-first century. His impassioned writing about Alabama's unfulfilled potential—politically, socially, and economically—harnessed a movement that became formalized as Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, one of the state's leading progressive organizations.
Born February 4, 1949, in Aliceville, Pickens County, Horace Bailey Thomson was the eighth child of William, a prominent Pickens County cotton farmer, and Attie Bell Thomson, a homemaker. Thomson's uncle was Alabama senator Fuller Kimbrell of Fayette, a close political ally and finance director for Gov. Jim Folsom Sr. and a leading member of the State Board of Agriculture and Industry during the 1940s and 1950s. The Thomsons farmed more than 1,000 acres of cropland and pasture along the Tombigbee River near Vienna and tended to a 350-acre farm surrounding the family home. Bill Thomson built his much of his farming success on cotton and was proponent of mechanization, having purchased one of the state's first mechanical cotton pickers in 1955. He also believed in diversification, growing corn and soybeans in addition to cotton, and he experimented with a variety of unconventional livestock, including sheep and hogs, with mixed results. Attie Thomson was a devout Methodist who instilled in her children an appreciation for education, arts, and literature and enforced a strict moral code.
As a boy, Bailey Thomson watched, absorbed, and later imitated many of his parents' progressive ideals, though he did not follow his father with regard to his profession. After graduating from Aliceville High School in 1967, Thomson enrolled at the University of Alabama (UA) to study history, earning a bachelor's degree in 1972 and master's degree in 1974.
After graduating from Alabama, Thomson worked as a writer for daily papers in the state, first at the Tuscaloosa News and the Huntsville Times. He later became editorial page editor at the Shreveport Times in Louisiana and senior editorial writer at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. In 1977, Thomson married Kristi Garrison of Haynesville, Louisiana, whom he met in a Sunday school class and with whom he had one daughter, Sarah Rachel. In 1992, Thomson joined the Mobile Press-Register as business editor and associate editor, positions he held until 1995, when he returned to academic life. He earned his doctorate in communications history from UA in 1995 and subsequently accepted a position in the College of Communication and Information Studies as associate professor of journalism.
While in Tuscaloosa, Thomson retained a close relationship with the Press-Register, spearheading several major writing projects for the newspaper and steering students and recent graduates to its newsroom for internships and jobs. Former Press-Register colleagues credit Thomson for expanding the depth and scope of the newspaper's coverage and for having exceptional range as a writer. Thomson brought a new and distinct voice to the Press-R egister's editorial and news pages, one marked by equal parts passion and reason. He helped conceive and edit several major investigative projects in the newsroom while working to re-establish the Press-Register's editorial page as a leading voice on regional and state issues. Outside the newsroom, Thomson contributed articles to popular and scholarly history journals and offered regular commentaries to Alabama Public Radio. In 1995, Thomson was a finalist for journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for a Mobile Press-Register editorial series linking many of the state's problems to its antiquated 1901 constitution. In 1999, a series called "Dixie's Broken Heart," also published by the Press-Register in the weeks leading up to the 1998 statewide election, won the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Distinguished Writing Award.
Throughout his career, Thomson retained a deep affection for his home state and particularly rural Alabama, where he spent much time reporting, writing, and coaching others on the richness of Alabama as an editorial subject. At the University of Alabama, where he was a journalism faculty member from 1996 to 2003, Thomson helped shape the careers of scores of young journalists. In 1999, he won the Society of Professional Journalist's Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award, given annually to the nation's most admired and accomplished journalism faculty member.
In some respects, Thomson modeled himself after one of the state's early journalism giants and political reformers, Clarence Cason, author of the seminal nonfiction book 90° in the Shade, published in 1935. Cason was the founder of journalism education at the University of Alabama, taking over a fledgling department in 1928. Like Thomson, Cason dedicated himself to challenging the state's political shortcomings while embracing its cultural distinctiveness. After several decades of declining readership, 90° in the Shade risked becoming a historical relic, and Thomson set himself to restoring Cason's work to prominence. His close study of the book formed the foundation of an introduction to the book's 2001 edition, published by the University of Alabama Press when Thomson was an associate professor.
While establishing himself as a scholar and teacher in Tuscaloosa, Thomson spent summers canvassing the state and region in search of material for new stories and columns. He cultivated relationships with newspaper editors in Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile and contributed regularly to their news and opinion pages. In the early 2000s, Thomson was instrumental in forging a new model for graduate-level journalism education, whereby top performers at the University of Alabama would immerse themselves in community journalism at the Anniston Star newspaper. This unique "journalism residency" program has been widely praised for its innovative teaching approach, which calls for immersing students in real-world reporting and writing while grounding them in the foundations of journalism theory, research, and law.
Thomson also helped create the state's highest honor for nonfiction writing, the Clarence Cason Award, to honor journalists, historians, and essayists who have contributed to the state's arts and letters. Past recipients include Pulitzer Prize winners Edward O. Wilson, Howell Raines, Diane McWhorter, Rick Bragg, Cynthia Tucker, and Hank Klibanoff, as well as Gay Talese, Albert Murray, Wayne Flynt, and Winston Groom. (Thomson received the Cason Award posthumously in 2004.)
Beyond the newsroom and classroom, Thomson was a leading voice for constitutional reform. He believed the state's 1901 constitution severely limited the effectiveness of local government and retained too many relics of Alabama's plantation-era past, including institutionalized racism and classism, persistent educational and economic barriers for the poor, and a tendency toward dogmatic approaches to political problems. In 2000, he founded Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, for which he also served as chair. Under Thomson's leadership, the organization attracted other influential Alabamians, including former Alabama governor Albert Brewer, Samford University president Thomas Corts, former U.S. representative Jack Edwards (R), and Auburn University history professor Wayne Flynt. In 2002, Thomson edited and was a contributor to A Century of Controversy, a comprehensive examination of the 1901 constitution. In the book, Thomson and his co-authors provide a rigorous critique of the document, looking closely at its history, evolution and practical consequences for contemporary Alabamians.
On November 26, 2003, Thomson died unexpectedly of a heart attack at his home in Tuscaloosa, prompting an outpouring of shock and sadness but also appreciation for his contributions on various fronts. Tributes came from his students, fellow journalists, educators, constitutional reform advocates, and even the state legislature.
In October 2005, Thomson was inducted posthumously into the College of Communication and Information Sciences' Hall of Fame
at the University of Alabama. Upon his induction, Dean E. Culpepper Clark hailed Thomson for bringing "a quiet but fixed and
courageous voice" to the cause of constitutional reform.
Thomson, H. B. A Century of Controversy: Constitutional Reform in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
———. "Introduction." In 90° in the Shade, by Clarence Cason (University of Alabama Press, 2001).
"Dixie's Broken Heart," Mobile Register, October 11-18, 1998.
Published January 13, 2009
Last updated December 5, 2012