Alabama seeks to purge racist language from Constitution

Published 3:25 pm Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Alabama Constitution, written in 1901, still has language stating that schools should be segregated by race and people are to pay poll taxes to vote.

The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution on Wednesday approved a plan to strip racist language from the state’s governing document. It also reorganizes the massive, sprawling document that has nearly 1,000 constitutional amendments to try to make it more user friendly.

The committee’s proposal will be considered by lawmakers in the 2022 legislative session. If approved, it would go before voters in November of 2022.

“The moving racist language portion, I think is a great first step in righting some of the wrongs of the past of the state of Alabama,” said Democratic Rep. Merika Coleman, who chairs the committee and sponsored the legislation setting up the process.

“We know the spirit in which the document was written, and it was written specifically to disenfranchise, not only black Alabamians, but also poor Alabamians.”

The framers of the 1901 constitution were clear that their goal was to maintain a government controlled by white people.

“The new constitution eliminates the ignorant negro vote and places the control of our government where God Almighty intended it should be -– with the Anglo-Saxon race,” John Knox, president of the constitutional convention, said in a speech urging voters to ratify the document.

The pending plan would strip language on segregated schools and poll taxes and that allowed a brutal convict lease system that sold African American men, often arrested under dubious circumstances, into forced labor.

While those provisions have largely been invalidated by court rulings, the vestiges of Jim Crow remain in the state’s chief governing document, such as the fight to maintain segregated schools.

In the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that said racially segregated schools were unconstitutional, Alabama adopted Constitutional Amendment 111 allowing parents to opt for students to “attend schools provided for their own race.”

Proponents in Alabama are hopeful that this effort will succeed where others have failed.

Voters in the mostly white, conservative state had rejected similar proposals twice since 2000 after they became intertwined with school funding issues. The committee is hoping to sidestep that issue by not altering language stating there is no right to a public education.

State voters in 2000 did vote to remove a ban on interracial marriages but about 40% of voters cast ballots to keep the interracial marriage ban in the Constitution.

Coleman said she is optimistic the proposal will win approval as long as no one tries to falsely tie the effort to the national politics or “some of the stuff that is going on nationally with critical race theory.”

Coleman said striking the Jim Crow language sends a message that the state has changed.

“It’s so heartbreaking when you hear negative connotations when it comes to Alabama, when someone is talking about something that is backwards or outdated and they refer to it as ‘Bama.’ I think this is helpful in trying to let — not only the rest of the country know, but the world knows — that that is not who we are.”