Alabama seeks to purge racist sections of constitution
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Constitution still has language stating that schools should be segregated by race and people are to pay poll taxes to vote.
While those provisions have long been invalidated by court rulings, they remain in the state’s chief governing document.
One hundred and twenty years after the state’s 1901 constitution was approved, activists and lawmakers hope they can soon excise the racist language written to entrench white supremacy.
The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution this week heard recommendations to strip language on segregated schools, poll taxes and language that allowed a brutal convict lease system that sold African-American men into forced labor.
The panel is expected to take a final vote in the coming weeks, putting the proposal before lawmakers in early 2022 and potentially state voters in November of 2022.
“Our state constitution is reflective of who we are,” Rep. Merika Coleman, who chairs the committee and sponsored the legislation setting up the process. “Those racist provisions in that constitution, and those outdated provisions — we hope that’s not who we are. We definitely know we are not a 1901 Alabama and we need to reflect that in the document.”
The framers of the 1901 constitution were clear that their goal was to maintain a government controlled by whites.
“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 committee on Wednesday heard recommendations from the director of the Legislative Services Agency to strike language related to poll taxes, segregated schools and allowing involuntary servitude for the “punishment of a crime.” Committee members voiced no objections.
“What I’m reading today’s action as is that the committee is generally comfortable with the direction I proposed on racist language, would like to know how the entirety of the draft fits together,” Othni Lathram, the director of the Legislative Services Agency.
A section of the current constitution says, “there shall not be any involuntary servitude, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.” It allowed a system of convict labor system in which Black Alabamians, often arbitrarily arrested, were forced to work in mines and labor camps.
In the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that said racially segregated schools were unconstitutional, Alabama adopted a Constitutional Amendment 111 allowing parents to opt for students to “attend schools provided for their own race.” It also allowed for elected officials to intervene in schools for the “preservation of peace and order.” Peace and order was a phrase used as a justification for fighting integration efforts.
Alabama continued to fight school integration for more than a decade after the 1954 Brown v. Board decision. President John F. Kennedy in 1963 sent National Guard troops to the University of Alabama to force its desegregation. It took years of court battles for Alabama schools to desegregate.