“A legacy of shame”

From the Rally for Constitutional Reform, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, April 7, 2000

By Dr. Wayne Flynt
Distinguished University Professor of History, Auburn University

   Alabama’s first constitution was born in the aftermath of the American Revolution and in the towering democratic presence of Thomas Jefferson. On July 5, 1819, men from throughout Alabama gathered in Huntsville to draft a constitution. The fifteen-man drafting committee did its work so well that their product was rarely amended before it was replaced in 1861.

   The document that the committee produced was not perfect. But it was widely regarded at that time and by historians since as the most democratic constitution of its time, allowing universal white manhood suffrage without regard to wealth, literacy, or church affiliation.

   So it is not that Alabamians are incapable of writing a fine constitution. The problem is those who gathered in Montgomery in 1901 assembled with a different set of assumptions about who was worthy to govern. Their assumptions, unlike their predecessors’ eighty years earlier, were aristocratic and exclusive, not democratic and inclusive.

   Alabama’s sixth constitution was preceded by two decades of political and economic strife between an alliance of black and white small farmers and workers against their planter and industrialist bosses. The insurgents had won control of many counties in north Alabama and the Wiregrass and twice had elected their candidate governor, although both times the election had been stolen by powerful planter interests in the Black Belt.

   After a particularly bitter battle in the 1890s, white Democrats agreed that conditions had to change. That change was embodied in the 1901 constitution. The affluent and well educated believed that the ship of state was being endangered by the great ocean of ordinary people.

   Governor Joseph F. Johnston (1896-1900) urged disfranchisement as a way of ridding the electorate of a class of voters whom he called "a constant menace to . . . [Alabama’s] growth and to the security of . . . property."

   One delegate to the 1901 Constitutional Convention declared: "The disqualifying principle in the Negro race is not color, but character, and the qualifying principle in the white race is not color, but mental superiority. I am willing to treat the Negro fairly and honestly and give him his rights, but I believe he is incapable of governing himself."

   The Black Belt editor of The Progressive Era in Wilcox County endorsed the new constitution using similar words: "A thousand years’ schooling in the theory and practice of sound government ought to make the Anglo-Saxon more skilled in its error principle, for it must be remembered that, in comparison, it was only yesterday that the Negro left the barbaric shores of Africa."

   And the editor of the state’s largest white religious newspaper, The Alabama Baptist, applauded the provision for liberal support of education but quickly added: "the most important clause in the constitution is that which secures, beyond all question, WHITE SUPREMACY, which is worth much to our people, and should cause every white man to vote for the ratification of the new constitution."

   Blacks perfectly understood what was happening as well. One African American journalist wrote: "It is goodbye with poor white folks and niggers, now, for the train of disfranchisement is on the rail and will come upon us like an avalanche. . . ."

   An avalanche it was.

   The new constitution required: a poll tax for the privilege of voting ($1.50 a year, cumulative to $36 if left unpaid, and that in a state where most farmers were landless tenants who earned less than $100 a year); residency in a county for one year and in a precinct for six months; literacy tests for prospective voters; ownership of at least 40 acres of land or property worth at least $300; exclusion of anyone found guilty of a long list of crimes, including adultery, vagrancy, and miscegenation. The one democratic decision made in 1901 was allowing the populace to vote on the new constitution. And that was a near-fatal mistake by the state’s power brokers.

   Led by Booker T. Washington, most black leaders opposed ratification as did many populist whites in hill and Wiregrass counties. The final vote to ratify was 109,000 for to 82,000 against. Twenty-four mainly white counties opposed. Twelve Black Belt counties voted to ratify by a margin of 32,000 to 5,000. And in those 12 counties more than half the vote to disfranchise blacks was cast by blacks, if we believe the numbers. Lowndes County, for instance, with a population of 1,000 white and 5,600 black voters, cast 5,326 votes for ratification and black disfranchisement and 338 against. Outside these 12, the other 54 counties in Alabama voted 76,000 to 72,000 AGAINST ratification.

   So, not only was the 1901 constitution racist and undemocratic, it was also fraudulently enacted. It was powerfully effective nonetheless. By centralizing power in Montgomery, the new constitution essentially stripped counties of the ability to govern themselves. This allowed special interests to ignore thousands of local county elections, which would disperse and reduce their power, and concentrate all their money on 140 legislative races and a handful of statewide campaigns.

   Perpetuating their power legally when possible, they did so illegally when necessary. Despite the presence in the constitution of Sec. 199, which required the legislature, as its first duty after the U.S. census, to reapportion itself based on the number of inhabitants in each county, the legislature did not do so a single time. Finally, Federal courts forced the state legislature to obey its own constitution during the 1960s, a decade when Federal courts also struck down the constitutional requirement for segregated schools and poll taxes in Federal elections.

   But, as bad as these faults were, the ultimate shame of the 1901 constitution was its undermining of the most fundamental assumption of a free people: that citizens have a right to govern themselves.

   In 1900 there were 181,000 registered African American male voters in Alabama; in 1903 there were less than 5,000. In 1900, 233,000 white men were registered; in 1903 that number had fallen by nearly 40,000. Whereas nearly 80 % of eligible voters, black and white, had cast ballots in the 1890s, less than 40% did so after the poll tax was enacted. In the first election after enactment of the 1901 constitution, overall voter turnout declined by 38% (white turnout by 19%, and black turnout by 96%). Alabama, in less than a century, had swapped one of America’s most democratic constitutions for one of its most undemocratic.

   For a century, we have let the shame of this constitution determine every major decision from who we let vote to how effectively we provide local services. And the result is the state’s record of racial injustice, its unconscionable treatment of the poor, the sick, and the mentally ill, its wretched under funding of education and rural domination of the legislature, with the resulting neglect of cities in everything from highway construction to public facilities.

   We CAN do better. And, if Alabama is to prosper in the new high tech millennium we are entering, we MUST do better.

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