Roy S. Johnson: Alabama Gets Another Chance to Remove Racist Language from Constitution

By Roy S. Johnson | rjohnson@al.com

Maybe we’ll get it right this time.

Maybe.

Maybe this time, we’ll show we’re not the Alabama of more than a century ago when white men from throughout the state gathered in Montgomery to devise a constitution for the Alabama of 1901.

White men who, during their Constitutional Convention, called black citizens—“negros”, as they said then, at least in public view—as an “insignificant minority”.

White men who spoke of “Chinamen” and shared in the official record a story of an “old darky” who left the South but encountered whites in the North who “held him to a strict accountability.”

Here’s how the tale is transcribed:

Trained, as he was, to the slow movement of the mule in the Southern cornfield and cotton patch, he could not handle the complicated machinery, or keep pace with the quicker methods of farming in the west and so he was soon cast adrift. When he asked for help he was told to go to work, and so he wandered, foot-sore and weary, back through Indiana and Ohio, until he reached again the old Southern plantation in Kentucky. Finding the planter comfortably seated upon his veranda, the old darky approached, hat in hand, and asked for something to eat. Why, you damn black rascal, what are you stopping here for? Go into the kitchen and tell the cook to give you something to eat.

Before God, master, the old darkey said, grinning from ear to ear, thems the sweetest words I’s heard since I left old Dixie.

The old man was home at last. He was among people who understood him, and whom he understood.

These men unabashedly declared that their aim at the convention was to “establish white supremacy in the state.” (If you haven’t poured through the 700-plus-page account of the convention, or haven’t done so in a while, it’s worth being reminded of those quaint times.)

Those men (oh, yes, they did allow one woman, Frances Griffin, to speak to white men gathered who had not yet granted women the right to vote) have been long forgotten mostly. Remnants of the racist stench that permeated their convention—a stench perpetuated by many who followed and continuously amended the albatross that is now our state constitution—are still with us, though, still part of the document that speaks to who we are as a state, the document that guides us legally and, in a sense, morally.

Or is supposed to.

A document still containing, in section 256, these 27 words:
“Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”

Of course, the edict and other racist components of our constitution are, well, unconstitutional. They’ve been trumped by the U.S. Constitution and a nation that left us and our backward language behind.

Oh, we’ve had our chances to right the egregious wrong.

In 2004, Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, emboldened a bipartisan movement to be rid of the language disenfranchising blacks, Native Americans and poor whites and other Jim Crow-era edicts. But Roy Moore, fresh from being ejected from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to remove a granite block bearing the Ten Commandments from the courthouse, rode in on Sadie and opposed the change, claiming it would increase taxes.

“This amendment is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the people of Alabama should be aware of it,” he told the Birmingham News.

It failed by 2,000 votes; 1.4 million were cast overall.

Seven years ago, we had a chance to purge those words again, to finally put them in the rearview mirror of our conflicted past. But the amendment’s language was tweaked, prompting the state teachers’ union and the Alabama Democratic Conference, the black political caucus, to rally against it. They charged the new language allowed the state legislature to cut public-school funding if there were to be a budget crisis.

Joe Reed, then conference chair (and now state Democratic party leader), told NPR (maybe channeling an inner Roy Moore): “It’s a hoax on the people of Alabama. It’s a wolf with sheep’s clothes on. I mean, who’s worried anymore about some racist language in the constitution? That’s symbolic. It doesn’t mean anything now.”

Yes, it did—and still does.

Unfortunately, more than six in 10 Alabamians were swayed and voted against Amendment 4.

Next year, we’ll have a chance to finally get it right.

Last week, the Alabama legislature—in a rare, welcomed display of bipartisanship and common sense–passed HB328, an amendment allowing legislative services to draft a recompilation of the constitution “removing all racist language” and redundant provisions, but “make no other changes.”

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Merika Coleman, a Democrat, and seconded by Republican House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R, Limestone/Madison). In the state Senate, it was shepherded by Democrat Rodger Smitherman and Republican pro temp Del Marsh.

“This plucks out the racist words but does not change any other words in the education articles,” says Nancy Egbert, the Minnesota native who moved to Alabama 26 years ago and, through Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform (ACCR), has sought to purge the Constitution of racist words and tone. “Those words should not be in the law of the land.”

We’ll vote on the amendment in the fall of 2020 when we’ll storm the polls to elect a new president. If it is approved, the recompilation will be presented to the state legislature in 2022 and, if it passes, will go before votes again that fall.

It’s a lot of ifs, especially in these dicey, testy times. And the time has come.
“We’ve gotten a lot of very bad national attention lately,” Coleman says. “If this amendment passes, it would send a message to the nation that we are no longer the Alabama of 1901. We are the Alabama that condemns the spirit of discrimination with which this constitution was actually developed.”

Maybe we are; this time. Just maybe.

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