Four AUM Honors students turn class assignment into campaign to modernize Alabama Constitution

Four Auburn University at Montgomery Honors Program students are going above and beyond their class assignment to rally support for a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 3 ballot.

AUM Honors seniors Dottie Durango, Jessica Sweatt, Nour El Badawy and Haya El Badawy launched “Unite Alabama,” a political campaign to remove racist language from Section 256 of the Alabama Constitution, as a class project for the Honors seminar “Citizenship and Leadership” last spring. They’re now using Unite Alabama as a platform to support a constitutional amendment to purge racist language from the 119-year-old document.

Section 256 reads: 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.

“We are just so appalled that there is language still in the state’s constitution that calls for racially segregated schools,” said Durango, a criminal justice major. “I have lived here [Alabama] all of my life and I had no idea, and we’ve discovered that many people don’t realize it.”

Durango suggested Section 256 as the group’s topic after discovering it during a tour of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum. The museum and memorial site opened in 2018 to highlight the enslavement and mass incarceration of black people.

“Our class assignment just seemed like the perfect opportunity, with the recent opening of EJI’s Legacy Museum and memorial, to get people to start paying attention to this issue again,” she said.

Unite Alabama has since conducted outreach at AUM and across the state to raise awareness about the need to amend the state’s constitution. The group is also circulating a Care2 petition to modernize the state’s constitution because it “still contains Jim Crow era language referencing racial segregation in public schools and poll taxes.”

Unite Alabama’s campaign recently gained momentum with the help of the nonprofit Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform (ACCR). During the 2019 legislative session, the two groups lobbied state legislators to allow voters to consider removing the racist language from the constitution. In May 2019, the Alabama Legislature approved House Bill 328, a proposed constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters Nov. 3, would “authorize the Legislature to recompile” the 1901 Constitution of Alabama by removing “all racist language” and redundant provisions. Alabama’s Constitution is the longest and most amended operative constitution in the world.

Unite Alabama organizers with Senator Greg Albritton

Unite Alabama’s advocacy work with legislators and community members made the difference, said ACCR board member Nancy Ekberg, who has been working on ACCR’s behalf for 19 years to remove racially offensive language from the state’s constitution.

“The house and senate voted in favor of this constitutional amendment without a single negative vote in the regular session, and that is something that’s not common,” Ekberg said. “I think it was helpful for senators to see young students passionate about this issue.”

The bill — sponsored by Democratic Rep. Merika Coleman and co-sponsored by Republican House Speaker Mac McCutcheon — passed largely due to its potential to help the state, Ekberg said.

“AUM students did a great job of convincing senators in both parties to be in favor of this bill because of the impact it can have on economic development in the state and bringing builders here,” she said. “As of now, our constitution paints the state as racist.”

Unite Alabama is now focusing its efforts on raising voter awareness about the upcoming referendum, Durango said.

“There have been two attempts, one in 2004 and another in 2012, to get this racist language removed and both attempts failed,” she said. “We’re hoping that this third time is a charm and this constitutional amendment passes in November.”

Jessica Sweatt at Unite Alabama's petition drive at AUM
Jessica Sweatt at Unite Alabama’s petition drive at AUM

Unite Alabama would not have been able to make progress over the past year without the hard work of ACCR, Sweatt added.

“ACCR is the organization that had the bill drafted and then we joined forces with ACCR,” said Sweatt, a history major. “This experience has been invaluable because we learned that we have the power to change things. The point of our Honors class project was to educate and get people more engaged in politics. Our message is that it is extremely important to vote. We all need to register to vote because we can make difference.”

Honors Professor Keith Krawczynski, who teaches AUM’s Citizenship and Leadership seminar, said the class is meant to inspire students to greater civic involvement that will hopefully last a lifetime. He worked with Unite Alabama to lobby state legislators to approve HB 328.

“Being an active citizen means investing your time, energy, and resources to make a difference,” he said. “If we fail to do this and we consistently wait for others to solve the problems we see then we muffle our voice, abdicate our responsibilities, and have little right to complain if things turn out badly.”

Unite Alabama plans to continue its advocacy work at AUM long after the general election, Sweatt said.

“We’re working now to become a student organization on campus to continue to advocate for changes in the constitution,” she said. “Our state’s constitution should represent our values, and that means we really need to take a look at what our values are. Do we still stand for racism? Do we still stand for divisiveness? Is that what we believe our constitution should represent and is that what we represent as citizens of the state.”

To get involved with Unite Alabama, email Dottie Durango or Jessica Sweatt or follow Unite Alabama on Facebook @UniteAlabama, Instagram @UniteAlabama and Twitter @Unite_Alabama.

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