Effort begins to remove racist language, recompile Alabama Constitution

1901 Constitution

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution was aimed at keeping blacks and poor whites from voting and achieved the framers’ intent.

A voter-approved effort to remove racist language from the Alabama Constitution and reorganize the heavily amended, 120-year-old document in a more understandable way began today at the State House. The Legislative Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution met for the first time and heard a presentation from Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency. The committee will advise Lathram, who has the task of drafting a recompiled constitution and submitting it to legislators next year. If lawmakers approve the new document, it would go on the ballot for voters to have the final say.

Earlier this year, Coleman and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, sponsored a resolution creating the 10-member advisory commission, a measure Gov. Kay Ivey signed in May. Coleman said the reform was a bipartisan effort. She has said Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a non-profit group started in 2000, spearheaded the plan and helped convince lawmakers to support it.
The Alabama Constitution, ratified in 1901, was intended to concentrate power in the Legislature and preserve white supremacy and racial segregation. Federal court decisions nullified some sections decades ago, but they remain in the constitution. Those include Section 256, which says: 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.
Section 259 authorized poll taxes. Section 32 prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude but includes an exception for the punishment of a crime. At today’s meeting, Lathram gave some of the history of the document, which was Alabama’s sixth state constitution, the first coming at the time of statehood in 1819. Others came with secession from the Union in 1861, the return to the Union in 1865, the Reconstruction era of 1868, and the rollback of Reconstruction and reassertion of white supremacy in 1875.

 

Lathram said amendments to the 1901 Constitution began soon after it was ratified because it was so restrictive in certain areas. For example, it did not allow public funds to be used for improvements such as roads, schools, and courthouses. Voters have now approved 977 amendments to the constitution, and 13 more will be on the ballot next year.

Coleman said the committee will hold a public hearing in August to allow people to share their ideas about the process. A date has not been picked, she said. Information about the committee’s work, including today’s presentation, will be posted the Legislative Services Agency’s website. Here is the link.

“We want to make sure the public trusts the process and gets a chance to engage in the process,” Coleman said.  She said the goal is to have the draft completed in November so that the public will have a full month to review it before the legislative session starts in January. If approved by the Legislature, it would go on the ballot in November 2022.
Even though the racist provisions like segregated schools have been invalidated, Coleman said it is important to erase them from the state constitution. “We want to send a message to the country, the world, that we are a 21st century Alabama,” Coleman said. “That is not who we are anymore. “I just love economic development, tourism. We want to get people to bring their dollars into the state of Alabama. But that constitution itself sends a message that we don’t want certain people to come here. So we want to change that document, say that we’re open for business, and you’re welcome to the state of Alabama.”

Alabama Legislative Services Agency Director Othni Lathram

Alabama Legislative Services Agency Director Othni Lathram speaks to the committee to recompile the state constitution on July 8, 2021.

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