Committee that could help remove racist language from Alabama Constitution meets

Brian Lyman  Montgomery Advertiser
August 24, 2021
Section 256 of Alabama's 1901 Constitution established a segregated school system: "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."

Legislators on Tuesday took the first formal steps in a process that could eliminate racist language in the Alabama Constitution — and, maybe, make it more readable.

The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution met for the first time Tuesday morning to hear a presentation on ways to reorganize local amendments in the state’s government document. The committee, which will carry out the decrees of a constitutional amendment approved by voters last November, should take up racist language at its first meeting in September.

“It’s for citizens to know what laws apply to them,” said Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, in an interview after the meeting. “750-plus of the 970-some odd amendments apply in only one county or one city. The vast majority of amendments we talk about are local amendments.”

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution disenfranchised Black Alabamians and poor whites, and supporters made explicitly racists appeals to white voters to enact it. The day the Constitution received approval — likely through massive fraud in the Black Belt — the Montgomery Advertiser announced that “The Citizens of Alabama Declare For White Supremacy and Purity of Ballot.”

The front page of the Montgomery Advertiser on Nov. 12, 1901, celebrating the passage of the Alabama Constitution. The document was framed to take the vote from blacks and poor whites. Historians say the constitution was passed fraudulently.

A 2004 proposal to remove the language would also have jettisoned Amendment 111. The proposal drew the opposition of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and others who claimed that it would jeopardize private schools and lead to tax increases. The amendment failed to pass by about 2,000 votes, out of 1.4 million cast.

A 2012 amendment to remove the racist language would have retained Amendment 111. The Alabama Education Association and Black legislators campaigned against the proposal, saying it could complicate efforts to increase public school funding in Alabama. Almost 61% of voters that year voted no on the proposal.

Last year’s amendment passed with about 67% of the vote. The committee will submit a proposed amendment to the Legislature for consideration next year that would remove racist language and reorganize the Constitution. But Nancy Ekburg with Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, said at the meeting that the committee would not rewrite the state’s governing document.

“We don’t have a mandate to rewrite the Constitution,” she said. “I want to make sure people understand that. We are only recompiling the document.”

Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who sponsored last November’s amendment and chaired Tuesday’s meeting , has said removal of the language would be a symbolic act that could show Alabama trying to move on from its racist past.

Lathram said he plans to make presentations on the racist language within the state’s governing document at the scheduled Sept. 2 meeting.

The committee will also look at amendments focused on economic development.

If the Legislature approves the changes proposed by the committee, the measure will go to voters for approval in November 2022.

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or [email protected].

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