Alabama Constitution: Committee appears to support plan to remove racist language

Brian Lyman

Montgomery Advertiser
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."

A committee studying racism in the Alabama Constitution gave tacit approval Wednesday to a plan to remove language on school segregation, poll taxes, and involuntary servitude.

The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution did not take a formal vote on the proposal from Othni Lathram, the director of the Legislative Services Agency. But no member of the committee raised objections to it.

“I’m reading today’s action as that the committee is generally comfortable with the direction on racist language,” Lathram said.

Lathram’s proposal would:

  • Alter the state prohibition on slavery to remove a clause allowing involuntary servitude “for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.” That clause served as the legal basis for Alabama’s convict-labor system, used until 1928 to all arrest Black Alabamians, often on dubious pretexts, and force them into difficult and often deadly work. Three states — Colorado, Nebraska and Utah — have removed similar language from their constitutions since 2018.
  • Strike language directing poll tax revenues to counties for educational purposes. Poll taxes disenfranchised Black Alabamians and poor whites. The 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1964, banned the practice. Most other poll tax provisions in the Alabama Constitution were removed by Amendment 579, Lathram said.
  • Strike language from a 1956 amendment to the Constitution, passed in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, that would authorize the Legislature to allow children to “attend schools provided for their own race,” as well as a provision allowing the Legislature to intervene in schools in the name of “peace and order.” Supporters of segregation used the phrase in the 1950s. Alabama Attorney General John Patterson argued in August 1956 that the city of Montgomery could not maintain “peace and order … if, by court decree, a Negro man is permitted to sit by a white woman.”

Committee members did not raise objections to the plan. A formal vote on the proposal should take place within the next few weeks.

This print shows the delegates to the 1901 Alabama constitutional convention. The all-white convention, convened through fraud, approved a constitution that denied voting rights to most Black Alabamians and poor whites.

“I just want to make sure that we’re all on the same page, because at the end of the day, I want to say that this is a document that was bipartisan,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who chairs the committee and sponsored the 2020 constitutional amendment that led to its formation. “Really nonpartisan, because it shouldn’t be partisan at all.”

The framers of Alabama’s 1901 constitution — still the state’s governing document — designed it to disenfranchise Black Alabamians and poor whites, and waged a racist campaign to see it enacted.

“And what is it we want to do?” John Knox, the president of the convention, told the delegates to the convention in May 1901. “Why, it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”

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.

The constitutional amendment setting up the commission, sponsored by Coleman, had bipartisan support and got the approval of about two-thirds of Alabama voters in 2020.

Some committee members who supported the changes expressed concerns about the potential for future litigation. Stan Gregory, an attorney serving on the committee, said that if the mandate of the committee was to address racist language, addressing issues like the poll tax — which, on its face, was applied to all — could open a door to litigation.

“It’s not much,” said Gregory, who said he supported the removal of the poll tax language. “I think that it’s defensible. I just point that out — that’s something that worries me.”

Lathram said he understood the concern but said the applications of the provisions throughout state history were racist. He said h believed the proposal considered in its “totality” would withstand legal challenges.

The 1956 amendment asserts that there is not “any right to education or training at public expense.” That language would remain in the document under the plan.

The Legislature will take up the committee’s recommendations when they return in January, in the form of a constitutional amendment. If the amendment passes, it will go to voters in November 2022.

Rep. Merika Coleman on the final day of the regular legislatives session at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Monday May 17, 2021.

Federal laws and court rulings have nullified most of the racist provisions that remain within the state constitution. But Coleman said the changes would send a message.

“Our state constitution is reflective of who we are,” she said after the meeting. “Those racist provisions in that constitution, those outdated provisions — we hope that’s not who we are, and we definitely know we’re not a 1901 Alabama, and we need to reflect that in the document.”

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

Alabama Begins Removing Racist Language From Its Constitution

Many outdated provisions have long since been invalidated, but the language that was specifically intended to enshrine white supremacy has remained.

“We’re having real-deal conversations where people may not have been having those conversations before, conversations we should have had a long time ago,” State Rep. Merika Coleman said.
Credit…Andi Rice for The New York Times

The last time Alabama politicians rewrote their state Constitution, back in 1901, their aspirations were explicitly racist: “to establish white supremacy in this state.”

“The new Constitution eliminates the ignorant Negro vote and places the control of our government where God Almighty intended it should be — with the Anglo-Saxon race,” John Knox, the president of the constitutional convention, said in a speech encouraging voters to ratify the document that year.

One hundred twenty years later, the Jim Crow-era laws that disenfranchised Black voters and enforced segregation across Alabama are gone, but the offensive language written into the state Constitution remains. Now, as communities across the South reconsider racist symbols and statues, activists in Alabama who have labored for 20 years to convince voters that rewriting their Constitution is important — and long overdue — see an opportunity to get it done.

“I am tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, and terms like ‘colored’ that are throughout the Constitution play a part in that feeling,” said Marva Douglas, an actress and retired teacher who first joined Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform in the early 2000s.

Efforts to rewrite the state constitution failed twice before. But last fall, voters — jolted partly by racial justice protests across the country — gave a green light. This month, a committee of lawmakers and lay people began the process of redrafting; their work will go before the voters next year to be ratified before the new constitution can take effect.

The redrafting campaign may not be as dramatic as efforts elsewhere to reform the criminal justice system or tear down Confederate monuments, but advocates argue that addressing racist language is a critical part of reckoning with the past.

“It’s not an either-or, it’s a continuum,” said Paul Farber, the director of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based public art and research studio dedicated to examining how history is told in the public landscape. “Part of the work is to understand how symbols carry weight and how they are connected to systems that structure public institutions and spaces and opportunity.”

Credit…Annie Flanagan for The New York Times

Shay Farley, regional policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, describes the effort as a way for the state to signal its collective rejection of white supremacy. “We must remove the lingering vestiges of racial segregation and legalized oppression of Alabama’s Black residents,” she wrote in a letter endorsing the constitution project.

The effort will start by extracting passages like Section 256, which still says that “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,”

The state Constitution also includes a ban on interracial marriage, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such marriages to be fully legal in all states in 1967. “The Legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or descendant of a negro,” the state Constitution still says.

And it includes descriptions of former voting requirements that were generally used to disenfranchise Black residents, including literacy tests and poll taxes. (The Constitution, written before women won the right to vote nationally, also includes language restricting voting to men.)

Two previous failed efforts to remove the section on school segregation — which was outlawed nationally by the Supreme Court in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision — were complicated by a related debate over a 1956 state amendment that said Alabama did not recognize any right to a publicly funded education whatsoever, language that was aimed at thwarting the ruling on desegregation.

When advocates tried to get rid of both passages at once in 2004, opponents argued that the result would be higher taxes to increase school funding. Then in 2012, an effort to get rid of the segregation language without touching the public funding language drew opposition from school advocates — ultimately leaving the Constitution as it was.

“I am tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, and terms like ‘colored,’ that are throughout the constitution, play a part in that feeling,” said Marva Douglas, an actress and retired teacher.
Credit…Andi Rice for The New York Times

To Representative Merika Coleman, a Democrat and the assistant minority leader in the Alabama House of Representatives, getting rid of outdated and racist language is an opportunity to improve the state’s reputation.

Last summer, she recalled, just when many residents were participating in ceremonies honoring the life of the civil rights leader John Lewis, one of her State House colleagues participated in a celebration of the birthday of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

“That story made the national news,” she said. “All of the negative images that come from here make the news.”

Ms. Coleman wants the reputation of Alabama as intolerant and racist to change. “Collectively, we are not those folks that were celebrating the birthday of the K.K.K.,” she said. “That’s not who we are.”

She also worries about the impact of the current Constitution’s effect on schoolchildren.

“If your image, based on what we’re talking specifically about the Constitution, is that you are not worthy enough to vote, you are not worthy enough to marry who you love, you are not worthy enough to have the best education possible, what does that say about who you are?” she asked. “And what about the superiority complex that it creates in non-people of color?”

The project, if successful, will also allow the state to streamline the entire document — the longest state Constitution in the country — making it easier to navigate and understand and removing other sorts of outdated provisions.

Representative Coleman, who sponsored the constitutional amendment that set the redrafting in motion and now chairs the committee considering changes to the charter, also sees the removal of racist language as an entry point to conversations about current-day policies that disproportionately affect Black residents. She points to a passage on “involuntary servitude,” which is illegal except in the case of people convicted of crimes. The practice, she said, has disproportionately affected Black Americans, who for decades have been sentenced to toil on prison farms and to do other forms of prison labor.

“We’re having real-deal conversations where people may not have been having those conversations before, conversations we should have had a long time ago,” Ms. Coleman said.

Tariro Mzezewa is a national correspondent covering the American South. @tariro

Panel hones in on racist sections in Alabama Constitution

An advisory panel for a voter-approved effort to make changes to the 120-year-old Alabama Constitution is studying three sections that had racist language or racist intent.

The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution held a public hearing at the State House this morning. The committee did not make recommendations because it is still receiving public comments.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the recompilation project by a 2-to-1 margin in November 2020. In May, the Legislature passed a resolution setting up the 10-member recompilation committee.

    • Remove all racist language
    • Delete duplicative and repealed provisions
    • Consolidate provisions regarding economic development
    • Arrange all local amendments by county of application.

The recompilation committee, which includes six lawmakers and four others, will advise Lathram, whose draft will go to the Legislature next year. If approved by three-fifths of representatives and senators, it would go on the ballot for voters in November 2022.

This morning, Lathram made a presentation to the committee and distributed a memo about sections of the constitution that have been called into question as racist or potentially racist.

The framers of the 1901 Constitution made clear their intent was to keep Blacks from voting and preserve white supremacy. “The new constitution eliminates the ignorant negro vote, and places the control of our government where God Almighty intended it should be – with the Anglo-Saxon race,” John Knox, president of the constitutional convention, said in a speech urging voters to ratify the document.
Although federal laws and court rulings have nullified the provisions intended to preserve segregation and disenfranchise and deny full citizenship to Black voters, some remain in the document.
Today, the panel discussed Section 32, which outlawed slavery: “That no form of slavery shall exist in this state; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The authorization of involuntary servitude for punishment of a crime could qualify as a racist provision because it was used to force many Blacks back into labor, including the seasonal agricultural work for which slaves were no longer available, Lathram said.

African Americans made up more than 90% of convicts forced to work at farms, lumber yards and coal mines under Alabama’s convict-lease system, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Lathram said about 19 other states had similar language on involuntary servitude in their constitutions. He said voters in Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah voted to repeal the language during the last three years, and voters in Tennessee will consider that next year.

Removal of the involuntary servitude phrase from Section 32 would have no effect on Alabama’s policies for incarceration and work programs for prisoners, Lathram said, because those are governed by other sections of state law.

Lathram noted that almost identical language allowing involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime is included in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery.

The committee planned to vote on whether to recommend removal of the involuntary servitude clause and other sections discussed today. But the panelists decided to delay voting until their next meeting because they are still accepting public comments about the project. The last day to send comments is Tuesday.

Submit comments.

Some of the commenters questioned the value of the recompilation project, Lathram said, suggesting that it was a waste of time to revisit outdated, nullified laws. Lathram said he did not agree with that.

Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who sponsored the constitutional amendment starting the process and who chairs the recompilation committee, said the recompilation project is important.

“One hundred percent there’s value in what we’re doing, because that constitution sets up who we are as a state,” Coleman said. “It sends a message out about who we are. It is important for us to let folks know we are a 21st century Alabama, that we’re not the same Alabama of 1901 that didn’t want Black and white folks to get married, that didn’t think that Black and white children should go to school together.

“On the economic development side, we also want folks to know we’re open for business. We want people to come to the state of Alabama, spend your tax dollars, and that we again are a state that is this 21st century state, all kinds of different people, all kinds of different cultures, and we do not reflect what was in that 1901 constitution.”

Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, a recompilation committee member, said it’s important that the constitution does not stand at odds with how Alabama is today.

“I think words matter,” Garrett said. “And I think we need to just clean the constitution up, make it a document that is relevant today. We have a history that we’re trying to address. And we’re trying to move from the past to the future. And I think this is an obstacle in many ways.

“I think it’s important that as a state with our history that we acknowledge where we want to go. And where we want to go is not where we’ve been necessarily.”

The other two sections of the constitution discussed today were Section 256 and Section 259.

Section 259 says revenue from poll taxes goes to support public schools in counties where they are collected. The section is inoperative because Alabama no longer imposes poll taxes, which effectively disenfranchised many Blacks and poor white voters.

Lathram said Section 259 is the last remnant of poll taxes in the Alabama Constitution. Others were repealed in the 1990s.

Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, a committee member, made a motion today for the committee to vote to recommend removal of Section 259. But the committee decided to postpone voting on any recommendations because public comments are still coming in.

Section 256 is more complicated. Section 256 says, in part, “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.”

That segregation requirement became unconstitutional after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954.

But two previous efforts to strip it from the Alabama Constitution faltered when the issue became entangled with another part of Section 256.
In 1956, in response to the Brown v. Board ruling that would require integrated public schools, Alabama voters ratified Amendment 111, which amended Section 256, saying, “Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense.”

That became an issue in 2004, when a proposed amendment would have repealed the segregated schools requirement and poll tax language, as well as the part of Amendment 111 saying there was no right to a publicly funded education.

Opponents of the 2004 amendment, , including former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, said taking out the language that there was no right to a publicly funded education could open the door for a court to order tax increases for education. Proponents disputed that because the state Supreme Court had ruled in 2002 that only the Legislature could increase taxes. But the opponents prevailed in a close vote, rejecting the amendment by a margin of less than 1 percentage point.

In 2012, a similar amendment would have repealed the school segregation and poll tax language but would not have touched the language from Amendment 111 that there was no right to a publicly funded education. That drew opposition from the Alabama Education Association and others who argued for stripping the language on no right to a publicly funded education. Voters rejected the amendment by about a 60-40 percent margin, again allowing the invalidated segregation clause to remain in the constitution.

Coleman has credited the organization Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, a nonprofit group started in 2000, with helping to spearhead the legislation that led to the recompilation project.

Constitution Recompilation Committee

The next Constitution Recompilation Committee meeting will be Thursday September 2nd at 10:00 in room 200 of the State House, 200 South Union Street in Montgomery.

The subject to be discussed will be Racist Language.

The public is invited to attend and to submit questions and concerns to [email protected] or to call 334-261-0690.

The meeting on the 2nd can also be watched on www.legislature.state.al.us under Resources and then Media. It is listed as House Committee Room 200.

All information about the meetings is available on lsa.state.al.us under news.

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]

Committee for recompiling state constitution holds public hearing, work to continue

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

August 24, 2021

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The committee charged with making the state’s monster constitution more user friendly and less racist is now taking written public comments.

Only one speaker attended the public hearing for the committee on recompilation of the constitution on Tuesday at the State House, but a two-week period for written comments to be sent to the committee was also approved.

Committee Chair Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, said during Tuesday’s meeting that she knows some members of the public could not come today because of concerns over COVID-19.

“We want the public to have the opportunity to let their voices be heard, to talk about the provisions they feel are racist or talk about the recompilation and how we should do it itself, so we want to give the public two weeks so they can go on the LSA website, put their comments in or contact the Legislature to know what they’re comments are,” Coleman said.

People wishing to submit a comment now have until Sept. 7. Those can be sent by email to Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, at [email protected] or by calling 334-261-0690.

The committee was created after Alabama voters approved a recompilation amendment during the 2020 general election allowing the Legislature to revise the state constitution that was ratified in 1901.

The revisions are limited to removing racist language, deleting duplicative or repealed provisions, consolidating economic development provisions and arranging all local constitutional amendments by the county of application.

Lathram explained to committee members on Tuesday why reorganizing the constitution by county is the best way forward.

“The idea would be that a person living in any particular county, Montgomery for example, should instead be able to go to a listing for the county of Montgomery and see there any amendments that affect them in their local county, in a way that’s much more accessible,” Lathram said.

The current version of the constitution, considered the nation’s longest, has over 950 amendments, most of which are county or municipal amendments and are listed in chronological order from when they were approved.

The only person to sign up for the public hearing was Jackie Antoline, a Mobile native, who said she was happy this process is taking place but wishes more information was available online of what actions the committee is considering or will be taking up.

“In order to have public input the public needs to be informed,” Antoline said.

Nancy Ekberg, a lobbyist for the group Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, said she wants to make sure the public knows this effort is simply about reorganizing the constitution.

“We don’t have a mandate to rewrite the constitution,” Ekberg said. “…We are only recompiling the existing document.”

The committee will vote on the method of reorganizing the constitution and further discuss the removal of the racist language at its next meeting on Sept. 2.

Lathram said the racist language identified mainly occurs in three areas: the prohibition of slavery except for when it comes to incarcerated labor; the poll tax; and language dealing with K-12 education and segregation of schools.

Lathram said he expects to have a draft of the new recompiled version of the constitution done by November so the Legislature can consider it in the next regular legislative session. If it is approved, Alabama voters will then vote on it in the 2022 general election.

All documents related to the committee and meeting times can be found on the Legislative Service Agency’s website.

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.

Alabama commission to review removal of racist language from state Constitution

Montgomery Advertiser 
May 26, 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."

Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday signed a resolution to form a commission to remove racist language from the 1901 Constitution, among other tasks.

The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, creates the Joint Interim Legislative Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Coleman said on Wednesday. “For the recompilation and removing racist language. But it’s also a step in the right direction for Alabama.”

The commission will help carry out Amendment 951, approved by 67% of voters in  November. The amendment, sponsored by Coleman, calls for the removal of racist language in the state’s governing document, as well as duplicative or outdated language. It will also require a reorganization of local and economic development amendments, with a goal of providing clarity on both.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution was framed to disenfranchise Black Alabamians and poor whites. John B. Knox, the president of the 1901 Constitutional Convention, said the convention aimed “within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.” The document set up segregated public schools and included a ban on interracial marriage. Supporters of the constitution, including the Montgomery Advertiser, made nakedly racist appeals to voters.

Historians believe the constitution won approval through fraud. After the apparent victory, the Advertiser said in banner headlines on its front page that the “putrid sore of Negro suffrage is severed from the body politic of the Commonwealth.”

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.

Federal laws and court decisions have rendered most of the racist sections of the Constitution null and void. But efforts to remove the language collapsed in 2004 and 2012 over Amendment 111, a 1956 amendment passed amid white hysteria over Brown v. Board of Education, which says there is no right to a public school education in Alabama.

The 2004 proposal would have removed the amendment; the 2012 measure left it in place. Both measures failed.

Coleman’s amendment, approved by the Legislature in 2019, does not address Amendment 111.

The commission must have its first meeting before July 1. The Legislature will take up proposed changes under the amendment in the 2022 regular session, which starts in January. A 60% vote of both bodies will be needed to approve those changes. If the measure is approved, Alabama voters will decide whether to approve or reject the amendment in the November 2022 election.

Coleman said Wednesday removal of the language would be “a symbol” for the state.

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

Want racist language out of Alabama’s Constitution? Wait until 2022

by Brian Lyman

Montgomery Advertiser
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."

It got the overwhelming approval of legislators in both parties, and more than two-thirds of Alabama voters.

There’s still work left to be done to begin removal of racist language from the Alabama Constitution. But Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, said she found the margins of support for Amendment 4 encouraging.

“In the political climate we live in right now, any time you get a piece of legislation with all Democrats and all Republicans in the Legislature, that’s hard,” she said. “And then to get the percentage passage in the political climate we’re in, in the racial climate we’ve been in of late, it’s so heartwarming to see Alabamians come together.”

The measure passed on Nov. 3 with about 67% of the vote in unofficial, incomplete returns. Amendment 4 does not remove the offensive sections, but instead authorizes the Legislative Division of the Legislative Services Agency, which drafts bills for legislators, to recompile the state Constitution.

The amendment will also authorize a recompilation of local amendments to reflect the county they affect, and a better sense of the economic development measures in the state’s governing document. Othni Lathram, the director of the Legislative Services Agency, said in an interview that about three-quarters of the amendments in the Constitution are local amendments, with about 70 dealing with economic development.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but a huge amount of official legwork has been done over the years because of the process started in 2003,” he said.

Still, it remains an enormous task. Lathram said he did not think a bill would be ready for the Legislature’s consideration before the 2022 session. The bill would be a constitutional amendment, which 60% of both chambers will have to approve. If that occurs, the amendment will go to voters in the 2022 general election.

Rep. Merika Coleman during debate on the abortion ban bill at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday April 30, 2019.

“There are significant checks and balances on this,” he said. “It’s still got to pass the Legislature by a three-fifths vote and it’s still got to be ratified again. I hope people concerned or worried to take it too far find some comfort in that there.”

Alabama Constitution is a racist document

The framers of the 1901 Constitution had one overriding goal: to prevent Black Alabamians and poor whites from voting. Supporters of the document, including the Montgomery Advertiser, made overt racist appeals to voters. The morning it passed — thanks to fraud — the Advertiser crowed on its front page that the “putrid sore of Negro suffrage is severed from the body politic of the commonwealth.”

The 2004 proposal removed it; the 2012 proposal left it in place. Both moves proved controversial and killed those measures. Amendment 4 does not address Amendment 111.

Coleman said she hoped passage of the amendment would send a positive message about Alabama tourism and economic development to the rest of the world. She also said it showed that “on the right issues, we can really come together.”

“It sends a message to the rest of the country that we’re not 1901 Alabama, we’re not 1954 Alabama, we’re not 1965 Alabama,” she said. “We are 21st century Alabama.”

Phillip Tutor: The end of days for Alabama’s racist constitution

John Knox

John B. Knox. Public Library of Anniston and Calhoun County

 

Anniston’s John B. Knox, born before the Civil War, raised during Reconstruction, expertly schooled in law and Southern extremism, retains one of Alabama’s most irredeemable legacies. It envelopes him like a burial shroud. Eighty-five years of eternal rest at Hillside Cemetery have offered no respite.

Knox didn’t singlehandedly rewrite Alabama’s Constitution in 1901, but it is, in essence, his repugnant document. He presided over the convention of delegates. He became its most prominent defender. He campaigned statewide for its ratification. And he never wavered from this core belief, taken from a speech he spewed that November in Bibb County:

“The new constitution eliminates the ignorant negro vote, and places the control of our government where God Almighty intended it should be — with the Anglo-Saxon race.”

If only that was all he said. (Hint: It isn’t.) But at least Alabama voters have started the process of de-Knoxing the state’s damnable governing document of the racist language that soils it. The passage of Amendment 4 on Nov. 3 is an Alabama oddity: a progressive movement, incremental and glacial as it is.

Why those passages weren’t excised decades ago, and why removal requires another rewrite and another statewide vote, is something only longtime admirers of Alabama’s volatile mix of politics and race relations can adequately grasp.

Knox is this story’s obvious villain, but he’s one of many. They’re ubiquitous, these white men of money and prestige — Bourbon Democrats, obviously — who wanted what other Southern states already had: a government fully “redeemed” from Reconstruction-era policies that empowered freedmen and reduced elites’ hold on everything.

Once expectant of becoming one of Alabama’s most prosperous cities, Anniston in 1901 was already seeing its future. It wasn’t pristine, a small city stagnated by creeping economic mediocrity. In an editorial, an Anniston newspaper seethed with disappointment. “Other neighboring towns of less population and far less advantages have outstripped Anniston within the past twelve months … Our people know it. The mystery is why do they permit it.”

Among other things, Knox and his Calhoun County colleagues felt the new state constitution — a document that would put Blacks and poor whites in their place and allow Bourbon leaders to rule without real interference — would serve as an antiseptic to the malaise.

Anniston then had two main daily newspapers, The Hot Blast and The Evening Star. (They merged in 1912 to create today’s Star.) The Hot Blast was older, aligned with the city’s founders and wildly racist. The Evening Star offered a hint of judiciousness.

On the eve of the statewide vote to authorize a constitutional convention, The Hot Blast pushed Knox’s racism as far as it could without advocating unadulterated violence.

It wrote: “It is good for the white man and better for the negro that the basis of suffrage be fixed now while it may be done peacefully and with an eye to the best interests of both races.”

And it wrote: “If you favor the rule of the white man and want to see once more honest election methods in Alabama, you will go to the polls and vote for the convention.”

And it wrote: “It took two thousand years to prepare the white race for freedom and the exercise of the ballot. The negro was given the ballot without a day of preparation. What has he done to be so favored among the races?”

And it wrote: “‘Blood is thicker than water.’ We stand by our race in this fight.”

Seven months later, on the eve of the statewide ratification vote, The Hot Blast’s headline left no doubt. “White supremacy is the paramount issue,” it read.

In Birmingham, Knox told a gathering of 1,500 that “just as long as 180,000 negroes have as much right to vote as you and I, there is standing a constant menace to all of us. The great object we have undertaken is to maintain white supremacy — not by force but by law.”

And yes, if you’re wondering, this still matters.

Until today’s lawmakers recast the state constitution, and until today’s voters approve, Alabama’s governing document is tainted by the bigotry and intolerance that crafted it. These overt remnants of white supremacy are ours, yours and mine, because we’ve allowed them to live on amid our state’s most vital written organ.

Our chance, Alabama’s chance, is near, a few additional steps to modernity.

When Knox gaveled the constitutional convention to a close in 1901, the delegates baldly sang a song, “God Be With You ’Till We Meet Again.” They also gave Knox, their presiding leader, a gold watch inscribed with a French motto: “Sans Peur, Sans Reproche.”

“Without fear, beyond reproach,” it read.

Anniston’s John B. Knox, born before the Civil War, raised during Reconstruction, expertly schooled in law and Southern extremism, retains one of Alabama’s most irredeemable legacies. It envelopes him like a burial shroud. Eighty-five years of eternal rest at Hillside Cemetery have offered no respite.

Knox didn’t singlehandedly rewrite Alabama’s Constitution in 1901, but it is, in essence, his repugnant document. He presided over the convention of delegates. He became its most prominent defender. He campaigned statewide for its ratification. And he never wavered from this core belief, taken from a speech he spewed that November in Bibb County:

“The new constitution eliminates the ignorant negro vote, and places the control of our government where God Almighty intended it should be — with the Anglo-Saxon race.”

If only that was all he said. (Hint: It isn’t.) But at least Alabama voters have started the process of de-Knoxing the state’s damnable governing document of the racist language that soils it. The passage of Amendment 4 on Nov. 3 is an Alabama oddity: a progressive movement, incremental and glacial as it is.

Why those passages weren’t excised decades ago, and why removal requires another rewrite and another statewide vote, is something only longtime admirers of Alabama’s volatile mix of politics and race relations can adequately grasp.

Knox is this story’s obvious villain, but he’s one of many. They’re ubiquitous, these white men of money and prestige — Bourbon Democrats, obviously — who wanted what other Southern states already had: a government fully “redeemed” from Reconstruction-era policies that empowered freedmen and reduced elites’ hold on everything.

Once expectant of becoming one of Alabama’s most prosperous cities, Anniston in 1901 was already seeing its future. It wasn’t pristine, a small city stagnated by creeping economic mediocrity. In an editorial, an Anniston newspaper seethed with disappointment. “Other neighboring towns of less population and far less advantages have outstripped Anniston within the past twelve months … Our people know it. The mystery is why do they permit it.”

Among other things, Knox and his Calhoun County colleagues felt the new state constitution — a document that would put Blacks and poor whites in their place and allow Bourbon leaders to rule without real interference — would serve as an antiseptic to the malaise.

Anniston then had two main daily newspapers, The Hot Blast and The Evening Star. (They merged in 1912 to create today’s Star.) The Hot Blast was older, aligned with the city’s founders and wildly racist. The Evening Star offered a hint of judiciousness.

On the eve of the statewide vote to authorize a constitutional convention, The Hot Blast pushed Knox’s racism as far as it could without advocating unadulterated violence.

It wrote: “It is good for the white man and better for the negro that the basis of suffrage be fixed now while it may be done peacefully and with an eye to the best interests of both races.”

And it wrote: “If you favor the rule of the white man and want to see once more honest election methods in Alabama, you will go to the polls and vote for the convention.”

And it wrote: “It took two thousand years to prepare the white race for freedom and the exercise of the ballot. The negro was given the ballot without a day of preparation. What has he done to be so favored among the races?”

And it wrote: “‘Blood is thicker than water.’ We stand by our race in this fight.”

Seven months later, on the eve of the statewide ratification vote, The Hot Blast’s headline left no doubt. “White supremacy is the paramount issue,” it read.

In Birmingham, Knox told a gathering of 1,500 that “just as long as 180,000 negroes have as much right to vote as you and I, there is standing a constant menace to all of us. The great object we have undertaken is to maintain white supremacy — not by force but by law.”

And yes, if you’re wondering, this still matters.

Until today’s lawmakers recast the state constitution, and until today’s voters approve, Alabama’s governing document is tainted by the bigotry and intolerance that crafted it. These overt remnants of white supremacy are ours, yours and mine, because we’ve allowed them to live on amid our state’s most vital written organ.

Our chance, Alabama’s chance, is near, a few additional steps to modernity.

When Knox gaveled the constitutional convention to a close in 1901, the delegates baldly sang a song, “God Be With You ’Till We Meet Again.” They also gave Knox, their presiding leader, a gold watch inscribed with a French motto: “Sans Peur, Sans Reproche.”

“Without fear, beyond reproach,” it read.