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by Coleman, calls for the removal of racist language in the state’s governing document, as well as duplicative or outdated language.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.

 

 

How a scandalous voter fraud scheme dooms Alabama

By Bill Ivey

In 1901,  155 frustrated, angry elite white males met to create Alabama’s 6th constitution. They built a horrible document that consolidated power at the top and cheated everyone else–then and now.

And, worst of all, the only reason it passed was due to massive voter fraud in Alabama’s Black Belt.

These days we often hear cries about voter fraud. However, according to a Brennan Center Justice review of more than a dozen studies, voter fraud in the U.S. is exceedingly rare. So, at all levels of government, the notion is pretty much a myth in the last century or so.

The greatest, most dramatic voter fraud incident I know of is this one. Once again, Alabama is infamous for something terrible: The longest, worst state constitution in the U.S. And, well over a century later, it negatively affects us in ways we don’t realize. I hope to shed some light on the horror that remains the foundation of our state government.

Our 1901 Constitution is a racist document and we should get rid of it for that reason alone. However, it is also designed to keep power and wealth in the hands of a few individuals and organizations–and to hell with everyone else, including most of Alabama’s whites.

It’s fascinating and ironic that Alabama’s Black Belt provided such a huge “pivot point” in Alabama’s history. That region was made up of the once-rich plantation counties. Each county was made up of small minorities of powerful whites and huge majorities of former slaves.

As you will see, outside of 12 Black Belt counties, the Constitution was rejected by a small margin statewide. But it passed overwhelmingly in those predominantly black counties. As Ron Casey, my all-time favorite Birmingham News columnist, asked in 1999, “Is it more reasonable to believe that blacks voluntarily voted to disfranchise [sic] themselves, or to believe that ballot boxes were stuffed like Christmas geese?” We’ll examine those voting results shortly.

In 1865, Reconstruction continued a very rough period for Alabama. Scarred by defeat, the Confederate states were the only region in the country to have been defeated in a war. Alabama suffered tremendous casualties–about 60,000 men killed or seriously wounded–and the 435,000 slaves (45% of the state’s population) who had been the foundation of Alabama’s economy were free. And Alabama was occupied by Union troops from 1865 to 1874.

Alabama was required to pass a new constitution in 1865 in order to rejoin the Union, but the one passed by the state’s elites was so racist it was rejected by the U.S. Congress. So, until Alabama ratified a more progressive document in 1868, it was run by a military governor appointed by Congress.

As one would expect, Republicans controlled the constitutional convention that began in late 1867. Of the 100 delegates, about 80% were white (“Unionists” who’d not supported the War) and the rest were black. Their primary goals were 1) equality before the law, and 2) a public school system that would be available to both blacks and whites.

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Alabama’s white majority rejected the new constitution outright and most of them boycotted the ratification vote in February 1868. Because the U.S. Congress required majority participation, ratification failed. Congress responded by eliminating that provision and readmitted Alabama to the Union.

Let’s fast-forward through the events that preceded the fateful 1901 Convention.

Still controlling Alabama politics, in 1868 Congress appointed William Hugh Smith, a Unionist Republican, as governor and, because of a Democrat boycott, Republicans filled most state offices. As you can imagine, Alabama’s elite white Democrats were frustrated and outraged. In his two-year stint, however, Smith did little to suppress the terror unleashed by the Klan (particularly in the Black Belt) or to restrain the traditional power-brokers. He was defeated in the election of 1870 by Democrat Robert Lindsay.

In 1874, after almost a decade of Republican rule, ex-Confederate Democrats, in an election marked by fraud, intimidation, and violence, swept the elections to regain control of the state’s legislative and executive branches. Newly elected governor George S. Houston and his fellow Democrats were part of a political coalition known as “Bourbons,” and they consisted primarily of a corrupt alliance between the Black Belt planters and the “Big Mules,” the increasingly influential group of capitalists who had quickly risen to power in Birmingham. (The term Bourbon originated during the Reconstruction Era and was used by the Radical Republicans to label their Democratic opponents as anti-progressive and ultraconservative.)

The Bourbons sought to restore pre-War/Reconstruction white supremacy, limit the size of government, centralize power in Montgomery, decrease the political power of African Americans, and create a “New South” in which business and industry would flourish. They resorted to race-baiting by urging white Alabamians to put aside their class differences and “redeem” the state from the racially integrated Republican Party.

Their immediate goal was to get a new constitution ratified. 99 delegates assembled in 1875 (80 white Democrats, 12 Republicans (4 who were black), and 7 independents). They created a document designed to reduce the size of the state government and the services it provided, lower taxes, and constrain the political power of blacks. They established segregated schools, abolished the state Board of Education, shifted the Legislature to biennial sessions, and limited taxation powers for local governments. They reduced funds for public education and state services. However, still fearful of Federal enforcement of the 15th Amendment, the delegates didn’t go as far as they would have liked–so the 1875 Constitution did little to alter voting rights.

A quarter-century later, Alabama’s white elites remained dissatisfied with the 1875 Constitution. They were outraged by the chaos and severe conditions previously imposed by Union Reconstructionists. Bourbons were harsh, selfish, fearful, and fiercely determined to completely consolidate power at the top.

By 1901, there was no more fear of Federal intervention in Alabama, so the Bourbons focused on disenfranchising blacks and poor whites. Populism (poor farmers and pro-union workers) and an early form of black power, which had exploded throughout the South in the 1890s, had to be stopped.

It would not be that difficult to disenfranchise blacks, but the Bourbons also had to build structures to do the same to poor whites. They could not afford the chance that a new Populist-black alliance could emerge. The most serious challenge was how to render poor whites powerless, yet convince them to vote yes for ratification.

Meanwhile, during Reconstruction, the South’s only industrial-based city, Birmingham, had been born, and by 1901 was thriving. Founded in 1871, Birmingham was the fastest-growing city in the South. By 1900, Birmingham’s 140,000 residents made up almost 65% of the state’s urban population. This outlier city was controlled by big industrialists, staunch capitalists, and bankers known as “Big Mules.” And they had built the city with cheap (almost slave) labor.

Through an exclusive contract, Birmingham’s Tennessee Coal and Iron Company (TCI) employed thousands of convicts leased from the state. By 1898, nearly 73% of Alabama state revenues came from convict leasing. Now the Big Mules and the rich whites from the Black Belt had something in common–consolidating power at the top. This explains why Birmingham’s Big Mules formed a Montgomery-based unholy alliance with the old-time Black Belt planters and became part of the Bourbon coalition.

In early 1901, Alabama’s legislature approved a statewide referendum calling for a constitutional convention. On April 23 the referendum passed with the aid of massive electoral fraud (more on that shortly) in the Black Belt. In May, 155 delegates assembled and elected Anniston delegate John Knox president. The delegates were mostly Bourbons: lawyers, politicians, planters, and businessmen. All white.

Convention leaders believed that disenfranchising blacks would be legitimate if it was done on the basis of their “intellectual and moral condition,” and not because of their race. Additionally, in his opening address, Knox made it clear that the main purpose of the convention was “to establish white supremacy in this State.”

According to state historian Harvey Jackson, Bourbons were terrified by the rising populist tide of the time, especially the advances enjoyed by blacks. They were determined to maintain control over their greatest assets: low taxes and a cheap, compliant workforce.

Knox and other Bourbon leaders aimed to establish white supremacy through “legal means,” not by “force or fraud.” Knox claimed this was justified by declaring the moral and intellectual inferiority of blacks; a pretense that race was not at the heart of the matter. It’s ironic that the Bourbons used the term “legal means” since they eventually chose to steal votes in order to get the Constitution passed.

The new Constitution included strict suffrage requirements (the Federal government requirements were: male, age 21). Alabama required literacy tests, employment for at least a year, and stringent property qualifications.

Individuals could also be disenfranchised for one of the following subjective “shortcomings”: 1) Being convicted of a simple misdemeanor such as “vagrancy;” 2) Being alleged to have moral failings or mental deficiencies.

Bourbons, however, couldn’t afford to lose the poor white/populist votes, so they executed a classic bait-and-switch maneuver. They passed a series of “grandfather clauses” that led most poor white males to believe they’d be able to vote, and then they added a requirement that all voters ages 21-45 had to pay a cumulative poll tax of $1.50 each year. Most poor whites existed in a barter economy and would never be able to afford to vote. By 1941, 600,000 whites and 520,000 blacks were disenfranchised–and there were only 444,000 registered voters in the entire state.

The Bourbons, who campaigned openly on a platform of white supremacy and honest elections, stole the election. They did so in Alabama’s Black Belt, long the site of voter fraud, by “voting the Negro,” to use the terminology of the time. Here’s the quick story of that mess, which is one of the most consequential voter fraud incidents in U.S. history.

The 12 Black Belt counties, where black voters far outnumbered white voters, reported about 36,000 “yes” votes and 5,500 “no” votes–a margin of approximately 30,500 in favor. The statewide margin of victory was about 27,000. The other 54 counties of the state voted against the constitution: 76,000 to 72,000 (rounded)–a margin of about 4000.

In Dallas, Hale, and Wilcox counties alone, 17,475 votes were cast for the constitution and only 508 against it–all the more remarkable because the total white-male voting population of those counties was 5,623. (Jackson) McMillan also notes a report (Mobile Register, November 13, 1901) that the Black Belt counties were slow in reporting their votes—an old tactic by which Black Belt political bosses could determine how many votes they “needed” to count. Thus on the face of the official returns, we are expected to believe that a considerable majority of African American voters voted to disfranchise [sic] themselves. (Source: McMillan)

From the Alabama Law Review: “Such tactics included ballot box stuffing; theft of ballot boxes; removal of polls to unknown places; burning ballots before elections; illegal arrests on election day; importation of voters who did not live in the precinct; calling off names wrongly; fabricating reasons to refuse to hold elections in precincts populated with blacks; the voting of dead or fictitious persons; ensuring that poll watchers and ballot counters became drunk while votes were counted; and, organizing “disorderly demonstrations” to intimidate voters.

Dr. Harvey Jackson: “Through violence, appeals to white supremacy, and massive voter fraud, the Black Belt’s oligarchs had defeated the 1890s challenge of the Populists and inscribed their power in a straitjacket of a state constitution that disenfranchised the African American population along with many poor whites. The Bourbons stole the election and just about everybody knew it. But there was nothing the anti-ratificationists could do; no appeal they could make. The Bourbon Democrats had won, and in winning, they had created a system that would protect their power and property. What the delegates produced was more like a code of laws than a constitution, and the effect was to prevent change rather than promote it. But that was what the Bourbons wanted.”

“This 1901 Alabama constitution,” concluded historian Wayne Flynt, would keep Alabama “throughout the Twentieth Century at or near the bottom among all states in . . . property taxes, public services, and quality of life.”

The U.S. Constitution, an international model, is a few pages long and has only been amended 17 times since the Bill of Rights (1st 10) was passed in 1791–almost 230 years ago. It describes the principles and philosophy of federalism, establishes the basic structure of a three-branch system, and generally lays out the division of power between the federal and state governments. It also provides maximum flexibility through what is known as the elastic (“necessary and proper”) clause.

Alabama’s illegitimate constitution, however, is an embarrassment. It has been amended 946 times in 120 years, it’s the longest constitution in the world, and it’s considered the worst one in the country. According to the Public Affairs Research Council (PARCA):
  • While the constitution may have started by laying out general statewide principles, its accumulation of amendments is due to the exceptions to those principles and special cases made for specific localities.
  • Approximately 70 percent of the amendments are local in nature.
  • The framers of the Alabama Constitution of 1901 wanted to set limits on government…they wanted strict limitations on what local governments could do, so they set up a system in which many local decisions have to flow through the state government for approval.
  • The local amendments to the constitution are only the top layer of complexity: The state legislature has passed over 36,000 local laws applying to specific counties or municipalities. This heavy involvement of state legislators in local affairs:
  • Tends to create confusion about who is responsible for decision-making.
  • Blurs the lines of accountability when things go wrong.
  • Interferes with the development of a culture of statewide planning and policymaking.

There’s more, so much more. As I stated earlier, with the exception of a certain small group of elites in Alabama, we ALL continue to be negatively impacted by this horrible and illicit document.

We have the most regressive tax system in the country. Our poorest 20% pay more than twice the real tax rate (all taxes combined) than our richest 20%. Huge landowners, now mostly outside corporations, continue to pay minuscule taxes per acre–the lowest taxes in the nation on farming, timber, and mineral-rights land. Property taxes are the most stable of all taxes; if we doubled our property tax rate tomorrow, we would still have the lowest rate in the nation.

As mentioned in the PARCA section, the lack of home rule is strangling us all. Our “founders” made sure that most everything of importance would have to make its way through Montgomery.

  • State legislators spend an inordinate amount of time on the “micro” (local) issues, at the expense of “macro” (state) issues. In some rural areas, one state senator may have control over several county commissions.
  • Legislators are powerful, and–without a new constitution–are not about to let go. Bills that would allow ordinary citizens (through initiative/referendum) have never made it through the “system.”
  • In reality, the people of Alabama don’t run the state. And, because the legislators are so powerful, they’re often controlled by special interest groups. This is nuts: We have 35 state senators and 105 House members. There are approximately 600 registered lobbyists in Montgomery, 17 for every senator and 6 for every House member. When the legislature is in session, it must be quite a spectacle.
  • According to PARCA, 93% of Alabama’s revenues are earmarked. The national average is 24%. Lawmakers can’t shift sizable amounts of revenue to where they’re needed most. Consequences? Slow economic growth and limited services.
In a 2019 Comeback Town Guest Blog, Bruce Ely eloquently laid out just ONE frustration of trying to conduct business in this Alice-in-Wonderland environment: “Alabama is considered to be one of the worst three, if not THE worst, state in the U.S. when it comes to red tape in sales tax compliance. That’s primarily because we’re the only state that allows each and every city and county to impose and collect its own sales, use and rental taxes… Audit horror stories abound.”

Largely because of this infamously deplorable Constitution, our state functions much like a Third-World region. Here are a few of those third-world-type characteristics.

  • Alabama’s economic system is an exploitative one–characterized by outside ownership, profits flowing out of the region, and exploitation of natural resources (such as timber, mining, paper, chemicals, and steel). The state is heavily dependent on outside capital for its development. Regions Bank is the only Fortune 500 Company headquartered in Alabama. The best example of our dependence on outside capital is the automobile industry. Here’s a scary thought: These huge multinational companies, just like the old textile mills in Alabama, are inherently connected to the fluctuations of the world economy. Should it dramatically change (electric vehicles, self-driving cars, decline in total demand due to COVID, etc.), companies like Mercedes wouldn’t hesitate to walk away from their Alabama facilities.
  • Our state government is weak, but just strong enough to maintain the status quo. The best example I can think of is this: In a state with exceptional natural resources, we’ve historically allowed large companies to pollute our air, water, and soil. Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management is virtually toothless. Google these types of issues and prepare to be sickened…
  • Alabama is severely limited by its suppressed and undereducated underclass, which is characterized by malnutrition, poor health in general, high infant mortality rates (in some locations, it’s worse than many third-world countries), and a lack of access to dependable transportation.
  • Like most third-world regions, our labor sector is weak. Alabama’s labor force is characterized by limited union influence, low skill and/or education levels, and poor health.
As citizens of Alabama, will we ever unite and fight for a better future? I believe that Dr. Flynt is the greatest historian this state has produced. For years, he has maintained that the reason we’ve never had a populist revolt in Alabama is that the elite whites have consistently driven a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks by convincing the whites that their biggest threat is the (remove) “the” to just say poor blacks) poor blacks. The truth is that those elite whites are the threat to the rest of us.

With the exception of then-Chief Justice Howell Heflin’s revision of our judicial branch in the 1970s, Alabama has NEVER done the right thing. The Federal government, primarily through court decisions, has always had to make our leaders shut up and do what they should’ve done in the first place. (A story for another day…)

Will we ever do the right thing? This constitution needs to be thrown out and become a relic of our tainted past. We can’t depend on the state legislature to make changes; as a matter of fact, it would be dangerous to leave this massive job up to them.

Check out the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform site https://www.constitutionalreform.org.  Organized by Dr. Bailey Thomson and Dr. Tom Corts in 2000, their goal is to have a citizens’ constitutional convention to rewrite the entire Constitution. This is desperately needed.

Our 1901 Constitution is a massive fraud that’s lasted more than a century. We’ve beaten our collective heads against the wall long enough. It’s time to control our own destiny. Otherwise, Alabama will continue to be doomed to a fate worse than mediocrity.

Resources

Bill Ivey is a retired coach and History/Government/Economics teacher who has a BS in Business from the University of Alabama and a Master’s degree in History from UAB. He recently closed his Birmingham Basketball Academy (due to the pandemic) and is now fully retired after 45 years of working with young people. He and his wife Cathy founded the Carolyn Pitts Class for Social Justice (Sunday School) at First United Methodist Church downtown, which has continued to meet virtually since March.

Six statewide constitutional amendments on Nov. 3 ballot

Aug 30, 2020

MONTGOMERY — The presidential election and U.S. Senate contest might be the big draws for voters, but there are also six statewide constitutional amendments on the ballot Nov. 3.

Several of the proposed changes to the state constitution were approved by lawmakers in the 2019 legislative session. Here’s a recap of each.

Amendment 1

If approved by voters, Amendment 1 would “provide that only a citizen of the United States has the right to vote.”
According to the Fair Ballot Commission, the state constitution grants the right to vote to U.S. citizens who meet certain requirements. The amendment does not change those requirements. Citizenship is a federal requirement to vote.
If a majority of voters vote “yes” for Amendment 1, the state constitution will grant the right to vote to “only” those U.S. citizens who meet the requirements.

If a majority of voters vote “no,” the state constitution will continue to grant the right to vote to “every” U.S. citizen who meets the requirements, according to the commission.

Legislation for the proposed amendment was sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, in 2019.

Marsh said he doesn’t think non-citizens voting is a big problem in Alabama. But the amendment “sends a message to Washington.”

“And I think you have a lot of states that do not police this,” Marsh said last week.

Marsh’s legislation cleared the Senate and House last year without any opposition.

Amendment 2

Amendment 2 proposes to make several changes to the administration and oversight of the state’s court system and judges.

Currently, the Alabama chief justice appoints the administrator of courts, the executive who oversees court operations. If approved, Amendment 2 would allow the full Supreme Court to make the appointment.

Legislation for the proposed amendment was sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

He said the proposal allows for a renewable contract for the administrator, and the position would no longer be at the whim of the chief justice. Because the administrator oversees the entire state court system, there needs to be stability, Orr said.

“We’ve had a series of (administrator of courts) directors because new chief justices have come and gone, every six years, and they bring their own director with them,” Orr said this week. “And that’s created a revolving door, as far as the chief administrator of the court system.

If approved, the amendment would also:

• Provide that county district courts do not have to hold city court in a city with a population of less than 1,000;

• Increases from nine to 11 the total membership of the Judicial Inquiry Commission, which evaluates ethics complaints against judges, and determines who appoints each member;

• Allow the governor, rather than the lieutenant governor, to appoint a member of the Court of the Judiciary, which hears complaints filed by the Judicial Inquiry Commission;

• Prevent a judge from being automatically disqualified from holding office simply because a complaint was filed with the Judiciary Inquiry Commission;

• Provides that a judge can be removed from office only by the Court of the Judiciary. Currently, the Legislature can impeach judges.

Amendment 3

Amendment 3 is also court related.

If approved, it would extend the time appointed circuit and district court judges could fill a vacancy before facing election.

Under current law, district and circuit judges appointed by the governor serve an initial term of one year, or the remainder of the original term, whichever is longer.

This amendment would change that initial term of the appointed judge to at least two years before they must run for election.

Amendment 4

Proposed Amendment 4 would reorganize Alabama’s notoriously long constitution and remove outdated and racist language.

The legislation by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, would authorize the Legislature to recompile the Constitution during its 2022 session.

The changes are limited to:

• Removing racist language and language that is repeated or no longer applies;

• Combining language related to economic development;

• Combining language that relates to the same county.

The Constitution currently still has references to separate schools for white and “colored children,” and laws against marriages between “any white person and a negro … .”

Similar ballot referendums failed in 2012 and 2004.

About those previous attempts, Coleman said people are now paying more attention to recent police shootings and killings of black men and systematic racism.

“Not only are they paying attention, they want to do something about it,” Coleman said.

Coleman said she was recently proud of some of her Republican colleagues in the State House who condemned state Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, for his participation last month in a celebration honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I think that this time, if Alabamians are successful in removing that racist language through a vote of the people, I think that sends a message, nationally, about who we are.”

Coleman said it’s not just a social issue, but an economic development issue “for those of us who want to bring industry, new ideas, new technology, new research, new employees that are diverse into the state of Alabama.

When lawmakers’ work is done, the new Constitution wouldn’t go into effect until approved by a majority of voters.

“As we near 1,000 amendments to the Constitution the amount of clutter, redundancy, and problematic language is more than can be reasonably fixed in a piecemeal fashion,” said Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency. “This amendment will allow for many of those issues to be addressed at once in a safe manner with the electorate knowing they will still have the opportunity to ratify the changed document.

“This will not solve every perceived issue, but will go a long way to resetting the stage so that the bigger issues can be identified and addressed in the future.”

Amendments 5, 6

Amendments 5 and 6 are specific only to Franklin and Lauderdale counties, respectively. But because the supporting legislation to specify that church members in those counties can use deadly force if they feel threatened in their places of worship was voted against by one House member, they now go on the statewide ballot.

The county constitutional amendments were proposed in 2019 after a statewide bill appeared in danger of failing for a third year in a row.

Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, said the legislation clarifies the state’s “stand your ground” law applies inside houses of worship. It says a person is presumed justified in the use of force if they or someone else is in danger.

Greer recently said he’d prefer the Lauderdale County amendment was only voted on in that county, but if it fails on the statewide ballot, he’ll refile the legislation next year.

“You wouldn’t believe the groups we’ve met with, all over Alabama,“ Greer said about his work on the legislation since 2016. His proposal is modeled after Mississippi law.

“This is probably the most popular piece of legislation I’ve ever dealt with,” Greer said.

Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, last year said the Franklin County amendment will be approved by statewide voters.

“It may give the statewide legislation some traction,” he said.

Several similar, county-specific bills made it through the State House without any opposition and will be on the ballots only in Colbert, Limestone and Talladega counties.

 

Alabama Secretary of State Issues Text for Amendment 4 on November 3 Ballot

BALLOT STATEMENT FOR STATEWIDE AMENDMENT 4:

(1) The text of the statewide ballot measure, including sponsors, cosponsors, and the text of the question that will appear on the statewide ballot:

Proposed by Act No. 2019-271 (House Bill 328, 2019 Regular Legislative Session)
Bill Sponsor: Representative Coleman
Cosponsors: Representatives McCutcheon, Hollis, Rafferty, Bracy, Alexander, Drummond, Moore (M), Rogers, McClammy, Clarke, Gray, Jackson, Warren, Hill and Wadsworth

Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to authorize the Legislature to recompile the Alabama Constitution and submit it during the 2022 Regular Session, and provide a process for its ratification by the voters of this state.

Proposed by Act 2019-271.

This description shall be followed by the following language: “Yes ( ) No ( ).”

(2) A summary of and the text of any implementing legislation directly related to the statewide ballot measure:

There is no implementing legislation directly related to this statewide ballot measure.

(3) The placement of the statewide ballot measure on the statewide ballot:

This proposed Constitutional Amendment will appear on the Ballot after election of statewide and local offices and will be the fourth constitutional amendment for voter consideration. The proposed Constitutional Amendment will be listed as “Statewide Amendment 4.”

(4) A plain language summary of the statewide ballot measure, which shall include, at a minimum, the legal or constitutional authority for its passage, the effect of the statewide ballot measure if it is passed, including its cost and source of funding, and the effect of the statewide ballot measure if it is defeated.

Alabama’s constitution can be changed only during a constitutional convention or when a majority of voters approve a constitutional amendment.

If a majority of voters vote “yes” on Amendment 4, the Alabama Legislature, when it meets in 2022, would be allowed to draft a rearranged version of the state constitution. This draft could only (1) remove racist language, (2) remove language that is repeated or no longer applies, (3) combine language related to economic development, and (4) combine language that relates to the same county. No other changes could be made.

Even if passed by the Alabama Legislature, this rearranged version would not become law until it was approved by a majority of voters.

If a majority of voters vote “no” on Amendment 4, the Alabama Legislature could not draft a rearranged version of the state constitution.

There is no cost for Amendment 4.

The Constitutional authority for passage of Amendment 4 is set forth in accordance with Sections 284, 285, and 287 of the Constitution of Alabama of 1901. These sections outline the method a constitutional amendment may be put to the people of the State for a vote.

 

 

Amendment 4 Provides an Opportunity to Clean Up the Alabama Constitution

Since it was written in 1901, the current Alabama Constitution has been amended about 950 times, making it by far the world’s longest constitution. The amendments have also riddled the Constitution with redundancies, creating a maze of words known to befuddle even legal scholars.  In addition, Alabama’s Constitution is peppered throughout with language and procedures, e.g., poll taxes, that reflect the racist intent of those who originally wrote it.   While much of this language has been declared illegal and voided by twentieth century court rulings, it is still in the document and has been pointed to by other states when competing with Alabama for economic growth.

The need for a revision to Alabama’s Constitution has been long recognized and was confirmed by the Legislature in 2019 when it unanimously agreed to give the people of Alabama an opportunity to vote on an amendment for constitutional reform – Amendment 4 on the November 3 ballot. Amendment 4 will allow the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency to propose a draft to clean up and consolidate the document, putting it in a logical structure that is easier for all to understand. The revised document will not make any substantive changes to the Constitution or modify how government functions in Alabama.  However, it will remove all duplication, eliminate all now illegal racist language and procedures, and make it far more easily understood by all citizens of the state.  After Legislative Services creates a revised document, it will be presented to and reviewed by the Legislature.  If is accepted by the Legislature, it will then be presented to the voters in November of 2022 for ratification.

Wayne Flynt, Professor Emeritus, History, Auburn University says that “unfortunately this amendment is not an opportunity to rewrite the Constitution, but it will make decisions and understanding easier.  It will allow removal of duplication and words that are no longer legal.”

Amendment 4 is also supported by Cathy Randall, 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact and Director, University of Alabama’s computer-based honors program, who states “Amendment 4 is a non-partisan issue that brings support from many sectors of Alabama: from educators, religious leaders, business leaders and members of all political parties.”

On November 3 vote “Yes” on Amendment 4 so that the work of streamlining and cleaning up the Alabama Constitution can begin.

 

 

Serious about progress? Eliminate Alabama’s shame of 1901

Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen numerous business leaders and companies take a stand against racism and commit to building a better future for all in Alabama.

That’s a great thing. It’s also great that so many transformational changes can come from the companies themselves, simply by changing their status quos, implementing new policies and combating racism and bias in their organizations or industries.

But if Birmingham’s business community is really serious about eliminating racism and expanding opportunities for all, not all of the necessary work will fall in that category. As we and others have noted for years, Alabama’s 1901 constitution is one of the biggest impediments to equality and progress in our state. If corporations are truly looking to eliminate racism at home, the conversation has to include supporting a new constitution for Alabama.

It’s embarrassing and a miscarriage of justice that Alabamians – in 2020 – are still voting on amendments to remove racist language from the state constitution. Yet, here we are. But even if the latest amendment passes, and even if all racist language is eventually removed, it still won’t solve the real problem.

Yes, the most blatant and offensive language will be gone, but the undertones and the intent of the 1901 constitution will remain, as evidenced by this speech from the president of the constitutional convention: “And what is it that we do want to do? Why, it is, within the limits imposed by the federal constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”

If it’s more than a century later and we still haven’t even purged all of the actual racist language from the document, it’s unlikely we’ve even scratched the surface of the problems with the constitution and how it treats minorities.

The constitution was designed to concentrate the power in the hands of a select few and to also limit the power of cities like Birmingham.

We see its fingerprints often. We see them in an Alabama Legislature that – under either party’s leadership – sees no problems with our lackluster rankings in health care, education, poverty and metrics that disproportionately affect minorities.

We see them with decision after decision that ignores the real challenges facing so many in our state – both in rural areas like the Black Belt and highly populated urban areas like Birmingham.

We’ve seen them with hastily passed legislation designed to usurp power from cities like Birmingham.

Alabama’s 1901 constitution was a poorly built house with bad window-dressing and a rotten foundation. We can remove all of the words and window-dressing we want, but the rot will remain. The only choice is to tear it down and start over.

Frankly, Alabama’s business community is the best hope of making it happen. They are the only group with the power to effect that type of change with the state’s lawmakers, whom history has shown won’t do it on their own.

Getting a new constitution won’t be easy, and it would likely come at a cost for many businesses that supported the effort. It would mean changing the power dynamics in the state, giving more power to cities, counties and the executive branch. It should probably also include sweeping tax reform, which as we’ve noted, could make a huge difference in Alabama simply by adjusting the rates to neighboring states.

Those changes could eliminate some of the consistency that Alabama businesses currently enjoy from the state and local government.

But “it’s too hard” or “we don’t trust ourselves to pick the leaders to do it right” are lame excuses.

We think that’s a small price to pay to eliminate racism and ensure social justice in Alabama.

The question is: do Alabama businesses feel the same?

 

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. Continue reading “Four AUM Honors students turn class assignment into campaign to modernize Alabama Constitution”