The Alabama State Constitution currently contains numerous racist references, including outdated language involving a poll tax for Black residents — but that could soon be changing.
Brian Lyman of the Montgomery Advertiser has reported that following an ongoing review by a special commission, the state Legislature will vote next year to officially remove those racist references from the state Constitution in an attempt to make the document more inclusive and non-offensive.
How far that work will go, however, remains to be seen.
“A commission charged with removing racist language from the state’s governing document is still considering what action, if any, to take on language dealing with segregated schools and involuntary servitude for convictions,” Lyman said.
Rep. Merika Coleman, chair of the Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution and sponsor of an amendment to remove racist language from the Alabama Constitution, hopes the efforts will be vast and wide-ranging.
When her amendment was put up to a public vote in last year’s election, 66% of Alabama voters approved the initiative, which allows for the development of an amendment to officially strike racist language from the state’s governing document.
The state will require the amendment to be approved by the state legislature first and then by voters in November. After being passed twice under state law, the ruling becomes law.
“Our charge was to remove the racist language,” Coleman said. “I don’t want to negate that. It’s a real deal.”
According to Lyman, “the framers of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution disenfranchised Black Alabamians and poor whites [and] they made no secret of their intentions.”
In a 1901 delegation meeting, which has since been documented in the 2010 short film Open Secret, John Knox, president of the Alabama constitutional convention, notably told attendees, “what is it we want to do? Why, it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”
“The campaign to ratify the Constitution pushed hard on the white supremacy issue. The document passed in November 1901, almost certainly through fraud,” Lyman reported.
Based on the work of Coleman and others, there are currently three sections of the Alabama State Constitution currently under review for potential revision.
Section 32 of the document bans slavery and involuntary servitude, but, to this day, still contains a troubling clause that makes an exception for anyone convicted of a crime.
“The state for decades used convict labor where law enforcement sent Black Alabamians, many arrested on the slightest pretext, to deadly work in mines and on farms,” Lyman said.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Alabama approved Section 256, which proclaimed there was no right to public education and “authorized the state to perpetuate segregated schools, regardless of the Supreme Court ruling.”
Finally, Section 259 of the state Constitution allows for the legal use of poll taxes, designed to legally prevent Black Alabamians and poor whites from voting.
While many committee members have said they want to change the Constitution’s language, how far all members are willing to go on the issue remains to be seen.
“I think we can agree what the history was on it, but just in general, I have a concern about where things go because we are very limited,” said Sen. Sam Givhan told Lyman. “We can remove racist language, but we can’t rewrite the Constitution the way we’d rather see.”
Alabama legislators have attempted several times in the past to change the Constitution in similar ways and failed. Attempts to change Section 256 of the document were ultimately defeated in 2004 and again in 2012. Still, there is hope, supporters say, that this time will be different.