Segregation ended decades ago in Alabama, swept away by the civil rights marchers who faced down police dogs and fire hoses in the early 1960s. Yet segregation is still mandated by the state’s constitution, and voters on Nov. 6 will get only their second chance in years to eliminate an anachronism that still exists on paper.
Amendment 4 — the proposal to delete the state constitution’s archaic language affirming segregation — is tucked amid routine issues of sewers, bonds and city boundaries on a crowded Election Day ballot. It is a striking call to see if Alabama will repeat what it did in 2004, when the state voted to keep the outdated and racially controversial language.
The second time will not be any easier than the first because Alabama’s two largest black political groups are urging a “no” vote. They say the proposed changes would wipe out some racially charged language, but would retain segregation-era language saying there is no constitutional right to a public education in Alabama. They have been joined by the state’s main teachers’ group in refusing to go along.
Never mind the supporters who say it is time to shed the last reminders of an era of discrimination.
Alabamians have not been reluctant to amend the 111-year-old constitution in the past: They have approved more than 800 amendments in their history, making theirs the US’ longest state constitution. It is now four times longer than the average constitution and, come Nov. 6, could get 30 more amendments added to its heft.
However, making changes involving segregationist language often is vexingly difficult. The US Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967, for instance. Yet it was not until 2000 that Alabama voters removed the state constitution’s ban on interracial marriage. Even then, 40 percent voted to keep the ban.
This time, black groups are leading the opposition to change. The Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama New South Alliance say the change, backed largely by white Republicans with a pro-business approach, looks like a “feel good” change, but is not.
Amendment 4 would excise outdated language about poll taxes and separate schools that many consider racist. Yet critics say the language being proposed as a substitute undermines funding for public education by reaffirming that there is no right to a public education at taxpayers’ expense.
Alabama’s constitution once provided for “a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children.” However, attitudes changed after the US Supreme Court banned school segregation in 1954. Angry Alabama citizens voted in 1956 to amend the constitution to say there is no right to a public education at taxpayers’ expense.
Supporters of Amendment 4 say retaining the two outdated provisions from an era when African-Americans attended separate schools from whites sends a harmful message. They argue that it could drive off businesses from a state struggling to lower an 8.3 percent unemployment rate that remains above the national average.
Amendment 4’s sponsor, US Senator Arthur Orr, said he knows other states have used the racist language against Alabama when competing for industries.
Alabama Democratic Conference chairman Joe Reed said no one pays attention to the school segregation and poll tax language because it has been effectively dead for half a century.
Retired University of Alabama law professor Martha Morgan, an expert on Alabama’s constitution, says voting “no” on Nov. 6 is likely to give the state another black eye. However, she said it is better to get a black eye than “to inflict a mortal wound to public education by taking away the right to public education.”