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Time to remove the racist language from Alabama’s Jim Crow-era constitution

During its 2019 session, the Alabama Legislature approved a measure to recompile the state constitution to clean up duplicative language, remove repealed provisions and – the part of most interest to SPLC Action – remove the racist language. After two previous attempts were rejected at the ballot box in recent decades, we hope that the support shown by voters in 2020 to remove the racist language will inspire lawmakers to do a deep investigation into both the content of the text and the motivations behind it, as well as meaningful recommendations for reparative language.

The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution is currently meeting to discuss recommendations to the full Legislature. Any changes adopted by the Legislature will be presented to voters on the November 2022 ballot.

It’s time to do something about the express and implied racist content in the Alabama Constitution.

Here are 10 facts you need to know about it:

  • It was written in 1901, the heart of the South’s Jim Crow period.
  • It was the sixth state constitution in 82 years (beginning when statehood was established in 1819).
  • Nearly 1,000 amendments have been adopted in the 120 years since ratification.
  • It’s 12 times longer than the average state constitution and 51 times longer than the U.S. Constitution. My first real education on the absurdity of the Alabama Constitution came from the 2007 documentary It’s a Thick Book, produced by then-high school student Lewis Lehe.
  • It was written exclusively by white men. Not one of the 155 constitutional convention delegates were female or Black or of any other race or ethnicity.
  • It was intentionally drafted to enshrine white supremacy as the law and to suppress the political power of Black and poor white men. This intent is exceedingly clear from historical documents.

    “[W]hat is it we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State,” declared Constitutional Convention Chair John M. Knox as the convention opened.

    The front page of the Montgomery Advertiser on Nov. 12, 1901, stated, “The Citizens of Alabama Declare for White Supremacy and Purity of Ballot. The Putrid Sore of Negro Suffrage Is Severed From the Body Politic of the Commonwealth.”

  • The impact of disenfranchisement was immediate and severe. In 1900, more than 180,000 Black men were eligible to vote. By 1903, fewer than 3,000 were able to register. The new constitution also removed less-educated, less-organized and more-impoverished white men as well.
  • It removed home rule from cities and counties to disempower rural voters and voters of color. Stripping the ability of local officials to self-govern diluted the power of local voters to seek remedies affecting their interests and invited interference from state legislators asked to approve legislation affecting only local issues. The impact continues to linger today and is particularly evident in communities of color.
  • It preserved the economic and social conditions of the pre-Civil War South by allowing involuntary servitude as conditions of imprisonment. Modeling the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the “abolition loophole” or “punishment clause” is linked to the growth of prison labor and the rise of mass incarceration.
  • In November 2020, voters in Utah (80%) and Nebraska (68%) approved the removal of similar language from their state constitutions. Following recent approval by their state Legislature, Tennessee voters will have the opportunity to approve removal in November 2022.

It maintains school segregation in Alabama. An amendment adopted in 1956 openly defies the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. This blatant, racially motivated change made it clear the state did not want to be obligated to provide, or pay for, the education of Black children.

We must remove the lingering vestiges of racial segregation and legalized oppression of Alabama’s Black residents. The language in the state constitution matters; it’s a stated commitment to ourselves and our operations with one another. It also is a public projection of our values to those who seek to do business here or to one day make Alabama their home.

The committee’s next and final meeting is on Oct. 13 at 10 a.m. You can watch online here.

You can read the SPLC Action Fund’s full written comments to the Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution here. Though the public comment period has closed, interested parties should contact legislators and urge support to make the Alabama Constitution more inclusive.

Photo at top: Mourners gather at the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, on July 26, 2020, following the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Alabama voters in November 2020 approved Amendment 4, which allowed the state to remove racist language from the state constitution. Alabama lawmakers have begun the process of doing so. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)