Alabama lawmakers purging racist language from constitution

Southeast

The Alabama State capital building in Montgomery, Alabama.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The governing document of Alabama still says white and colored children are prohibited from attending school together. Lawmakers have begun discussing exactly how to remove such racist language from the state’s Constitution, a document approved in 1901 to enshrine white supremacy as state law.

The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution is finally addressing remnants of Jim Crow laws governing segregated schools, poll taxes and other racist measures that were ruled unconstitutional by federal courts in the 1950s and 1960s, al.com reported.

Alabama voters approved the recompilation project in 2020. Lawmakers could make the changes next year, and voters would have the final say in 2022 on whether to accept those changes.

“It sends a message out about who we are,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who chairs the committee and sponsored the constitutional amendment that started the process.

“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,” she said.

The framers of the 1901 Constitution made clear their intent was to maintain a government controlled by whites.

“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.

More than 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 ruled out segregation in public schools, this language remains in Alabama’s governing document: “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.”

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.”

The committee meets again on Oct. 13 to vote on whether to remove the constitution’s authorization of involuntary servitude as criminal punishment, a provision that led to generations of Black men being convicted of trivial offenses and forced into labor on farms and lumberyards and inside coal mines under Alabama’s convict-lease system in the 20th century.

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