Erasing Jim Crow Not So Easy in Alabama

Why are blacks fighting an amendment to remove racist language from the state's constitution?

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(The Root) -- Jim Crow, that feisty fictitious character that symbolized segregation in the South for decades, is alive, well and on the ballot in Alabama in Tuesday's general election. And depending on whom you ask, he may just win again.

Since 1901 the Alabama Constitution has included language that requires separate schools for whites and blacks and puts in place poll taxes that often prevented blacks from voting.

Arthur Orr, a white senator from north Alabama, successfully pushed legislation in 2011 to give the people an opportunity in the general election to remove the segregationist language from the constitution. But not a single black lawmaker voted for the measure. And many blacks in the state, along with the powerful Alabama Education Association, are now fighting Amendment 4, which would strike Jim Crow from the constitution.

The problem?

"If we approve Amendment 4, striking the Jim Crow language, we'd also be taking away from all of Alabama's children the right to a free public education," says Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders, a Selma Democrat who is black.

"To some, seeing blacks take this position may look bad. But it really is good because it shows we aren't fools who will take this wolf in sheep's clothing that means us no good," says Sanders, a lawyer and longtime fixture in state politics.

Removing the portion of the constitution that requires separate schools and provides the right to free public education would open the door to vouchers and charter schools, Sanders says. Those changes have been met with stiff resistance from many black lawmakers and from the AEA. Bills to establish charter schools in Alabama did not pass in the 2012 regular session of the Alabama Legislature.

Orr says that charter schools and vouchers have nothing to do with Tuesday's vote on the amendment. "If the Legislature wanted to approve charter schools or vouchers for Alabama public schools, it could do so without the amendment I proposed to the state's constitution," Orr says. "I just wanted to give the people of Alabama [an] opportunity to come together and show that we have an Alabama different today than it was 50 years ago.

"I've been told on several occasions by people in economic development that this language works against us because it dredges up stereotypes of the past," he says. "This vote is more symbolic because segregated schools were outlawed with the 1954 ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education, and poll taxes were outlawed later by the Voting Rights Act."

State Rep. Demetrius Newton, a Birmingham Democrat, agrees that the racist language establishing segregated schools and requiring poll taxes should be removed from Alabama's constitution. "But the amendment on Tuesday's ballot takes away more than the language," he says. "If they wanted to, they could have proposed legislation that removes the language without taking away the right to public education. If this does not pass, I believe the Legislature will come back and pass laws to do just that."

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