Erasing Jim Crow Not So Easy in Alabama

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

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.”

Tuesday’s vote will mark the second time that voters in Alabama have taken up the issue of racist language in the state constitution. A similar measure failed in 2004 after a different set of opponents objected, saying that certain language in the amendment would result in increasing the cost of public education, according to Sanders.

The summary for Amendment 4 on Tuesday’s ballot reads: “Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama 1901 to repeal portions of Amendment 111, now appearing as Section 256 of the official recompilation of the Constitution of Alabama 1901, as amended, relating to separation of schools by race and to repeal section 259, amendment 90, and amendment 109, relating to the poll tax (proposed by Act 2011-353-03).”

“That summary, however, does not include for the voters the other language attached to law that says, ‘Nothing in this constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense,’ ” Sanders says. And that’s the part that causes problems for opponents.

The nonpartisan Alabama Law Institute, in a letter to Orr dated Oct. 15, said that Amendment 4 makes no change to the state constitution other than striking the racist language. According to the letter from institute Director Othni Lathram, the portion of the law that relates to funding education has already withstood court challenges and is not on the ballot.

For Orr, a yes vote on Tuesday for Amendment 4 says it’s time for Jim Crow to go away for good. But for Sanders, a no vote means that Alabama needs to keep the right to public education, even if it means Jim Crow continues to tag along in its constitution.

Denise Stewart is a freelance writer in Alabama. Follow her on Twitter.