Measure Would Strike Segregation From Ala. Constitution

By Catherine Gewertz — October 20, 2004 2 min read
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Alabama voters will have a chance on Election Day to remove from their state constitution a provision that calls for separate schools for black and white children.

Amendment Two, a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot, would also remove references to poll taxes, which were commonly used to deny poor black and white citizens the right to vote.

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The sections proposed for deletion are already unenforceable under federal and state court rulings. But to many Alabamians, rewriting the constitution to eliminate them completely is a necessary symbolic step.

“It’s an important thing to do to show we’ve moved beyond that type of prejudice in our government document,” said Mark Berte, the lead organizer for the constitutional-reform education campaign of Greater Birmingham Ministries, an interfaith group.

Talk of reworking Alabama’s 1901 constitution has persisted for years, not only to remove segregationist or other outdated language, but also to make it more user-friendly. It is nearly three times longer than the constitution of any other state—thicker than most dictionaries—and has been amended more than 700 times.

Amendment Two stems from the recommendations of a panel appointed last year by Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, to recommend ways of crafting a better constitution. One of its recommendations was to delete outdated or unenforceable language.

The legislature could possibly have taken that step itself, said Howard P. Walthall, who advised the panel and is the director of the State Constitutional Law Project at Samford University’s law school, in Birmingham. But the panel believed that for both legal and symbolic reasons, it should be done by the voters, he said.

“It’s important to have a vote of the people that, in effect, says it’s a new day in Alabama,” he said.

Unusual Step

Once the panel made its recommendations, legislation to place the amendment on the November 2004 ballot was introduced and was approved by both houses of the legislature in the spring of 2003. The proposal requires a majority vote for approval.

Michelle Exstrom, a senior policy specialist in education for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said it is unusual for states to amend their constitutions for education-related reasons, and even more unusual to amend such a document for reasons unrelated to school funding.

“It’s not very often that you see a state doing a cleanup bill,” she said. “If the language is not of any use anymore, then removing it would be a political issue.”

Little public opposition has surfaced to Amendment Two, but one of its opponents is widely known: former Alabama Chief Justice Roy S. Moore, who was forced to step down last year for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from his court building.

Mr. Moore’s concern centers around one of the passages proposed for removal, which says, in part, that “nothing in this constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense.” He believes that deleting that language could open the door to a funding lawsuit that could force Alabamians to pay higher taxes for schools.

“When you are trying to remove language that is inoperable anyway, there has to be another agenda,” Mr. Moore said. “I’m disturbed by the deception around this bill.”

Mr. Walthall said he believes Mr. Moore’s worry is unfounded, because an earlier amendment says no state court can order the state to spend money on education without the approval of the legislature.

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