Updated: October 27, 2012 5:29PM
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Segregation ended decades ago in Alabama, swept away by the civil rights marchers who faced down police dogs and fire hoses in the early ‘60s. But segregation is still mandated by the state’s constitution, and voters on Nov. 6 will get only their second chance in years to eliminate an anachronism that still exists on paper.
Election Day in this Deep South state could be the day Alabama amends history.
Amendment 4 — the proposal to delete the constitution’s archaic language affirming segregation — is tucked amid routine issues of sewers, bonds and city boundaries on a crowded Election Day ballot. It’s a striking call to see if Alabama will repeat what it did in 2004, when the state narrowly voted to keep the outdated and racially controversial language, bringing national ridicule upon the state.
The second time won’t be any easier than the first because Alabama’s two largest black political groups are urging a “no” vote. They say the proposed changes would wipe out some racially charged language, but would retain segregation-era language saying there is no constitutional right to a public education in Alabama. And they’ve been joined by the state’s main teachers’ group in refusing to go along.
Never mind the supporters who say it’s time to shed the last reminders of an era of discrimination and project a more welcoming image of a modern state eager to draw companies and jobs to Alabama.
Alabamians haven’t been reluctant to amend the 111-year-old constitution in the past. In fact, they’ve approved more than 800 amendments in their history, making theirs the nation’s longest state constitution. It is now four times longer than the average constitution and, come Nov. 6, could get 30 more amendments added to its heft.
But making changes involving segregationist language often is vexingly difficult. The U.S. Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967, for instance. But it wasn’t until 2000 that Alabama voters removed the state constitution’s ban on interracial marriage. Even then, 40 percent voted to keep the ban.
This time, black groups are leading the opposition to change. The Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama New South Alliance say the change, backed largely by white Republicans with a pro-business approach, looks like a “feel good” change but is not.
Amendment 4 would excise outdated language about poll taxes and separate schools that many consider racist. But the critics say the language being proposed as a substitute undermines funding for public education by reaffirming that there is no right to a public education at taxpayers’ expense in Alabama.
“It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It seems so good but is so bad,” said black Democratic Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma, a New South founder.
Alabama’s constitution once provided for “a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children.” But attitudes changed after the U.S. Supreme Court banned school segregation in 1954. Angry Alabama citizens voted in 1956 to amend the constitution to say there is no right to a public education at taxpayers’ expense and that “students shall attend schools provided for their own race.” Both changes were meant to thwart integration.
The school segregation language was voided by federal court rulings. A few years later, voting rights legislation negated another provision in Alabama’s constitution requiring the payment of poll taxes, which were designed to keep poor blacks from voting.
Supporters of Amendment 4 say retaining the two outdated provisions from an era when African-Americans attended separate schools from whites sends a harmful message. They argue that it could drive off businesses from a state struggling to lower an 8.3 percent unemployment rate that remains above the national average.
Alabama has had success in recent years luring major industries, including an Airbus assembly plant for Mobile, and securing expansions at its auto assembly plants. But the governor, who has vowed not to take a salary until unemployment drops to 5.2 percent, is still a long way from drawing a paycheck.
Amendment 4’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur, said he knows other states have used the racist language against Alabama when competing for industries.
“It’s important symbolically to send a message to our sister states and to the world that Alabama is a different place than it was 50 years ago,” he said.
Orr’s proposal has drawn support from Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, Alabama’s chief recruiter for new industry.
No black members of the Legislature voted for Orr’s proposal last year when lawmakers decided to put it on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Sanders and Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, said no one pays attention to the school segregation and poll tax language because it has been effectively dead for a half-century. They said removing it is not worth the cost of restating that there is no right to a public education.
As Election Day neared, opponents of Amendment 4 were joined by the Alabama Education Association, the influential state teachers’ organization. AEA has seen funding for public education drop by more than $1 billion in the past five years, teaching positions cut, class sizes increased, and some school revenue shifted to non-education functions of government. The teachers’ group worries that if voters reiterate there is no right to a public education, a cash-strapped Legislature will move even more money away from public schools to other functions.
“It has all kinds of implications in the future for the diversion of education funds and for the funding of education generally. That’s why we are opposed to it,” AEA attorney Bobby Segall said.
But supporters say those fears are unwarranted. They insist the proposed amendment wouldn’t affect public education in Alabama.
Many of the current opponents, including AEA, were proponents of change in 2004 when Alabama voters narrowly voted down a similar constitutional amendment that failed by 1,766 votes out of nearly 1.4 million cast. That measure would have struck the 1956 language about not having a right to a public education. Opponents defeated it by creating fears it would lead to tax increases.
Orr said he sought to word Amendment 4 seeking to strip out the offensive language on segregation without entangling himself in the tax issue.
“In 2004, Alabama took a black eye because the amendment was voted down. ... What they heard outside the state is Alabama votes to reaffirm its commitment to segregationist language and poll taxes. They didn’t understand the argument over the full potential for increased property taxes,” he said.
Retired University of Alabama law professor Martha Morgan, an expert on Alabama’s constitution, says voting “no” on Nov. 6 is likely to give the state another black eye. But she said it’s better to get a black eye than “to inflict a mortal wound to public education by taking away the right to public education.”
No matter the outcome Nov. 6, the half-century-old issue could divide Alabama again next year.
Othni Lathram, director of the Alabama Law Institute, said a state commission working on updating Alabama’s constitution is already scheduled to take up the document’s education provisions in 2013.