Like their counterparts in other Southern states, Alabama lawmakers adopted a new constitution during the early stages of the Jim Crow era with the explicit intent to deny Black citizens access to the ballot and to establish white supremacy and racial segregation as the law of the land.
That 1901 constitution – which legalized discrimination against Black citizens for more than six decades – is still in effect today. And even though many of its provisions have been shredded by federal court decisions and civil rights laws, its racist language and other harmful effects remain.
Now, the state has an opportunity for change, and the SPLC is urging state lawmakers to put proposals for reparative language before the voters in November 2022.
“The language in the state Constitution matters; it’s a stated commitment to ourselves and our operations with one another,” wrote SPLC Regional Policy Director Shay Farley in a comment this week to the state’s Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution. “It also is a public projection of our values to those who seek to do business here or to one day make Alabama their home.”
Intent to suppress the vote
There is no serious historical debate about the intent of the 1901 Alabama Constitution.
At the time, the state was operating under its fifth constitution. The original in 1819 was followed by the 1861 secession constitution, the 1865 version that allowed the state to rejoin the Union after the Civil War and the 1875 document that ended Reconstruction.
After Black communities had attained a political voice through the ballot box during Reconstruction – particularly by aligning their votes with impoverished white citizens – the white supremacist establishment devised methods, including fraudulently counting votes, to maintain political control. But as politicians grew increasingly uncomfortable with the blatant subterfuge, they began calling for a new constitution that would disenfranchise Black men (women couldn’t vote at the time) through legal means.
“[W]hat is it we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State,” declared Constitutional Convention Chair John M. Knox as the convention opened. After the new document was adopted, a headline in the Montgomery Advertiser declared: “The Citizens of Alabama Declare for White Supremacy and Purity of Ballot.”
The new constitution established a poll tax, a literacy test and property requirements for voting, and it contained a felony and “moral turpitude” provision that targeted certain crimes the framers believed Black people were more likely to commit. The impact was immediate and severe. In 1900, more than 180,000 Black men were eligible to vote. By 1903, fewer than 3,000 were able to register. The constitution also prevented many less-educated and impoverished white men from voting, further derailing a populist movement that was emerging.
Beyond the ballot
The disenfranchisement went far beyond the ballot box and continues to have lingering impacts.
Because lawmakers sought to disempower rural voters and voters of color, the 1901 constitution also removed home rule from cities and counties, stripping their governing bodies of the ability to make decisions within their jurisdictions without threat of interference from the state Legislature.
Even today, Alabama municipalities operate under a system in which many local decisions, even those most logically handled by local officials, require the approval of state legislators. Many of those local decisions, including property tax increases to fund public schools, also must be placed on the statewide ballot for approval, undermining the ability of cities and counties to self-govern and diluting the power of local voters. This system, which creates disparate opportunities for school funding, economic development, court funding and other issues, continues to be particularly harmful to communities of color.
The Alabama Constitution also continues to sanction involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. And it still requires racially segregated schools, even though this is disallowed under federal court rulings.
“We must remove the lingering vestiges of racial segregation and legalized oppression of Alabama’s Black residents,” Farley said. “Revising this Jim Crow constitution will not only herald our collective rejection of white supremacy, it will remove harmful impediments that stand in the way of our people and communities.”
Photo at top: Mourners gather at the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, on July 26, 2020, following the death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Alabama voters in November 2020 approved Amendment 4, which allowed the state to remove racist language from the state constitution. Alabama lawmakers have begun the process of doing so. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)