Alabama closer to removing slavery language from constitution
Alabama State Capitol. Photo credit: DXR, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Alabama closer to removing slavery language from constitution

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Prison slavery

An Alabama committee studying racism in the state’s constitution has signaled that they support removing racist language from the governing document, including a long-standing clause allowing involuntary servitude.

In 2020 a constitutional amendment to set up the committee — the Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution — had bipartisan support and got the approval of about two-thirds of Alabama voters.

The proposal now before the committee came from Othni Lathram, the director of the Legislative Services Agency. While the committee did not formally vote on the matter, no member raised objections.

“I’m reading today’s action as that the committee is generally comfortable with the direction on racist language,” Lathram said. The committee is scheduled to take a formal vote in the coming weeks.

The Montgomery Advertiser reports:

Lathram’s proposal would:

  • Alter the state prohibition on slavery to remove a clause allowing involuntary servitude “for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.” That clause served as the legal basis for Alabama’s convict-labor system, used until 1928 to all arrest Black Alabamians, often on dubious pretexts, and force them into difficult and often deadly work. Three states — Colorado, Nebraska and Utah — have removed similar language from their constitutions since 2018.
  • Strike language directing poll tax revenues to counties for educational purposes. Poll taxes disenfranchised Black Alabamians and poor whites. The 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1964, banned the practice. Most other poll tax provisions in the Alabama Constitution were removed by Amendment 579, Lathram said.
  • Strike language from a 1956 amendment to the Constitution, passed in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, that would authorize the Legislature to allow children to “attend schools provided for their own race,” as well as a provision allowing the Legislature to intervene in schools in the name of “peace and order.” Supporters of segregation used the phrase in the 1950s. Alabama Attorney General John Patterson argued in August 1956 that the city of Montgomery could not maintain “peace and order … if, by court decree, a Negro man is permitted to sit by a white woman.”

The racist language in Alabama’s constitution can be traced back to 1901, when the framers of the constitution explicitly called for white supremacy to be embedded in the state’s governing document. John Knox, the president of the Constitutional Convention in 1901 stated, “Why, it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”

Today, lawmakers see this a bipartisan issue and that it is time for Alabama’s constitution to be updated.

“Our state constitution is reflective of who we are,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, who sponsored the 2020 constitutional amendment.

“Those racist provisions in that constitution, those outdated provisions — we hope that’s not who we are, and we definitely know we’re not a 1901 Alabama, and we need to reflect that in the document.”

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