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Committee to remove racist language in Alabama’s Constitution meets

The committee meets again on Oct. 13 and could vote then on recommendations to remove racist language.

The Alabama Constitution

Members of an advisory committee met Thursday and discussed removing racist language from Alabama’s 1901 Constitution. 

Members of the Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution took no votes on removing such language during Thursday’s public hearing, opting to wait until the public comment period ends, on Sept. 7. Some public comments have already been submitted. 

The committee is to meet again on Oct. 13 and could vote then, sending their recommendations of the Alabama Legislative Services Agency, which is tasked with drafting a recompiled version of the Constitution, which the state Legislature would have to approve in the next regular session. If approved, voters statewide would ultimately decide on whether to approve the changes. 

Voters in November 2020 approved this effort, which sets the committee to look at only four arrears, which are the removal all racist language, deletion of duplicative and repealed provisions, consolidation of provisions regarding economic development and the arranging of all local amendments by county of application. 

“There is a recurring theme amongst the public comments that we don’t need to concern ourselves with things that are no longer operable, That segregation is no longer allowed. It is illegal. We all know it’s illegal. Who cares that it’s in the Constitution. I disagree with that,” Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, told committee members during the hearing. “I think the words in our Constitution matter.” 

“Words matter,” Committee Chair Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, said in response to Lathram’s comments. 

The three sections of Alabama’s Constitution being debated are Section 256, which states that “separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children.” Section 259 allows for a poll tax, and Section 32 prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude but includes an exception allowing for involuntary servitude for this convicted of a crime. 

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Voters in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah have recently removed similar language from those state’s constitutions, and Tennessee is awaiting ratification to do so as well, Lathram said of the separate schools language in Section 256. 

“The language that’s currently in the Constitution is language that was adopted shortly after the Brown versus Board of Education decision in the United States Supreme,” Lathram said, adding he recommends removing the segregate schools language. 

“Over the course of the last 100 or so years, that last portion dealing with indentured servitude of a person who has been convicted is the language that’s at issue and has been argued to be racist,” Lathram said of Section 32. “And that comes from, beginning originally with a post-Civil War-era practice of the argument being made that people were over- incarcerated at times of harvest, and at times of the seasons of the agricultural cycle that required labor that was no longer being provided by slaves.”

After some discussion on indentured servitude, and how it also fell upon whites in the post-Civil War era, Rep. Ben Robbins, R-Sylacauga, said that while that is true “it was primarily abused for the African America race.” 

Robbins asked about Alabama’s incarcerated, and whether the work some do in prisons, whether cooking or cleaning is without pay. Lathram said in most cases those incarcerated people are payed low rates.  

Robbins asked whether the striking of the phrase mentioning indentured servitude would impact the state’s ability to get incarcerated people to perform tasks in prisons, including cleaning. 

“The striking of this phrase would not impact the ability to continue anything that’s currently done in our prisons,” Lathram said.

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Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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