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Committee tasked with removing racist language from Alabama Constitution

A plan presented Wednesday, and largely agreed upon by committee members, would remove three sections from the Alabama Constitution.

The Alabama Constitution

The committee tasked with removing racist language from Alabama’s Constitution appears to be on the verge of approving a plan that would remove three sections. 

The committee — chaired by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove — didn’t take a final vote on the proposal, which was presented by Othni Latham, director of the Legislative Services Agency, but no member voiced an objection to the plan or questioned it. 

However, Coleman, saying she wanted to ensure “bipartisan agreement,” elected not to hold a formal vote on the plan and instead allowed the committee members to take a full week to study it. 

“I want it to be nonpartisan,” Coleman said. “Because there really shouldn’t be any partisan argument about any of this.”

The sections that would be eliminated under the proposal Latham presented deal with involuntary servitude, poll taxes and state laws attempting to undermine the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision. 

The involuntary servitude statute was used following the abolishment of slavery to allow the state to use its criminal justice system to force primarily Black citizens to perform prison labor — essentially a state-sanctioned continuation of slavery. That system was used until 1928, often resulting in Black prisoners being forced to perform cruel and dangerous tasks. 

The poll tax section was used by the state to prevent Blacks, and some poor whites, from voting. The poll tax was abolished for good with the Voting Rights Act, and several references to the system have been removed from the Alabama Constitution previously. 

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Finally, the section undermining the Brown decision allowed the Legislature to establish laws permitting children to attend public schools with other children of their own race and allowed the Legislature to intervene in public education — and create almost any law — if done in the interest of “peace and order.” 

While committee members discussed the proposal in detail, there were no objections and Latham said he couldn’t find grounds for a legal challenge to any of the proposed changes. 

If the committee approves the proposal — a vote could take place before the end of the month — the changes would be presented to the Legislature, possibly in a yet-to-be-called special session later this month. If it is approved by the Legislature, the issue would be voted on by Alabamians during the 2022 election.

The Alabama Constitution, likely the longest in the world, was written in 1901 and designed to protect white supremacy. In fact, it states that goal right up front. The Constitution has been used as a tool to disenfranchise, and generally mistreat, Blacks and poor whites for generations since.

Several previous attempts by lawmakers to remove the racist language in the Constitution, or to reduce its massive size, have failed, including in 2012 when voters denied the effort.  

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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