MONTGOMERY — No final decisions were made about what racist language should be taken out of the Alabama constitution on Thursday, but discussion is ongoing about why certain sections should be removed that may not appear obviously racist.
Sections of the constitution that mention segregation of schools or a state poll tax have more explicit language that led to the discrimination of Black Alabamians, but other sections regarding incarcerated labor or public-school systems may be harder to navigate, leaders said.
The committee designated to make the edits decided to hold off on taking any votes until the public comment period ends Sept. 7.
The committee was created after Alabama voters approved a recompilation amendment during the 2020 general election allowing the Legislature to revise the state constitution that was ratified in 1901.
Multiple members of the committee including Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who sponsored the legislation to create the panel, said removing the language is still important.
“That constitution sets up who we are as a state and sends a message out about who we are,” Coleman said. “And so it is important for us to let folks know that we are a 21st century Alabama, that we’re not the same Alabama of 1901 that didn’t want black and white folks to get married, that didn’t think that black and white children should go to school together.”
The revisions are to be limited to removing racist language, deleting duplicative or repealed provisions, consolidating economic development provisions and arranging all local constitutional amendments by the county of application.
Some of the comments submitted so far to the committee have expressed support for the removal of all three sections dealing with race, while other comments say there is no need for removal since they are either not enforceable or were not obviously racist.
Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, explained to committee members that one of the least controversial sections of the constitution that he believes should be taken out regards a state poll tax.
Alabama no longer has a poll tax, which was regularly used to disenfranchise Black voters, so the language in section 259 of the constitution is obsolete, Lathram said.
Another section that was discussed relates to the abolition of slavery. Section 32 of the constitution states that “no form of slavery shall exist in the state; and there shall not be any involuntary servitude, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, of which the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Lathram suggests taking out the part of the sentence that relates to a punishment of crime, explaining that, historically, that clause has been used as a loophole to create free labor that put many Black Alabamians in dangerous working conditions.
Alabama’s language is similar to what is stated in the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution, and national movements have been growing in the past decade to remove that language as well, NPR reported.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, said he was hesitant to make edits to this section because it is so similar to the national amendment that abolished slavery.
“There are a lot of things out there that are neutral that were abused and this may or may not have been abused, that is before my time,” Givhan said. “I certainly can’t say that I have researched that, but this is coming out of the 13 amendment, and I don’t see how we can take a position that this is overtly racist language, and I think to push on this issue would undermine the work that we are charged with.”
Lathram also said that changing the language would not impact anything currently done in state prisons.
The panel also discussed section 256, which was ratified in 1956 after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended school segregation.
The Alabama constitution contains explicit language of separate schools by race. Also suggested was the removal of “peace and order” language, which was a result of fears at the time from white Alabamians.
Panelist Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said he wants to do more research on the language edits, especially concerning education. He chairs the Ways and Means Education Committee.
“I don’t want any unintended consequences and I want to make sure we do the right thing in respect to the racist language. I think the people who opposed this last time, if we are not addressing that, then what’s different,” Garrett said.
Alabama voters have twice rejected similar efforts to edit the state constitution since 2000.
The next meeting of the committee will be Oct. 13. People wishing to submit a comment can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 334-261-0690.