Danehy: The Alabama Constitution Could Use a Tune Up

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Sometimes you have to look at the calendar to remind yourself that we really are two decades into the 21st century. And even then, we can’t always be sure. Consider the news coming out of Alabama.

Next year, a whole lot of Alabamans (is it Alabamans or Alabamians…or Backward Toad People?) will have the opportunity to vote on a new state constitution. It turns out that their current one (which has been in effect since 1901), is as racist as a Trump rally on Nathan Bedford Forrest’s birthday. 

Alabama has actually had six constitutions. The original one was drawn up in 1819, when the Alabama Territory became a state. Then there was a new one in 1861 after Alabama seceded from the Union. Then, after Alabama and its vulgar racist brethren took that ass-whuppin’ in the Civil War, that was followed in 1865 and again in 1868 by what are known as the Reconstruction Constitutions. A few years after that, Alabama adopted the Ending Reconstruction Constitution (they had had enough of that “freedom for all” stuff). 

Finally, spurred on by the successful KKK-led coup that removed duly elected Black officeholders, burned-out Black-owned businesses, and slaughtered an untold number of Black citizens in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, the white leaders of Alabama decided to go full-frontal un-American in writing a new Constitution. As a citizen of the United States, it’s hard for me to imagine that a document this disgusting could have been official at any time during our nation’s history. The fact that it has been in effect for 120 years and is still the law of that state boggles the mind.

When the current constitution was being proposed, the president of the constitutional convention, John Knox, said in a speech, “The new constitution eliminates the ignorant Negro vote and places the control of our government where God almighty intended it should be—with the Anglo-Saxon race.”

As Robert Wuhl said in Good Morning, Vietnam, there’s not much gray area there (no color pun intended). 

Alabama politicians were no less blunt, adopting a proclamation saying that the new constitution was intended “to establish white supremacy in this state.”

Among the abominations in the document is this: “The Legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or descendant of a negro.” (I wonder why “Negro” is capitalized, but “descendant of a negro” is not. I’ve always thought that Southern mentality was that descendants of Black people, even after three or four generations, are still considered Black.)

That passage was left in the Alabama Constitution even after the United States Supreme Court, in 1967, struck down all such laws (in the case of Loving v. Virginia). It was finally removed in 2000 after being put to a statewide vote, but even then… Less than 60% of the Alabama electorate voted to get rid of the anti-miscegenation law and nearly half of the state’s counties voted to keep it in the state Constitution.  

Then there’s this: Section 256 (still) says that “separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, outlawing school segregation, Alabama doubled down, passing an amendment in 1956 that said that the state didn’t recognize a widely accepted right to publicly funded education for all young people. The “thinking” was that if Alabama claimed not to believe in any such right to free public education, they could set up quasi-private schools that could still be segregated.

We all saw how that worked out in Forrest Gump.

There was an amendment in the Alabama Constitution making it illegal for women to vote. There are descriptions of how to disenfranchise Black people who had previously had the right to vote. There is wording outlining the use of literacy tests and poll taxes to keep Black people from voting. Also, for decades, the constitution made voting illegal for “idiots and insane persons,” people who were married to someone of another race, those who had committed “a crime against nature” (being gay), and even those who had been convicted of vagrancy.

The crazy thing is that this document isn’t written in stone (although it does appear to have been written by Stone Age people). The Alabama Constitution comes in at just under 400,000 words! (The average length of a state constitution in this country is just over 30,000 words.) The Alabama constitution is more than 50 times longer than the U.S. Constitution. 

Along with the screaming racism, it’s also filled with all kinds of other nonsense. While the U.S. Constitution has 27 Amendments, the one in Alabama has a stunning 977 amendments. Many are picky little things installed by rural politicians who ruled Alabama for generations. (For example, the 480th amendment deals with the salary of the probate judge in Greene County.)

Just as here in Arizona, the Alabama State Legislature has far too much power over cities and counties in the state. Only a handful of the state’s 67 counties have even limited home rule, making it easier to keep Black people from voting. 

Or, as they say in Alabama, “Negros or descendants of negros.” 

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