On Tuesday, Alabama will vote on Amendment 4, which would delete segregationist language from the Alabama Constitution. Officially named Senate Bill 112, the proposed Amendment eliminates the poll tax and deletes the following provision:
“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.”
This language has been part of the Alabama Constitution since 1901, which generally is regarded as one of the most restrictive state constitutions in the nation. Campbell Robertson of the New York Times frames the current debate surrounding Amendment 4 as follows: “the degree to which racist language can be surgically removed from a document that was constructed primarily on the ground of racism.” Although most outside Alabama may see it as a foregone conclusion that such blatantly racist language should be removed from the constitution, the outcome is far from certain.
A similar amendment failed in 2004 primarily because opponents argued that eliminating the language would result in increased taxes to fund education. The current Amendment 4 does not propose to delete language that says the state has no obligation to provide public education, which proponents hope will neutralize the anti-tax opposition.
The Conservative Christians of Alabama website has this to say about Amendment 4:
“This amendment will have no legal impact, and accomplishes nothing legally. the only purpose is for the politically correct to feel good.” (sic)
The Amendment is set forth in a sample ballot from Baldwin County:
“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to repeal portions of Amendment 111, now appearing as Section 256 of the Official Recompilation of the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, as amended, relating to separation of schools by race and to the repeal of Section 259, Amendment 90, and Amendment 109, relating to the poll tax (Proposed by Act No. 2011-353).”
The Amendment seeks to accomplish a very limited goal, which some criticize because it avoids a necessary conversation about the state’s history of institutional racism. Dr. Wayne Flynt, Professor Emeritus at Auburn University, voted “yes” to the proposed Amendment in 2004 but has decided to vote “no” on Amendment 4 because he wants Alabama “to have a serious conversation about the pernicious policies of our racial past, not about [the Constitution’s] hateful language.”
Dr. Flynt’s frustration is understandable. The cosmetic revision of deleting offensive language is superficial. This debate calls to mind Frederick Douglass and his famous speech “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?” Douglass observed that our nation’s Constitution was written by slaveholders and had been cited as recognizing the institution of slavery. Rather than separate from the Constitution as a document, he argued the abolitionist movement should use the document to support its anti-slavery argument. Douglass noted that although proponents of slavery “have given the Constitution a slaveholding interpretation” and “have committed innumerable wrongs against the Negro in the name of the Constitution,” it “does not follow that the Constitution is in favour of these wrongs” because it has had that interpretation in the past.
Dr. Flynt is correct that the measure only “cosmetically” addresses Alabama’s deep seeded and troubling racial history. However, eliminating the explicit racism of separate but equal language is a valuable goal if incremental change is considered progress. One can hope that Amendment 4 is a start to the conversation Dr. Flynt rightly believes must occur. The battle against racism will not end with a successful vote. Progressives in Alabama should take up Douglass’s directive to “make the [Constitution] bend to the cause of freedom and justice” and seek change in more direct and tangible efforts.