Racist language may soon be gone from Alabama’s constitution

When Alabama’s state constitution was written in 1901 by 155 white men, their goal was to “establish white supremacy in this state.” The document has been hotly debated ever since. Earlier this month, the state legislature took an important step: voting unanimously to delete the racist language that remains in the document. Special Correspondent Megan Thompson reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Most people might not think often about their state constitution, but Alabama's governing document has been hotly debated since it was written in 1901.

    Earlier this month, the Alabama Senate passed some important changes to the constitution that will be on the ballot for voters this fall.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Megan Thompson reports from Montgomery for our series, "Alabama Reckoning," exploring the state efforts to address the racism of its past.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Felt Thompson and Evan Milligan share two passions: music and politics.

  • Felt Thompson:

    We're trying to change the playing field here through music.

  • Megan Thompson:

    They put out an album in February, through an artists collective called "Shake the Field." Using art to encourage more civic engagement, their new songs are all about political issues.

  • Felt Thompson:

    A song about grief, a song about social justice work

  • Evan Milligan:

    Alabama's prisons, our state constitution.

  • Music lyrics:

    Back in 1901 They got together / To make our homeland the greatest / Sat down wrote a constitution….

  • Megan Thompson:

    You might be wondering, why would anyone write a song about a state constitution?

  • Felt Thompson:

    That document is despicable and disgusting.

  • Evan Milligan:

    Really, really, really, really, really awful.

  • Megan Thompson:

    How so?

  • Felt Thompson:

    In the song, I say, written with the devil's pen. Because it was specifically written to keep people of my hue in a certain place.

  • Music lyrics:

    No more stealing votes from the Blacks folks / we'll just take their rights away

  • Megan Thompson:

    It turns out, the state constitution of Alabama has been the subject of criticism and contest since it was drafted at the turn of the last century.

  • Steve Murray:

    So we're looking at the original signed copy of the Alabama State Constitution of 1901.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Steve Murray is the director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

  • Steve Murray:

    We the people of the state of Alabama, in order to establish justice…

  • Megan Thompson:

    Murray explains that after reconstruction ended in Alabama in the mid-1870's, a coalition of white agricultural and industrial elites came to power. They sought lower taxes and lax regulation. But a rival populist movement made up of African Americans and rural whites threatened their control.

  • Steve Murray:

    There were legitimate political challenges in the form of the populists who came close to actually winning important elections in state government in the 1890s. So the adoption of this document in 1901 was intended to legally shrink the electorate and consolidate power.

  • Megan Thompson:

    To write the new constitution, 155 white men gathered in Montgomery in May 1901. John Knox, the president of the convention, made their goal clear: "to establish white supremacy in this state." Alabama voters approved the new constitution that fall in an election riddled with fraud. In some majority Black counties, more people were recorded as voting for it than actually lived there.

  • Steve Murray:

    This is something that's painful to see and read. But this is the reality. And you can see this, the headline says, 'The citizens of Alabama declare for white supremacy and purity of ballot.'

  • Megan Thompson:

    The new constitution made law several tactics to suppress the Black vote.

  • Steve Murray:

    And so that included either owning property or either owning land or owning personal property of a certain value, being able to pay a poll tax, being able to pass a literacy test.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And it worked. The number of Black Alabamians registered to vote fell from 180,000 in 1900 to fewer than 3,000 by 1903. The new constitution also segregated schools and banned interracial marriage. And, to satisfy the drafters' financial interests, it also capped the property tax at a low rate.

  • Steve Murray:

    So the state's tax structure is actually created within its core governing document, which is unusual. Most states do not operate that way.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And, to make sure those dissenting rural areas were kept in check, the constitution took power away from municipalities and centralized it in the legislature. Today, the offensive sections on race are no longer in force. They've been struck down by amendment, federal law and the Supreme Court. But the racist language is still sitting in the document. And other sections that are in force still contain references to the poll tax and school segregation.

  • Felt Thompson:

    It's despicable that it's actually written in a legal document that you know, you will be looked at as less than. You will be looked at as trash, you will be looked at as do for me, but I won't do for you. You know.

  • Evan Milligan:

    The way that this system was designed, the racial, lens of it. And that's still very real here as far as every metric.

  • Merika Coleman:

    What I have in my hand is one of the most significant things that I've done as a member of this body.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Merika Coleman is a member of the Alabama House of Representatives.

  • Merika Coleman:

    And what this resolution does is removes the racist language from the Alabama State Constitution.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Coleman's resolution would eliminate references to the poll tax and school segregation, and delete sections that have already been repealed. It passed the Alabama senate unanimously this month and will go to a statewide vote this fall. For Coleman, it's partly about improving Alabama's reputation.

  • Merika Coleman:

    When I think about all of the new industry that we try to recruit here, for many of them, the only image that they have of Alabama is hoses on African-American youth in the streets of Birmingham. That's the image they have. That's not who we are. We're not perfect, but that's not who we are today.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Coleman also proposes deleting a section about involuntary servitude that remains legal.

  • Steve Murray:

    No form of slavery shall exist in this 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.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution contains nearly identical language, as do 19 other state constitutions. Opponents argue it legalizes forced labor in prisons. In Alabama, it was used until 1928 to justify the state's convict lease system. Prisoners, overwhelmingly Black, and often arrested on trumped-up charges, were leased to private industry to do harsh manual labor for no pay.

  • Steve Murray:

    It was a horrible institution. Alabama was the last state to abolish the convict lease system.

  • Megan Thompson:

    In the last four years, three states have deleted language on involuntary servitude, and Tennessee will have an amendment on the ballot this fall, like Alabama's.

  • Merika Coleman:

    I hope Alabama, which oftentimes and it's so sad to say, is forty eight or forty ninth or sometime 50th, except for in football, that in this instance that we are ahead of the eight ball or we're at the top. And maybe we can be an example for other states around the country.

  • Megan Thompson:

    While Coleman's resolution would eradicate these dated, racist provisions, it won't touch some of the other ideas from 1901 that continue to hamper the state. Today, Alabama has the second-to-lowest tax collections per capita in the nation. To fund operations and social services, the state relies heavily on the sales tax, which falls disproportionately on the poor. If a town or county wants to raise taxes or make other changes, they can. but they must do it through an amendment to the constitution, which requires approval by a supermajority of the legislature, and then, in some cases, the voters of the entire state.

  • Merika Coleman:

    And so what happens is a lot of the time we spend in the legislature is on local issues, an issue that only impacts one county or one city.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And this creates another problem. Since 1901, the document has been amended almost 1,000 times.

  • Megan Thompson:

    At somewhere around 400,000 words, Alabama's constitution is 50 times longer than the U.S. constitution. Not only is it the longest state constitution by far, it's thought to be the longest constitution in the world.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Coleman says the sheer length of the document makes it almost incomprehensible, as her recent work on a voter fraud task force demonstrated.

  • Merika Coleman:

    And even us going through the election articles was really hard. Just one topic, really hard because it will refer to one article or one code section. That code section would then disavow another code section. It's crazy.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So you're a lawyer and a state legislator and you're having a hard time figuring it out.

  • Merika Coleman:

    And I was having a hard time. The whole group of us was having a hard time.

  • Megan Thompson:

    To help make it at least a little bit more user-friendly, Coleman proposes to recompile the whole document, grouping amendments by county and putting economic development provisions in the same place.

    There have been numerous attempts to overhaul the constitution over the years, including a lawsuit that made it to the supreme court, reforms proposed by seven governors, Democrat and Republican, and repeated calls for a new constitutional convention. Most all have failed, stymied by the legislature, courts or special interests.

    Coleman's resolution has had virtually no opposition, partially because it won't touch the issues that have been controversial in the past. Which raises the question: how much of a difference will it actually make?

  • Merika Coleman:

    Some people have said, Well, what does this really do? It sets up who we are as the state of Alabama. Your state constitution sets up your value system. And that 1901 Constitution didn't see me as equal. And so I think it's really important for us to use that symbol as a catapult to not only change the wording, but to change the hearts and minds.

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