Legislators this week took the first formal steps in a process that could eliminate racist language in the Alabama Constitution — and, maybe, make it more readable.
The Committee on the Recompilation of the Constitution met for the first time Tuesday to hear a presentation on ways to reorganize local amendments in the state's constitution. The committee, which will carry out the decrees of a constitutional amendment approved by voters last November, should take up racist language at its meeting in September.
"It's for citizens to know what laws apply to them," said Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, in an interview after the meeting. "750-plus of the 970-some-odd amendments apply in only one county or one city. The vast majority of amendments we talk about are local amendments."
The committee could consider retaining the current chronological organization of the amendments, or organizing them by county or topic. It did not make a decision on Tuesday.
Alabama's 1901 Constitution disenfranchised Black Alabamians and poor whites, and supporters made explicitly racists appeals to white voters to enact it. The day the Constitution received approval — likely through massive fraud in the Black Belt — the Montgomery Advertiser announced that "The Citizens of Alabama Declare For White Supremacy and Purity of Ballot."
Most of the racist aspects of the Constitution have been nullified by constitutional amendments or court decisions. But previous efforts to remove the language have foundered over questions about Amendment 111. The provision, passed in 1956 amid white hysteria over the Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools, said the state of Alabama "did not recognize any right to education or training at public expense."
A 2004 proposal to remove the language would also have jettisoned Amendment 111. The proposal drew the opposition of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and others who claimed that it would jeopardize private schools and lead to tax increases. The amendment failed to pass by about 2,000 votes, out of 1.4 million cast.
A 2012 amendment to remove the racist language would have retained Amendment 111. The Alabama Education Association and Black legislators campaigned against the proposal, saying it could complicate efforts to increase public school funding in Alabama. Almost 61% of voters that year voted no on the proposal.
Last year's amendment passed with about 67% of the vote. The committee will submit a proposed amendment to the Legislature for consideration next year that would remove racist language and reorganize the Constitution. But Nancy Ekburg, with Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform, said at the meeting that the committee would not rewrite the state's governing document.
"We don't have a mandate to rewrite the Constitution," she said. "I want to make sure people understand that. We are only recompiling the document."
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove, who sponsored last November's amendment and chaired Tuesday's meeting, has said removal of the language would be a symbolic act that could show Alabama trying to move on from its racist past.
Lathram said he plans to make presentations on the racist language within the state's governing document at the scheduled Sept. 2 meeting.
The committee will also look at amendments focused on economic development.
If the Legislature approves the changes proposed by the committee, the measure will go to voters for approval in November 2022.
Public comments can be submitted to the committee through Sept. 7 by emailing Lathram at firstname.lastname@example.org.