Alabama to vote on removing racist words from constitution

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Voters in Alabama will decide next month whether to remove racist language from the state’s 111-year-old constitution, and the ballot measure has drawn opposition from what might seem an unlikely group: black lawmakers.

Amendment 4 asks voters if they support deleting references to separate schools for white and black children and a poll tax, wording already invalidated long ago by federal law.

The measure’s sponsor, Republican state Senator Arthur Orr, says the changes are needed to help Alabama move beyond its history of racial segregation as the state competes globally for economic development.

But some black legislators and the Alabama Education Association teachers union are urging voters to reject the amendment on November 6. They fear removing the controversial language while also leaving in wording that does not guarantee a free public education to school children could do more damage.

The amendment could lead to more support for vouchers and private schools while hurting efforts to increase funding for public schools, opponents said.

“This is old sleight of hand that appears to be giving something worth nothing and taking away something that is valuable to the future of our children,” said Hank Sanders, a Democratic state senator and leader in the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus.

“Amendment 4 is just putting lipstick on the Constitution,” he said.

Supporters say the measure does not tamper with education rights and would not have any impact on funding.

“This bill does not change the landscape for education,” said Othni Lathram, director of the Alabama Law Institute, a legislative agency that helps revise out-of-date laws.

If approved, the amendment would delete wording that permitted schools to be separated by race. The language was added in 1956 as a last-ditch effort by the state to avoid a federal court order to desegregate Alabama schools, said Howard Walthall, a constitutional law expert at Samford University.

Language that says “nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense” would still stand - validation, Sanders worries, of a legal opt-out on public education.

Alabama voters defeated a similar amendment in 2004. That measure reinstated language from the original 1901 constitution that guaranteed children the right to a publicly funded education, and critics warned it could result in higher taxes.

Orr said he decided to raise the issue again after learning racist language in the state’s governing document had been used against Alabama. During a hot competition for a German company, a rival recruiter pointed to the controversial wording as a reason to avoid moving to the state, Orr said.

“Having such language in the state’s most important document is abhorrent and repugnant, and we need to remove something that has long since been rejected by the people of Alabama,” Orr said.

Even if voters reject the latest amendment, the racist language could soon be scrubbed from the constitution.

A committee is working to rewrite each section of the Alabama Constitution of 1901, a cumbersome process given that the document includes more than 800 amendments.

The group is set to begin work on the education section next year, and Walthall said that effort would likely result in the controversial wording being taken out.

“Neither the folks who are supporting Amendment 4 nor the good people who are against are opposing removing racist language,” he said.

Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Doina Chiacu