Alabama segregation amendment could put voters in a bind
by Tim Lockette
Oct 14, 2012 | 10581 views |  0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — The last time voters considered taking racial segregation out of the Alabama Constitution, the effort went down in flames.

In all, 688,530 Alabama residents voted to strike out references that demand “separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children.” But 690,296 voted to keep the phrase. The words remained, and headlines around the world noted that the state voted against integration.

It didn’t happen in 1954. It happened in 2004. And Arthur Orr is hoping it won’t happen again.

“It’s important to address this issue and show that Alabama is a much different place than it was in the past,” said Orr, a Republican state senator from Decatur. Orr was the Senate sponsor of Amendment 4, a measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that will again give voters the chance to take school segregation — as well as the state’s poll tax — out of the Constitution of 1901.

Nothing will change, either in schools or at the polls, if the amendment fails. School segregation was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1954. The poll tax was prohibited in the 1960s by the Voting Rights Act.

But Orr believes the stakes are still high. Passage of the amendment would mean no more eyebrow-raising moments when outsiders discover that Alabama’s most shameful law is still on the books, while failure would mean another round of ridicule by out-of-state observers.

“The last time, the national news reported that Alabama had failed to reject segregation,” Orr said. “It played into all the negative stereotypes of our state.”

But the amendment has already run into opposition, from a seemingly unlikely quarter. This time,

it’s black leaders who may have to be won over because the measure leaves some segregation-era wording intact.

No right to education

When the anti-segregation amendment was first proposed in 2004, it seemed as though Alabamians were about to close another door on the state’s troubled past. Segregation was an artifact of another century, and many voters couldn’t even remember a time when color forced someone to the back of the bus.

But the measure ran afoul of the state’s conservative activists. Former Chief Justice Roy Moore, known for his battle over a Ten Commandments monument he placed on the grounds of the Alabama Supreme Court, saw in the amendment a path to court-mandated education spending increases.

Critics of the amendment were concerned because the 2004 proposal would have repealed portions of Amendment 111, a 1956 measure that declares that “nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense.” If education were a right, the theory went, judges could declare that students’ rights were being violated by poorly funded schools, and order more spending.

Some of the amendment’s supporters said the “no right to education” wording was nearly as racist as the wording about separation of “white and colored children.”

Historian Wayne Flynt said that’s a sound interpretation.

“After the Brown decisions, the … Legislature in 1956 passed Amendment 111, sometimes called the Boutwell Amendment to resist integration of schools,” wrote Flynt, a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, in an email to The Star.

The sponsor of that amendment, state Sen. Albert Boutwell of Birmingham, clearly believed Amendment 111 was designed to defeat integration, if press accounts from the time are accurate.

“It provides a means to ensure an all-white school for every white child and an all-Negro school for every Negro in Alabama — rich or poor,” Boutwell told the Gadsden Kiwanis Club, according to the Aug. 25, 1956, edition of The Gadsden Times.

In Associated Press accounts from the time, the 1956 amendment is described as a measure that would allow the state to abolish public schools as an alternative to integrating them.

But that wasn’t enough to convince voters in 2004 that the “no-right-to-education” wording was as inherently racist — and as deserving of elimination — as the passage that expressly mandated school segregation.

The Alabama voting public was almost evenly split between the two views of the 2004 anti-segregation proposal. The amendment failed by fewer than 2,000 votes.

A black eye

Orr seems determined to get the measure passed this time, even if it means walking on political eggshells.

Asked how he voted on the 2004 amendment, Orr said he wasn’t in the Legislature at the time. He also said he doesn’t remember how he voted on the 2004 amendment when it was on the ballot statewide.

When he pushed his own anti-segregation amendment through the Legislature in 2011, he ended with a bill that preserved the no-right-to-education wording passed in 1956.

“This focuses straight on the segregation language in the constitution and nothing else,” he said. “Back in 2004, the state took a black eye, and we can’t let that happen again.”

Orr said people should look past other issues and vote on the most important issue on the ballot — integration, and the state’s reputation.

But this time, it’s Democrats who are skeptical of the measure. Orr’s bill originally had a host of sponsors from both parties, but the final vote on it broke along party lines, with many Democrats saying no.

“It seems to be about integration, but a lot of stuff in there is bad,” said Joe L. Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, one of the state’s most influential black political groups.

Reed said that in sample ballots the group sends out, the ADC will urge its supporters to vote no. There’s no concrete loss to the black community if the constitution stays as it is, he said.

“This has already been overturned by federal decree,” he said.

Roy Moore, a vocal critic of the 2004 proposal, wouldn’t say whether he supports the new version of the anti-segregation bill. He responded only with a prepared statement, which his spokesman, Rich Hobson, read to The Star in a phone interview.

“I am involved in a race for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, and am not commenting on amendments on the same ballot,” Moore’s statement said.

Moore is running as a Republican for the chief justice seat. Attempts to reach his opponent, Democratic Circuit Judge Robert Vance Jr., on Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful.

Voters will go to the polls Nov. 6.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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