On this day in history, Alabama adopted its current constitution, set to come into effect on November 28 of 1901. It is the longest still-operative constitution anywhere in the world. With more than 800 amendments, it is 12 times longer than the average state constitution, and 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution.
It is also notable for its provisions allowing for racial discrimination, some of which have still not been eliminated, although many of them have been made moot by amendments to the federal constitution, passage of federal laws, or United States Supreme Court decisions.
At the 1901 Constitutional Convention, the President of the Constitutional Convention, John B. Knox, a Calhoun County attorney, stated in his inaugural address that the intention of the convention was “to establish white supremacy in this State,” “within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution.” This was an undoubtedly important consideration since the 1900 population included 1,001,152 whites and 827,307 African-Americans.
Knox maintained that the people of Alabama had confronted no more important issue than disfranchisement since the 1860 secession vote:
So long as the Negro remains in significant minority, and votes the Republican ticket, our friends in the North tolerate him. . . . But if we would have white supremacy we must establish it by law — not by force or fraud.”
As Wayne Flynt, Distinguished Professor of History, Auburn University wrote, Knox justified discrimination not on “race” per se, but on the Negro’s inferior intellectual and moral condition:
[There was] in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the Negro. Before the art of reading and writing was known, the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon had established an orderly system of government . . . the Negro on the other hand, is descended from a race lowest in intelligence and moral perceptions of all the races of men.” (See “Alabama’s Shame: Historical Origins of the 1901 Constitution” by Wayne Flynt, online here.)
Thus, Knox successfully guided the convention to enact constitutional provisions requiring voters to pass literacy tests in order to register, establishing a poll tax, outlawing interracial marriage, and requiring public education to be racially segregated.
In 1956, subsequent to the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483, 1954), in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional, the Alabama legislature passed a constitutional amendment supporting the formation of private, tuition-based schools to evade desegregation.
Today, Alabama’s schools remain highly segregated to this day. As “Atlantic Magazine” reported in a story about Tuscaloosa, Alabama:
Schools in the South, once the most segregated in the country, had by the 1970s become the most integrated, typically as a result of federal court orders. But since 2000, judges have released hundreds of school districts, from Mississippi to Virginia, from court-enforced integration, and many of these districts have followed the same path as Tuscaloosa’s — back toward segregation. Black children across the South now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. Nationally, the achievement gap between black and white students, which greatly narrowed during the era in which schools grew more integrated, widened as they became less so.”
The author added:
… the overwhelming body of research shows that once black children were given access to advanced courses, well-trained teachers, and all the other resources that tend to follow white, middle-income children, they began to catch up.”
Then there is the issue of interracial marriage.
The state constitution outlawed interracial marriage (Section 102). This provision was rendered inoperative by Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1, 1967), but was not removed until November, 2000 by Amendment 667.
As originally enacted, Section 102 held:
The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.”
As recently as 1998, Alabama House leaders successfully killed attempts to remove Section 102. By the time of the 2000 ballot referendum, interracial marriage had been legal in every state for more than three decades. After the 2000 vote of 59% supporting removing the language, versus 41% opposed, Alabama became the last state officially legalizing interracial marriage.
Interestingly, a poll before the referendum found that about 63 percent of those who responded favored lifting the ban on interracial marriage while 26 percent were opposed. Ten percent said they were not sure or had no reply. Apparently their true sentiments came out in the privacy of the ballot box.