I wrote earlier about the Alabama constitutional amendment to remove segregationist language from the state constitution. Seems like a no brainer, right?
Guess again. Alabaman’s voted against the amendment.
On that long-ago day of Alabama’s great shame, Gov. George C. Wallace (D) stood in a schoolhouse door and declared that his state’s constitution forbade black students to enroll at the University of Alabama.
He was correct.
If Wallace could be brought back to life today to reprise his 1963 moment of infamy outside Foster Auditorium, he would still be correct. Alabama voters made sure of that Nov. 2, refusing to approve a constitutional amendment to erase segregation-era wording requiring separate schools for “white and colored children” and to eliminate references to the poll taxes once imposed to disenfranchise blacks.
The vote was so close — a margin of 1,850 votes out of 1.38 million — that an automatic recount will take place Monday. But, with few expecting the results to change, the amendment’s saga has dragged Alabama into a confrontation with its segregationist past that illuminates the sometimes uneasy race relations of its present.
Mind boggling. I guess the upside is that it was a close vote, and a slim margin. But considering that it’s 2004, the downside is there’s no way the vote should have been close at all. What argument can be made today for keeping such language in a state constitution? Well, try and follow this one.
There are competing theories about the defeat of Amendment 2, the measure that would have taken “colored children” and segregated schools out of Alabama’s constitution. One says latent, persistent racism was to blame; another says voters are suspicious of all constitutional amendments; and a third says it was not about race but about taxes.
The amendment had two main parts: the removal of the separate-schools language and the removal of a passage — inserted in the 1950s in an attempt to counter the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated public schools — that said Alabama’s constitution does not guarantee a right to a public education. Leading opponents, such as Alabama Christian Coalition President John Giles, said they did not object to removing the passage about separate schools for “white and colored children.” But, employing an argument that was ridiculed by most of the state’s newspapers and by legions of legal experts, Giles and others said guaranteeing a right to a public education would have opened a door for “rogue” federal judges to order the state to raise taxes to pay for improvements in its public school system.
The argument plays to Alabama’s primal fear of federal control, a fear born of years of resentment over U.S. courts’ ordering the desegregation of schools and the creation of black-majority legislative districts.
Does it pass the laugh test? No. Is it plausible enough to allow people to convince themselves that they’re not racist? Only just. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and uttered that the south was forever lost to the Democrats afterwards, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie. And it’s no coincidence that the Republican party has become the “states rights” party either.