The Huntsville Times
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. _ Alabama's racist past will rear its ugly head again if the Legislature bogs down over a resurrected attempt to remove racist language from its 1901 constitution.
State lawmakers must resist the urge to demagogue.
A similar proposed constitutional amendment was rejected by voters in 2004 after a misleading campaign that it would trigger higher taxes for education.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, plans to lead the latest reform. Racist language referencing poll taxes and segregated schools harm Alabama's image when recruiting economic development projects, he said. Section 256, for example, reads,
"Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of another race."
Constitutional references to Alabama's "poll tax," which was used to disenfranchise African-Americans from voting until passage of the landmark 1965 Federal Voting Rights Act, would also be removed by Orr's amendment if approved by voters statewide.
"Critics of this amendment will say that federal court rulings and other measures have rendered this racist language moot, but if that is the case, what is the harm in taking a proactive step and letting the nation know that the Alabama of 2011 refutes these beliefs," Orr said.
The proposal is already drawing political attacks. Senate minority leader Roger Bedford, a longtime proponent of rewriting Alabama's constitution, called Orr's proposal merely a "Band-aid" rather than a fix of Alabama's outdated constitution.
Bedford, D-Russellville, plans a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to completely overhaul the constitution (edit by jared bickford). If Orr is serious, Bedford said, "he and his Republican friends should join me in casting aside this constitution that is now the oldest, longest and most amended in the United States."
If the Bedford-Orr jockeying is a foreshadow of things to come, the language removal effort could be another of those sensible matters that needlessly sidetrack lawmakers from dealing with more pressing issues.
Why not pass both measures? Voters would have the final say on each.
In the 2004 racist language-removal debate, lawmakers got into a raucous argument over an effort backed by black lawmakers and others to strip another racist-era provision: a 1956 amendment barring any right to an education at public expense in Alabama.
Critics, led by then-Chief Justice Roy Moore, warned that would open the door to more court-ordered spending on schools. The amendment stuck, however, and was included on the ballot.
On Nov. 2, 2004, Alabama voters narrowly defeated the amendment that would have removed the racist language. drawing national scorn complete with news footage of racial strife.
Lawmakers should support Orr in removing the racist language.
Legislators should also support Bedford in his push for a wholesale rewrite by a convention of elected-citizen delegates with the final draft subject to statewide ratification by voters.
Bull Connor, George Wallace and Jim Crow are dead. It's time to bury the language of their era and the century that preceded them.
And it's time for a constitution that brings Alabama's governing framework into the 21st Century.
By John Peck for the editorial board. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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