The rat in ratification
The Birmingham News
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Editorial

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THE ISSUE: Alabamians voted on the 1901 Constitution 106 years ago today. Only through massive voter fraud in the Black Belt were there enough votes to ratify this grievously flawed document.

On this day 106 years ago, Alabama voters approved a new constitution 108,613 to 81,734, a margin of almost 27,000.

Ten days later, Gov. W.D. Jelks pronounced the constitution ratified. "I, THEREFORE, Proclaim that the said new Constitution so ratified shall go into effect as the Constitution of the State of Alabama on Thursday, it being the twenty-eighth day of November, 1901, and shall thenceforth be binding and obligatory as such upon the people of this State."

Binding, indeed. As in, constricting. The grievously flawed 1901 Constitution for decades denied hundreds of thousands of blacks and poor whites their right to vote. It still concentrates power in Montgomery, stripping county governments of the full power they need to run their own affairs. It empowers special interests that, with their control of the Legislature, have embedded in the constitution lucrative tax exemptions and earmarks for themselves while starving the state's coffers for schools, services and roads.

Why would Alabama voters, especially black voters, approve such a document? They didn't, at least not of their own volition. Instead, supporters of the new constitution, who campaigned openly on a platform of white supremacy and honest elections because they were tired of stealing elections, stole the election. They did so in Alabama's Black Belt, long the site of voter fraud, by "voting the Negro," to use the terminology of the time.

While the final margin for ratifying the new constitution was almost 27,000, the vote totals in Black Belt counties show how supporters swiped the election. The 12 Black Belt counties, with blacks making up more than two-thirds of the population, voted 36,224 to 5,471 for the constitution, and these counties were late in reporting their vote, according to "Constitutional Development in Alabama," Malcolm McMillan's definitive book on the 1901 Constitution. The rest of the state voted 76,263 to 72,389 against the constitution.

Blacks in Black Belt counties would have had to vote in favor of the constitution in startling numbers for the constitution to be approved statewide. Yet blacks were well aware of what was going on. Led by Booker T. Washington, most black leaders opposed ratification. One black journalist warned: "It is goodbye with poor white folks and (blacks), now, for the train of disfranchisement is on the rail and will come upon us like an avalanche."

That avalanche still smothers Alabama. It is true that federal court decisions and laws have restored voting rights. But the 1901 constitution continues to bury efficiency and innovation in local governments, forcing constitutional amendments for routine matters, and about 800 of them clutter the state's fundamental charter. It ties up virtually all state spending on specific projects, preventing lawmakers from responding to critical needs. And the constitution locks in an immoral tax system that tilts heavily toward the landed and the wealthy.

When the Legislature goes into session in February, it should pass a bill that would let the people decide - in an honest election - whether they want a convention of their fellow citizens to write a new fundamental charter for Alabama.

It won't make up for 106 years of constitution-fueled racial injustice, shabby treatment of the poor and ill, wretchedly funded schools and throttled local governments, all for the benefit of an oligarchy of the deep-pocketed. But letting the people vote would be a start toward undoing the massive fraud of Nov. 11, 1901.

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