Everybody’s talking about the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Nobody’s talking about Alabama Senate Bill 112. That needs to change.
The recent shooting of Trayvon Martin has launched yet another painful national conversation about race. What has failed to launch a painful national conversation about race is Alabama Senate Bill 112–a ballot measure that, pending approval by the voters in November 2012, would excise two especially ugly parts of the state’s lengthy, outdated constitution.
The first ugly part can be found in § 256:
The legislature shall establish, organize, and maintain a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children thereof between the ages of seven and twenty-one years. The public school fund shall be apportioned to the several counties in proportion to the number of school children of school age therein, and shall be so apportioned to the schools in the districts or townships in the counties as to provide, as nearly as practicable, school terms of equal duration in such school districts or townships. Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.
§ 256 was a critical piece of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, a document that was drafted to finally “remedy” the privations caused by Reconstruction and codify the “negrophobia” that was sweeping the South. John Knox, the president of the 1901 constitutional convention, opened proceedings with the following remarks:
There is a difference…between the uneducated white man and the ignorant negro. There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro.
Knox’s remarks were echoed by other Democratic leaders throughout the South. James Vardaman, who would serve as Governor of Mississippi from 1904 to 1908, criticized the mischief caused by directing public funds to African-American schools:
Money spent today for the maintenance of the public schools for Negroes is robbery of the white man, and a waste upon the negro. You take it from the toiling white men and women, you rob the white child of the advantages it would afford him, and you spend it upon the Negro in an effort to make of the negro what God Almighty never intended should be made, and which men cannot accomplish.
This attitude toward “separate but equal” facilities would eventually bring about the doctrine’s undoing. By not making even a pretense of providing equivalent facilities, Southern policymakers precipitated the barrage of anti-segregation litigation that culminated in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Of course, Southern leaders had no intention of yielding to the Supreme Court’s holding in Brown. The Alabama legislature responded first by passing a near-unanimous resolution declaring Brown to be “null, void, and of no effect,” and then by securing the addition of Amendment 111 to the Alabama Constitution:
Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense, nor as limiting the authority and duty of the legislature, in furthering or providing for education, to require or impose conditions or procedures deemed necessary to the preservation of peace and order.
Thus, Alabama, alone among the 50 states, added language to its state constitution formally denying that education is a “right” of its citizens. This passage, along with the clause mandating segregated schools, is still sitting there in Alabama’s governing document, quietly mocking the 27% of the state’s citizens to whom it once applied.
Senate Bill 112 is intended to repeal “portions” of § 256, Amendment 111, and three sections of the Alabama Constitution that concern the poll tax once used to disenfranchise African-American voters. State Senator Bryan Taylor, who supports the measure, stated that its passage would help repair Alabama’s “reputation for racism.”
Ah yes, the matter of its passage. Seems like a piece of cake, right? No harder, at least, than when Alabama voters went to the polls in 2000 to remove the section of their constitution that banned interracial marriage (which, of course, hadn’t been enforced since the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision). Out with this old-timey Jim Crow stuff, in with the late 20th century.
Not so fast, friends. There’s a very good chance that a majority of the progressive and thoroughly late 20th-century Alabama electorate won’t let that happen. Senate Bill 112 is, after all, only a slightly toned-down version of Amendment 2, an identical ballot measure that went down to a close and somewhat stunning defeat in 2004.
It happened like this: former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore (who was relieved of his duties as Chief Justice because he refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery) and state Christian Coalition President John Giles led a furious campaign against the passage of the innocuously-worded Amendment 2. While not disputing the need to remove the provision segregating the schools found in § 256, Moore and Giles claimed that the repeal of Amendment 111 would open the door to school finance litigation, which would result in a ruling by “activist” state or federal judges that Alabama’s method of funding its public schools was unconstitutional, which in turn would lead to significant tax increases as the state scrambled to find new revenue for its most under-funded districts. Giles and the Christian Coalition, relying on Corinthians 4:7 (“What do you have that God hasn’t given you? And if everything you have is from God, why boast as though it were not a gift?”), further argued that Amendment 111 needed to be maintained because education was a gift, not a right.
Never mind, of course, that the Alabama Supreme Court, the justices of which are elected in partisan elections, was almost entirely Republican and, like most of the other supreme courts of the Deep South, had already turned away several school finance lawsuits. Never mind, further, that the federal courts haven’t been involved in school finance litigation since 1973, when the Supreme Court held that there was no fundamental right to education. And certainly never mind that Corinthians 4:7, taken to its logical extreme, would require doing away with every aspect of the modern welfare state.
The final vote, with 690,376 opposed and 688,530 in favor, was close enough to trigger a mandatory recount, which merely served to confirm the original result. State representative Alvin Holmes, a member of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus, claimed that the defeat of Amendment 2 was the work “of an unholy axis of the Christian right, racists, and right-wing neo-Nazis…who used the tax issue so they wouldn’t appear openly racist.” Tommy Woods, a former Alabama school administrator, offered a more measured assessment of the outcome in an interview with The Washington Post: “There are people here who are still fighting the Civil War…[and] holding on to things that are long since past, almost like a religion.”
Will Senate Bill 112 meet the same fate as Amendment 2? I can’t say. Senate Bill 112, unlike Amendment 2, leaves open the prospect of retaining most of the language in § 256 and Amendment 111, which ought to placate activists like Moore and Giles. But there’s a very good chance that the same knee-jerk fears that nobody ever wants to talk about will motivate another 700,000 people (or roughly a quarter of the number of Alabamians who crossed into other states to play the “Mega Millions” jackpot) to “just say no” to Senate Bill 112.
They’ll say no, because hey, it’s not like the schools can be segregated, right? It’s not like a bunch of little kids are sitting around reading the Alabama Constitution in their civics classes, are they? What matters here is ensuring that our taxes don’t get raised by so much as one red cent. Why do we even talk about these things, anyway? Let’s put them behind us and move on. So what if there’s a bunch of crazy Jim Crow stuff in our state’s constitution. There’s some weird slavery stuff in that federal constitution, too.
And they–whoever they are–will be right, at least until something like the Rodney King beating or the Trayvon Martin shooting occurs. Then they–again, whoever they are–will get all angry and upset, because, man, why do we need to make these things about race? Like how they made that one girl in the Hunger Games black; what’s that really about, huh? Why does it always come down to race, you know? We’re just a bunch of honest taxpaying folks, and when we look around, we don’t see black and white.
Once again, they will be right, but that’s another matter entirely.