Constitution of 1901 disenfranchised blacks, poor
Following is the fourth in a series of columns by members of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform. Part one of this essay ended last week with the 1875 constitution and noted that Alabama, in its 185 years as a state, has had six constitutions, 1819, 1861, 1865, 1868, 1875 and 1901, and that all but the 1819 constitution were fostered by sectionalism, bitter turmoil, and undemocratic principles.
By Hartwell Lutz
It is no doubt safe to say that many white Alabamians were chafing at the bit to revisit the matter of the black franchise. By 1900, federal troops were gone and there was little fear of interference from Washington.
It was no secret that the overriding purpose of the 1901 constitutional convention was to disfranchise as many blacks as possible, and if this meant that poor whites were also denied their right to vote, then so be it, at least in the minds of many of the leaders.
Ironically, it can be said with confidence that there was legitimate concern over the undisputed fact that virtually all elections were being greatly influenced by the fraudulent manipulation of the black vote. The elimination of the black vote was, therefore, seen by many as a way to eliminate that evil. "Honest elections" and "white supremacy" were the juxtaposed rallying cries for ratification.
Except for matters of the franchise, there were few significant changes from the 1875 Constitution to that of 1901. The former served as the framework for the latter. Time after time during the convention, substantive, progressive amendments were beaten back with the argument that the leaders did not want "controversial" matters to jeopardize the ratification of what they were really there about.
The final product of the 1901 convention disfranchised practically all of Alabama's black citizens and many of her poor whites, through poll taxes and other devices. It also perpetuated virtually all of the principles of bad government contained in the 1875 constitution. It did allow, however, for a more liberal amendment process.
The work of the 1901 convention was ratified by what was undoubtedly a fraudulent election. To believe otherwise, one would have to believe that overwhelming numbers of black voters in the Black Belt counties voted to disfranchise themselves.
All of the egregious disfranchisement provisions in the 1901 document have now been either repealed or declared unconstitutional by the courts. But we are still left with a horrible constitution, one that is so bad that the people and the legislature have found it necessary to amend it 751 times as of June 2004.
The 1901 Constitution needs to be replaced. It has been amended so many times that it is unworkable. Further amendments would only be Band-aids, at best. Under present constitutional and case law in Alabama, a new constitution can be obtained only by means of a constitutional convention and a vote of the people. That process must be preceded by an act of the Legislature and a vote by the people to hold a convention.
Thus, the process for getting a new constitution must begin in the Legislature. However, many legislators are reluctant to give up what they see as their power. Others simply do not want to face the possibility of real change because several powerful interests in the state do not want to give up some privilege or preferential treatment that they currently have.
It should be clear by now that the Legislature, left to its own devices, is very unlikely to call for a convention. Movement must, therefore, come from "grassroots" efforts by Alabama's people.
We have a right to good government, and it is time we demanded it. Verily, it is past time.