Racism and voting restrictions in state constitution
Following is the ninth in a series of columns by members of the Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.
By Barbara M. Nash
The government of the United States has declared parts of the 1901 Alabama Constitution illegal, therefore unenforceable and invalid, but the racist, prohibiting, illegal language remains a part of our official governing document.
Even though illegal, the effects of the language still remain. Our state and our citizens suffer because of this language. Our heritage of discrimination and segregation painfully affects our present actions.
Mr. John B. Knox, president of the constitutional convention, said "The Southern man knows the negro, and the negro knows him ... if we would have white supremacy, we must have it by law ...."
To further quote "These provisions are justified in law and in morals, because it is said the negro is not discriminated against on account of his race but on account of his intellect and moral condition .... There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro ...."
The delegates listened closely. These remarks set the tenor for the convention and, ultimately, the constitution.
The preamble to the 1901 constitution states: "We, the people of the state of Alabama, in order to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God, do ordain and establish the following Constitution and form of government for the state of Alabama."
The Declaration of Rights, which immediately follows, declares "...all men are equally free and independent," "...political power is inherent in the people," and "...government exists to protect the citizen in enjoyment of life, liberty, and property."
"Invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God" separate schools were provided for "white and colored children" with no person of either race being allowed to attend a school of the other race.
"Invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God" the document declares, "The legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a negro, or descendant of a negro."
"Invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God" the poll tax was established. The poll tax effectively denied voting rights to both blacks and poor whites.
"Invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God" the framers denied the right to vote to women while providing for husbands to vote based on his wife's ownership of property. Article VII, Section 181 provided: "The owner in good faith in his own right or the husband of a woman who is the owner in good faith, in her own right, of forty acres situate in this state, upon which they reside...or of real estate assessed for taxation at the value of three hundred dollars or more...provided the taxes have been paid...." Even if the husband were not a property owner (a qualifying restriction,) if his wife owned property, he could vote. The wife could not.
Other provisions in the constitution appear to confer voting rights, but, as a practical matter, inability to pay the poll tax, along with the literacy requirements and the property ownership restrictions, overrode these provisions. This combination successfully changed the landscape of the voting public. Some 140,000 blacks voted in 1890, 100,000 voted in 1900, fewer than 3,000 voted in 1903.
"Invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God" significant energy and effort were directed toward protecting the rights of the delegates (white, male, property owners) and others like them while denying those same rights to others.
A new constitution is needed. A fairly written, open, people-based, forward-looking document is vital to our state, our citizens, and our future. A new constitution that treats all our citizens with equal dignity. A new constitution that eliminates the illegal, unenforceable, embarrassing language that still remains in our constitution and restrains the progress of the entire state of Alabama.
Barbara M. Nash is a member of the state board of Alabama Citizens for Constitutional reform.