Black students in Alabama gather outside their segregated school, 1965. (Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos)
Fifty-five years after Governor George Wallace declared his commitment to preserving white supremacy and maintaining “segregation forever,” Alabama’s state constitution still mandates racially segregated schools. Adopted in 1901, the Alabama constitution was designed to disenfranchise African Americans and maintain the Jim Crow system of the South. The constitution instituted discriminatory voting laws, including literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes. It also required that public education be racially segregated. Section 256 of the Alabama constitution states that “separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children.”
The United States Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education struck down racial segregation in public schools and invalidated Alabama’s constitutional mandate. In response, the Alabama legislature passed a constitutional amendment in 1956 that eliminated the state’s responsibility to guarantee public education. This amendment was designed to avoid desegregation and provide support for the development of segregated private schools, which soon emerged throughout the state.
Efforts in 2004 and 2012 to remove Section 256 failed when a majority of Alabama voters supported keeping the segregationist language in the constitution. Although the provision has not been enforceable for decades, its underlying prejudice continues to influence perceptions of Alabama and shape the realities of continuing educational inequality. Alabama schools remain deeply separate and unequal: 90.34 percent of students attending Alabama’s 75 “failing” schools in 2018 were African American.