Alabama Voters Pass Amendment 4 to Address Constitution’s Legacy of Racial Injustice

Updated 11.04.20

Black students in Alabama gather outside their segregated school, 1965.

Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

More than six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racially segregated schools nationwide, Alabama’s state constitution still mandates that public education be racially segregated. Language requiring that “[s]eparate schools shall be provided for white and colored children” is one of the legally invalid and racist provisions that could be removed from the state constitution if Alabama voters approve Amendment 4 this November.

In 1901, white male delegates convened to write a new Alabama constitution. Their express purpose—as convention president John B. Knox put it—was “to establish white supremacy in this state.” To keep Black citizens from voting, they instituted discriminatory voting laws, including literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes.

Section 256 was included to ensure racially segregated schools. It reads: “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.”

The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education struck down racial segregation in public schools and invalidated Section 256.

The 1901 Constitution has been amended so many times, it is now the longest constitution in the world.

But efforts in 2004 and 2012 to remove Section 256 failed when a majority of Alabama voters supported keeping the segregationist language in the state 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: over 90% of students attending Alabama’s 75 “failing” schools in 2018 were African American.

“The State of Alabama cannot recover from the tragic history of violence against indigenous people, enslavement of Black people, racially motivated terrorism, intimidation, lynching, codified racial segregation, and discrimination while the state constitution contains language that bans race mixing and legitimates racial bigotry,” EJI Director Bryan Stevenson explained. “For our state to succeed economically, culturally, and politically, there has to be an unequivocal rejection of the constitutional language that still sanctions racism.”

Last year, HB 328—a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Pleasant Grove) and seconded by House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Limestone/Madison)—passed unanimously and put Amendment 4 on the ballot.

Amendment 4 authorizes the Legislative Services Agency to delete constitutionally invalid provisions, racist language, and obsolete, antiquated, or duplicate language from the state constitution, and to re-organize its 900 amendments by county rather than enactment date. The agency will submit its draft language to the legislature during the 2022 regular session, and if three-fifths of state lawmakers approve it, the draft language will be put on the 2022 ballot for voters to approve or reject. Voters will be able to review the draft language on the Secretary of State’s website prior to election day.

The amendment has broad support from faith leaders, students and scholars, lawmakers, civil rights advocates and the state’s business leaders, who recognize that Alabama’s constitution enshrines a commitment to white supremacy that discourages corporate investment.

Removing racist language from Alabama’s constitution is an important step in confronting our state’s history of racial injustice and its legacy. Alabama’s need to tell the truth about our history is more apparent and urgent now than ever.

“We’ve gotten a lot of very bad national attention lately,” Rep. Coleman said, referring to national coverage this summer of Alabama Rep. Will Dismukes (R-Prattville) honoring Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest while mourners gathered to remember civil rights hero U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

“If this amendment passes, it would send a message to the nation that we are no longer the Alabama of 1901. We are the Alabama that condemns the spirit of discrimination with which this constitution was actually developed.”

Update: Alabama voters passed Amendment 4 yesterday, with 67% voting in favor of the amendment.