washingtonpost.com, November 28, 2004
Vote Opens Old Racial Wounds
School Segregation Remains a State
Law as Amendment Is Defeated
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- On that long-ago day of Alabama's
great shame, Gov. George C. Wallace (D) stood
in a schoolhouse door and declared that his
state's constitution forbade black students
to enroll at the University of Alabama.
He was correct.
If Wallace could be brought back to life today
to reprise his 1963 moment of infamy outside
Foster Auditorium, he would still be correct.
Alabama voters made sure of that Nov. 2, refusing
to approve a constitutional amendment to erase
segregation-era wording requiring separate
schools for "white and colored children"
and to eliminate references to the poll taxes
once imposed to disenfranchise blacks.
The vote was so close -- a margin of 1,850 votes
out of 1.38 million -- that an automatic recount
will take place Monday. But, with few expecting
the results to change, the amendment's saga
has dragged Alabama into a confrontation with
its segregationist past that illuminates the
sometimes uneasy race relations of its present.
The outcome resonates achingly here in this college
town, where the silver-haired men and women
who close their eyes and lift their arms when
the organ wails at Bethel Baptist Church --
a short drive from Wallace's schoolhouse door
-- don't have to strain to remember riding
buses past the shiny all-white school on their
way to the all-black school.
"There are people here who are still fighting
the Civil War," said Tommy Woods, 63,
a deacon at Bethel and a retired school administrator.
"They're holding on to things that are
long since past. It's almost like a religion."
There are competing theories about the defeat
of Amendment 2, the measure that would have
taken "colored children" and segregated
schools out of Alabama's constitution. One
says latent, persistent racism was to blame;
another says voters are suspicious of all constitutional
amendments; and a third says it was not about
race but about taxes.
The amendment had two main parts: the removal
of the separate-schools language and the removal
of a passage -- inserted in the 1950s in an
attempt to counter the Brown v. Board of Education
ruling against segregated public schools --
that said Alabama's constitution does not guarantee
a right to a public education. Leading opponents,
such as Alabama Christian Coalition President
John Giles, said they did not object to removing
the passage about separate schools for "white
and colored children." But, employing
an argument that was ridiculed by most of the
state's newspapers and by legions of legal
experts, Giles and others said guaranteeing
a right to a public education would have opened
a door for "rogue" federal judges
to order the state to raise taxes to pay for
improvements in its public school system.
The argument plays to Alabama's primal fear of
federal control, a fear born of years of resentment
over U.S. courts' ordering the desegregation
of schools and the creation of black-majority
"Activists on the bench know no bounds,"
Giles said. "It's a trial lawyer's dream."
Giles was aided by a virtually unparalleled Alabama
celebrity in his battle against the amendment,
distributing testimonials from former chief
justice Roy Moore, whose fame was sealed in
2003 when he defied a federal court order to
remove a two-ton granite Ten Commandments monument
from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court.
They were joined by former Moore aide Tom Parker,
who handed out miniature Confederate flags
this fall during his successful campaign for
a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court.
Arguing that the amendment could lead to higher
taxes is a potent strategy in Alabama, which
is one of the nation's most lightly taxed states
and which resoundingly rejected a record $1.2
billion tax increase proposed last year by
Gov. Bob Riley (R), a conservative, to pay
for school improvements and lessen the tax
burden on the poor. But many blacks view the
Amendment 2 opponents' tax pitch as a smoke
As the vote results sink in, the deacons and
the Bible-toting ladies at the Bethel church
here have spoken of dark conspiracies, of sinister
agendas. They speak from experience.
Vertia Killings, 72, was riding on a bus that
had to be rerouted because of the commotion
at the University of Alabama on the day Wallace
-- who eventually renounced his segregationist
past -- made his stand. Her father, Benny Mack,
paid a $45 poll tax and "ate a little
less" because of it, she said. Others
chose to eat instead of vote.
Killings does not see the amendment's defeat
as a matter of mere symbolism, even though
Alabama's constitutional ban on integrated
schools was trumped -- then and now -- by federal
law. She has watched school testing results
with growing uneasiness.
Black students in Alabama have struggled on some
national tests, with 73 percent of black eighth-graders
rated below basic competency in math, compared
with 32 percent of white eighth-graders. Killings
also frets about Alabama schools -- just as
schools in many other parts of the country
-- steadfastly resegregating. This phenomenon,
which is getting increased attention among
national education experts, is attributed to
a kaleidoscope of factors, including the suburban
migration of white families, private school
expansion and the rising popularity of home
schooling among white conservatives.
"It seems like we're having a reversal,"
It matters not at all to Killings and her friends
that the amendment's opponents say they want
to remove the segregated-schools portion of
the constitution but cannot abide by guaranteeing
a public education and fear mandates for higher
education taxes. The people who are most affected
by poorly funded schools are the same people
who were affected in another era by poll taxes:
poor blacks and poor whites.
"I don't know but a few black folks who
can afford to send their kids to private school,"
said Charles Steele Jr., a former Democratic
member of the Alabama legislature who lives
here and is national vice president of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
This is not the first time that Steele has tangled
with Alabama's constitution, a gigantic document
that has more than 740 amendments and more
than 310,000 words, making it the world's longest,
at nearly 40 times the length of the U.S. Constitution.
Four years ago, voters repealed a constitutional
amendment banning interracial marriage.
The state constitution, which most historians
agree was written to protect large landowners
and to disenfranchise blacks, is so riddled
with antiquated wording that some high school
students in Birmingham make an annual trip
to the city library for a project known as
the search for "the loony laws."
Yet the constitution, with its racist past and
its racist present, only grows. On Nov. 2,
it was amended three times -- numbers 743,
744 and 745.
Giles has said he would support taking out the
passage about separate schools for "white
and colored children" as long as the part
about not guaranteeing a right to an education
Ken Guin, the Democratic House majority leader
who wrote Amendment 2, is talking about trying
again. Next time, he said, he might do it Giles's
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
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