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Alabama Vote Opens Old Racial Wounds

Sun Nov 28, 6:48 AM ET Top Stories –

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 legislative districts.

“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 screen.

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,” Killings said.

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 is kept.

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 way.

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