Alabama Constitution of 1901
Because it delegates few powers to the Alabama State Legislature or to political subdivisions (counties and municipalities), the constitution has been lengthened with hundreds of amendments. It currently ranks as the longest constitution in use anywhere in the world. Many of its provisions have been either specifically struck down by federal judges, or rendered unenforceable by conflict with federal laws or judicial precedent.
There have been many calls for a new constitutional convention to replace the 1901 Constitution, but none have succeeded. In 2021 a "Joint Interim Legislative Committee On The Recompilation Of The Constitution", chaired by Merika Coleman, began meeting to draft a "recompilation" of the 1901 Constitution. In addition to re-organizing its sections and amendments to remove redundancies and make the document easier to reference, the committee has also proposed removing references to race.
Alabama's "Bourbon Democrats", newly ascendant after federal efforts at Reconstruction were abandoned, moved swiftly to reverse the changes brought by the Alabama Constitution of 1868 with a new Alabama Constitution of 1875, drastically cutting public support for schools and public improvements, but not specifically disenfranchising former slaves, whose rights were ostensibly protected by the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which held that, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
By 1901 a flurry of laws and practices effectively limited the voting power of Black and impoverished white residents through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other unequally-enforced requirements. Still the Bourbons perceived a threat from "populists" who might split their majority and even restore voting power to Black people in precincts they could control. As a result, there were calls to redraft the constitution after the pattern of other Southern states to further secure the political dominance of white elites. Over the objections of Governor Joseph Johnston, the Alabama State Legislature scheduled a statewide referendum on April 23 to call a new constitutional convention.
The referendum was marred by reports large-scale reports of fraud across the Black Belt, as the white political elite cast votes "on behalf" of Black residents, who were kept away from the polls by threats of violence. The margin from those 12 counties outweighed the majority of votes in the rest of the state, which were against holding a new convention.
155 delegates were called to convene— representing the state as a whole, its nine federal congressional districts, 33 state Senate districts, and 66 counties. The distribution highly favored the wealthy white landowning political base to the disadvantage of Black citizens, of poor white tenant farmers, and of urban and immigrant populations. None of those groups were represented by any of the delegates.
The convention met in Montgomery on May 21 and chose John Knox of Anniston as chair the next day. A national publication quoted him at the time as saying that, "What we want to do is, within the limits imposed by the federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in the State of Alabama."1.. He proposed that the convention justify stripping Black people of their right to vote by blaming their, "intellectual and moral condition," rather than their race or color.
The resulting document preserved most of the language of the 1875 Constitution.
It opened with the preamble, "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."
- Article I (Sections 1–36), entitled "Declaration of Rights", enumerates 36 fundamental rights including the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, and the right of the accused to be put to trial before a jury.
- Article II (Sections 37–41) describes the geographical boundary of the state and affirmed the existing county boundaries.
- Article III (Sections 42–43) establishes three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial.
- Article IV (Sections 44–111) describes the form of the legislative branch, made up of a senate and house of representatives and well as the style of its laws, and the qualifications, duties and compensation of its members. It goes on to prohibit the passage of certain kinds of laws, including laws allowing interracial marriage.
- Article V (Sections 112–138): describes the duties and powers of the executive branch, headed by the Governor, described as a "chief magistrate". The article also establishes other statewide executive offices, and calls for the election of a Sheriff of each county and providing for their impeachment should they allow a mob to remove and lynch a lawful prisoner.
- Article VI (Sections 139–172): establishes a "judicial department" of the state, consisting of circuit, chancery and probate courts and a Supreme Court to decide appeals.
- Article VII (Sections 173–176): lays out the process of impeaching public officials.
- Article VIII (Sections 177–196): establishes rules for suffrage (the qualification of electors) and the conduct of elections.
- Article IX (Sections 197–203): delineates the method of drawing legislative districts.
- Article X (Sections 204–210): lists various exemptions to the previously-described powers.
- Article XI (Sections 211–219): limits the types and rates of taxation and severely restricts creation of public debt.
- Article XII (Sections 220–246): describes provisions relating to the chartering of corporations, public utilities and common carriers, and sets numerous limits on the powers of municipal governments to assess property owners or create public debts.
- Article XIV (Sections 256–270): requires a statewide system of public schools, including state universities and sets limits on how they could be funded.
- Article XV (Sections 271–278): allows the legislature to create and equip a state militia and to provide for the safe keeping of their arms and ammunitions.
- Article XVI (Section 279): furnishes the form of the oath of office taken by public officials.
- Article XVII (Section 280–283): adds certain miscellaneous provisions.
- Article XVIII (Section 284–287): outlines the schedule for adopting the state constitution and provides for it to be amended. Proposed amendments need to pass each house of the legislature by 3/5th majority and then be put to a statewide referendum.
The proposed new Alabama Constitution was adopted by statewide referendum held on November 11, 1901. The official result was 108,613 votes (57.1%) "for the constitution" and 81,734 votes (42.9%) "against the constitution". In Jefferson County the vote was 8,088 (56.8%) for and 6,160 (43.2%) against. In certifying the vote, then Governor William Jelks set November 28 as the day it would officially go into effect.
Attempts to remove
The 2004 proposal was defeated by less than 2,000 votes. Some conservatives objected to the proposal because it would have retained a clause mandating, "a liberal system of public schools", which could be interpreted to mandate more state funding for education.
A bipartisan "Constitutional Revision Commission" was organized several years later, and issued a proposal to delete the original text that mandated segregated schools on the 2012 ballot. Due to the manner in which the amendment was worded, it would have reinstated the language of a 1956 amendment (Amendment 111) reading that, "nothing in this constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense."
On the grounds that the proposal could endanger mandated funding for schools, it was opposed by both the Alabama Education Association and by the predominantly-Black Alabama Democratic Conference. The measure, appearing as "Amendment 4" on the ballot, was narrowly defeated.
After a bill sponsored by Representative Merika Coleman was passed, another referendum was called for on the 2020 general election ballot which authorized the State Legislature to recompile the Constitution in order to remove all racist language and reconcile numerous duplicated and/or repealed provisions. This measure was approved by a two-thirds margin.
Coleman chaired the 10-member legislative commission overseeing the process of recompilation, much of which was done by the Legislative Services Agency under the direction of Othni Latham. The result of their work was passed unanimously in both houses during the 2022 session. The document was reformatted into two volumes. The first incorporated all statewide amendments into a single 262-page constitution. The second 484-page volume indexes 750 local amendments which remain part of the constitution, but arranges them by locality.
- Thrasher, Max Bennett (June 22, 1901) "The Alabama Constitutional Convention." Outlook. Vol. 68, No. 8
- Stewart, William H. (2001) "The Tortured History of Efforts to Revise the Alabama Constitution of 1901." Alabama Law Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 295-333
- Elliott, Debbie (November 1, 2012) "Ala. Racist Language Measure Draws Unexpected Foes." National Public Radio "Morning Edition"
- Walsh, Alex (November 7, 2012) "Amendment 4 fails, racist language stays; Amendments 7, 8 approved" The Birmingham News
- Warren, Sarah A. (May 23, 2018) "Alabama Constitution of 1901". Encyclopedia of Alabama - accessed November 12, 2021
- "Constitution of Alabama." (November 11, 2021) Wikipedia - accessed November 11, 2021
- Johnson, Roy S. (March 17, 2022) "Roy S. Johnson: Ugly 1901 constitution all but dead thanks to bipartisan effort." The Birmingham News
- Cason, Mike (July 31, 2022) "Alabama Constitution of 2022 removes repealed laws, racist language" The Birmingham News