RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Voters in Alabama will decide on Tuesday whether to remove from the state constitution, racist language - language dating back more than a hundred years. Past efforts to do that have failed, even though the state's Republican leaders say that failure has made it hard to recruit business and industry. But in a twist, now that a constitutional fix is back on the ballot, it's Alabama's black leaders and educators who are fighting it. NPR's Debbie Elliot explains.
DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: Alabama's antiquated, 1901 constitution still calls for poll taxes and separate schools for, quote, "white and colored." In 2004, voters rejected an amendment to purge those remnants of Jim Crow from the state's governing document, by less than 2,000 votes.
STATE SEN. BRIAN TAYLOR: I think that was a black eye for the state.
ELLIOT: Republican Bryan Taylor chairs the Alabama Senate's Constitution and Elections Committee.
TAYLOR: Nationally, that was perceived as well, there goes Alabama voting down language to reverse its black mark in history.
ELLIOT: Taylor says that perception hampers the state's drive to attract business. So lawmakers are again putting forth a constitutional amendment - Amendment 4 - to delete the now-obsolete, segregation-era language.
TAYLOR: We've got to move forward; we've got to put that behind us. And this is a way to symbolically show the rest of the nation, and the rest of the world, that Alabama's past is not our future.
ELLIOT: Republican Gov. Robert Bentley is in favor of the change.
GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY: I'm very much for Amendment 4. I'm for taking out the racist language, out of the constitution.
ELLIOT: But even with the support of the state's Republican leadership, the vote is not as straightforward as it would seem. There's been a surprising backlash, including this telephone campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBOCALL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you're like me, you believe every child deserves the right to a public school education. Amendment 4 will take that right away. I'm asking you to vote no on Amendment 4.
ELLIOT: It's not clear who paid for the message. But the state's teachers union, the Alabama Education Association, is fighting the amendment. So is the state's powerful black political caucus, the Alabama Democratic Conference.
JOE REED: It's a hoax on the people of Alabama. It is a wolf with sheep clothes on.
ELLIOT: Longtime chairman Joe Reed.
REED: I mean, who's worried anymore about some racist language in the constitution? What - it - that's symbolic. It doesn't mean anything now.
ELLIOT: The words have no effect, he says, in the wake of landmark civil rights cases dating back to Brown vs. the Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregated public schools. The problem with the amendment, Reed says, is that it would reinstate language added just after Brown - which was later struck down by the courts. That language declares, quote, "Nothing in this constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education, or training, at public expense."
REED: What this amendment sets out to do is, it fixes so it would make it easier to return back to the days of segregation, when we had no rules requiring blacks and whites to attend school together.
ELLIOT: Republican leaders deny the amendment is an attempt to undercut public schools. The issue has split constitutional reform advocates. One, historian Wayne Flynt, a professor emeritus at Auburn University, says the focus should not be on words, but on the underlying policy.
WAYNE FLYNT: I just am astounded at everybody getting all exercised over the wording of the original document, in 1901; that we have a segregated school system and poll taxes and all that, and that all that language should be taken out 'cause that's a horrible embarrassment to the state. And I find that laughable because the horrible embarrassment to the state is trying to recruit a Korean car firm when you tell them, oh, by the way, we don't guarantee your children any right to a public education in Alabama.
ELLIOT: The question is whether Alabama voters will see Tuesday's vote as a referendum on outdated, racist language, or the future of public schools.
Debbie Elliot, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.