Reading, Writing and Racism: A WAFF 48 News Special Report

By Trang Do - bio | email

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Separate schools for white and black children sounds like a dark moment from the state's past. But the law requiring separate schools remains in Alabama's constitution to this day, much to the dismay of those who fought for equality during the Civil Rights movement.

Veronica Pearson personally knows the overwhelming effort it took to break the color barrier in Alabama schools.

"It was a thing that needed done and I was happy I was one of those who was able to do it," Pearson said.

Inspired by a passionate speech she heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver in Huntsville, as a child Pearson fought alongside civil rights activists for an equal education.

"It was a pressure cooker, because you got hand-me-down books, and the teachers were trying to give you, not a hand me down education," she said.

In a moment now commemorated on a historical marker in Huntsville, Pearson, who was just 13 at the time, was one of four Huntsville students to desegregated the first public schools in the state on September 9, 1963 following a lengthy battle in federal court.

Pearson remembers National Guard troops lined outside Rison Junior High to allow her and her mother to enter safely amid a large crowd of hecklers.

"Growing up in the south, the 'N' word was not a new word to me," she said. "I had heard it, but I had never heard it from so many people at one time."

Though the U.S. Supreme court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, Alabama's public schools did not begin to desegregate until nearly a decade later. Nearly a half-century later Pearson just can't understand why the state constitution still mandates segregated schools. Neither can Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

"There is an enormous amount of restrictive, oppressive language. Of course, the racist language that was inserted in 1901," said Doug Seay, a member of ACCR's Madison County chapter.

Reformers, like Seay, have been trying to get rid of the racist language and rewrite Alabama's 1901 constitution for years.

"We're trying to deal with a space age situation and our constitution is really a horse and buggy operation," Seay said.

Voters had the chance to make a change in 2004. But a vote to remove sections of the constitution requiring separate schools, the poll tax and language that states publicly-funded education is not a right - failed.

[Results of Amendment Two (PDF)]

"You know, why? Somebody said, 'Hey, that's going to end up being a tax increase.' So rightly or wrongly, all you've got to say is tell people, when they put it out for a vote that way, that it's a tax increase and that particular constitutional amendment died," said veteran State Rep. Howard Sanderford, (R-20th District).

Sanderford said changing the language in the constitution isn't easy and on a business level he said it doesn't matter.

"I think most business people that come to Alabama, they understand that basically it is what I call old, dead language in the constitution," he said.

But political newcomer State Rep. Phil Williams, (R-6th District), disagreed.

"We should change it today, we should've changed it years ago, because that has changed in Alabama," he said.

Activists Doug Seay and Veronica Pearson said failing to change it sends a clear message.

"I think the biggest message is the state of Alabama will not modernize itself any more than it absolutely has to," Seay said.

"I absolutely would like to see it taken out," Pearson said. "It's a nonentity now."

Taking out the section requiring separate schools would not be the first time an individual item or items have been taken out of the state constitution. 33 years after women got the right to vote nationally, Alabama's constitution was changed in 1953 to reflect that milestone.

Copyright 2011 WAFF. All rights reserved.