On Nov. 7, Alabama voters will confront a lifeless skeleton of de jure racism and decide whether to evict it from their constitutional closet.
Article IV, Section 102 of the state's Constitution of 1901 decrees: "The legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a negro, or descendant of a negro."
Don't believe everything you read in the Alabama Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court long ago held that, under the federal Constitution, it's none of the state's business whether a married couple spring from the same racial stock. Still, the meaningless, unenforceable provision has hung on in the Alabama Constitution longer than it has in any other state constitution.
This year, Alabama voters will have an opportunity to take it out. If they vote "yes" on Amendment 2 on the November ballot, they will remove the ban on "miscegenation" from their fundamental law.
A poll conducted by the University of South Alabama for the Mobile Register indicates that Alabamians are of two minds on the subject of interracial marriage. Only 31 percent of the whites sampled approved of interracial marriage, but nearly two-thirds of those canvassed were in favor of removing the provision from the Constitution.
The voters will be wrestling with an ancient fear that haunted the white South in the interval between emancipation and desegregation. During the civil rights struggle, defenders of segregation warned against the "mongrelization of the races."
In 1994, Ralph Callahan, who wrote editorials for the relatively liberal Anniston Star during the 1950s, reminisced about the bitter days following the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision.
"You know what shocked them?" he said. "It wasn't segregation so much. It was the fear of intermarriage."
It was in 1994 that the principal of Randolph County High School in Wedowee, Ala., threatened to cancel the high school prom if interracial couples attended. In the controversy that followed, the school was burned down. The arsonist has never been identified.
And as recently as last month, the Mobile Register received several protesting telephone calls when it featured an interracial wedding in its lifestyle section.
Alabama politicians have generally been happy to let the issue lie. So long as the provision was without legal force, there was no urgency to repeal it and no need to take a stand.
An exception has been Bill Pryor, the popular young Republican attorney general. Pryor raised the issue in his inaugural address in January 1999 and is actively campaigning to have Section 102 repealed.
Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, has not been actively involved in the movement. Siegelman is much more interested in a constitutional amendment that would allow him to use royalties from oil and gas wells in Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to finance a variety of much-needed capital projects. The royalties now go into trust funds, and the Legislature can spend only the interest. Siegelman typically focuses his political clout on one major issue at a time.
The Alabama Constitution of 1901 was offered to the voters as a bulwark for white supremacy. A campaign is now under way to convince voters of the need to rewrite the constitution and institute such reforms as home rule for localities. Republican State Rep. Phil Crigler said he favors a complete rewrite, but is not in favor of wasting time repealing laws that no have effect.
Interracial marriage is legally accepted now, he said, so repealing Section 102 would have no substantive effect.
"But how do you deal with it (Amendment 2) if it fails?" he asked. "That's the question you may not want the answer to." James Lee, a sociology professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, thinks Section 102 packs a powerful symbolic punch even though it's legally impotent.
If the voters reject Amendment 2 and keep Section 102, "they'd have to start assessing what their values are, what the values of other Alabamians are," Lee said. A "Confederate Heritage Political Action Committee," has been raising money to fight the repeal, but both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy are sitting this one out.
Michael Chappell, chairman of the Confederate PAC, said Section 102 does not ban interracial marriages. The section could be interpreted either way, he said.
Pryor characterized that point of view as "one of the most ignorant ideas I've ever heard of."
State Rep. Alvin Holmes, a black Democrat from Montgomery, sponsored Amendment 2 in the Legislature.
Gene Owens is a columnist with the Mobile Register.