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Alabama Vote Opens Old Racial Wounds

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.

Confronted by U.S. Justice Department officials, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stands in the doorway of the all-white University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa to block the admission of two black students in 1963. (Calvin Hannah -- Tuscaloosa News Via AP)

"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 Four years ago, voters repealed a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriage.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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