Erasing a remnant of Jim Crow South from law books

Alabama's House votes today on repealing a law banning interracialmarriage - the last state to do so.

When Alabamans Tony and Barbara Johnson got married 12 years ago, they broke a law in the state constitution.

That's because Tony is African-American, Barbara is white, and Alabama is the last state in the union to have a law prohibiting interracial marriages.

During the past two decades, some 19 states have lifted their constitutional bans on mixed-race marriages - most recently South Carolina last November. But no bill to do the same has even reached the floor of the Alabama Legislature.

Until now. Today, the House will vote on a bill to repeal the controversial ban. Many critics say it will accomplish nothing - the law isn't actually enforced.

But others counter that it is time to erase an archaic law and take a symbolic step away from a divisive vestige of the Old South.

"It's time to get it off the books," says Mrs. Johnson. "Once it's gone, it will take away some of the stigma that comes with this type of marriage."

Last year, a similar measure died in a legislative committee. This time, if the bill is approved by the House and Senate, it will clear the way for a statewide vote.

A recent poll in Alabama found that about 63 percent of respondents favored lifting the ban on interracial marriage. Twenty-six percent were opposed, and 10 percent said they were unsure or had no reply.

"Alabama has a long history of racism and mistreatment of its black citizens," says state Rep. Alvin Holmes, the sponsor of this year's and last year's bills. "This [law] just puts another black eye on the state. All the Southern states have taken it out of their constitutions. It would be appropriate for Alabama to do the same."

Interracial marriages have always stirred debate. In 1945, more than half of the states had antimiscegenation statutes. In 1966, 19 still had them.

One year later, the US Supreme Court declared that states couldn't ban interracial marriages, and during the past 22 years every Southern state that had such a law has omitted it from its constitution - except Alabama.

Disturbing symbolism

Although federal law nullifies Alabama's law, it's the symbolism that disturbs many here. From the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s to the Selma voting-rights march in 1965, Alabama has continually battled racial strife. And most citizens believe that omitting the interracial ban is an important gesture.

"In a lot of rural areas, life hasn't changed that much from the 1950s. People still look at relationships between blacks and whites as master and servant relationships," says Representative Holmes, the Legislature's senior African-American member. "We certainly don't need this kind of law on the books to keep it going."

Some Alabama legislators don't support the repeal. Those who don't refuse to comment. Even newly elected Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, prefers to avoid the debate.

"There a lot of important issues out there," says Kristin Carvell, the governor's press secretary. "He is staying focused on his educational lottery ... that is the constitutional amendment that he is focusing on."

For his part, state Rep. Phil Crigler, a Republican from Mobile, says he personally opposes interracial marriages, but will vote for the bill.

Despite that, he says it is just about politics, since the law prohibiting such marriages is not enforced. "This [bill] passing or failing is not going to change things in Alabama at all," says Representative Crigler.

Time to update constitution?

Indeed, there are many archaic elements of Alabama's constitution, scholars say.

David Martin, a retired professor at Auburn University and an expert in Southern politics, goes so far as to say that the entire state constitution is outdated.

"There are still provisions that forbid dueling," says Dr. Martin.

But those involved in interracial relationships don't look at the law as racial grandstanding, but rather as a chance for Alabama to become more progressive at the end of the 20th century.

"It is long overdue," says Henry Penick, an African-American attorney in Birmingham whose fiance is white. "It sends a loud signal that it is time to set aside some old prejudice and call for a new day in Alabama."

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