In 2004, a bipartisan coalition of Alabama leaders moved to eliminate sections of the state constitution mandating school segregation and poll taxes. They assumed it’d be an easy feat — until Roy Moore got involved.
Democrats and Republicans led by then-Gov. Bob Riley (R) worked together on an amendment to remove language in the state constitution mandating “separate schools for white and colored children” and allowing poll taxes, Jim Crow-era requirements that people to pay to vote that disenfranchised most black people.
The changes were purely symbolic — all of the state constitutional language had already been struck down by state and federal courts — but civil rights and business leaders saw it as a way to heal old wounds and make the state more attractive to big business.
The opposite happened instead, and Moore’s fierce opposition likely made the difference.
“He had a huge impact. It was a measure that was set to pass without much opposition and then because he got involved it changed the dynamic completely,” said Susan Kennedy of the Alabama Education Association, the state public teachers’ lobby that supported the amendment.
At the time, Moore, who is currently the GOP nominee and the front-runner to become Alabama’s next U.S. senator, had recently been booted from the state supreme court for defying higher court orders to remove a Ten Commandments statue from in front of his courthouse. That fight had made him a superstar in the religious right both in the state and nationally.
When conservative evangelical activists including the Alabama Christian Coalition began warning about adverse effects of the segregation amendment he stepped up to be the amendment’s most prominent foe — a move that kept his name in the headlines as he geared up for a 2006 primary challenge against Riley and sent the amendment down to a narrow defeat.
“This amendment is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the people of Alabama should be aware of it,” Moore told the Birmingham News in 2004, warning it would “open the door to an enormous tax increase” — one of many broadsides he issued.
His argument worked. The statewide measure failed by about 2,000 votes, out of 1.4 million cast. Every subsequent attempt to remove the language since that initial failure has failed, most recently in 2012.
Moore’s stance against the amendment was one of many of his efforts over two decades that has built him a fiercely loyal following on the religious right. That base wasn’t enough when he ran against Riley in 2006, but it powered his primary victory over Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) last month and has him favored to win the Dec. 12 general election. It’s also one in a long line of racially charged episodes in Moore’s career.
Moore faces former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who is best known for successfully prosecuting, decades later, Ku Klux Klan member responsible for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls.
Alabama’s state constitution still contains the following language:
“Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”
A ‘Black Eye’ For Alabama
The battle over removing segregationist language is part of a much larger effort that has pitted reformers, civil rights groups and many in the business community against Old South traditionalists and some other conservatives in the state for much of the last two decades.
The amendment was a part of Riley’s push to modernize the state constitution, a sprawling, racist document dating to 1901 that codified Jim Crow and created a strong state central government.
“Federal and state court rulings have struck down a lot of these [clauses] as unconstitutional, but it was viewed by many as a black eye for the state,” Toby Roth, who served as Riley’s chief of staff during the constitutional fights, told TPM.
The amendment to remove segregationist language sailed through the Democratic-controlled state legislature with strong bipartisan support, and supporters expected it to pass when put to a statewide vote. But lawmakers also added a provision that would have stripped a 1956 amendment passed in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregating schools. That amendment said Alabamans had no constitutional “right to education or training at public expense.”
Moore and hardline conservatives pounced to argue the removal of that language would allow for a backdoor tax increase by judges who would see it as granting a constitutional right to an education, warning it would hurt taxpayers and threaten private schools and homeschoolers.
Lawmakers were caught off-guard by the heated opposition. But while they’d had past success in removing other racist language, even in those efforts it’d been clear that not everyone in Alabama was ready to let go of the Old South: A 2000 amendment to remove language banning interracial marriage had passed, but by a closer-than-expected 60 percent to 40 percent margin.
This amendment got caught in a more recent fight over education funding as well, an issue that’s both racially charged and far from symbolic for many voters in the state.
In 1993, a state judge had struck down the education language as unconstitutional while ruling that the state needed to spend more on schools. The state supreme court struck down that ruling in 2002, with Moore on the court. Many white Alabamians had pulled their kids out of public schools during desegregation, creating a new de facto segregated school system in parts of the state and leaving little incentive for white Alabamians, especially wealthier ones, to pay to improve schools that in parts of the state were heavily black.
“People were afraid that it would reignite the [school] equity argument that was sued over in the 1990s,” said Kennedy. ”
Many voters’ opposition to more school funding was and is ideological and financial, not purely racially driven. But civil rights groups argue that the effect is the same.
“When you talk about not guaranteeing or taking away the language from the Constitution not guaranteeing the right to a public education, that’s racist,” Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele Jr., a former Alabama state senator, told NPR at the time.
The most prominent politician besides Moore battling the amendment was his protege and former staffer, Tom Parker, who was running for the Alabama Supreme Court at the time. During that campaign, Parker spoke at an event celebrating Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, hosted by opponents of the civil rights movement, and handed out Confederate battle flags at the funeral of a woman believed to have been the last living widow of a Confederate soldier.
The battle over the amendment came just a year after the Christian Coalition had helped defeat a Riley-backed push to increase state taxes to invest more on education and infrastructure.
The ongoing tax fights had made many conservatives wary of any constitutional changes, with a faction that simply opposed any tweaks.
“You do have a more conservative wing of the Republican Party that’s always suspicious of any constitution changes as a backdoor attempt to raise taxes,” Roth said.
Parker and Moore explicitly made that argument.
Moore told the Associated Press that the amendment was “another attempt to open the door for a court-ordered tax increase without the consent of the people” after they’d defeated the earlier amendment, while Parker ran radio ads saying that it would create “a new right to education for citizens of all ages” and warning “liberals will use this to pressure judges into raising your taxes.”
Parker won by a narrow margin even though he was heavily outspent in the race.
Moore’s other controversies
Moore is best known nationally for his controversial religious views. He’s said Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in Congress, that Sharia law is already being implemented in parts of the Midwest, and that “homosexual conduct should be illegal.”
But his racial views have also raised questions.
Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law hosted the neo-Confederate, pro-secession League of the South’s annual “Secession Day” events in 2009 and 2010, though Moore’s staff claim he didn’t know about it . League leaders have participated in pro-Moore rallies both times he was removed from the state court. They also vociferously opposed the 2004 segregation amendment and actively campaigned for Parker, Moore’s protege. As TPM previously reported, Moore’s biggest donor, Michael Peroutka, is a neo-Confederate who has advocated that the South should secede and for years served on the League of the South’s board.
Moore has said he doesn’t support secession and believes “all men are created equal,” though he’s declined to disavow the League or Peroutka. His campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests to discuss this story.
Moore also spoke at an event for the Council of Conservative Citizens in 1995 — a group that Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof would cite as a key influence two decades later.
“I did not consider the Council of Conservative Citizens to be a ‘white supremacist’ group when I spoke to them 20 years ago,” Moore said in 2015, pointing out other prominent Republicans had spoken to the group.
Moore’s office is adorned with a portrait of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and busts of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, though he’s claimed that’s because they’re fellow West Point graduates.
He hasn’t shied away from racial controversy during his current Senate run either. Moore has continued to question whether President Obama was born in the United States, and referred to “reds and yellows” as he lamented racial division during a campaign speech. Moore’s Facebook page has shared memes claiming Obama was Muslim and one that showed black people stomping a cop car with text saying the way to stop riots was to “play the national anthem — they’ll all sit down.”
Those who supported the amendment are split about Moore’s reason for taking on the fight.
Most don’t think his views are rooted chiefly in the racial politics that conservative Alabama politicians in both parties have exploited for years. But while some see a purist ideologue, others see an opportunist who’s fine making common cause with more fringe figures to further his own ambitions.
“I can’t say at this point what drove Roy Moore other than his own self-interest,” University of Alabama Law Professor Bryan Fair, who is black and serves on the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told TPM.
Fair argued Moore’s involvement may have been crass opportunism.
“It was perceived as a racial issue by significant parts of the population, especially the African American population, who very much wanted to see this language removed,” he said. “Roy Moore didn’t use the N word but one doesn’t have to use the N word to be a racist or act with racial motives or with a callousness or indifference towards racial inequality.”
Others think Moore and his allies on this fight were purists driven by an ideological opposition to state-funded education — one critic who asked not to be named in order to speak frankly described him as “a religious nut” and a “zealot” but not a racist. Moore has often railed against public schools and even once wrote that public pre-school was an “unjustifiable attempt to indoctrinate our youth” and compared it to Nazi indoctrination programs.
“I would not go so far as to say the Moore camp had racist motivations. It would be completely consistent with them being suspicious of activist judges trying to raise revenues from the bench. Could you find someone who had racist motivations who was on his side on this? I’m sure you could. But I’ve disagreed with Judge Moore on several things and I would never ascribe his personal motivations to a racist agenda,” said Roth, Riley’s former chief of staff.
“There is a philosophy that any additional services offered by the state government will cost additional money and there is a constituency that wants to leave a cap on that. The segregationist language was secondary to that concern for them,” said Kennedy.
Others think both are true — that Moore is an ideologue driven by theocratic, anti-government views who is also a savvy politician willing to make common cause with racists, even though racial animus doesn’t drive his own views.
“Moore spoke to some crazy groups in the past like the League of the South but that wasn’t race-based, it was a lot more about groups that buy what he’s saying,” said another former Riley staffer. “Moore is not a George Wallace racial demagogue guy. He’s a demagogue on a lot of things, race just isn’t one of them.”