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Many voters opt to keep racist language in Constitution

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — In 21st Century Oregon it might have seemed a no-brainer: Should voters remove racially offensive language from the state constitution, where it had lurked forgotten for nearly 150 years?

The measure passed, but in a state awash in liberal tradition 31 percent on Tuesday still voted no.

One passage wiped out by Tuesday's election reads, "No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate."

Over the decades, racist provisions in Oregon's constitution and statutes have been as hardy and stubborn as the pioneers who wrote them.

Whether those who voted "no" on Measure 14 were reluctant to tamper with a historical document or whether there were hidden racial feelings is unclear.

Other objectionable language and provisions in the constitution have been removed gradually. That which remained has survived a century of opportunities for change through the initiative process.

"I didn't feel any opposition to it at all," Mike Leighton, editor of the black-oriented Portland Observer newspaper said Wednesday.

"Maybe it's the 30 percent of the people who will vote against anything," he said. "I would hope people didn't vote that way because they want racist language or because they support racism."

Political analyst Jim Moore said Oregon's national reputation as a liberal place was challenged by failed gay rights initiatives in the 1990s and somewhat by this vote as well.

"The state's national reputation has always had a hole in it," Moore said.

He noted that the state somewhat reluctantly in the 1960s removed real estate covenants that could block resale of property to Asians and blacks. A constitutional provision barring Chinese from owning property in the state remains and was not affected by Tuesday's vote, he said.

"There are people out there who basically say blacks are inferior or that it is no big deal to have that language in there," he said.

He said some who voted for Measure 14 may have done so because it seemed to negate the history of the state.

Chet Orloff, director emeritus of the Oregon Historical Society, said some of the people who voted "no" may have felt the constitution should stand as a historical record. But not all of them.

"Five or 10 percent, maybe more, of the people who voted it down have some racist attitudes and this is being reflected," he said. "This is giving them an opportunity to express it in a secret way."

The measure passed in all 36 counties but had its toughest opposition in sparsely populated and usually conservative rural counties such as Harney, Lake, Wheeler, Malheur, Klamath and Crook.

Discriminatory language once was rampant in Oregon's legal codes and constitution. Much of it that lasted was moot, overridden by amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Many of Oregon's early settlers were disenchanted Southern whites, who brought their ideas, and in some cases their slaves, with them.

Many more displaced by the Civil War followed, often settling in the Rogue Valley, which was isolated by poor roads from the rest of the state until fairly recently. There, attitudes grew and prospered, generally unleavened by what was going on around them.

However both Jackson and Josephine counties passed Measure 14 handily.

Southern sympathies in Oregon ran high during the Civil War, high enough to cause a Union fort to be built near Corvallis. President Lincoln silenced several Oregon newspapers with secessionist sympathies by pulling their mailing privileges.

In 1844, slavery was declared illegal in the Oregon Country and adult blacks were ordered out. Those who remained were to be whipped every six months until they left, although the punishment was amended to forced labor and there is a record of only one black actually being ejected.

In 1859, Oregon was the first state to be admitted to the union with an exclusion law on the books, where it remained until 1926.

In 1862, Oregon imposed a $5 tax on all blacks, Chinese, Hawaiians and "mulattos" and banned marriage between whites and anyone more than one-quarter black.

Four years later the state rejected the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to blacks and extended the marriage ban to anyone a quarter or more Chinese or Hawaiian or a half or more Indian. The mixed marriage ban stayed on the books until 1951.

In 1883, an attempt to amend the state constitution to remove a ban on black voting failed and it didn't pass until 1927.

The state got around to amending the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which did the same thing, in 1959.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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