Knight v. State of Alabama was a federal court case that lasted almost 30 years, challenging numerous policies of the state's colleges and universities, including funding, on the grounds that they are racially discriminatory. Despite factual findings in the most recent trial, held in May 2004, that Alabama's property tax laws were enacted to discriminate against blacks and continue to have that effect, federal courts refused to deem these laws in violation of the U.S. Constitution. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
In 1981 John F. Knight, representative of Alabama's 77th District in Montgomery, John Gibson (now president of Alabama A & M University) and students, alumni, and others associated with Alabama State University and Alabama A & M University (both historically black universities) filed this suit declaring Alabama's higher education system racially discriminatory in a number of areas, including admissions policies. After two lengthy trials, the first in 1991 and the second in 1995, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama held that many of the state's policies fostered segregation in Alabama's colleges and universities, thus violating the U.S. Constitution. The district court ordered numerous changes to these policies and retained authority for 10 years to supervise the state's progress.
In 2003, two years before this 10-year period was due to expire, Knight and the other plaintiffs claimed that serious under-funding of both Alabama's K-12 and higher education systems had materially compromised the goals ordered by the district court, which included developing high-quality programs at Alabama State and Alabama A&M as well as increasing the ability of black students to attend college through scholarships and financial aid. The plaintiffs argued that Alabama's property tax laws violated the Constitution because those laws were designed to starve funding for the education of blacks and that the serious effects of the under-funding continue to disproportionately harm black students. This was one of the first times a tax law has been challenged as unconstitutional based on racial considerations.
In its 2004 decision, the district court found that Alabama's property tax system was "a vestige of discrimination" and "Black Belt and urban industrial interests successfully used the argument that it is unfair for white property owners to pay for the education of blacks to produce all the state constitutional barriers to property taxes from 1875 to present, including the 1971 and 1978 Lid Bill Amendments." In other words, Alabama's white political leaders, particularly the administrations of Governor George Wallace, prevented the state from collecting sufficient property taxes in order to deny black students an adequate education. The Lid Bills severely restrict the ability of the state to tax property, especially timber and agriculture property, for which taxes average less than $1 an acre, even for large corporations that own thousands of acres. The district court also found that black students continue to be disproportionately harmed by the state's inadequate funding for K-12 and higher education, the Lid Bills restrict the ability of the state to raise property taxes, and Alabama's overall tax structure cripples the ability of the state to adequately fund all of public education. For the 2003-2004 school year, Alabama spent an average of $6,553 per child, over $1,000 less per child than Georgia's $7,733, which is substantially below the national average of $8,182.
Laws created to discriminate against blacks and that continue to have discriminatory effects are deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Likewise, higher education policies created to foster segregation and that continue to deny black students equal educational opportunities are also unconstitutional. Therefore, many legal scholars and observers in Alabama believe if the state's property tax laws are declared unconstitutional, the limitations on adequate funding for K-12 and higher education will be removed and allow the state legislature to pass new property tax laws that reflect the will of Alabama's people in the twenty-first century.
The district court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals offered three reasons for refusing to hold Alabama's property tax laws unconstitutional: Racially discriminatory tax laws do not foster segregation; even if racially discriminatory tax laws potentially foster segregation, the plaintiffs failed to prove that Alabama's property tax laws cause the inadequate higher education funding that compromises the ability of black students to attend college; and, the U.S. Supreme Court's general constitutional standards, which would deem the property tax laws unconstitutional with respect to K-12 education, could not be invoked because this lawsuit only involved challenges to higher education policies.
The defeat prompted the plaintiffs to petition the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 to hear the case, but they were turned down.
Given the district court's clear factual findings, as acknowledged by the Eleventh Circuit, that Alabama's property tax laws
were designed to deny blacks an adequate education and "the effect of low property tax revenues has had a crippling effect
on poor, majority black school districts," supporters of public education have filed a new lawsuit, Lynch v. Alabama, challenging Alabama's property tax laws as racially discriminatory due to their effects on K-12 funding.
Arnston, Phillip Scott. "Thirty Years Later, is the Schoolhouse Door Still Closed? Segregation in the Higher Education System of Alabama." 45 Alabama Law Review 585 (1994).
Brooks, F. Erik. "Legal and Policy Issues: Removing the Residue of Past Segregation in Higher Education." Journal of Negro Education 73 (Summer 2004) 350-364.
Susan Pace Hamill
University of Alabama School of Law
Published February 26, 2008
Last updated February 8, 2013