Categorycivil rights

Selma Revisited

Typewriter With Special Buttons

Last Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when 600 protestors, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., began marching from Selma to Birmingham in support of voting rights. They were met on the Edmund Pettis Bridge by Alabama State troopers dispatched by segregationist Governor George Wallace, who attacked them with tear gas, leather whips, and billy clubs, an unprovoked act of violence whose bloodshed outraged most Americans and was a major factor in the subsequent passage by Congress of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When I picked up my newspaper on the following Monday, the front page featured coverage of the celebration of that anniversary, highlighted by a photo of President Obama hugging Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who marched alongside MLK, Jr., and was bloodied during the tragic events of that historical day. And as my mind flooded with memories of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the question Have we overcome? also trailed into view and set off an intense reflection.

Well, we have done better, I concluded. After Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, we further reduced discrimination in commerce and transportation via the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and with respect to voting courtesy of the Voting Rights Act. And, I noted with a smile, in that photo my eyes were focused on the President of the United States—an African-American. That’s something I wasn’t sure I’d ever live to see, flowed my next thought, so yes, we have progressed, some positive change has occurred. But, Have we overcome? still lingered to narrow my smile.

In view of recent events, the answer to that question is a resounding no! First off, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, removing the Federal Government’s authority to supervise electoral requirements in our states and insure that discriminatory practices were not in play. Then, further, as David Love reported in via the Tribune News Service, “the Tea Party-led Republican Party has made voter disenfranchisement and suppression a top priority. Voter ID laws across the country have put up obstacles for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the elderly, young people, and others. Some state legislatures have reduced voting days, including the Sunday before Election Day, when black churches organize campaigns to go to the polls. Moreover, as Al Jazeera has reported, Republican officials in 27 states have initiated a program that could purge 7 million voters from the rolls, particularly brown and black Americans.”

And, why? To prevent voter fraud is the answer provided, despite the fact that study after study after study reveals that voter fraud is so insignificant as to be almost non-existent. The real reason is that the voters sought to be removed from the polls overwhelmingly vote for Democratic Party candidates!

So, a new version of the poll tax, calling into mind the phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And what is truly tragic is that most Americans, including most of our citizens who identify themselves as Republicans, are not in favor of retreating from the racial progress America has made, but are witnessing a regression fostered by a small, highly vocal, and extremely well funded right-wing minority that has hijacked the Republican Party and is dictating dangerously undemocratic policies that threaten to undermine the fundamental right to vote of millions of their fellow citizens.

No, indeed, we have not yet overcome. Race remains a huge problem in America, and if anyone doubts that sad fact, recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, make the truth of that assertion clear and undeniable.

In a community that is 67% black, the police department is almost exclusively white. An accident? No. And after a thorough investigation of the events and the culture surrounding the Criminal Justice System in Ferguson, on March 5th the Justice Department issued a scathing report, describing the Ferguson police and Municipal Court “as a system whose primary function was to make poor African Americans pay as many fines and fees as possible for petty offenses, real or invented.”

After reading accounts of this report in The Oregonian, once again that haunting phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same, echoed into mind and triggered a vivid memory of the first jury trial I was involved in when I was a Deputy Public Defender in Compton, California, almost half a century ago. Depicted in detail in my novel, Gideon’s Children, the main character, Matthew Harris is defending a male African American charged with having been drunk in public. And when the jury panel of 200 persons from which twelve would be selected for trial is seated in the courtroom, Matt is stunned by his observation that not one of them is black, even though the community from which they are drawn is upwards of 80% African American.

The good news is that while Matt Harris was defeated by the stacked deck a half century ago, today the outrageous situation in Ferguson is being corrected. In the past few days, the officials responsible for the conspiracy of discrimination at work there have resigned or been removed, including the city manager, the police chief, and the municipal court judge. Unfortunately, the anger from years of persecution has unleashed violence from a few members of the community, resulting in two police officers being shot. Most hopefully calm will prevail so that plans for a new and better government in Ferguson can be implemented. I also believe that it would be helpful if those persons responsible for the utterly despicable actions in Ferguson were prosecuted for civil rights violations, thereby sending a message to all who would engage in like actions.

What worries me is that if the regressive forces at work are allowed to prevail, and millions of people of color are disenfranchised, and other Ferguson-like conditions are not ferreted out and remedied, then violence of a more significant magnitude will occur. For if a huge segment of our populace is not allowed to participate, and also feels that the Criminal Justice System is targeting them for grossly unfair treatment, then the respect for the Rule of Law necessary for it to govern disappears.

All of us lead busy lives. But each of us needs to make the time necessary to contact our local,  state, and federal representatives, and let them know that we are adamant in our desire for a new Voting Rights Act that insures voter participation by all segments of our society, and urges them to foster and nourish programs designed to promote excellent relationships between police and the communities which they serve.

Jim Crow: Yesterday and Today

In two separate blog posts, on January 19th and February 17th, I discussed the issue of race and its cancerous affect on American Society. Most of us are aware of the laws, both written and unwritten, that arose after the end of the Civil War with the purpose of ensuring that the newly freed slaves remained the lowest class in our society. However, most likely very few of our citizens are aware that under the guise of The War On Drugs, a new Jim Crow arose out of the ashes of the old.

With the discussion on how to fix our broken Criminal Justice System growing daily, I want to strongly recommend an outstanding book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. A highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar, Ms. Alexander not only possesses top-flight credentials to write about racial issues, but also the ability to write, and in this dramatic exposé of the War On Drugs and the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color by mass incarceration she makes an invaluable contribution to recognizing the need for reform.

In a crisp clear style, Alexander first provides the reader with the historical background of racial discrimination. Then, with passion, she sets forth the painful reality of what has occurred since Brown versus the Board of Education outlawed segregation, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 were enacted during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Yes, after 250 years of slavery, followed by 150 years of Jim Crow laws enacted and enforced to keep people of color in the lowest class of American Society, progress had been made. However, those elements of the White Power Structure that made Jim Crow possible in the first place did not give up. No, with great cunning they devised a strategy for a New Jim Crow.

Fully aware that a glaring weakness in communities of color is the fragility of the family structure, a product of slavery and the old Jim Crow, the opponents of social justice and equality devised a plan for magnifying that weakness, cleverly giving it a positive name: The War On Drugs. And then under the guise of protecting our society from drugs, the proponents of this so-called war turned loose the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of young black males, which in turn increased unemployment and poverty within communities of color. Brilliantly and dramatically detailing how this plan was formulated and executed, Alexander’s book is a must read for anyone seeking a full understanding of the problems facing communities of color, problems which further fuel the rage following the recent events from Ferguson to New York City to Cleveland to Los Angeles and threaten the fabric of the Rule of Law which founds American Society.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day: A Time For All Of Us To Reflect, Then Renew Our Resolution To Expand Freedom and Equality

King Memorial, Hopes and Dreams Today we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great leader of the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement. And living in the decade that marks the 50th anniversary of the tumultuous 1960s, fresh traumatic events, from Ferguson to New York City to Cleveland to Los Angeles, mandate serious reflection on both eras.

For despite the progress in civil rights that has been achieved, race remains the foremost social, economic, and political issue that divides America and threatens to tear holes in the fabric of our society.

In a timely OP-ED in the New York Times last August 27th, Nicholas Kristof raised the portentous question: Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist? And the honest answer is: YES! For “research in the last couple of decades suggests that the problem is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who also harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.”

Wow, I thought, could that be me? Could I, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement as a Public Defender, and who recently authored Gideon’s Children, a novel arguing for fair treatment and justice for individuals of all colors in the Criminal Justice System, harbor such an unconscious attitude?

After much soul searching, I concluded that the answer was sadly: YES! And I think that if most of my fellow Americans are scrupulously honest with themselves, they will come to the same unhappy conclusion.

How can that be? How can such a subconscious condition originate? were the next questions I asked myself. And while I am not a psychologist, sociologist, or philosopher, after due deliberation Human Nature is the answer that tumbled into mind, a quick review of history then confirming it. For throughout the long story of mankind, someone or some group has always needed to rise above another, to be on top and hence better. And while this need to set ourselves apart from our fellow beings, to make ourselves feel special and better can, of course, produce constructive achievement if guided and guarded by conscience, if the rising is accomplished by pushing and keeping others down, while shelving conscience’s dictate to act appropriately, then a tension is created that leads to trouble with a capital T.

Most of us lead ordinary lives, and are not directly involved in the higher levels of the power structure that governs our society. However, that human need to be special, to be better, is still present and can unconsciously form attitudes that lead to harmful discriminatory policies and behavior.

So, to truly honor the great man whose birthday we celebrate today, I would like to suggest that amidst our environment of busy-busy-busy, fast- faster-and-faster-yet, leading to information overload and shrinking attention spans, that we stop for an hour or two, and honestly consider how we think and feel about how we relate to our fellow beings.

Then, let us resolve to do better. As Lincoln advised, let us summon the better angels of our nature, and taking one tiny step forward each day, be the change in the world we want to see.

Happy Birthday, Martin! And God bless!