Civil Rights

A Holiday Gift: Religious Tolerance

Posted on December 22, 2015. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a sharp video from Dr. Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton, on the PragerU site that explains the origins of religious tolerance in the English colonies of North America, and the astounding breakthrough that was the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He even gets the Puritans right! Since WordPress won’t let us import the video, we just have to give you the link:

Religious Tolerance: Made in America

Enjoy, and enjoy watching a short video rather than reading reams of text from the HP crew. That’s our gift to you!

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A Nation of refugees

Posted on November 17, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, Immigration, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

The wars in what we grew up calling “the Middle East”, from the Syrian civil war to the battles against the so-called Islamic State, are doing what all wars do: creating millions of refugees. This is not new in human history. Why is the U.S. a nation of immigrants? In large part because millions of people fled war in Europe during the 19th century. From the revolutions of 1848 to the wars that created Germany to the people who fled Europe after WWII, war has always grown our population in the U.S.

But that last one in the list, WWII, is actually an anomaly. It was after WWII that the U.S. began adopting policies that limited immigration, even for people claiming refugee status. There were multiple reasons for this; anti-immigration policies had begun to multiply in the 1920s and 30s, and affected people’s ability to leave Europe for America before the Second World War. These policies led to the refusal of the St. Louis in May 1939,  because it carried 937 Jewish Europeans seeking refugee status in Cuba; Cuba would not take them, and according to the Immigration Act of 1924 that cut immigration from southeastern Europe sharply, neither would the U.S. (The Jewish refugees were sent back to Europe where they fell victim to Nazism.) After WWII, the Cold War encouraged U.S. officials to restrict European and Asian immigration as we became a fortress closed against Communism.

So we actually became less welcoming to Refugees from Foreign Wars, as they used to be called, during WWII. Famously, it took an emotional visit by First Lady Rosalyn Carter to starving and dying Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees from the Vietnam War to change our policy and allow them to enter the U.S.

In the 1920s, the U.S. banned immigration based on religion and race: “undesirable” Catholics, Jews, and people who were not considered white at that time like Italians and Czechs and Russians all had their quotas lowered. Since the 1950s, immigration has been viewed through the lens of politics and religion: Catholic Latinos in the 1970s-90s, and now Muslim Middle-Easterners are the new bogeymen. In the late 19th century and to the 1930s, southeastern European Jews and Catholics were decried  loudly by panicking white Protestants: their mission from the Pope or whoever controlled them was to destroy the U.S. government and our white nation. Today, the nativists panic as they claim… the exact same thing.

Muslims can’t understand democracy. They can’t participate in it. They won’t learn English. They hate our free society. They’ll bring their religious laws here and try to enforce them. They’ll destroy our government. They’ll commit acts of terrorism.

All of these hate-panic claims were once made about Italian, Jewish, Chinese, and Catholic immigrants. Somehow none of them came true.

Yet some of our political leaders are clearly nostalgic for the bad old days. Rick Santorum thinks all Syrian refugees should go back home and fight ISIS. Somehow they will succeed where Russian air strikes have not. Carly Fiorina wants all refugees screened for terrorism before they can come here. Rand Paul has a blanket “no” when it comes to Muslim refugees. Bobby Jindal thinks all refugees should be constantly monitored in the U.S., ankle-bracelet style. And Mike Huckabee thinks it’s “crazy” to take poor people from the “desert”, “who don’t speak our language, who don’t understand our culture, who don’t share a [sic] same worldview, and bring them to Minnesota during the winter”.

Luckily none of these people are running the country. Our president faced this front of ignorance by reminding us of who we are:

When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who is fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that’s shameful, that’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests (for) our compassion.

This is a much-needed counter-attack against those who insist that instituting the religious tests that our Constitution absolutely outlaws and deplores as undemocratic will keep our democracy safe. Suspecting people who have fled for their lives in a war of being warmongers whose only goal is to destroy any nation that takes them in and offers them hope is beyond ignorant. And it’s beyond American.

Whenever anti-immigrant, hate laws were passed in our history, there were Americans who stood up against them. There are always Americans who fight for justice for all. That’s our true identity. That’s American. Let’s remember that. Let’s remember who we are and how we got here, always aspiring to greatest-nation-on-Earth status, because the old saw is true: if we destroy everything we stand for in the name of security, the terrorists win.

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Court decisions are not “democracy”?

Posted on November 13, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

We were listening to the news and heard someone being interviewed say that an issue in their state had been decided by the state Supreme Court, and therefore the issue “was solved by the courts, not by democracy”.

This idea that the judiciary, one of the three branches of our government as described by our Constitution, is somehow not part of our democratic system is a baffling one. We are forced to repost our original rebuttal of this idea, from 2008, here in the continuing effort to fight this misconception:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule–the basis of democracy–ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature–Congress–cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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Black Votes Matter… but not in Alabama

Posted on October 21, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Back in June 2013, we posted about the Supreme Court decision that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. You can read that here; in this post, we focus on the inevitable evil that is beginning to come of that decision.

Basically, the SC decision removed a restriction that had been placed on states with the worst records of preventing black Americans from voting: that restriction said that if one of those states wanted to change anything about its voting laws, those changes had to be approved by the federal government. This stopped states from passing new laws that kept black Americans from voting.

And now we see the first fruit of removing that restriction: Alabama first made a government-issued ID mandatory for voting, and has now shut down 31 DMV locations—in majority-black counties.

As the report in The Nation says,

The state is shuttering DMV offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest concentration of black voters. Selma will still have a DMV office but virtually all of the surrounding Black Belt counties will not. “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed,” writes John Archibald of the Birmingham News. “The harm is inflicted disproportionately on voters who happen to be black, and poor, in sparsely populated areas.”

Alabama describes the closings as a cost-saving measure, but the impact has clear racial and political overtones. Writes Archibald:

“Look at the 15 counties that voted for President Barack Obama in the last presidential election. The state just decided to close driver license offices in 53 percent of them.

“Look at the five counties that voted most solidly Democratic? Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes and Bullock counties all had their driver license offices closed.

“Look at the 10 that voted most solidly for Obama? Of those, eight—again all but Dallas and the state capital of Montgomery—had their offices closed.”

This is the very type of voting change–one that disproportionately burdens African-American voters–that would have been challenged under Section 5 of the VRA, which the Supreme Court rendered inoperative. “The voices of our most vulnerable citizens have been silenced by a decision to close 31 license facilities in Alabama. #RestoreTheVOTE,” tweeted Congresswoman Terri Sewell from Selma.

Congresswoman Sewell is calling on the federal Department of Justice to investigate, but what can it do? Its power to suspend any violation of Americans’ constitutional right to vote has been stripped away by the Shelby decision.

As John Archibald (quoted above) says in an op-ed,

It’s not just a civil rights violation. It is not just a public relations nightmare. It is not just an invitation for worldwide scorn and an alarm bell to the Justice Department. It is an affront to the very notion of justice in a nation where one man one vote is as precious as oxygen. It is a slap in the face to all who believe the stuff we teach the kids about how all are created equal.

But Alabama Secy of State John Merrill says there’s no problem:

Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama’s chief election official, said late Wednesday that the state’s closing of 31 county driver’s license offices won’t leave residents without a place to get the required I.D. card to vote.

…Merrill said state election officials “will issue (photo voter I.D. cards) on our own” at county Board of Registrars offices. “Every county has a Board of Registrars,” he said.

…Merrill said his office will have brought its mobile I.D. van to every county in Alabama by Oct. 31. He said the van will return to counties when requested. “If they can’t go to the board of registrars, we’ll bring a mobile crew down there,” Merrill said.

…One must ask why Alabama should have to use mobile vans to register people when it already had DMVs in place to do so? Mobilizing a fleet of “mobile ID vans” to replace the DMVs you shut down is like breaking your car window so you can tape a plastic garbage bag over it and then vaunt your great “fix”.

It seems clear that this is a bold, open blow against civil rights in Alabama, and like attacks on immigrants, these moves tend to spread from state to state; we fear Alabama will not be the last to decide it doesn’t have to let black citizens vote. Keep an eye on your own state, and if you like, protest the Alabama move at #RestoretheVOTE.

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Jefferson-Jackson Day no more?

Posted on October 14, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

The Democratic and Republican Parties each hold annual fundraisers that, while they attract big names—including sitting presidents—go mostly under the public radar. The Republicans have Lincoln Day, and the Democrats have Jefferson-Jackson Day.

Each event is named for founders of each party. Clearly Lincoln was the first Republican president, but it’s harder to claim  that Jefferson was the first Democratic president. His party was called the Democratic-Republican party, but it did not have much in common with the modern Democratic Party, which didn’t really come into being until 1828, when supporters of Andrew Jackson who were enraged over his loss in the 1824 presidential campaign decided to scrap the Democratic-Republican Party and form a new party. It became an increasingly proslavery party during the 1830s and 40s, and was solidly proslavery by 1850.

And that’s the problem with Jefferson-Jackson Day and the J-J dinners held in every state in Spring or Fall: some people (including the NAACP) have begun to question the wisdom of continuing to associate the modern-day Democratic Party with two men who were unapologetic slaveholders, each of whom also did a lot to alienate and destroy American Indian populations. Connecticut, Florida, Iowa and others have already renamed their dinners, and other state Democratic parties are considering it. There has been predictable outrage over this from conservative spokespeople, who see it as political correctness gone wrong, and who urge us to remember that no one is perfect, and that our national history is filled with people who did good things for the nation while holding views that we can no longer accept.

When the “view” you’re holding is proslavery, it’s hard to defend this rationalist point of view. It posits the idea that there was ever a time when people did not know that enslaving human beings was very bad for the enslaved, did not know that it was always done sheerly to make money at any cost, did not understand that it was deliberately designed to destroy the humanity of the enslaved and turn them into animals bred and raised for stock.

There was never a time when slavery was not fully understood as a complete negative. This doesn’t mean there was never a time when people lied to themselves and others by claiming it had its good points, was bad but sadly necessary, was supported by religion, civilization, and tradition, etc. In fact, the present day is one of those times, as slavery is of course still going on unapologetically in many parts of the world and secretly in others.

We think it’s a good idea to rename the Jefferson-Jackson Day and Dinner in every state, and it would be wonderful if each state came up with different people to name them for, people whom we can celebrate without reservation. Each state has them—sometimes people say it’s impossible to find someone from “the past” who was fully honorable, but of course that’s not true. So get busy in your own state and nominate suitable heroes to name the Day and Dinner for!

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All civil rights matter: hats off to Clela Rorex for recognizing same-sex marriage rights in 1975

Posted on April 27, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

We just heard a great interview with Clela Rorex on the NPR news program The Takeaway. Ms. Rorex was a county clerk in Boulder, Colorado in 1975 when two men approached her for a marriage license. She gave those men, and five other couples, the licenses after consulting with her boss, who said there was no law against doing so, and that it was up to her to decide. You can read a summary of the interview here. It gets the point across, but there were some important omissions we’d like to fill back in.

It’s hard to believe that such important decisions are left to people’s personal discretion: to hear that a government official said granting marriage licenses to gay couples is not illegal, but that the clerk could refuse to do it anyway, is to hear a violation of our basic form of government. Innocent until proven guilty, legal until made illegal—that should be the formula. It’s the logical conclusion of our legal system. But we see it overthrown left and right these days, from individual pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control that violate their personal religious beliefs to Hobby Lobby employees refusing to help gay shoppers find products. Some Americans have prioritized their personal liberties over others’, creating a hierarchy in which one’s own personal beliefs trump the law.

And some Americans have decided to make this kind of prejudice and discrimination the law, thus avoiding any possibility that Americans who aren’t prejudiced might serve people the lawmakers don’t like. “Religious freedom” acts in Georgia, Indiana, and Arkansas are almost sure to be passed in other states before they are defeated by popular outcry.

Clela Rorex represents the kind of American we can all be proud of. Here is what she said in the interview that doesn’t appear on the website (as of this posting) when asked by host John Hockenberry what led her to make her decision to issue the license:

ROREX: This is where it kind of gets confusing for even me because people expect me to say something profound. The very core of me said, I’m not the person to discriminate if two people of the same sex want to get married and that was pretty much my thinking. …And I just made the decision to do it, I didn’t want to legislate any kind of morality, personal or otherwise. I felt that if the law did not prohibit me issuing same-sex marriage licenses, then I truly felt that I should do so.

HOCKENBERRY: Clela, you don’t think that’s profound?

ROREX: Well, I think I learned later that it was profound. …It was very simple for me. [It was] a question of am I going to be the one to take away such a right if this right exists? And I could never have lived with that.

Some Americans seem to make a career of legislating morality today; they often claim the blessing of the Constitution on their actions even as they violate the First Amendment that says the government shall make no establishment of religion in order to grossly expand the definition of “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” to mean that people can use their religion to strip other people of their rights. Taking away rights they don’t like is their bread and butter.

Ms. Rorex addressed this at the end of her interview, when the host rather callously said that the same-sex marriage licenses she issued were a “different spin on the mindless paperwork of a clerk”:

It was mindless paperwork… you just don’t think that someone in an administrative level of government really can be called upon sometimes to make important decisions. When you look at things now, with the Supreme Court soon to hear once again whether marriage equality will be the law of the land, you see administrative officials, county clerks and others, putting up all kinds of roadblocks to try to not issue licenses to same-sex couples. You see administrative officials saying they’re not going to change the gender on a driver’s license or on a birth certificate. It’s very petty to me, it’s petty. Government officials I feel get hamstrung with red tape and they should find a way around it. It’s not like you’re asking for the impossible.

She is generous to give these officials the out of saying they are hampered by red tape. We will follow her lead and go along with this explanation for all the personal decisions about what is legal and what isn’t and encourage everyone to educate any government official they encounter who does not understand the law and their duty to it as clearly as Ms. Rorex. The job and purpose of a government official is to administer the law, not set up roadblocks to it based on their personal beliefs and feelings. If a law is to be contested, and its constitutionality questioned, that must be done in the public forum of the legislature, not an individual’s lunch break. We all have a say in what is legal in this country; let’s all make the decision, as Clela Rorex did, not to take away other people’s rights in the name of our own.

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Reading famous American photos: Migrant Mother, Flag-Raising at Iwo Jima, and The Soiling of Old Glory

Posted on January 22, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We all know certain iconic photos from American history—a Migrant Mother staring down starvation during the Great Depression:

Lange-MigrantMother02

U.S. Marines and Navy soldiers raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima during WWII:

WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising

and this photo of a black American seemingly about to be stabbed with an American flag during a civil rights protest:

flag stabbing

Each of these photos is misleading. In this short series, we’ll start with the last one. It was taken by Stanley Forman on April 5, 1976, in Boston, Massachusetts during a protest over court-ordered school desegregation—busing. It seems to show a white man about to stab a black man who is helplessly pinned and prevented from escaping by another white man. The attacker is Joseph Rakes, the black victim Ted Landsmark, the man pinning him back is Jim Kelly.

What they were really doing is this: Rakes, holding the flag, was swinging it at Landsmark in an attempt to threaten him, but was not running toward him to kill. You can see that Rakes’ feet are planted—he’s not moving. He was just at a point in his flag-swinging where the flag was horizontal. Rakes was against busing, but he was not trying to kill anyone.

The man holding Landsmark, Jim Kelly, was a Boston city councillor who was notoriously against desegregation of any kind—in schools, housing, anywhere. He was there to protest busing. Yet it is Kelly who is trying to get Landsmark out of the way of this man waving the flag because he was afraid Landsmark would be attacked. You can see that Kelly’s feet are moving. Ted Landsmark was a lawyer—you can see he is the only one wearing a suit—who had already been attacked by anti-busing rioters and had his nose broken. He seems to be resisting Kelly, perhaps thinking he is yet another white about to attack him.

Rakes later said that he first saw this photo on the bus as he rode to work the next day. It was on the cover of the newspaper someone else was reading.  “I saw the image and thought, ‘Who is that lunatic with the flag?’ Then I realized it was me.”

Even if Rakes wasn’t about to stab Landsmark with the flag, it’s a chilling image. Using the flag as a threat in any way is a cruel and sickening perversion of that national symbol. You don’t have to stab someone with it to soil Old Glory; just using it to protest democracy is soiling enough.

But taking the time to learn the truth about this image is more instructive than just being repulsed by what it seems to show. That Jim Kelly would protect a black man who was promoting busing tells an uplifting story about humanity and decency trumping racism, even if for a moment. And Rakes’ immediate reaction to the photo, in which he saw a “lunatic”, also cuts through the ideology of racism and reveals the basic indecency of any racial attack.

For each photo that we deconstruct here, we’ll offer one that is not so famous but should be. Here is the first:

Valerie Banks

On September 12, 1974, when the school year began in Boston with court-ordered busing despite the protests, white students at South Boston High School boycotted classes. Some refused to sit with black students. Others were afraid of the inevitable violence that would take place in and around the school. Black students also boycotted, for fear of being attacked. Only this young woman, Valerie Banks, bravely showed up to her geography class that day. This lone American, waiting with determination, patience, and courage for a better day, should be remembered.

Next time: Migrant Mother myth-busting

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Selma throws Lyndon Johnson under the bus of history

Posted on January 14, 2015. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , |

The movie Selma is being acclaimed by all and sundry for its depiction of the events surrounding the 1965 March on Selma that went down in history as “Bloody Sunday” for the unimaginable violence leveled at men, women, and children marching for voters’ rights in Alabama by state police. The approximately 600 marchers were led that day, March 7, 1965, by many brave Americans, including John Lewis, the Rev. Hosea Williams, Bob Mants, and Albert Turner. They crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma before they were blocked by state troopers and white militia. When Rev. Williams tried to talk with an officer, he was ignored, and the troopers began trying to physically push the marchers back. Then the beatings began, and mounted troopers charged the marchers, trampling many of them.

What made this attack, which was otherwise par for the course in the south, so unusual is that it was televised. The three major news networks were there and they did not hesitate to broadcast the violence (although they were themselves threatened if they did so). A photo of marcher Amelia Boynton lying unconscious in front of the bridge after being beaten unconscious by a trooper like the one still standing over her with his club made Americans across the country sick.

amelia_boynton

In response, a second march was organized, and it was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. But black leaders were not the only ones taking action. President Lyndon Johnson was galvanized by the horrid spectacle and issued a statement “deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated…”

Johnson did more than make statements, however, and that’s where the movie Selma goes so wrong. As the NYT review puts it,

…its depiction of Johnson as a laggard on black voting rights who opposed the marches and even unleashed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an effort to stop Dr. King’s campaign. …

The movie’s depiction of Johnson’s attitude toward F.B.I. surveillance of Dr. King’s personal life, which began during the Kennedy administration, is particularly problematic, several historians said.

In an early scene, Johnson seems disgusted by J. Edgar Hoover’s suggestion that Dr. King — “a political and moral degenerate,” Hoover says — be taken down. But later the president, angered by Dr. King’s plans in Selma, asks to get Hoover on the phone. Soon after, Coretta Scott King is shown listening to a tape of anonymous threats, followed by the sounds of Dr. King moaning with a lover.

In fact, the tape, which Mrs. King listened to in January 1965, had been recorded and sent to the headquarters of Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, and had no direct connection to Selma or to Johnson, Mr. Garrow said.

“If the movie suggests L.B.J. had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J.,” he said.

It’s a shame that John Kennedy has such a hold on the national imagination that historians will not put the blame for the slanders against King where it belongs: in his administration. Robert Kennedy pushed hard for an investigation of MLK, and FBI director Hoover was all too eager to oblige. Johnson had nothing to do with the investigation, but he is demonized in the movie for it, where he is portrayed as a terrible enemy to King and someone devoted to fighting the civil rights movement.

In rebuttal, we refer our readers to our post series of posts called Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” Speech, in which we point out that

President Johnson was one of those Americans who watched the footage from Selma and was infuriated and repelled by what he saw. Johnson was a sincere proponent of civil rights, and he had staked a lifetime of political clout on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone expected him to back down after that, and not “push” the Southern Democrats for anything more on the race front. Instead, Johnson went on TV himself, and spoke to the nation, one week after the attack at Selma, and asked the American people to live up to their creed and ensure the voting rights of black Americans….

[In his address to the nation on March 15, 1965, Johnson said in part]  “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.”

Connecting—equating—the white policemen in Selma with the British regulars at Lexington and Concord and with the Confederate leadership at Appomattox was daring. Johnson is very clear here: the white police of Selma fought and killed Americans trying to exercise their rights and freedoms as Americans. There is no other way to define it. They were not protecting Southern society, or Southern womanhood, or keeping down violent blacks, or maintaining law and order, or upholding the law of the land, or any of the other justifications racial violence was so constantly wrapped in by its perpetrators.

“There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government—the Government of the greatest Nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.

…There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

…But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.”

—Here, listeners would have wondered if they had really just heard their uptight-looking, cantankerous white Southern president quote the famous rallying cry of the civil rights movement. And had he really just said that all Americans inherit the burden and shame of racism and injustice? Again, we see Johnson’s insistence that racism was not a “negro problem”, an issue that trouble-making radicals kept bringing up or making up, but part of the fabric of American life and the part that needed to be ripped out and replaced, not honored and enshrined as “tradition”.

…”As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.”

Johnson was not kidding around. He moved the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress at lightning speed and made his commitment to real racial equality in America very clear and very real.

Yet the director of Selma apparently chooses to ignore historical fact in this case. Her comments as presented in The Hollywood Review are these:

“I think everyone sees history through their own lens, and I don’t begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. This is what we see. And that should be valid. I’m not gonna argue history; I could, but I won’t.”

DuVernay continued, “I’m just gonna say that, you know, my voice, David’s voice, the voices of all of the artists that gathered to do this, of Paramount Pictures, which allowed us to amplify this story to the world, is really focused on issues of justice and dignity. And for this to be reduced — reduced is really what all of this is — to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices — black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths — to do something amazing.”

“If there is anything that we should be talking about in terms of legacy,” DuVernay added, “it is really the destruction of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act and the fact that that very act is no more in the way that it should be, protecting all voices to be able to heard and participate in the electoral process. That is at risk right now. There’s been violence done to that act. We chronicle its creation in our film. And so I would just invite people to keep their eyes on the prize and really focus on the beautiful positives of the film.”

It is so bitterly ironic that DuVernay says we should be focusing on the destruction of the very Voting Rights Act that Johnson worked so fast and so hard to pass. It’s Johnson’s legacy that is destroyed in that instance. [Read more about the Act and how the Supreme Court dismantled it in 2013 here.]

More important, DuVernay is completely wrong about history. It’s not a melange of competing opinions. We don’t each get our own individual “history” of what we want to believe. There is a real history of real events that can be objectively verified by artifacts. It is the opposite  of “valid” to say, Well, whatever I believe or “see” is the truth. What if I choose to “see” that the marchers started the violence? I “believe” they shot at the state troopers, who were forced to defend themselves. Where do we draw the line when history becomes mere story?

No “celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices” for racial justice in the 1960s is complete or accurate if it excludes Lyndon Johnson from those people. If her movie is about justice, then she should do Johnson justice. He wasn’t perfect, but he did more to end institutional racism in this country than any president before him since Lincoln, and no president has come close to matching his record since.

Its objectively false representation of Johnson does not make Selma worthless. But it strikes a blow for myth over truth, and that’s unacceptable. Why go to the trouble of making a historically accurate movie in all respects and then tell a complete lie about a major player? If DuVernay needed a villain, why not Hoover, or every single one of the whites who beat the marchers? It doesn’t make sense.

History matters in every detail. You can’t tell a true story with a lie.

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Lynching in the 21st-century: or, black lives matter

Posted on December 5, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

One of the cornerstones of a history education is civics. If we don’t understand how our government is supposed to work, and why it is structured the way it is, we cannot participate properly in our own government, and we can’t hold the people in positions of political authority accountable for their actions. We can’t define what justice is. We have no recourse when confronted with a crime against our proper form of government but to run into the streets as mobs, in brief and ultimately futile demonstrations that accomplish no long-term reform. So here’s our civics lesson for 2014 and beyond.

In the United States, the police are bound by the same laws they enforce. They are not above the law. They don’t have a separate code of law from non-police officers. They are government employees (at the federal, state, or local level) bound to obey the law just like other government employees. A police officer has no special waiver to break the law in dangerous circumstances; the police can use their judgment to decide whether force is needed to prevent a criminal from killing someone, but they are bound to use only so much force as is necessary to defuse the danger and take the suspect into custody alive.

Clearly, we haven’t been seeing this in the U.S. over the past few years. At the same time, it’s not a new problem. The police generally uphold the values of the majority in any country. In the U.S., the police have traditionally been white men (and this still holds true today), and they have generally upheld racial and sexual discrimination. They’re not the only ones, of course; the same can be said of Congress and most state and local governments. When we look back at U.S. history, we see that government officials and the police have often worked together to thwart the principles of our nation’s founding, and to pervert our democratic government. But one would have thought that since 1970, say, and a full century of civil rights progress and seemingly increasing enlightenment about race, sex, and sexuality, this would not be happening so openly and baldly today, in 2014. A leader of the New York police department on the radio this morning promised in-depth training and education for officers, basically to help them not respond to every encounter with a black man with deadly force. This made us wonder why, at this late date, and after so many decades upon decades of civil rights activism and education in this country, this “training” begins only now.

You have to take the long view on any current problem. When we do that here, we see that the police assaults on black men are just part of a larger problem that is not fully encompassed even by race. The real problem being expressed in these incidents is the militarization of our police and our culture. Somehow, in the last 30 years, guns have been made the hallmark of American freedom. Everyone must have one everywhere, despite their criminal record or mental stability. One of the outcomes of this is the regular school shootings we endure each year. Another is attacks on the police. For years now, we’ve heard about police being called to a domestic dispute and being shot instantly, either as part of a general shootout or as the end result of a deliberate trap. Police have been shot by people they pull over for speeding. In many states, people can carry guns around everywhere, at all times; this makes any interaction with them by the police potentially fatal for the officer.

The logical reaction to this by the police has been to up the ante: when you expect to be shot, the only way to defend yourself is to make sure you shoot first. It’s not surprising that police officers have begun to expect that every encounter they have could be fatal. And it doesn’t seem likely that any “training and education” will prevent further deaths when Americans continue to carry guns at all times—the police will still believe that the only outcome of every encounter is gunfire, from both sides. Add race to this, in the form of a black suspect, and death is almost a given. Even when it is clear the black suspect does not have a gun, extreme force is used to subdue him before he somehow injures the officer. Eric Garner was not shot like Michael Brown, but he was immediately put into a choke hold—an extreme action.

Darren Wilson’s perception of Brown as looking like “a demon” was not only an admission of his fear of being killed by a suspect, it was a shocking admission of racism that was so very like descriptions of black men during and after slavery in this country that we were left aghast. Describing black men as big, hulking, animal-like, amoral, dumb, demonic, and savage was boilerplate for two centuries in this country. Black men had to be “demonized” to justify slavery and then post-slavery oppression and… lynching.

Lynching has to come to mind here. We seem to have entered a new age of lynching in this country. Lynching is characterized not just by a violent death (by hanging, mutilation, torture, burning, etc.), but by one or two men making a lightning-fast decision about someone’s guilt and immediately acting on that decision to kill them. Originally, lynching in the West was done by whites to whites. No one described lynching more decisively and unflinchingly than Ida B. Wells, so let’s let her describe it here (from Lynch Law in America, published in 1900):

Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. The “unwritten law” first found excuse with the rough, rugged, and determined men who left the civilized centers of eastern States to seek for quick returns in the gold-fields of the far West. Following in uncertain pursuit of continually eluding fortune, they dared the savagery of the Indians, the hardships of mountain travel, and the constant terror of border State outlaws. Naturally, they felt slight toleration for traitors in their own ranks. It was enough to fight the enemies from without; woe to the foe within! Far removed from and entirely without protection of the courts of civilized life, these fortune-seekers made laws to meet their varying emergencies. The thief who stole a horse, the bully who “jumped” a claim, was a common enemy. If caught he was promptly tried, and if found guilty was hanged to the tree under which the court convened.

The key here is the speed of the judgment. If someone was caught committing a crime, large or small, or even suspected of it, he was immediately found guilty and killed. It could be done in 10 minutes. There’s no trial (later there would be nauseating show trials with a pre-determined guilty verdict), no testimony beyond “He stole that from me”, no chance for the accused to protest or prove himself innocent. Lynching is about pre-determined guilt, but it’s also about leaping over the lengthy process of criminal justice and fair trials to the instant gratification of death to the criminal.

That’s what is shocking about every instance of police brutality or deadly force. Instead of doing all he can to bring a suspect into custody where he can be tried, the officer makes a split-second decision about how much danger he himself is in from the suspect, and acts on it immediately. Afterward, this decision is validated by a claim that the suspect was resisting arrest. This is a claim so old and so reeking of our nation’s long history of injustice to minorities of all kinds that it’s difficult to hear it spoken today. Police officers are trained to overcome suspects resisting arrest in many ways; deadly force is supposed to be a last resort. But in our militarized and violent culture, it is the first and only resort for too many police officers.

We had already thought about this as a new kind of lynching when we realized that the head of the NYC police union is named Patrick Lynch. Here is his commentary on the Garner death as reported by NBC News:

“We feel badly that there was a loss of life,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “But unfortunately Mr. Garner made a choice that day to resist arrest.”

—Don’t most suspects “make a choice” to resist arrest? Does anyone go quietly? We would wager that most suspects resist arrest, but only the large, black ones are put in choke holds. Does any police officer expect that no one he confronts will ever resist arrest? Aren’t the police trained in how to deal with someone resisting arrest without killing them?

He praised the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, as a good man, a mature policeman and an Eagle Scout who “went out and did a difficult job, a job where there’s no script, and sometimes with that there’s tragedy that comes.”

—But there is a script: it’s called police procedure. It’s police training. Is Lynch really saying that police officers have no idea what to do when someone resists arrest other than to use deadly force? The Eagle Scout reference we will pass by in disbelief.

“It’s also a tragedy for this police officer who has to live with that death,” Lynch said.

—It doesn’t seem like it should be a tragedy if, as Lynch maintains, no real harm was done. Someone resisting arrest got what they deserved. The warped idea that it is really the police officer, not Garner’s family, who suffers most is all too common in these statements.

He also praised New York police for their handling of protests on Wednesday night, when thousands who objected to the decision took to the streets. Lynch lashed out at Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said on Wednesday that the grand jury’s decision not to bring charges was “one that many in our city did not want.”

He suggested that the mayor was teaching children to fear police officers, and he said the lesson instead should be to comply with police officers, even if they feel an arrest is unjust.

—It is only possible to comply with police officers if their treatment of you as a suspect is constitutional and legal. If not, you are under no such obligation.

“You cannot resist arrest,” Lynch said. “Because resisting arrest leads to confrontation. Confrontation leads to tragedy.”

—Americans have the right to resist arrest. The police are obligated to take people who resist arrest into custody without killing them. Resisting arrest does lead to confrontation—but the idea that confrontation must lead to tragedy is so outrageous. Are we really to accept that if we resist arrest we will be killed? Shot, choked, tased, however it happens? Any act of defiance will be met with death? This sounds more like the totalitarian states the U.S. is constantly battling around the world than our own country.

We cannot allow our police force to become perverted. We cannot become a police state, where police officers have the right to kill if, in their own, split-second judgment, they are personally endangered. The first duty of a police officer cannot be to protect himself. We can’t have local city police suddenly driving around in armored vehicles, basically tanks, because they fear for their lives. We can’t accept this as the new normal. It takes bravery and a strong commitment to justice to be a good police officer. We need more people with those qualities to take on that job.

We also need to reform our society and put an end to our obsession with “protecting ourselves” with guns. For as long as a police officer has good reason to suspect that the people he encounters are armed, we will have nothing but escalating police violence.

And finally, we cannot opt out of our government system. We can’t eviscerate our government as unjust and wash our hands of it, deciding to riot or protest and then do nothing. We can’t change anything unless the people who are outraged by injustice do the long, hard work of changing the system. We can’t have people making the split-second decision that the police are corrupt, there’s nothing we can do about it, and we are thus free to hate and defy the police. That will not change anything. Everyone has to participate in our democracy to keep it working. Anger and outrage should fuel hard work, not self-righteous inactivity. It’s hard work to be free.

We’ve said many times here at the HP that every generation has to accept and commit to our nation’s founding principles of justice. Learn what those principles are, commit to them, and uphold them in your daily life to the greatest extent that you can, and never back down from them. It’s the only way to prevent lynching.

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Gay marriage in Alaska v. tyranny of the majority

Posted on October 17, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Round 10 for this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage is resolved by a state court in its favor. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as Alaska’s ban on gay marriage is revoked:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

We heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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