Civil Rights

A voice for justice in Mississippi

Posted on April 15, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

We were pleasantly shocked to hear an NPR interview with a baker in Mississippi who took a stand against the new state law, signed by Governor Phil Bryant, allowing religious organizations, individuals and businesses to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people if they feel offering such services violates their religious beliefs.

These sexuality laws are identical to the laws that allowed whites to refuse service to blacks in all but one way: the racial laws claimed a biological justification (that black people were biologically inferior to white people), while the sexuality laws claim a religious justification (famously summed up by some anonymous bigot years ago as “God hates fags”).

Somehow the example most commonly used to illustrate the anguish of being a business owner who has to serve someone they don’t approve of is the baker: Christian bakers shouldn’t be forced to bake gay wedding cakes.

This is bogus in all respects, legally and morally. As we said just a few posts ago,

Remember: if you don’t want to serve gay or trans people, don’t open a public business. Once you open a public business, you are obliged to serve the public—no exceptions. There’s no difference between these anti-gay laws and the anti-black laws that kept black people from eating in restaurants with white people, going to movie theaters with white people, and riding city buses with white people. Anti-gay laws are discrimination, and America finally got rid of that curse through the hard work of the civil rights movement in the 1950s-70s. You can’t teach kids in school that Rosa Parks was a hero if you then vote for a law that says you can keep trans people off your bus or out of your bakery.

But why listen to us repeat ourselves when you can listen to Mitchell Moore, a baker in Jackson, MS and an American who understands the civil liberties he has an obligation to uphold as an American:

RENEE MONTAGNE: As a baker, this bill would allow you to refuse service to people you don’t want to bake for. Have you ever felt forced to bake for clients that you didn’t want to serve?

—Right away, Montagne’s question points up the illegitimacy of the sexuality laws. Of course the answer is yes. Bakers, like other people who run public businesses, probably have customers they don’t like, whether it’s because those customers swear, or dress provocatively, have foreign accents, or tattoos, or wear head scarves, smell like marijuana, act rude and condescending, or do any of the other hundred things that can put people off.  But are there laws saying business owners don’t have to serve people whose clothes they don’t like? or smell? or language? No. Only sexuality. So we see immediately that the sexuality laws are singling out one type of potentially problematic customer, which is un-American and illegal under federal law.

MITCHELL MOORE: No, no that is not a problem. I am here to bake cakes and to sell those cakes. I’m not here to decide arbitrarily who deserves my cake and who doesn’t. That’s not what I do. That’s not my job.

MONTAGNE: Have you heard from others that they do have these objections?

MOORE: Not to my knowledge, no. Everyone that I know in the greater, say, wedding-service industry – we’re here to serve. The public’s made up of a lot of people. I don’t have to agree with what they do. I don’t have to support them. I serve them.

—So well-said: “I don’t have to agree with what they do. I don’t have to support them. I serve them.” When did we lose sight of this basic premise?

MONTAGNE: Well, I do gather that you are a Republican. But you oppose this bill. So what are your particular objections, other than it sounds like you don’t think it’s needed?

MOORE: So leaving aside the stupidity of passing it because it decriminalizes discrimination – which, that really is kind of the biggest issue – but I can actually say I think the law of unintended consequences is going to come back to bite the people who signed this bill. If it is my sincerely held religious belief that I shouldn’t serve them, then I can do that. And I can hide behind that language. But that language is so vague it opens a Pandora’s box. And you can’t shut it again.

—Why isn’t Mitchell Moore running for president? Yes, these laws do “decriminalize discrimination”. And yes, claiming religious frailty is just a way of hiding that discrimination and bigotry. And if these sexuality laws are allowed to stand, soon the laws about tattoos and clothing and language will all be crowding the state legislatures, too.

MONTAGNE: Well, do you consider yourself a religious person or would you…

MOORE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: …consider that maybe you don’t understand what it means to have a deeply held religious belief?

MOORE: I don’t think that there is such a thing as a deeply held religious belief that you should not serve people. There is no sincerely held religious belief to think that I am better than other people – to think that my sin is different than other people. And so I am a deeply Christian man, and those go counter to my belief system.

—Precisely: “there is no such thing as a deeply held religious belief that you should not serve people.” The Bible doesn’t say anything about who to sell a cake to. Neither does the Koran, or the Torah. And again, if you don’t want to risk violating your religious principles by opening a public business, don’t open one.

MONTAGNE: Why do you think your state elected officials, who presumably think they’re looking out for the best interests of exactly people like you – why do you think that they passed this bill?

MOORE: The assumption that they think that they’re looking out for us – that’s not what they are doing. A report just came out. We rank number one – our state government is the most dependent on federal money. We are the third most obese state. We rank at the bottom in unemployment, in education. We’ve got crumbling infrastructure. None of them are being tackled. Instead, we are passing, hey-let’s-discriminate bills.

—This is the first time we’ve heard someone state this so clearly: state governments that “protect” their people by passing laws that do nothing to stop poverty, illness, and lack of education are really using people’s religion to keep them down.

MONTAGNE: Coming from Mississippi, do you have concerns that this bill reflects on your state in a way that you wouldn’t like it to be seen?

MOORE: Yeah – Mississippi is an amazing place. And it’s filled with amazing people. But if you aren’t from here, if you don’t know that, you’re going to choose to not come here because of bills like this – because you see the state government as taking no action on hundreds of other priorities and taking action instead on trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It boggles my mind.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you for sharing this with us.

MOORE: Certainly – you’re welcome.

MONTAGNE: Mitchell Moore is a baker, and he owns Campbell’s Bakery in Jackson, Miss.

Anyone want to build a memorial to this Southern hero? We do.

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“Money talks, and BS walks”—corporate reaction to “religious freedom” bills in Georgia and North Carolina

Posted on March 30, 2016. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Fans of This is Spinal Tap will recognize that immortal line, spoken by Bobbi Flekman, AR tour de force for Polymer Records. When the band find their album is being banned “by both Sears and K-Mart stores” because of its sexist cover art, Bobbi overrides the band manager’s protests and justifications to say “money talks, and b*** walks”. It became an instant mantra in many industries. (See the clip here.)

And it’s proving true in the real world as well: corporations in Georgia and Atlanta have responded forcefully to the anti-American “bathroom bills” and “religious freedom” laws those states have passed or are about to vote on. In North Carolina, PayPal, Bank of America, and Dow Chemical, all headquartered in the state, have denounced the state-wide law requiring people to use the bathroom earmarked for their biological or “birth sex” (not a real term) that was conjured up to overturn a Charlotte, NC law that banned discrimination against LGBT citizens. The NBA has threatened to move the All-Star game from Charlotte.

In Georgia, HB 757, protects “religious liberty” by allowing anyone calling themselves religious to deny service in a public business to LGBT people. Disney and Unilever now threaten to pull business from the state, and the NFL says Atlanta will not host the Super Bowl if the bill is passed. Through the group Georgia Prospers, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, Delta Airlines, and Marriott Hotels have all said they will reconsider investment in Georgia or move their operations if the bill passes.

You may recall that in 2014 the NFL successfully threatened to move the Super Bowl from Arizona if its governor signed a pro-discrimination “freedom” bill, and that pressure led Gov. Brewer to decline signing the bill.

In one way this is heartening: it’s good to see corporations, which usually bend most of their efforts to breaking the law and violating the Constitution, united behind the cause of justice.

But in another way, it’s depressing: voters, lawmakers, and elected officials in many states are kept from exercising tyranny of the majority not by their love of American principles of liberty and justice for all, but by their fear of losing money. Keeping Coke or NBA dollars in their state is more important than anything, even their supposedly deeply held “religious” beliefs.

Of course, the companies are motivated by money, too; they don’t want to alienate a portion of the population that is supposed to have a lot of money to spend (an enduring though fatally outdated corporate myth about gay people is that, since they don’t have children, they spend all their money on consumer goods. The “gay American” to most companies is a white man living in a city with his partner and more money than he knows what to do with).

We can’t rely on corporations to be the guardians of justice because they are very unreliable. They are motivated by profit, and if they ever sensed that not all LGBT Americans are rich and white, they would jump off the LGBT bandwagon pretty quickly. We all have to keep working in our cities and states to remind people that what makes America great is its commitment to liberty and justice and separation of church and state.

Remember: if you don’t want to serve gay or trans people, don’t open a public business. Once you open a public business, you are obliged to serve the public—no exceptions. There’s no difference between these anti-gay laws and the anti-black laws that kept black people from eating in restaurants with white people, going to movie theaters with white people, and riding city buses with white people. Anti-gay laws are discrimination, and America finally got rid of that curse through the hard work of the civil rights movement in the 1950s-70s. You can’t teach kids in school that Rosa Parks was a hero if you then vote for a law that says you can keep trans people off your bus or out of your bakery.

In an election year where people stumble over themselves to love America the most, one easy test of who really means it is whether they support anti-American discrimination laws.

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Make America great again–by supporting its federal government

Posted on March 2, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re re-running this post from a few years ago to counter the constant message of the Republican presidential campaigners and those of their supporters who get on TV and the radio saying that what makes America great is its people, not its government. Marco Rubio just made this statement a few days ago at a rally.

How the Founders would shudder to hear this. If the American people are great, it’s because of their government, which empowers and ennobles them, gives them national, political, and individual freedom, and relies on the people themselves to participate in the government, by voting and/or serving in public office.

When you have a government like that, you are free, even determined to offer free public education for all, to make sure everyone gets enough food, to sit on juries so your fellow Americans can get justice. Our representative democracy—still so very rare in the world, the first of its kind, and in the minority even in the 21st century—is what gives us our national character, our optimism, our passion for justice, our sense of fair play. We infuse our government with these good things.

When we decide the federal government is the root of all ills, that decision is usually led by  selfish people who don’t want to help their fellow Americans eat or get justice or live in decent housing; they are out for themselves and themselves alone. They call themselves libertarians or rugged individuals, and they claim that they are returning to original American values that made the country great.

These people are voted into office and there they pervert the federal and state governments into criminal systems that oppress the poor and non-white and female. It’s vicious circle: People who hate the government go into it to destroy and pervert it, and then the government actually becomes the root of all evils they said it was. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If America is no longer great, it’s because of these people saying they themselves will make it great again by destroying the government.

But we need to cling to our representative democracy, our principles of liberty and justice for all, taxation with representation that helps people get the things they need. We need to let it keep us generous and fair-minded. A woman on the radio this morning said she voted for Trump because “I just want a change. I want a change.”

Change in and of itself is not positive. You can’t just say I’m fed up and I will throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can’t say “change” when you mean “I want to get my own way all the time and not help anyone else.” You will get a change for the worse, and you might find that it’s a change you don’t end up liking.

Here’s the original post. We’re in it for the long haul to November and beyond.

 

We saw in the last post that Americans live in a unique situation: we enjoy all three types of basic freedom, national, political, and individual. Listing the nations that have offered all three freedoms to all of their citizens is a counting-on-one-hand proposition. Successfully providing and defending all three freedoms is what makes the United States great.

But it also presents some problems. Over the generations, Americans have veered between putting national freedom first and putting individual freedom first. We’re sometimes willing to give up individual freedom to be safe from attack, and sometimes unwilling to perform our duties of national and political freedom in the name of individual freedom. When the U.S. faces attack or threats to its safety, many Americans want to put laws in place curtailing individual freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly in order to at once weed out troublemakers and create a more homogenous society. Conversely, when the federal government tries to put sweeping legislation into effect, such as government-paid health care or social security or gun control, many Americans loudly protest the move as an infringement of their individual rights.

Individual rights also lead many Americans to neglect their political freedom to participate in government by holding office and/or voting. The feeling that participation in our democracy  is unnecessary, an extra rather than a basic tenet of American citizenship, is pervasive. Resentment of “big government” leads many people not to want to participate in government at all, as if they would be supporting an invasive federal government by voting or running for office, although the way to change the nature of government is to join it or vote in those you wish to have representing your views. The belief that our government is an impediment to individual freedom is sadly prevalent.

Holding all three freedoms in equal esteem is difficult. Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.

Going forward, we’re seeking to bring our three freedoms into balance and remember that each is equally valuable, and each demands our equal time and effort to maintain.

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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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