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“Rights Not Safeguarded Can Be Eroded Or Lost”: Nation’s Voting Rights Laws Headed In Wrong Direction

One of the most painful scenes in Ava DuVernay’s film, Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s protest marches in Selma, Ala., shows nurse Annie Lee Cooper, played by Oprah Winfrey, being turned away from registering to vote because she can’t name the state’s 67 county judges. Such ploys to block black people from voting were used in the South even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They ensured that unequal laws and systems endured, since elected officials were answerable only to the whites who had elected them. It took the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to make that civil right binding. Yet today that victory that legions of volunteers fought for is under attack.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Texas law to require voters to show photo ID cards. The law had been challenged by the U.S. Justice Department and struck down by a federal judge who said 600,000 registered voters in Texas had no government-issued ID, and that African-Americans were thrice as likely as whites to not have one. But the law was upheld by a federal Court of Appeals. Texas found ammunition in a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder, striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing voting procedures. Various states have responded with new voting restrictions.

“If you live in rural Mississippi, and you have no license, you have no ID,” says Patti Miller, who just completed a documentary about the role of Iowans in the 1964 Freedom Summer. She noted that Hispanics in urban areas face the same problem.

Iowans Return to Freedom Summer, depicts five young white people, including Miller, who grew up in overwhelmingly white Iowa and answered a call from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to aid desegregation efforts in Mississippi. They were among 700 college students from around the country who flocked to Mississippi to help register black voters, teach black children in Freedom Schools and organize community centers. The experiences were life changing.

“I’m not sure if that sense of purpose has happened since,” reflected Miller at a preview of her film Monday. “It affects everything you do, your attitudes and outlook on life.”

For Marcia Moore, one of the Freedom Summer volunteers, seeing how hard Mississippi fought to keep black people down brought tough reckonings about her own country. Richard Beymer (who subsequently played Tony in West Side Story) found that summer a joyful time, even though “we were at war, in a sense.” He lived with seven other civil rights workers in a rented house without indoor toilet or shower, all resolute about confronting racism. Stephen L. Smith never fully got over a severe beating at the hands of Mississippi police. Yet he remained politically active, becoming the first American to burn his draft card. All reflect on their experiences in Miller’s film.

There were disagreements within SNCC about including white students, Miller recalls. “A lot felt it should be only blacks. But whenever white people were involved, the press covered it.”

The white students’ activism also “lit a fire” that prompted black people to start protesting, observes Lenray Gandy, a black Mississippi native, in Miller’s film. The movie depicts a Mississippi that didn’t just force blacks and whites to use separate drinking fountains and waiting rooms, but where black people weren’t allowed to try on shoes at the shoe store. A black man couldn’t walk down a street where a white woman was walking. Blacks couldn’t sit in the front of a bus and were expected to keep their eyes downcast when addressing whites.

But the deprivation that ensured all the others stayed in place was being unable to vote. Registrars would use a 95-question test to reject prospective black voters, according to Shel Stromquist, now a professor emeritus from the University of Iowa who took part in Freedom Summer and appears in the film.

Miller formed the Keeping History Alive Foundation because, as the saying goes, those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But remembering may not be the problem for politicians enacting current voting restrictions. More likely they see some political advantage to suppressing the minority vote. So the question is whether fair-minded Americans will insist that Congress pass legislative fixes to ensure all qualified Americans have their voices heard.

Miller will forever be affected by the power of committed black and white people living, cooking, eating, working and risking their lives together. She went on to work with King’s organization in Chicago. So it’s disheartening for her to visit college campuses these days and see black and white students self-segregate in dining halls.

It’s easy to get complacent about battles won long ago. But rights not safeguarded can be eroded or lost. Celebrating King’s birthday, as we do this week, shouldn’t just mean reflecting on how far we’ve come, but on where we’re going, and what it will take to stay on track.

 

By: Rekha Basu, The National Memo, January 21, 2015

January 22, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Discrimination, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”: Beyond Selma – Writing The Next Chapter In American Civil Rights History

In November 2012, I worked with the Obama campaign’s anti-voter suppression efforts in Florida. I was shocked when I saw that voters in largely Hispanic and African-American areas were forced to wait hours and hours to vote by design. The state had cut early voting from 14 to 6 days and added 11 constitutional amendments to the ballot (some written out in full) to make it more time consuming to vote such that one legislator compared the ballot to the Book of Leviticus. I also was told authorities did not deploy all available ballot boxes.

Tasked with encouraging voters to wait for over 3 hours until 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday, I was struck with how little needed to be done. They knew why they were waiting and that only made them more determined to vote. I was reminded of the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” and the voting rights marches in Selma during the Civil Rights era and thought how sad it is that here we stand nearly 50 years after Selma and African-Americans still had to fight for their right to vote.

The next year, the Supreme Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act that enabled the Justice Department to block discriminatory voting restrictions in Shelby County v Holder. The Act had been reauthorized in 2006 without a single vote of opposition in the Senate, but in the Obama-era a bill to revive the provisions got nowhere last year despite bipartisan support.

The struggle in Selma is now on movie screens across America for viewers to relive the brutality of Bloody Sunday and the ultimate triumphant march that drew Americans from all races and faiths from across the nation to take a stand for freedom and against bigotry and hate.

In March, however, the world’s attention will once again return to the Edmond Pettus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It will be a tempered celebration because it has been a difficult two years for race relations in America. Obama’s reelection victory unleashed a torrent of racist hate across social media, then came the killings of Treyvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York and the divisions their cases brought.

More importantly, throughout the period we have steadily moved backwards on voting rights as states across the south and elsewhere took advantage of the Shelby County decision to enact a number of restrictive voting measures that are designed to suppress the African-American vote.

I have one resolution for 2015 — I’m going to Selma.

As a child of Generation Jones, we always looked up to our Baby Boomer brethren who marched for civil rights when we had no need to for the victory had been won. That victory is in jeopardy. I’m going to Selma.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner among others were killed for this most fundamental right — the right to vote. They cannot cry for justice, instead it is the duty of the living to do so for them. I’m going to Selma.

I do not expect a House of Representatives that has no shame over having a white supremacist in its leadership to listen to our pleas for action on voting rights legislation. I’m going to Selma.

Martin Luther King once said, “[h]istory will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Similarly, Benjamin Franklin said that “[j]ustice will not be served until those who are as unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” I’m outraged and I’m going to Selma.

We are a generous nation that has come together to help those in need as we did after Katrina or to take a stand that we are one as we did after 9/11. The story of civil rights in America is not relegated to our history books or a movie but is still being written today. It is time to write the next chapter for civil rights in America. Once again we are called to take a stand for freedom and against bigotry and hate. I’m going to Selma.

 

By: Bennet Kelley, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 31, 2014

January 2, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Selma Alabama, Voter Suppression | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Distance Yet To Go”: 2014, A Reminder Of The Lasting Power Of Racial Politics In America

The year 2014 will be remembered politically for many things, among them the Republican Party’s impressive victories in the midterm elections. But as much as anything, the year was a reminder of the depth of racial tensions and divisions in America.

Killings of unarmed African Americans by police officers in several cities brought demonstrators into the streets in many more cities. Then came the fatal shooting of two New York police officers by a black man who apparently targeted them for murder, an attack that shocked the sensibilities of people of all races and worsened strains between the city’s police union and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The final days of the year have seen another racial controversy arise. This time, it was over the 2002 appearance by Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise, who is now the House majority whip, before a white-supremacist group founded by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke was a frequent candidate for political office in Louisiana two decades ago.

The Scalise episode, as my colleagues Robert Costa and Philip Rucker wrote, is more than a case of one politician and one event. It is also a reminder of the complexities of race and politics in the Old and New South as that region has made a long transition from one-party Democratic rule a generation ago to today’s one-party Republican dominance.

President Obama is a symbol of the racial progress this country has made and of the distance yet to go. When he was first elected president, he said he believed that his race was as much an asset as a liability in that victory. For every person who cast a vote against him because of his race, he said, there was probably someone who voted for him because of it.

In the weeks after his 2008 victory, he told me that, based on his experience in Illinois, he was confident when he started the campaign that the country had moved far enough on racial issues for race not to be a major obstacle to winning the presidency.

Yet some of Obama’s detractors have made him the target of racially charged criticisms. His allies say that were he not the nation’s first black president, he would not be subjected to such disrespect and venom.

Where does that leave things as the new year begins? Recent polling shows a huge gap between blacks and whites on perceptions of police treatment of minorities — as well as a significant gap between white Democrats and white Republicans. This is not necessarily new, but it speaks to lasting differences that affect political decisions and party coalitions.

Obama, taking a long view, argues that the country has made significant progress and that this ought not to be forgotten at times of heightened tensions. In a reflective interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep that was released a few days ago, the president said he believes that the country is less racially divided than it was when he took office six years ago.

Obama said that the way the issue of race surfaced in 2014 was likely healthy for society. “The issue of police and communities of color being mistrustful of each other is hardly new,” he said. “That dates back a long time. It’s just something that hasn’t been talked about.”

He went on to say that the attention given to the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner on Staten Island may make it appear that racial divisions have worsened. But he added, “I assure you, from the perspective of African Americans or Latinos in poor communities who have been dealing with this all their lives, they wouldn’t suggest somehow that it’s worse now than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago.”

The swiftness with which Scalise and other House Republican leaders moved to defuse the controversy over his appearance before Duke’s group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), shows their sensitivity to being tied to anything that smacks of racially insensitive politics. Acting as quickly as they did, the leaders no doubt hope that the Scalise controversy will have mostly died down by the time lawmakers gather next week, with Republicans celebrating the fact that they now control both the House and Senate.

Still, what remains unclear is why Scalise did not immediately recognize at the time the dangers of speaking to a group whose name suggested its origins and racist interests. His friends and allies contend that he has been adept at avoiding racially polarizing actions or connections that plagued other politicians in the past.

Stephanie Grace, who has long covered Scalise in Louisiana, posted an article Tuesday night on the Web site of the New Orleans Advocate in which she said she never saw any evidence that Scalise endorsed the views of Duke’s organization. She said she has seen him work closely with Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who is African American, and others in the black community.

She also wrote that Scalise once had said to her that he was like Duke without the baggage. As a result, she wrote, “I also get how the invitation wouldn’t have set off alarm bells, given that Scalise had long since made his awkward peace with the situation. In fact, by 2002, Scalise may have been so used to the idea of dealing with Duke voters that he really considered EURO just another part of his constituency, even if it was a distasteful one.“

That David Duke had a following and a constituency was undeniable, given the support he attracted in his campaigns. Conservatives like Scalise, who came along later, wanted the support of many of Duke’s supporters — even if they rejected his racist politics.

Robert Mann, who has worked for a number of Democratic elected officials from Louisiana and is now a professor at Louisiana State University, made another point in an e-mail message sent Tuesday. “Duke’s racial views were — and still are to some degree — pretty mainstream among a significant percentage of whites here,” he wrote.

It’s noteworthy that Republicans now have a diverse set of statewide elected officials in the South and elsewhere: an African American senator (Tim Scott of South Carolina), two Indian American governors (Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina), and two Hispanic governors (Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada).

Equally noteworthy is the degree to which the Republican Party still struggles to expand its voter coalition to include more minorities. That Democrats still command 90 percent of the African American vote and that Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 underscores the distance Republicans must travel.

Today, the two major parties highlight the racial gaps that exist in society. Scott Clement of The Washington Post’s polling unit looked at the racial makeup of the two political parties, based on surveys conducted in the past 15 months. In those polls, the percentage of self-identified Republicans who were white averaged 85 percent. Among Democrats, the average percentage of whites was 53 percent.

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute wrote recently in the National Journal that, with the continuing decline in support for Democrats among working-class whites and the failure of Republicans to attract more support among minorities, “it is possible to see a future where the GOP is clearly and distinctly a white party, while Democrats are clearly a majority-minority party.”

That’s not healthy — for either party or for the nation. Changing this will be part of the challenge for the president in his final two years, for Republicans as they take control of Congress and implement their agendas in states where they have unified control and for those who seek the presidency two years from now.

 

By: Dan Baltz, The Baltz, Chief Correspondent, The Washington Post, December 31, 2014

January 2, 2015 Posted by | GOP, Police Brutality, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Gun Nuts’ Vile Muslim Test”: Why Open Carry Activists Don’t Want To Extend The Right To Everyone

So what do you think the gun proliferation activists would say to a bunch of American Muslims exercising their constitutional right to bear arms on Main Street, USA? That’s the question writer and gun owner Jon Stokes asked in this piece at Alloutdoor.com. He wrote:

I’ve been thinking recently about the way that the Satanists are having a field day with so many laws that Christians are passing under the “freedom of religion” banner: stunts like putting a statue of Satan next to the Ten Commandments, or Satanist plans to hand out literature to school kids in Orange County. What if, I wonder, certain groups were to exercise their open carry rights in the same manner.

What if there were a group of Muslim open carry advocates who called themselves “Sword of the Prophet” and whose avowed mission was to bring Sharia law to the U.S., and they took to showing up armed and in large numbers outside of churches on Sunday, the way the OC guys do at the state house. Or what if there were a group of hispanic activist OCers, maybe an offshoot of La Raza who liked to organize armed protests at police stations and court houses, and who openly advocate the “reconquista” of the Southern U.S.?

The question was sincere and he’s got good reason to wonder. As he points out, gun rights were pretty well assumed in America until a certain clarifying event took place: the Black Panther Movement. (I wrote about this earlier here.) Then Gov. Ronald Reagan and the boys in Sacramento were none too pleased at the idea of African-American revolutionaries availing themselves of their Second Amendment remedies in the California State House:

[T]he story goes that in 1967, Gov. Ronald Reagan agreed to sign a California gun control law that made it against the law to walk around in public with a loaded gun after he saw a Black Panther rally… Black Panther Bobby Seale was interviewed about it later and verified that Reagan was there that day…

It’s certainly possible that Reagan was motivated by that rally. But there was a lot of unrest in America in those days and gun control was not a right-left issue then — even the NRA was for it.

(If you’d like to see an impassioned defense of the right to bear arms, watch this video. Wayne LaPierre sounds like a 5-year-old by comparison.)

Anyway, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of armed Black Panthers roaming the streets with revolutionary zeal was enough to scare the heck out of people who otherwise would be pumping their fists in solidarity with the anti-government revolutionaries and cause them to withdraw their support for unfettered gun rights. But that was then and this is now. The world has changed and the gun rights activism has matured into a full-fledged movement. It’s more philosophically and ideologically based than it was before, largely as a result of some very conscious moves by gun enthusiasts to make it that way. But just how far does the principle of a right to bear arms go these days?

Well, here’s one fairly typical response to Stokes’ question:

First: Open Carry advocates are trying to get back to common sense and common law. They don’t want the government to have sole control of Force. And the reason for their open carry is purely for legitimate law abiding purposes. Namely self defense.

Now contrast that with: Muslims whose GOAL is to implement Sharia Law in the US. Okay…that right there is basically a declaration of war. Or how about: La Raza: Let’s reconquer the Southwest region of the US. Again, fightin’ words.

As far as the Black Panthers? Didn’t need to be a race issue about “black people carrying guns”. The issue was that they were carrying them in a threatening manner, not in a rational, law abiding, for self defense civil manner. And once again, the route chosen was to restrict or ban the open carrying of guns rather than just tool up and fight fire with fire. If I see threatening people carrying weapons in my neighborhood I’m not going to go cry to the government to take their guns away, I’m going to pack heat myself and encourage my neighbors to also do the same. Then we’ll see if the armed thugs are serious or not.

Evidently, individuals are allowed the unfettered right to bear arms as long as other individuals who believe in an unfettered right to bear arms agree with that individual’s motives for wanting to bear arms. It all depends, you see, on whether you are bearing your arms in a “rational, law abiding” manner. It is up to each individual to determine what that behavior looks like and if they aren’t happy about it, they will evidently start bearing arms in a threatening manner to “see if the armed thugs are serious or not.”

In fairness, there were a number of comments that said “it doesn’t matter, Muslims have the same right to bear arms as anyone else.” Under their principle, this should be the obvious answer.  But there were quite a few who made the point that what determines a person’s right to bear arms is intent and if your intention is to challenge the U.S. Government you shouldn’t be allowed to bear arms. Unless, of course, you are a fine upstanding gun rights activist who believes that the Second Amendment exists so that citizens can …. challenge the U.S. Government.

In other words, the Bill of Rights only applies to those whose intentions are “good.” And whether those intentions are good is to be determined by the people with guns. This is called “freedom.”

 

By: Heather Digby Parton, Contributing Writer, Salon, December 19, 2014

 

December 22, 2014 Posted by | Bill of Rights, Gun Control, Minorities | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Need More Voting, Not Less”: Republicans Are Gaming The Electoral System By Suppressing The Vote

For decades, we in America have lamented our voter turnout. There has been widespread concern about not only the 60 percent participation in presidential elections, but the drop-off to about 40 percent in off years and the miserable turnout for local elections and primaries that often doesn’t reach 20 percent. So why do Republicans in key states seem intent on preventing certain citizens from voting?

The critics of our system cite European countries that continuously have turnout numbers between 70 percent and 80 percent. (Austria, Sweden and Italy usually hit the 80 percent mark.) They point to how hard we make it for citizens to register, the problem with requiring additional documents at polling places and the recent passage of laws to combat so-called “voter fraud.”

We can go one of two directions in this country: We can make voting easier or we can make it harder. It is difficult to understand why some Republicans desire to make it harder. It is even more difficult to understand their desire to stop African-Americans, Hispanics and young people from voting, unless, of course, you take the view that Republicans have cynically decided to suppress the vote of these more Democratic-leaning groups.

The New York Times editorial board today pointed to those who are trying to make voting easier and those who are trying to make it harder. It cited six states that have recently created online registration systems and four that have either allowed voters under 18 to pre-register or put in place election day registration or expanded early voting.

Sadly, the Times also pointed to the 15 states that have passed new restrictions on voting that are mostly controlled by Republicans. 11 states have put in place restrictive voter ID laws, reduced time for early voting was passed in eight states, and some students are being prevented from voting where they reside for college.

According to he Times, 10 states have made it more difficult to even register to vote. A total of 34 states now have restrictive voter ID laws.

One of the most outrageous aspects of this movement by Republican operatives is that it is combating a problem that doesn’t exist. Voter fraud is not a serious problem in our elections, but preventing key groups of minorities, poor people and the young from exercising their constitutional rights certainly is becoming one.

We need to open up our electoral system, not close it. We need to have universal voter registration at 18. We need to have more early voting, not less, more vote by mail, not less, more consolidation of voting days, not less, and more use of technology to provide online registration. We need to explore weekend voting and also new ways to clean up voter lists and keep them current.

At the end of the day, it is time for Republicans to stop trying to game the system and win elections by denying citizens the right to vote. It will only come back to bite them – and bite them hard.

 

By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, August 12, 2014

August 13, 2014 Posted by | Republicans, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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