Sunday, June 30, 2013

Win One, Lose One .... and a Disturbing Trend

This past week the U.S. Supreme Court rendered two momentous decisions that seem to move in opposite directions when it comes to human rights. On Tuesday, the Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 effectively freeing nine Southern states from having to submit changes in their election laws to the federal government. This law had been a source of hope for many people of color, especially African Americans, when so many states with Republican majorities in their state legislatures passed Voter ID laws which covertly, and in a couple cases overtly, were designed to make it more difficult for poor people and people of color to vote, thereby making it easier for Republicans to win elections. Also many of those same states have so gerrymandered elections districts that these communities have been further politically marginalized. ( To see full article on this decision go to this link)

Then on the Thursday, these same judges declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional, thereby allowing gay/lesbian couples the right to have the same legal protections and benefits as heterosexual couples. Until this ruling gay couples were defenseless when it came to inheritance law, tax benefits, spousal insurance protection and so on. (For full article on this decision see this link)

On the surface these two decisions seem to contradict one another. The first stripped a group of marginalized people of protections and rights, while the second gave a group of marginalized people rights that had been previously denied. I wondered: what is the underlying logic that ties these two decisions together? While I can’t be certain, it seems that a common thread is a focus on state’s rights. In both cases the decision went against the primacy of federal law in favor of allowing states to legislate on matters in ways they see fit. So in the Voting Rights decision, the Court removed federal restrictions on state actions, whereas in the second it returned state sovereignty from something that had been regulated at a federal level. Even though I am glad for the DOMA decision, I am troubled by this underlying logic.

When we look back at the Civil Rights Movement, significant changes in the social and political status of African-Americans in the South would not have occurred had not the federal government stepped in. African-Americans were beaten, lynched and killed with impunity while the perpetrators got away scott-free. Jim Crow laws institutionalized huge disparities between the races and despite the rhetoric of “separate but equal” provided far lesser quality for African-American when it came to education, health care, parks and the like. African Americans could be (& were) arrested for minor infractions; it was the process of getting arrested in large numbers that finally got the federal government’s attention, along with the violence that came with it. On the issue of voting rights itself, thousands of people were threatened and beaten, and some killed simply trying to exercise (or help people exercise) their constitutional right to vote. Even though the federal government was timid and slow to intervene in most cases, there would have been no Voting Rights Act of 1965 if Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had not forced the Southern states to amend their laws and practices so as to treat all people of all races as equal under the law.

However, now the Supreme Court is saying that the federal government can’t intervene in state matters. Had this court been around in 1865, slavery would not have been abolished. Had this court been around in 1954, segregation of schools (and by extension all areas of American life) would not have been ruled unconstitutional. Had this court been around in 1965, the Voting Rights Bill would have been struck down in short order.

Underlying the Court’s decision is a shift in understanding of the role of government. Political theorist John Rawls saw a primary role of the government as providing for and protecting society’s most vulnerable; no one was to fall below what was minimally required for meeting their basic human needs. By contrast Robert Nozick focused primarily on individual liberty; an individual’s rights took precedence over the regulatory action of government, those regulations that assured that the basic needs of all people in society were being provided for and protected. Nozick went so far as to say taxes (the main means by which wealth is redistributed) were “forced labor.” The eras of Kennedy and Johnson tilted (inadequately in my view) toward a Rawlsian view, whereas today we are moving significantly toward Nozick’s view.

Increasingly our state governments don’t care about the most vulnerable, be it around civil rights, health care, education or essential services. Not only can this focus on rights be seen in these recent Court decisions but also in the Court's ruling on the Second Amendment making the right to own a gun on a par with the right to free speech and religious liberty. It can also be seen in the ruling that allows corporations to be seen as individuals when it comes to political contributions. The rights of the powerful against the vulnerable, the dominant class against the marginalized, the rich against the poor are allowed to run amok, free of any constraint that might be put upon them by the federal government.

Altogether I see the Court’s decision as signifying a troubling trend that moves us further and further away from any concept of the "common good," and more and more toward everyone fighting for themselves and their rights.  U.S. society is degenerating and devolving so that the poor and the marginalized can not look to their government for assistance; government is  now the protector of the rights of the few over against the needs and suffering of the many. I am pleased for those gay and lesbian couples who now can enjoy the benefits denied them by DOMA; however I worry about the rationale that may underlie that decision and what it says about where we are going as a society.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Immigration Reform and the Border Surge – A Waste and an Embarrassment

Robert Frost begins his famous poem “Mending Wall” with the words “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” As members of Congress seem to be heading toward an agreement on immigration reform, one of the provisions that will likely be included in the bill will be what AP journalist David Espo and Erica Werner call a “Military style border surge” to “secure the Mexican border.” More specifically the bill would double the number of border agents from its current 20,000 to 40,000, add 18 more surveillance drones and 350 more miles of fence. One would think with such an increase in the Border Patrol, already the nation’s largest police force, we were being overrun by the barbarians of Roman times. In essence, the idea is that the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. without documentation would be given a “path to citizenship” but no more would be let in. However even the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicted such an effort would fail to achieve this objective.(For the Espo/Werner article, click here).

I find the whole discussion about building a better wall to be an embarrassment as an American citizen. For the first 36 years of my life, I lived in a world dominated by the Cold War in which the entire globe was divided between those favorable to the United States versus those nations favorable to the Soviet Union. We lived in a constant awareness that at any moment we could be vaporized by a nuclear missile ignited when the “cold” war went hot. The premier symbol of this divide was the Berlin Wall, and the accompanying fence that ran between East and West Germany.  However in 1989 President Reagan proclaimed “ Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and through intense negotiations relationships between the two countries improved and the Berlin Wall came down in dramatic fashion, allowing East and West Germans to pass freely from one side to the other and eventually reuniting that country which had been divided for over 40 years.

After that I thought we might be done with walls; but then Israel built its wall to separate the Jews from the Palestinians, and now we have been building our wall with Mexico supposedly to protect us from terrorists and unwanted immigrants. But as Reese Jones from NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America) points out, the wall is only partially about security; it’s really about protecting our wealth and preserving our culture from unwanted (read non-white) influences. *

What is so tragic about this rationale is not only its short sightedness, but also that it completely ignores the huge disparities between those who live north of the border  and those who live south, and the role of the United States has had in promoting and preserving that disparity. To understand the U.S. role one must go all the way back to the 1850’s when U.S. leaders began talking about “Manifest Destiny” which essentially stated that the U.S. would choose to shape the world to its own image. This helped to strengthen the 1823 Monroe Doctrine established during the presidency of James Monroe that European countries could not engage in trade or aggression in North, Central or South America without facing military aggression. In essence the U.S. said Latin America is ours to mess with and no one else.

And mess we did: from propping up military dictatorships, to grabbing and defending huge tracts of land to enabling U.S. companies to exploit resources from fruit, to oil to precious metals. In the 1980’s the CIA worked with dictators in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to suppress populist movements seeking to reform and regain control of their countries. In the 1990’s the U.S. passed NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) which allowed U.S. companies to relocate to countries like Mexico with lower labor costs and less stringent safety and environmental standards. However, while companies could move freely laborers could not. What these 11 million undocumented folks represent are mostly people seeking to find work to support their families living in countries devastated by over a century of U.S. exploitation.

So not only is the wall an embarrassment, it represents a complete denial of U.S. responsibility and accountability for the situation we currently find ourselves in.  Several studies have found that if given the chance to travel freely between their home country and the United States, most Latin American immigrants would do so. They come here looking for work so they can provide for their families and then return home.  The sheer persistence of those who seek to come to the United States for these purposes make the so-called border surge a joke and a waste of money.

What if instead of spending billions of dollars on border patrols and a border fence ($4.7 billion was spent between 2007 and 2011*), we invested in teachers, new schools, health care workers, and quality housing for all? What if instead of billions of dollars on running undocumented immigrants through the criminal justice system ($5.5 billion in 2007 alone*), we invested in youth programs, college loan programs, and disease prevention? Not only would we be able to serve the needs of U.S. citizens but all those who are here temporarily as well.

A couple weeks ago I traveled through the Southern United States visiting sites that were prominent during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the beginning the Civil Rights movement focused on breaking down the walls of segregation that sought to completely separate blacks and whites in all areas of life. I was amazed and appalled at the lengths to which white Southerners would go to maintain segregation often leading them to engage in violent acts that made them look barbaric and inhumane in the eyes of the world.

That’s what this border fence and the accompanying security force looks like. We even have our own version of the KKK; they are called “The Minuteman.” We look to be big bullies with our rifles, guns, drones and barbwire fence saying “No way can you play in our sandbox!” In the eyes of the world, we look to be arrogant, cold-hearted, violent and inhumane; and we are. Moreover, with time, like the walls of segregation, like the Berlin Wall, this wall will too come down, and we will be left to recover from being the sorry fools who allowed it to be built in the first place.

**these insights and figures are excerpted from Reece Jones’ book Border Walls (link here)


Monday, June 17, 2013

My New Hero: John Lewis

Several years ago I began collecting pictures for what I call my Hall of Heroes, people through history whose lives and work have inspired me. The idea was to one day put all these pictures into one great big collage. When I started there were some obvious choices: Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mohandas Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Malcolm X and Clarence Jordan. In subsequent years I have added many others: Frederick Douglass, Myles Horton, Paulo Freire, Fannie Lou Hamer, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Sojourner Truth. As I wrap up my nine-day bus tour of Civil Rights sites, I decided to add one more to the list: John Lewis.

Born in rural Alabama, Lewis entered the Civil Rights scene in 1960 as a student at American Baptist Seminary in Nashville when he participated in the lunch counter sit-ins. The next year in 1961 he volunteered as one of the original 13 “Freedom Rider” who rode commercial buses thru the South and challenged the segregated facilities in Southern bus stations; he got beaten on the head by an angry mob and some jail time for that.
He was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was the organizer for SNCC in Nashville until 1963 when he became the director. In that role he spoke on behalf of SNCC at the 1963 March on Washington, causing quite a controversy for wanting to publicly criticize the Kennedy administration’s proposed Civil Rights Bill as inadequate. Two years later in Selma, AL even though SNCC was not supportive of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Lewis decided to march anyway, leading the procession with Rev. Hosea Williams on “Bloody Sunday” when Alabama state police assaulted the marchers with clubs, horses and tear gas; Lewis again got beaten on the head. He was eventually voted out as director of SNCC, and Stokely Carmichael was voted in. In 1981 after working in community affairs for an Atlanta bank, Lewis began his political career by getting elected to the Atlanta City Council. Today he serves a Congressman from Atlanta.

As we toured the various sites, John Lewis just kept showing up, sometimes as a leader, but always as somewhere there offering his skills and literally his body to the cause of justice. It seemed he was the “Forrest Gump” of the Civil Rights movement, everywhere you looked, sometimes in the forefront, but often in the background serving in whatever way he could. In interviews Lewis has always impressed me as someone who humbly deflects credit from himself and often praises others. While I have never met him personally, he comes across as a servant leader par excellence.

So I have added John Lewis to my Hall of Heroes. On the trip I bought a book on the history of SNCC and Lewis’ memoir of the Civil Rights movement. Since he is still living, I plan to write him letter; who knows, I might get to talk with him at some point. My hope is to learn more about this humble man, who practiced a “ministry of presence” in all that he does, who often did not get the credit he deserved and when he did, often redirected it to others, a man who continues to serve as an example of one who seeks in Gandhi’s words “to be the change, [he] wants to see.”

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Relearning History

During our second to last day of our Civil Rights Tour, we toured Nashville with Mr. Kwame Lillard (pictured below in front of a statue of W.E.B Dubois) who was one of the hundreds of students in the Nashville who occupied lunch counters and called for boycotts of the white-owned stores and businesses that held to strict segregationist policies and practices in Nashville. In 1960 with the energy and pressure from students from the four historically black colleges in the area, clergy and other individuals, the mayor agreed to order all the businesses in Nashville to desegregate and for schools to likewise become integrated. The next year many of these same students, plus hundreds of others both black and white, rode buses in "freedom rides" through the South to challenge the segregationist policies of the those states. Many of them were  beaten and nearly all were put in prison until the FCC ordered that all interstate vehicles and facilities be desegregated as required by federal law. As Mr. Lillard shared with us, Nashville was a center of many civil rights activities and many of the leaders of the movement got their start in Nashville.

Yet few history books mention Nashville when talking about the Civil Rights Movement and so the city is better known for its country music than its critical role in the Movement.  The Nashville story is just one of the many aspects of the history of this country that is either ignored or conveniently forgotten. The dominant narrative asserts that the United States is a bastion of freedom and justice. Yet the true history is far more complex than the story told in most U.S. history textbooks. Whether talking about the near genocide of Native Americans, the colonization of people living in the lands annexed during the Louisiana Purchase, the internment of Japanese-Americans during   World War II, the exploitation of workers from Ireland, Eastern Europe, China and Japan, or the horrific enslavement of African slaves, there are huge aspects of "U.S. history" that have been swept under the rug.

Kwame Lillard and others in Nashville are seeking to document and create museums to remember their Civil Rights history. In nearly every city we have visited, we have heard similar stories of dedicated citizens, many of them veterans of the Civil Rights movement and their descendants coming together to create museums, memorials, tours and curricula to help all people of all races remember that this is part of our history just as much as the Boston Tea Party, the Civil War and the New Deal. More importantly this history is still being felt today in the problems and struggles we currently face.

This is not a history just for African-American folks but for people of all races. As a white person, I am saddened and deeply shamed by the actions of white people supposedly acting on my behalf. However, more than that I am moved to tell others these stories so we may not repeat the atrocities of our past. For the history of racism is a part of white history that has been conveniently either domesticated or forgotten, literally "white-washed." We who are white need to learn from this history not only the gross atrocities committed but the mindset that perpetrated and allowed them to happen. For as Martin Luther King reminded us in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" those who choose to step aside and not stop evil that is being foisted upon others, are as bad as those who perpetrate the evil. The passive reluctance of so-called "moderate" whites is as much a part of the Civil Rights story as the heroic actions of those who challenge the racist structures and practices of their times.

The lesson of this history is that none of us can stand aside when violence, injustice and discrimination are being enacted against anyone in our society whether they be gay, immigrant, woman, poor, young, old, from another religion, or a person of color. This a lesson we have not yet fully learned and so need to revisit again and again.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Lessons From Little Rock

Today we visited Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas where in 1957 nine African American students entered the all-white high school to fulfill the dictates of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in schools. It was chilling and inspiring to walk down the street that Elizabeth Eckford (one of the nine) walked by herself trough a rabid and hate-filled crown of white hecklers. As she walked thru the crowd Elizabeth looked for a friendly face and thought she had found one in an older white lady, but when she looked at her the woman spit on her.  Even as she turned to go home, she was harassed and spit on, until a white lady got her to a car to take here home.

We also heard from Phyllis Brown, younger sister of Minnijean Brown also one of the nine. Even after they were allowed in school they faced harassment every day from white students: spitting, name calling, being pushed down stairs, assaulted in gym and bathrooms, acid thrown on them and much worse. While each student had an armed guard assigned to them, they still fell victim to daily incidents by a small group of white students determined to make their life hell. The students tried to just go about their business without retaliation, but after about three months of this kind of treatment Minnijean dumped a bowl of chili on a student who was yelling epithets; for her actions she was expelled while the other students was sent home to change clothes and changed. Minnijean was later permanently expelled and was sent to New York to complete her high school years.

Each of the nine had/have their own stories, and while some fared better than others they all faced the same kind of harassment an degradation. I think back to high school as a time of fun, friends and fun. How must they look back on their experience? 

The few white students who tried to reach out and befriend the nine themselves were threatened and harassed as were there parents. Thus, most whites afraid of ostracism and harassment themselves stood on the side, not helping the nine or stopping the harassment. So often even today we think if we didn't actively participate in racist or oppressive acts that we are innocent of any wrong. But to stand aside and allow others to suffer without stepping and helping is to perpetuate and allow the evil to go on. I wonder, if I had been a white student at Central High that year, how would I have responded? Would I have stood aside like so many others? 

However, the other thing that struck me today and throughout this trip was the long term effects of this kind of treatment on both the victim and the perpetrator. Supposedly, we are now in the "New South" and indeed life is much more peaceful than in the 1950's and 1960's. Yet the hate and prejudice among whites, while submerged, continues as seen in the Tea Party-type reactions to Barack Obama a few years ago til today.For other whites there is tremendous shame and guilt over what has happened. Among some African-Americans there is what Spencer Perkins calls "black residue," this deep pain, anger, and distrust of whites that lingers deep and eats away at people's souls. I know from my reading that Elizabeth Eckford has had a lifelong struggle with depression resulting from her experience in 1956. 

Racism is a hideous evil, not only for the lives that were lost and damaged in the past, but for the ongoing pain and shame it causes both blacks and whites, and the way it continues to impact us today. Many whites are blind to the ongoing reality of racism, and consider it a thing of the past. Other whites, while more aware, feel guilty but often powerless to make a difference. Many blacks struggle with the residue of centuries of abuse expressed in so many ways: distrust of whites, black-on-black crime, low self-esteem and much more. The folks in the movement sang "We Shall Overcome;' I pray that we can and do, but I am left to wonder if we can and will.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Reliving Memphis - The Parallels With Philadelphia

Today (June 11) we visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN, which is located on the site of the Lorraine Motel (pictured below) where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Dr. King was in Memphis to lend his support to black sanitation workers that had been trying to form a union for several years and to gain basic things like a living wage, health care and better worker conditions. Though they were public employees employed by the city they received lower wages and fewer benefits than their white counterparts. Furthermore, they were never allowed to apply for promotions.  Even though these workers put in their 40 hours, their income was below the poverty line. They came to work in hand me down clothes and had no work security. That is why they wanted a union. However, the city did not enter into good faith negotiations with them and so eventually they went on strike. Their main slogan was "I AM A Man", i.e. I am someone with dignity who should be treated as a full human being. The mayor of Memphis refused to negotiate with the workers saying that the law forbid them to strike. Eventually they did go on strike in defiance of the mayor's edict.

By 1968 Dr. King had begun to connect the racism in the country with issues of poverty and war. To that end he and his advisors had begun to plan a Poor People's Campaign in which thousands of people would build a tent city called Resurrection City on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (reminiscent of the 2011 Occupy Movement) When Rev. Billy Kyles, a local pastor and civil rights leader, invited King to Memphis, he jumped at it because the garbage workers strike linked the issues of poverty and racism. He lad a march to the downtown area that unfortunately turned violent; King was vilified and ridiculed for not being able to lead a non-violent march and so returned to Memphis a few days later determined to lead a non-violent march in solidarity with the workers. On the evening of April 3, he delivered his famous "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech, in which he alluded to his own death. The next day he was assassinated on the balcony of Lorraine Motel.

There are many things that touched me about the story surrounding his death - the events leading up to it; the linking of poverty and racism; King's own struggle with depression and fear of his own death; the camaraderie and commitment of all the people around him. However, as I reviewed the story of the garbage  strike, I could not help but think of the current struggle in Philadelphia that the interfaith network POWER and baggage handlers and other airport service workers are having with the the city government right now. Like the the garbage workers, these airport workers are earning poverty level wages without health benefits or job security in very physical jobs where injuries can cost you your job. While technically they work for the airlines because they are outsourced workers, really they are working for the airport which is governed by the city. POWER and the unions have been advocating for living wages and benefits for these folks. Also like Memphis, most of these workers are persons of color. It's Memphis 1968 all over again!

Ironically, many of the members of city government, including the mayor, are beneficiaries of the civil rights struggles and yet don't seem to see the parallels. In many ways these city officials feel beholden to large corporations like US Air which has threatened to decrease its operations in Philadelphia if a living wage provision for these workers is instituted. While one would like to believe that the gains of the Civil Rights Movement have taught us some things, in many ways we find ourselves in the same situation  as King, Kyles and they Memphis garbage workers. The parallels between then and now make me think that the efforts to get economic justice may require more militant nonviolent direct action not only against the city but also the corporations that are keeping the city government and the citizens hostage to the corporate greed. What that action would look like I don't know, but the words of Frederick Douglass continue to ring true that the powerful don't give up power willingly, it must require the powerless to rise up and say "Enough."

If we want to honor the "dream" of Dr. King, it must start with addressing the inequities for which he gave his life.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

We Are Doomed to Repeat History, If We Don't Know Our History

Today, we visited Selma, AL, the site of a major voting rights campaign in 1964-65. Selma is best known for "Bloody Sunday" when marchers crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge heading out of Selma and were met by a wall of state troopers and local police who beat them back with billy clubs and tear gas. A few short weeks later, after Martin Luther King had been invited to join the Selma movement, did they receive an armed guard by those same State Police (who had been deputized as national guardsman) as they marched from Selma to Montgomery confronting the powers of the Alabama State Government under Gov. George Wallace, who had tacitly approved of the police's earlier violent action. 

However, before and after the cameras and the national media attention left Selma, there were hundreds of brave people, many of them children who bravely confronted the powers that disenfranchised nearly all the black people in western Alabama from voting. We had the honor of meeting two of those people, Frederick Douglass Reese and Joanne Bland. Rev. Reese was president of the Voting Rights League, president of the teachers' association and the pastor of a local church, who bravely marched with others to the courthouse demanding to be allowed to register to vote. Again and again they were pushed away. Ms. Bland, who gave us an "alternative" history tour of Selma was only 12 years old when she marched over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, but by the time she was 11 had been arrested 13 times for going with countless other young folks to the courthouse demanding that her parents be given the right to register to vote. 

In their presentations to us, both Rev. Reese and Ms. Bland stressed that this history of civil rights is being suppressed today. In Alabama children only learn a cursory history of Civil Rights as part of state history in 4th grade. Only in the last 10-15 years  have the key sites been restored and a visitor center built commemorating the events of 1965. Talking with some current high school students on our trip, I learned that they learn very little if any history of the Civil Rights Movement except some key events like the Montgomery bus boycott and the "I Have A Dream" speech. Meanwhile in neighboring Mississippi there are few, if any commemorative sites to the events of the 1950's and 1960's that occurred there. Apparently the power structure would rather we forget our history.

While I feel like I am visiting place of near holy significance, I realize that for most white Americans, the Civil Rights is past history that is over and done with and that it need not be remembered any more. However, the message we repeatedly heard today is tell this story, don't let it die; the struggle continues, even though some victories have been won.  When we look at the recent efforts leading up to the last election to restrict certain people's right to vote, we see that the desire for the powers-that-be to limit or take away certain people's rights - especially those who are people of color and who are poor -- still exists and must be resisted. Too many people like Joanne Bland and Rev. F.D. Reese shed their blood and gave themselves to the struggle so that those rights might be available to all citizens. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Civil Rights Tour - The Struggle that Has Been and Continues

The last Two days (Sunday and Monday) have been spent largely in Atlanta and then Albany, GA. In Atlanta we had the opportunity to visit the ML King Center and the hear Juanita Abernathy (Ralph Abernathy's widow) share her reflections on the Civil Rights battles in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma and elsewhere. Then today we visited Albany, GA and heard Rutha Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers. The Freedom Singers were a group of young folks who went all over the country singing songs of the Movement, raising money for the battle in Albany for SNCC. One of the things that struck me in listening to both of them is that though the key events of the Civil Rights movement are nearly 50+ years past, they are still alive for them

While I was quite familiar with many of the key Civil Rights struggles, I learned some things especially in Albany. For Martin Luther King Albany was often considered a "defeat" in the media because despite filling with jails with hundreds of protestors, the key demands were not immediately won, as in Montgomery. One of the lessons social movements have had to learn is that early victories, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, do not necessarily "transfer" to other settings. This was the case in Albany. Sheriff Pritchard learned from the mistakes of other law enforcement officers and responded non-violently to the protests in Albany, which made him more sympathetic to the media and thus drew attention away from the Civil Rights cause. So King left Albany feeling like he had "failed."

However, the SNCC and CORE workers in Albany continued their work and eventually won huge victories in breaking down segregation in law enforcement, schools and voting rights. One of the interesting things of about Albany is that they didn't just attack one expression of segregation (bus terminals, voting, etc.) they attacked the Jim Crow system head on and despite many set backs won huge victories. Their perseverance and tenacity in the face of failure, frustration and struggle is a great example. Frederick Douglass pointed over 150 years ago that the oppressors never give up power without a struggle. Albany is testimony to the value of ongoing struggle.

As we battle the issues of today: gun violence, economic disparity, unequal public schooling, and conservative, corporate backlash, I am reminded that victory is not easy, quick or without frustration. 

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Four Who Changed Their World ... And Ours

Our first day of our trip was spent mostly on the bus but by afternoon we arrived in Greensboro, NC where we learned the stories of four college freshman at North Carolina A & T decided they would assert their human dignity by requesting to be served at the lunch counter of the local Woolworth's. Their action sparked a movement across the country of students occupying lunch counters protesting the ban on blacks being served at local lunch counters. At stake was not just getting one's lunch but learning that young people had the power to change their world and in the process spark a movement that would challenge Jim Crow across the South.

The example of the Greensboro/A&T Four -- Frank McLain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr. & David Richmond --- proved that young people (they were all 17 at the time) didn't have to wait to find their "calling", they could act according to their conscience, and inspire thousands of other college and high school students to do the same. As one who teaches young people not much older than those four, I am reminded that it is okay to encourage, challenge, even push young people to get off the "career track" and seek to make a positive difference in their worlds here and now.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Civil Rights Tour - Getting Ready

Starting tomorrow - June 8 - my wife and I will be joining approximately 35 other folks for a 9 day/8 night bus tour of some the most famous sites of Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 60's. We take off at 6 am from Beaver Falls, PA and by 4:30 pm we are due to be at our first stop in Greensboro, NC at the Woolworth's where students sought to integrate the lunch counters. On this blog I hope to share my reflections and insights on the trip.

Cynthia and I sought to do this trip on our own a few years ago but were discouraged by super-high gas prices. So when this opportunity to go on a Civil Rights tour came to our attention we jumped at it. In preparation for the trip I have watched a documentary on the Freedom Riders, and read the memoir of Robert Graetz one of the leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While I have read and studied a great deal about the Movement, I expect it will come alive in ways that can only happen when you are there. In my effort to write up the stories of white allies for racial justice, I have learned the stories of some of those lesser known folks who contributed their part. It will be good to put their stories in context.

The trip has been organized by Dr. Todd Allen, a professor at Geneva College, who has conducted these tours for several years. (Todd is the brother of MAUS student Crystal Allen, who also will be on the trip.) Along the way we will be met some former Freedom Riders, Ralph Abernathy's wife, and one of the sisters of the girls killed in the bombing of 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham.
It promises to be life-changing trip, and that is why I look forward to sharing my experience with you.

In light of my last posting on the need for a new Civil Rights Movement, I hope to reflect not only on the meaning of the events back THEN, but also what we can learn for NOW. With the return of "separate but not equal" public schools, a criminal justice system that feeds on the inadequate educational system in the so-called "school to prison pipeline", and the de facto reinstatement of what Michelle Alexander calls "the New Jim Crow," there is much we can learn. What are the insights we can learn from the Civil Rights Movement for confronting today's economic and social disparities? What does non-violent direct action look like when violence against the poor and persons of color is so institutionalized? How do movements for racial and social justice come together? I hope to gain insights for these and so many more questions we face today.

The other night at a meeting of representatives of POWER, the interfaith community action network in Philly, the comment was made: no one said advocating for the poor would be easy. It certainly wasn't for the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and it won't be for us today. Nonetheless, my hope is that there our lessons one can take away from this trip.

Look for the postings on this blog and on Facebook.

Monday, June 03, 2013

The "New" Civil Rights Era

In 1954 the Supreme Court issued their decision on the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, KS, which outlawed school desegregation, effectively nullifying the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that allowed for “separate but equal” treatment of whites and African-Americans in all aspects of life. In the years that followed the Civil Rights Movement in its many expressions from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X in different ways sought to make that decision operative in the American South and North.  However, not until the 1964 Civil Rights Act were there any teeth in that decision.  Even then it took many years for school districts to begin to take seriously the need to provide equal education for all its students.

Despite all the sacrifices of those who gave their lives for the cause of racial justice, it appears we in Philadelphia find ourselves in a situation not unlike those pioneers of the 1950’s. Over the last three years the Philadelphia School District has lost $500 million in revenue from the Pennsylvania State Government. While $90 million has been restored this year, it is only a fraction of what is needed to provide basic service.*  On May 31 the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) passed a $2.4 billion dollar budget, which seems like a lot of money; but was $320 million short of what was needed. However, in passing the budget the superintendent acknowledged that the budget was inadequate to meet the districts needs and appealed to the city and state to contribute needed revenues while asking teachers to also take a cut in pay. Without extra help, all but principals and classroom teachers could lose their jobs in most public schools; that means schools will not have nurses, counselors, teachers aides, art & music teachers and administrative support services.(See link for details of Philadelphia School district decision.) 

While these numbers seem staggering, another way to look at the issue is to look at what districts spend per student. In 2007 (the most recent figures I could find) Lower Merion, a wealthy suburb just outside the city limits, spent $21, 399 per student. Marple-Newtown, a middle class area spent $14,889 per student. Philadelphia spent $11,078 per student. (numbers from Inquirer School Report Card) This was before the massive cuts mentioned above. Now the reasons for the disparities are many, but the main reason is that public schools are largely funded by property taxes. Districts serving a higher percentage of low income residents, like Philadelphia, are dependent on the state government to fill in the gap. Add to that the proliferation of charter schools in Philadelphia which get money from district thereby draining off even more necessary resources. This is why the governor and state legislators’ callous disregard for the needs of low income students is so heinous.

The bottom line there is a “separate and not equal” policy regarding Pennsylvania public schools in which students are who disproportionately low income and persons of color receive basically half the resources expended on their education as their wealthy counterparts. Philadelphia is not alone, students with a high percentage of low income students both rural and urban face the same challenge across the state. Furthermore, Pennsylvania is not alone; school spending disparities exist in most major metropolitan areas.  Is this any different than the inequities which the Supreme Court outlawed nearly 60 years ago?

I think not.

Those of us who reside in the suburban areas ironically may have the opportunity to make a difference. I believe and hope that there are many people living outside the city (yet who routinely use the city services and enjoy the city’s benefits) who would be horrified to learn that we have returned to the days of the Jim Crow South; only the injustice is no longer relegated to the South but exists in the Philadelphia metro area. We can urge our representatives that we don’t want to live in a state or a country that treats its most economically impoverished citizens as cast-offs. Public education is a social contract that should guarantee that every student regardless of race, class, gender or geographic location is entitled to a safe, well run, academically credible school. Many students in low income communities like Philadelphia have not been able to depend on that contract. The current disparity is systemic racism and class-ism at its worst, and is no better than the Jim Crow South at its worst.

The other day a Philadelphia middle school teacher stood up in the church I attend and expressed his anger at the injustice befalling the students in his school. When I spoke with him afterwards, he said: Half the time I feel like I am in an insane asylum and the other half I feel like I am in a prison. That is what we are preparing these kids for, if we don’t provide a decent education.  People often wonder what it was like to live during the Civil Rights era. We are living in a new Civil Rights era. The challenge we face is whether we will respond with the same kind of determination that was exhibited by those who have gone before us.

* figures regarding school funding were provided by Senator Vincent Hughes of the Pennsylvania State Senate and can be found at
* Pictures from Associated Press