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Four Girls Jubilee, September 15, 2013

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Burns Blog 6, 8/6/2013

How Can We Save the Voting Rights Act & Secure Universal Suffrage?

 Almost half a century ago on August 6th, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders standing behind him. What was the spark that brought it about?

Right after the March on Washington in August 1963, a federal court ordered Birmingham to begin desegregating its public schools, though with baby steps: 5 black children in 3 white schools. Sitting together at lunch counters was bad enough, but the real threat of “mongrelization” was about to come true—the commingling of black and white kids at school, where they could make friends.  Governor George Wallace sent the Alabama National guard to block it. President Kennedy federalized the guard to withdraw the soldiers. The 5 brave kids enrolled in the white schools despite the incensed mobs.

On Saturday, September 14, “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the Klan chief, told his wife and niece that he had found the address of “the nigger girl that was going to integrate the school.” He boasted that he had enough “stuff put away to flatten half of Birmingham. You just wait till after Sunday morning,” he told them. “They will beg us to let them segregate.”

In fact the Klan’s terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15th, 1963, ghastly though it was, failed to terrorize the black community in Birmingham and beyond. It had the opposite effect. It empowered African Americans in Alabama to fight back, not with violent retaliation, their immediate impulse, but to achieve the one unifying goal that would not just deter such attacks but obtain durable freedom and justice: securing universal suffrage. To empower black citizens to elect their own sheriffs, mayors, and county commissioners, and to serve on juries capable of locking up white terrorists. By this means, the century-old reign of terror by white supremacists would before long be largely eradicated.

Although the four girls’ families and friends, and the civil rights leaders, were traumatized by the Klan bombing, and though a few of those most committed to nonviolence were ready to track down the killers and kill them, the movement not only responded with amazing nonviolent grace but was somehow able to take the long view. Out of their grief and fury they launched the final stage of the black suffrage campaign that achieved the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Might it not make sense for the 50th anniversary commemorations of Birmingham Sunday to honor the four slain girls, and others who gave their lives, by igniting another great campaign for universal suffrage, sadly still the unfinished business of the civil rights movement? Specifically a national grassroots campaign to force Congress to do what the Supreme Court actually recommended: to reenact the Voting Rights Act, restoring and updating Section 4 that has prevented flagrant abuses of voting rights in the past and in the present (e.g., voter ID laws and racial redistricting, which are the poll taxes and literacy tests of the 21st century). If the Republicans resist, to compel President Obama to take executive action—even if such bold action gets overturned by the Supreme Court. Thus would arise a battle royale that might whip up a popular revolt for democracy.

The Four Girls Jubilee on September 15th will be an opportunity for students and citizens of all ages to dialogue, to perform, to vigil, to go door-to-door—spreading the word face to face and through social media about the suppression of universal suffrage in America (foreign to other advanced democracies), and what we the people can do about it. Such mass actions as sending letters and emails to legislators and online petitions by millions of citizens. Maybe before long to make another great march on Washington, not to gather at the Lincoln Memorial but inside Congress, the “people’s house,” to congregate in lawmakers’ offices and hearing rooms (“mill-ins”)—perhaps even peacefully “occupy” offices of recalcitrant congressmen until full voting rights have been regained, strengthened—and made irreversible.

Let us honor the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair in a way that might truly do justice to the cause for which they died.

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Those of us around the country organizing the Four Girls Jubilee on September 15 are hoping for a groundswell of local commemorations of the Birmingham church bombing  50 years ago. These commemorative events will honor the four girls who died—Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair—and will open up conversations about racial justice, economic & environmental justice, violence against peoples of color, violence against women and girls, responses to terrorism, and all of the other interrelated crises like global warming & war that imperil our nation and our world. Each college, high school, place of worship, workplace, town or neighborhood gathering can create its own format and topics. Events might include facilitated dialogues, vigils, performances (e.g., dramatic readings, gospel singing, hip hop, poetry slams), or a mix of formats.

Southern novelist William Faulkner famously penned that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” True enough. But what does this really mean, in terms of the Civil Rights Movement in general and of the Birmingham church bombing in particular? What are the lessons that we might learn that we can apply to navigate the troubled floodwaters of today, our 21st century storm of crises?

The grassroots commemorations on the weekend of September 15th are an opportunity to explore and begin to apply these lessons.

President Obama seemed to encourage us with his comments yesterday on the Trayvon Martin tragedy: “I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching,” he said to a startled White House press corps. “There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race.” He was concerned that this might lead to posturing and political correctness and might not be all that fruitful. “On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces [and schools & colleges], there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest” in talking about prejudice and racism, sexism and homophobia, classism and ageism—and yes, Mr. President, our nation’s bad example in the world, especially in relating to the Muslim world.

Let me suggest three possible topics for constructive dialogue on lessons to be learned that tie the past to the present and to the future:

  • Although civil rights leaders, MLK and all others, were traumatized by the Klan’s terrorist attack on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and though a few of those most committed to nonviolence were ready to track down the killers and kill them—revenge—the movement not only responded with amazing nonviolent grace but was somehow able to take the long view. They understood that such violence and terrorism would recur until African Americans could vote, hold office, and serve on juries. So out of their grief and fury they launched the final stage of the voting rights campaign that achieved the 1965 Voting Rights Act. How can we today keep our equilibrium and take the long view in our responses not only to terrorism at home & overseas, but in grappling with related issues of violence, exploitation, injustice—and planetary survival?
  • One of the strengths of the Civil Rights Movement was their feisty determination to “keep on keeping on,” to keep their eyes on the proverbial prize, to persevere patiently in the face of (apparent) impossibility, to keep hope alive no matter what. Their faith that they were living “powerful days” (MLK’s words) that could transform America. Although Dr. King found himself on the verge of giving up more than once, he held fast to his faith that the darkness of midnight (almost) always turns into the morning light, that the darkest hour comes before dawn—that we always have the power within ourselves to make a new beginning, to be reborn, individually and collectively. He challenged the ill of “give-up-itis” he found in himself and others, even the bravest. How can we empower ourselves to refuse to give up, to hold on to our faith that in the darkest hours we can plant the sturdiest seeds of renewal and regeneration? That in our dark times we too are living powerful days that can bring about the “great turning” that more and more people are talking about around the globe.
  •  Finally, how can we do better than our forebears in tying together the problems that imperil us, and convey more clearly to a wider public how the multiple crises that we face have shared causes in our violent culture, our inequitable economic system, our exploitation of the natural world, our chronic wastefulness. Toward the end of his short life MLK condemned the “triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism.” How can we think about the perils we face as systemic—and if systemic, what does that mean about the tools we must use to overcome these perils and move toward the beloved community that we all deserve?
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 Before I offer potential remedies or courses of action to challenge the evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, I need to say something about the relationship of civil rights to human rights and how important it is to conceive of our pantheon of rights in an integral, holistic fashion.

When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a staff retreat of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in May 1967, he upped the ante of the black struggle for freedom and justice. “It is necessary for us to realize,” he explained, “that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights. When you deal with human rights you are not dealing with something clearly defined in the Constitution. They are rights that are clearly defined by the mandates of a humanitarian concern.”

During the previous two years, when it became evident that the historic civil rights laws (including the Voting Rights Act) would not sweep away racism or poverty, he had come to see the inadequacy of individual rights. He grasped that “civil rights” carried too much baggage of the dominant tradition of American individualism and not enough counterweight from a tradition of communitarian impulses, collective striving, and common good. This subterranean tradition had been kept alive mainly by peoples of color, especially by blacks and American Indians. The polar strains of individualism and collectivism needed to be reconciled. His conception of rights shifted to a richer, comprehensive meaning that reflected his underlying biblical values.

By 1967 King seemed to be following the example of Malcolm X, who near the end of his life stressed the need to “expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level—to the level of human rights.” If the two leaders had been able to compare notes during Malcolm’s last year, they would have discovered that each was drawing similar conclusions about the necessity to go beyond constitutional rights.

Both Martin and Malcolm were reconstructing the legacy of their forbears, such as Gabriel Prosser, Frederick Douglass, John Mercer Langston, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. From the end of the 18th century, African-American leaders had grounded their interpretation of rights in black spirituality and in what they saw as the divinely authorized Declaration of Independence, with its “amazing universalism,” in King’s words. Many African Americans had perceived their human rights, no matter how poorly fulfilled, as a covenant with their personal God intervening in history on the side of justice.

“Blacks always believed in rights in some larger, mythologic sense—as a pantheon of possibility,” legal scholar Patricia Williams noted.

So as we think about how to protect and preserve the Voting Rights Act, let us not lose sight of the complex web of human rights that voting rights embeds within, all of which needs to be expanded and sustained.

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DEMOLISHING THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT: DECIMATING DEMOCRACY?

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court by a 5-4 majority struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act that during the past half century in enforcing the 15th Amendment had in effect guaranteed a constitutional right to vote for all Americans and took us a quantum leap closer to the elusive ideal of universal suffrage, supposedly the bedrock of democratic rule, “government by the people.”

“The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her biting dissent, “foresaw progress, even in Alabama. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice’—if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”(New York Times, 6/26/13) Alas, the vital task was far from complete, as has been made clear by the onslaught of sophisticated “second-generation barriers”—race-based redistricting, voter ID laws, etc.—that are now being implemented with a vengeance.  Just like the southern state laws and constitutions that barred black men from voting at the turn of the 20th century, these new provisions (notably the ID laws) make it  difficult for poor people of all colors to vote and make their voices heard. Thus we face not only a resurgence of white electoral domination (even in “majority minority” states like Texas), but a windfall of plutocratic rule. We simply can’t allow low-income people to vote in sufficient numbers to upset the ship of state.

Placed in the context of other key rulings by the most conservative Supreme Court in a century, we the people have good reason to fear that our democracy, rule by the people, is being supplanted by plutocracy, rule by the wealthy. First came the high court’s coup in placing George W. Bush in the White House despite his loss of the popular vote (which doesn’t matter in our peculiar constitutional system) and, as nonpartisan voting experts now generally agree, despite loss of Florida by a thin margin, thus losing the electoral college to his Democratic opponent, the rightful president. Then in 2010 came the Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations (and rich unions) free rein to literally buy elections with unlimited campaign funding. And now Shelby County (Alabama) vs. Holder, the jewel in the plutocratic crown.

Recently a high-level CitiGroup memo boasted about how the banking giant and its fellow travelers had already achieved the fundaments of what it proudly called “plutonomy.”

Moreover, as a civil rights historian, I see something insidious happening that is not new in U.S. history—in fact as old as the Roman Empire. Just as the movement for universal suffrage in the 19th century was stymied by conflicts between voting rights for black men and suffrage for white women, so the divide-and-conquer strategy seems to be smartly deployed by the Roberts Supreme Court. In the course of one week in late June the Court dealt a potentially fatal blow to universal suffrage while putting affirmative action in higher education on life support and essentially declaring the constitutionality of same-sex marriage (at least on a state-by-state basis).

Although a firm supporter of both affirmative action and same-sex marriage, I worry about the harmful effects of fragmenting and compartmentalizing our struggles for human rights. I will close with words from a book I coauthored twenty years ago, A People’s Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America (p. 334):

“The structural constraints of the ‘system’ have not been all that has stood in the way of achieving political, economic, and social rights. Movement leaders often accepted the inevitability of such constraints when in fact more options and leeway were available. In most rights campaigns, leaders had a fairly comprehensive vision of what their followers were entitled to, but at some point they decided, or reluctantly agreed, to divide rights claims into categories, to set priorities among them, and to choose short-term political expediency over longer-term linkages of rights that would bring less immediate payoff. Though they frequently assumed that winning rights near at hand would lead to securing others, rarely did gaining one type of right open the door to the claiming of another more remote or elusive. This politics of compartmentalization and deferral has entailed major social costs.”

In my next blog I will suggest possible remedies for bringing our democracy back to life.

Categories : Blog

Frederick Douglass on the Fourth of July
Rochester, N.Y., July 5, 1852

[This passionate condemnation of American slavery by ex-slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (1817-95) may seem out of place as we celebrate the Fourth of July in 2013. But what might he say today if he were witnessing the growing scourge of global slavery in the 21st century—at least 27 million sex and labor slaves, especially young girls, in almost every country in the world including the U.S.A.—far more slaves than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade when Douglass himself was chained?]

 Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? Am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs?

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? …

Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world.

My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.

Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse.” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

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stewart profile -4

These are powerful days. We are living at a crucial turning point in human history—much like the freedom fighters, the nonviolent warriors of 50 years ago (especially the teenagers and children) who are the subject of my just published book. Will we rise to the challenges of our time?

Foreword to “We Will Stand Here Till We Die”: Freedom Movement Shakes America, Shapes Martin Luther King Jr.

This story of the American freedom struggle of 1963, the great March on Washington, and its aftermath reaches you as we commemorate not only the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, but the golden jubilee of the “Negro Revolution of 1963” (as its leader called it), when millions of marching feet trampled Jim Crow. Like the Civil War legacy, we have much to learn from those “powerful days” that may help us navigate the troubled waters of our own time.

Spring 2013 marks a half century since Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It was little noted at first, then emerged as the most eloquent defense of nonviolent civil disobedience since Henry David Thoreau penned his famous essay opposing slavery before the Civil War. King’s letter was read widely by high school and college students, among many others, over the next decades. As significant as his advocacy of principled nonviolent disruption, when needed, was his assertion in his letter of the Civil Rights Movement’s larger vision: to reveal the deep pull of human interdependence, to repair the brokenness of humankind.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King scribbled in his dark claustrophobic cell. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

As much as the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement anchors our current strivings for human rights and social justice. Its powerful words and deeds have inspired brave strides toward freedom in many other countries as well.

The American movement in mass form began in the 1950s, though many of its originators started organizing in the 1940s or even during the Great Depression. The first sustained mass protest in the South erupted in Montgomery, the Alabama capital, where African-American women fed up with abuse on segregated city buses refused to give up their seats to white passengers and then, in an organized boycott backed by black clergy, refused to ride for a year, leading to the Supreme Court ban on bus segregation.

After a few years of drift, the startling new movement rose to floodtide in the 1960s with sit-ins and mass marches that produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, then spread to the North where urban battles sorely tested the movement’s nonviolent stance.

The Birmingham campaign of Spring 1963 showed the maturity of the black freedom struggle as it neared its peak. It introduced the strategy of nonviolent urban disruption that MLK and his colleagues hoped would break segregation in the Deep South and outlaw Jim Crow. They accomplished this mission in the halls of Congress one year later. The campaign also presented a model of nonviolent militancy that movement leaders hoped would provide an alternative to armed struggle and urban rioting.

After triumph in Selma two years later led to the Voting Rights Act, a bittersweet success came later in Memphis, where city sanitation workers won their union in 1968 but King lost his life on the cross of economic justice. Mass nonviolent action has changed human history over the past half century in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, China, Philippines, Russia, Ukraine, Burma, Tunisia, Egypt, South Africa, the United States, and other places on the planet.

Birmingham and the black revolution of 1963 climaxed in the March on Washington where a third of a million protesters of all colors united “in one luminous action all of the forces along the far-flung front,” as MLK depicted it.

But the war was far from won.

                                                                                                     photo by Deborah Schneer
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