Tag Archives: civil rights
“Yes, I was beaten, left bloody and unconscious. But I never became bitter or hostile, never gave up. I believe that somehow and some way if it becomes necessary to use our bodies to help redeem the soul of the nation, then we must do it.”
In Memoriam: John Lewis, 1940 – 2020
I looked at Tom* with what he later described as a scowl. “Are you serious?” I asked.
“Um…yeah,” was his only reply. He then looked embarrassed – almost as if he realized he’d just said the wrong thing. Or, in this case, just pissed me off.
It was the fall of 2002, and we’d known each other for a few years and been roommates since May. Things weren’t turning out as well as I’d hoped. Pooling resources is supposed to help people get through tough time. So far, the only thing that had turned out well was the new puppy he got in August, after the death of his last dog.
I like Tom – for the most part. You never really know someone unless you either spend the night with or move in with them. Tom and I had never spent the night. I do have standards! But Tom was smart and highly-educated; something of a wild man with few bounds.
He was a little like me: a native Texan of mixed ethnicity (in his case, German and Indian) who graduated high school in 1982 and attended the University of North Texas (although I didn’t arrive there until 1984). But he was more conservative, and our political discussions on race and gender often went sideways with his right-wing logic.
This evening’s conversation was a perfect example. I can’t remember what set it off, but I had mentioned that the modern civil rights movement “had to occur”; that it had to take place. He refuted that claim; calmly stating that it had been completely unnecessary; that eventually society would “come around” and realize it was only fair to give all people a chance; that folks just “needed to wait”.
“Wait?” People had already waited – more than 400 years, from the arrival of the first Europeans to the 1950s, when Martin Luther Kind launched his quiet revolution.
People had waited through the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. People had waited through every major political and social event since the Salem Witch Trials for an equal place in American society. People had waited through the name-calling, beatings, shootings, stabbings, lynchings and relocations.
People had waited. Long enough. And that’s why everything finally exploded in the 1960s. I believe the catalyst was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Just a few years into the decade, the first U.S. president born in the 20th century was cut down by a delusional madman (or a cavalcade of them, depending on who you ask); thus squelching a promising future to an American that was moving irreversibly forward. But the centennial of the Civil War – a conflict about one group of humans owning another group, not property – helped fuel the embers of dissatisfaction. People had finally said, ‘I’ve had it. This is it. We’ve done everything possible to make ourselves valuable and worthy of a seat at that great American banquet table.’
And, in the midst of the mayhem, old White fools like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan stood around saying, ‘I don’t know why they’re so upset. They live in a free country.’
A high school English teacher once said all that happened in the 1960s was boiling in the 1950s. The Korean War – the sadly “forgotten war” – was a blight in an otherwise great decade. It was marked by the creation of the grandest economy at the time and included the seminal Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.
Tom didn’t know what to say to me after my rant. It was more of a lecture. I can get emotional with those sensitive issues, but I’d maintained my decorum – each of us standing there in boxer shorts chugging beers. He was truly speechless – a rarity for him. But alas… he had to concede I was right. Or more, that he could see my point.
No time is right for a health pandemic, but COVID-19 couldn’t have arisen at a more inconvenient period for Americans: at the start of the 2020 presidential election race. Things had been proceeding somewhat normally until March, when concerns about the “novel coronavirus” began altering the social landscape. When I saw that this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo had been postponed – possibly to next year – I knew our world had been capsized by this invisible biological menace. Viruses, like facts, always have a way of sneaking into our lives and making us rethink everything we’ve ever learned. Facts, however, are good things. But, while a crisis of any kind can bring out the best humanity has to offer, it can also bring out the worst.
Right now political conservatives in the U.S. are trying to finagle the COVID-19 miasma into an obstructionist nightmare for the voting populace. Last week thousands of voters in Wisconsin were forced to leave their homes and venture out to designated polling places to cast their votes for a candidate in the Democratic primary. On April 6, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, refused to allow an extension of absentee voting in Wisconsin; thus, forcing the primary to go on as planned on April 7. On April 2, a federal judge had ruled that absentee voting can be extended. But unsurprisingly, the Republican National Committee appealed the ruling, which landed on the docket of the High Court.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.” She went on: “Because gathering at the polling place now poses dire health risks, an unprecedented number of Wisconsin voters – at the encouragement of public officials – have turned to voting absentee. About one million more voters have requested absentee ballots in this election than in 2016. Accommodating the surge of absentee ballot requests has heavily burdened election officials, resulting in a severe backlog of ballots requested but not promptly mailed to voters.”
Political conservatives don’t like it when people they consider insignificant actually have the audacity to practice their right to vote. For a good part of American history, they’ve done just about everything they could – including intimidation and violence – to stifle voting rights; which, they’ve obviously forgotten, is one of the fundamentals of a democratic society. The right to vote is clearly mentioned in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution! Then again, they may not necessarily forget about it, as they just ignore it. And they always seem to skip over to focus attention on the 2nd Amendment, which addresses firearms.
Conservatives established and enforced such obstructionist tactics as “grandfather clauses”, literacy tests, and poll taxes. Voting advocates had to fight for confidential voting. Early feminists had to do the same to get the 19th Amendment ratified. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, he conceded that he and his fellow Democrats had probably handed the South to the Republican Party. And he was right! Slowly, but surely, over the ensuing decade, many White southerners began switching to the GOP. A number of well-known U.S. politicians, such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, also changed their allegiances to the Republican Party.
The election of Barack Obama solidified in the minds of many conservatives the horrors of expanded voting. They then launched a number of efforts – both at the national and state levels – to ensure that would never happen again. A slew of voter identification rules were suddenly enacted.
The COVID-19 scourge has prompted calls across the nation for expanded absentee voting, such as mail-ins, which has been rebuffed by conservatives who holler voter fraud could result. This week Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton opined that fear of catching the virus does not qualify voters to vote by mail.
But State Judge Tim Sulak ruled that Texans afraid of catching COVID-19 should be allowed to vote by mail during the pandemic, using the state’s disability clause in the state’s election code, and said he will issue a temporary injunction. The Texas Democratic Party and several had filed a lawsuit over concerns that voters in this July’s elections, including the primary runoffs, could come in contact with infected people when voting in person.
“Based on the plain language of the relevant statutory text, fear of contracting COVID-19 unaccompanied by a qualifying sickness or physical condition does not constitute a disability under the Election Code,” Deputy Attorney General Ryan M. Vassar wrote in a letter to Fort Worth State Rep. Stephanie Klick, a fellow Republican.
And, of course, Paxton was “disappointed” that Sulak had “ignored the plain text of the Texas election code to allow perfectly healthy voters to take advantage of special protections made available to Texans with actual illness or disabilities.”
The voter fraud claim is the default mantra of right-wing politicians every time they enact legislation that impacts the voting process. Texas Republicans have long opposed the expansion of mail-in voting. In 2017 the GOP-dominated state legislature stiffened penalties for election fraud.
“Our state is better off when more Texans participate in our democracy,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “Voting by mail is safe, secure and accessible. It allows more voters to participate in our democracy, and it’s a common sense way to run an election, especially during a public health crisis.”
Like the Texas Innocence Project, you know the Texas Democratic Party has their work cut out for them!
Currently, residents over age 65, military members, those who will be away from their residence during voting and people with disabilities can request mail-in ballots. Democrats argue that a disability, defined as a “sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring voters’ health,” covers all Texas voters under the age of 65, including those who are afraid to catch the COVID-19 virus.
In his letter to Klick, Vassar naturally disagreed, stating that fears of catching the virus is neither a sickness nor a physical condition, but an emotional reaction to the pandemic is not “sufficient to meet the definition of disability”.
It’s ironic that Vassar regards concerns of contracting COVID-19 as emotional. Throughout Obama’s presidency, conservatives screamed that his administration would ban all firearms, abandon Israel, and force churches to conduct same-sex weddings. None of that happened. It never has and most likely it never will. Yet, liberals are always justifiably concerned that voter suppression is a real possibility when conservatives are elected to office. Justifiably concerned because many state legislatures, such as Texas, actually have moved to enact legislation to combat the ubiquitous pandemic of voter fraud.
During Black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, news cameras captured horrific scenes of police physically assaulting individuals or using water hoses to attack groups of African-Americans. I’ve seen some of that footage – startling black-and-white images of mostly peaceful citizens wanting to vote or be able to enter a restaurant and have a meal. We don’t see that now. Instead, we see elected officials use the power of their position to suppress voting. Firearms have metamorphosed into pens – but they pose no less of a risk.
While I have my own doubts about the effectiveness of the voting process – the fraud-ridden elections of George W. Bush and Donald Trump being the most recent examples – people in any truly democratic society have the right to cast a ballot. And eventually, the obstructionist tactics of those elected (not ordained) politicians will reveal the truth behind their dubious motives.
“For the first time in history, we were able to have Presidential candidates treat us equally.”
– O.J. Semans, executive director of Four Directions, a voting rights group that organized a seminar at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa, for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to address Native American concerns.
Back in 2002, my then-roommate, Tom,* and I got into a discussion about racial and gender equality. I stated that all of the various civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with the abolitionist movement, were necessary to instigate change and make America live up to its declaration as a truly free and inclusive nation. Tom merely shook his head no in a condescending fashion and said, “Nah,” later adding that eventually people would have “come around” and realize discrimination was wrong.
I looked at him like the fool he was and asked him if he sincerely believed that. He said he did. I then recounted the story of my father’s return from Korea in the mid-1950s. He had been drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to the front lines in the midst of the Korean War. Among the many friends he made were a large contingent of Black soldiers. By then, the U.S. armed forces had been forcibly integrated, so a mix of ethnic groups comprised all the various military units. My father didn’t serve his full two-year stint, as the war ended sooner than most anyone had expected. He and several of his fellow soldiers arrived in Seattle via ship and then boarded a train to head to their various home cities. My father was confused when his Black team mates started walking away from. He called out to them, asking where they were going. One told him they were headed towards the rear caboose – where Black people had to sit. As he watched his friends, his brothers-in-arms, saunter down the platform, my father said to himself, “Oh yea, we’re back in America – land of the free.”
Tom just sort of looked at me, not knowing what to say. He conceded it was wrong, even then, to force Blacks to sit at the back of a bus or a train. But, he snapped out of his brief foray into actual reasoning and reiterated that eventually White people would have realized how unfair that was. In other words, we didn’t bus strikes or protests of any kind. People should have just waited around, hoping for the better.
No one should have to wait for justice and fairness. Nobody should be straddled to the rocks of oppression and brutality – hoping, praying and begging for those in positions of power and influence to see the light. Disenfranchised groups in the U.S. had waited for centuries to be treated with dignity and respect and to be given an equal chance to succeed.
I told someone else around the same time as my conversation with Tom that the 1960s exploded with anger and rage because patience had finally run out. They’d done everything that had been asked of them: they served in the military; they worked hard; they cleaned homes and streets; they obeyed the laws (no matter how discriminatory they were); they tried as best to keep to themselves – everything. And, they still weren’t given a fair chance. Blacks still had to sit at the back of the bus; women still had to change their last names when they got married and still had to have children; Indians still had to live in squalor on reservations; gays and lesbians still had to suppress their true identities.
And so, by the 1960s, everything just sort of erupted at once. If change didn’t come through peace and hard work, then it had to be forced. America was compelled to fulfill its proclamation as a nation of freedom and opportunity. It no longer had a choice in the matter. The time had come to change – whether some folks liked it or not.
It was curious to hear Tom speak of racial and gender equality and inequality. He was a mix of German and Cherokee; from a small, nondescript community in far northeast Texas. We discussed the plight of Indigenous Americans more than once. He felt that Indians could have fought back against European encroachers because they also had men. I noted that Europeans had two primary advantages: guns and horses. Moreover, they’d adopted both gunpowder and horse-riding skills from the Chinese. Tom wasn’t moved. And, I told him he now had the distinction of falling into two unique groups: those who aren’t educated about a subject and those who don’t want to be educated. That’s actually a rarity, but one that persists even now; in this second decade of the 21st century with a biracial U.S. president and a shrinking White majority.
Attitudes really are hard to change.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington,” a seminal event in modern civil rights history – one that changed the cultural direction of this nation. Officially titled the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” its initial impact surprised even its organizers. In a time before cell phones and personal computers, word of the event spread quickly and attracted more than 200,000 people to the U.S. capital as a steamy summer neared its end. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the highlight of the march and remains its signature hallmark. But, it was more than a showcase for King; it was about a movement and a people – the American people. It was a call for the U.S. to uphold its constitutional values that all citizens are created equal. People will forever debate its merits. But, there’s no doubt it became a critical force in moving this nation forward; a real catalyst for positive change and opportunity.
The fight actually continues in relentless calls for economic and social justice. Battles like this are never won so easily.
Top image courtesy of United Liberty.
“Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it.
Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.
Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”
Today marks the 45th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King’s seminal “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he gave in Memphis, Tennessee. It is one of the most significant orations of the 20th century; an impromptu talk King gave at the last minute. He had just arrived in Memphis to lend spiritual support to Black garbage collectors who had gone on strike. He was tired and simply wanted to retire for the evening. But, a crowd had gathered at the Mason Temple in Memphis, eagerly anticipating his arrival. King’s associates finally convinced him to speak to them. He would be dead less than twenty-four hours later.
I grew up reading about King, but never thought much of him until long after his birth was memorialized into a federal holiday. He, of course, didn’t live to see goals of a truly integrated society come to fruition. But, his spirit lives and thrives well in the hearts of anyone who has ever fought for social justice.