"Voters will more vulnerable this November than they have been in decades."
Just over a year after the Supreme Court ruled that the nation has made so much progress on voting rights that key legal protections are no longer needed, a coalition of civil rights groups released a report documenting hundreds of voter discrimination and suppression cases. The organizations also called on Congress to rewrite the gutted section of the Voting Rights Act.
“Voters will more vulnerable this November than they have been in decades,” said Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a conference call with reporters. “Contrary to the Supreme Court’s assertion, voter discrimination is still rampant, and states continue to implement voting laws and procedures that disproportionately affect minorities.”
The report, released this week on the 49th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, counted 332 cases in the last two decades in which voters successfully sued for violations of their voting rights, or when the U.S. Department of Justice blocked a state or county’s attempt to change their voting laws in an unconstitutional way. They counted another ten instances in which aggrieved voters settled out of court.
Tellingly, the majority of the violations happened in a small handful of states — Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, with South Carolina close behind — that were covered by the very Voting Rights Act formula that the Supreme Court ruled outdated and unconstitutional. As a result of the Court’s Shelby County decision, the Justice Department may no longer deploy federal observers to the formerly covered states to deter and report race-based voter suppression. The civil rights advocates that the loss of this federal monitoring program will result in “a substantial increase in voter intimidation.”
Dolores Huerta, a longtime civil and labor rights activist who organized farmworkers with Cesar Chavez, told reporters the study indicates another trend she called “appalling.”
“As the Latino community grows in numbers and their influence grows in the political process, discrimination also seems to be growing,” she said. “It is sad to see how legislation and practices have continued unabated against people of Latino descent.”
Huerta and others involved in the National Commission on the Voting Rights said their research found that modern day voter suppression takes a variety of forms, and not all of them have received the kind of media and political attention garnered by controversial gerrymandering and voter ID laws.
Huerta pointed to states that disenfranchise former felons after they have served out their sentences, or charge them hefty fines to have their voting rights restored. Arnwine also mentioned dozens of documented violations involving the local government’s failure to provide ballots and information in other languages, which they are required to do by law.
Vice-Chair Leon Russell of the NAACP added: “When I attended hearings [on voting rights] in Florida and Mississippi, we saw continuing barriers to equal participation. We saw long lines created intentionally, either by not having enough polling places in certain areas, or not having enough machines at those places. Some counties in Florida even got rid of bathrooms at the polls, which makes it harder not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.”
The report comes on the heels of another study debunking the main justification used for passing many of the controversial voting laws in question: fraud.
Harvard Professor Justin Levitt surveyed more than a billion votes cast in general, primary, special, and municipal elections across the US from 2000 through 2014, and found only 31 credible instances of voter impersonation. And many of those 31 were never confirmed and prosecuted.
Source; Alice Ollstein for ThinkProgress
Before Senate Republicans frightened a handful of Democrats into helping them shoot down Debo Adegbile’s nomination to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, the chamber ran so loudly with the words “cop-killer” that you might have thought Ice-T was addressing the Senate.
As director of litigation with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Adegbile had presided over a team representing Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted in 1981 of killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Though Adegbile was a child when Faulkner was killed, the NAACP LDF represented Abu-Jamal during his post-conviction appeal proceedings in the late 2000s, and federal courts ultimately concluded that sentencing instructions were improper, which spared Abu-Jamal the death penalty.
To hear Republicans talk, Adegbile practically led the movement of “Free Mumia” supporters who became convinced that Abu-Jamal had been framed, instead of the LDF simply ensuring a reviled defendant received his constitutional right to due process.
Yet Adegbile’s failed nomination wasn’t really just about Abu-Jamal, but a larger conservative attack on the civil rights division – the part of the Justice Department dedicated to enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws. Convinced that anti-black racism is a thing of the past and that federal intervention to secure minority rights does more harm than good, conservatives have waged a years long campaign to dominate, dismantle or discredit the civil rights division and the laws it is designed to enforce.
Adegbile is a celebrated Supreme Court litigator who has devoted his life to protecting laws conservatives want to see repealed, overturned or interpreted so narrowly as to be toothless, and that was reason enough for Republicans to oppose him. But absent the spectre of a revival of Willie Horton-style race baiting politics, it would not have been sufficient to bring skittish Democrats along for the ride.
Republicans don’t just oppose Adegbile. They oppose the civil rights division itself. That’s a tremendous irony given that it was first established under a Republican president – over the opposition of many Southern Democrats.
Yet recently when a president of their own party has been in charge of the division, Republicans have sought to purge it of civil rights lawyers perceived as too liberal. Failing that, they’ve simply declined to zealously enforce civil rights laws. During the Obama administration, Republicans have painted the division as racist against white people, and came to the defense of predatory financial industry practices that helped drive the American economy to the brink of destruction.
Where they have been unable to hamper the civil rights division’s enforcement of civil rights laws, they have turned to the conservative majority on the Supreme Court to neuter the division by gutting the laws themselves.
During the George W. Bush administration, an internal Justice Department report found Bush appointees had attempted to purge the division of liberals, or as one Bush appointee Bradley Schlozman put it, “adherents of Mao’s little red book.” The report found that Schlozman, who had vowed to “gerrymander” all those “crazy libs” out of the division, replacing them with Republican loyalists, had violated civil service laws with his hiring practices. His colleagues saw it differently – the Voting Section chief at the time, John Tanner, complained that before Bush, one had to be a “civil rights person” to get hired in the division. Imagine.
Shortly after Obama took office, conservatives seized on a now-discredited conspiracy theory that the new administration had sought to protect the New Black Panther Party. They argued that “If you are white,” in the words of Bush-era Justice Department official Hans von Spakovsky, “the Division won’t lift a finger to make sure you’re ‘protected.’”
Republicans held up the confirmation of Thomas Perez to head the division for more than six months. After Perez was confirmed, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley attacked him for depoliticizing the hiring process in the division by putting it back in the hands of career attorneys, complaining that it resulted in too many civil rights lawyers being hired to work in the civil rights division, and not enough conservatives.
Having embraced the concept of disparate impact when it came to hiring qualified attorneys in the civil rights division, Grassley nevertheless called it a “dubious legal theory” when, as head of the division, Perez used the Fair Housing Act to extract record financial settlements from lending institutions the division said had discriminated against minority borrowers and homeowners. Much to conservatives’ disappointment, they’ve so far failed to get the Supreme Court to curtail the division’s ability to go after financial practices that disproportionately harm minorities. But it may only be a matter of time before the Fair Housing Act goes the way of the Voting Rights Act.
The Abu-Jamal case was merely a convenient foil for conservatives who have long sought to weaken the division and the laws it helps enforce. The story of a black radical murdering a white cop has tremendous emotional and symbolic resonance for those conservatives who have persuaded themselves that the real victims of racial oppression in the Obama era are white people, besieged by a federal government that seeks to unfairly stack the deck in favor of undeserving minorities. Whenever the Obama administration has sought to stand up for voting rights, fight discrimination in hiring,housing or schooling, the right has attacked it as racist.
In a replay of the kind of racialized “tough on crime” politics that dominated the 1990s, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Adegbile of seeking to “glorify an unrepentant cop-killer.” Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz declared that ”Under Adegbile’s supervision, rallies, protests, and media campaigns instead dishonestly portrayed Abu-Jamal as a political prisoner and victim of racial injustice.” Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey called Adegbile ”one of the lawyers who helped to promote that campaign.” In conservative media, the campaign was even more explicit, with conservatives attacking Adegbile as “racist” and placing his face alongside that of Abu-Jamal, as if Adegbile himself were an accomplice to Faulkner’s murder.
Though Republicans accused Adegbile of taking up Mumia’s “cause,” their evidence that Adegbile fought for anything other than the integrity of the legal system is dubious. They cited an LDF attorneywho said at a pro-Mumia rally that “the justice system has completely and utterly failed Mumia Abu-Jamal and in our view that has everything to do with race and that is why the Legal Defense Fund is in this case,” and they quoted an LDF press release from 2011 stating that “Abu-Jamal’s conviction and death sentence are relics of a time and place that was notorious for police abuse and racial discrimination.”
There’s no need to believe Abu-jamal was innocent or was unfairly prosecuted to acknowledge the context of that statement. The history of the criminal justice system in America is rife with racism and abuse. But even here Philadelphia stands out.
This is a place where Frank Rizzo, the former Philadelphia police commissioner turned mayor, told residents to “vote white” when seeking a third term in 1978. In 1977, the Philadelphia Inquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on “a police interrogation system in which suspects were handcuffed to metal chairs and beaten with lead pipes, blackjacks, brass knuckles and chair and table legs.” TheInquirer won another in 1985 for an expose on police dogs attacking hundreds of suspects. In 1979, the Justice Department attemped to sue the city’s police department over “widespread and severe” police brutality. In 1985, the Philadelphia police literally dropped bombs on a compound where black radicals were living, leading to a conflagration that destroyed more than sixty homes.
This is the context of the LDF’s statement that Abu-Jamal’s conviction took place at a time and place “notorious for police abuse and racial discrimination.” It’s a statement that, in context, is not merely uncontroversial. It is banal.
Even if Adegbile had been more directly involved in Abu-Jamal’s defense, that alone would not have been reason to disqualify him. The legal system cannot provide justice if attorneys are identified with hated clients – that would corrode the essence of a system in which everyone is entitled to a vigorous defense. Republicans know this – it’s why they didn’t attack Chief Justice John Roberts for his pro-bono work on behalf of a mass murderer – but the opportunity to sink an Obama nominee and further discredit the civil rights cause was too tempting to disregard.
Adegbile’s defeat has another salutory effect for conservatives – it sends the message to young, idealistic, liberal lawyers that the Democratic Party will not stand behind you if you take on controversial causes or clients. Better to represent corporate clients whose political contributions and influence can shield you from controversy. While conservatives are free to associate with any number of right-leaning legal organizations, mere association with civil rights groups will have you branded an anti-white racist and radical, especially if you’re not white.
Therein lies the greater danger of Adegbile’s defeat, that the next generation of government lawyers to staff a Democratic administration won’t just not believe in the purpose behind the laws they’re meant to enforce. It’s that they won’t believe in anything at all.
Yesterday, Phil Robertson, the star of A&E’s massively popular reality show Duck Dynasty, about a family that made a fortune selling duck calls to hunters, followed what’s now become a familiar cycle. He was quoted saying any number of intolerant things in a profile by Drew Magary in GQ, condemned by GLAAD, and swiftly suspended by his network for an indefinite period of time. The Duck Dynasty story has gone wider than this type of cycle normally extends, with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, normally a supporter of free enterprise, complaining that Robertson’s suspension is an example of how far our society has fallen from First Amendment principles. But variations aside, the Robertson kerfuffle is the perfect scandal with which to end our year in popular culture for what it tells about about the lines reality television tries–and increasingly fails–to walk, who has power to marginalize political ideas in popular culture, and how conservatives will try to defend the holdouts they’ve carved out for themselves in mass media.
The most revealing thing about Robertson’s remarks about homosexuality in GQ is really the extent to which his comments about homosexuality are on-brand for A&E. Jase Robertson told Magary that the three things his family wanted their show to be about were “betrayal of family members, and duck season.” As is clear in the profile in GQ, A&E has tried to walk a fine line between portraying the Robertsons as religious Christians without spotlighting the parts of their beliefs that have the potential to cause precisely the kind of firestorm that resulted yesterday. “There are more things Phil would like to say—’controversial’ things, as he puts it to me—that don’t make the cut,” Magary writes. This dilemma of wanting part of a reality television cast member’s personality, but only the parts that will make you money, is one that faced CBS’s Big Brother this year, too, after discovering that the ways in which a number of their controversial and colorful cast members were controversial and colorful was that they were enormously ignorant racists.
I absolutely understand the desire to make money off of either evangelical Christianity or American backwardness, which has increasingly been one of the staples of reality television. There is clearly a market for an underserved audience of religious Christians who would like to see themselves reflected in popular media more frequently. And there is clearly a market for being horrified by other people’s behavior. But it is exceptionally difficult, in a reality television context, to separate out and wall off the part of someone’s personality that is attractive and media-friendly from the parts that are less palatable to a mass audience. If you’re writing fiction for television, those attributes can get shaved off by the collective process of the writers’ room. But if you are, yourself, a reality television product, especially if you feel like you’re being suppressed or misrepresented, those parts of your personality and beliefs will inevitably out. Sometimes, the surprises are pleasant, as was the case on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, where a family offered up as backwards and repellent proved to be tolerant, loving, and charming. But that is not often the case.
For the most part, reality television producers and the networks that air their work, have decided that these outbursts are worth the risk of continuing to sell highly specific personalities, precisely because the cycle of suspension, response, and temporary profit loss are so well-established at this point that it can probably be worked into a budget. I can’t imagine anyone at A&E is surprised that someone like Phil Robertson, who bills himself as a Bible-believing evangelical, believes that you can “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” or that he would say something like “It seems like, to me, a vagina—as a man—would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.” The question was probably when, not if.
And when that when arrived, A&E had a well road-tested formula to use in its response, provided by the folks at GLAAD. GLAAD is the most effective media advocacy organization that I know of, on two levels: first, its ability to swiftly identify and condemn anti-LGBT speech and to get results, and second, in its deep, comprehensive, and intersectional research on the depiction of LGBT characters and figures in media. When Robertson’s remarks broke, Wilson Cruz of GLAAD responded quickly with a statement that hit on an incredible number of ideas in a clear, efficient way.
“Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe,”he said. “He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans — and Americans — who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors, who now need to re-examine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.” It was a condemnation that positioned GLAAD as a more sophisticated and compassionate arbiter of Christian values than Robertson, drew a connection between culture and legal protection, and offered a reminder that GLAAD has plenty of experience influencing media sponsors.
And A&E knew immediately what it had to do to respond to GLAAD: Robertson was suspended for an indefinite period of time, a punishment that doesn’t just promise long-running financial losses to him, but because it has no end point, can’t be immediately decried as too short or too long. It’s action that effectively ends the news cycle, as far as A&E’s need to take action and appear responsive are concerned.
It’s also worth noting that because of GLAAD’s swift intervention, much of the media coverage has focused more on Robertson’s anti-gay remarks than his comments about African Americans and the Civil Rights movement, which weren’t worked into the narrative of the profile, but appeared as a pull quote in the online version of the piece. While Robertson’s views on homosexuality are presented as consistent with his religious beliefs, his remarks about African-Americans are actually more politically extreme, aimed at undermining the validity of the safety net.
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field,” Robertson said. “They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
That’s a vision of the American South and American racial history that’s in keeping with Paula Deen’s alleged plantation nostalgia. It’s an attempt to substitute Robertson’s own memories of his interactions with African American laborers, whose behavior around him may well have been influenced by his relative privilege as a white man, even a poor one, for the larger history of organizing against and resistance to the economically and racially ruinous consequences of the Jim Crow system. It’s a kind of narrative that’s aimed at retroactively manufacturing black consent for policies aimed at maintaining white supremacy.
Normally, the lifecycle of the Duck Dynasty scandal would end with the suspension. But in an attempt to score political points off the controversy, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has decided to express his great sorrow about a supposed suppression of Phil Robertson’s right to free speech, which I was not aware included a guarantee to be paid to say whatever he pleased on a major television network’s airtime.
The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) seems to have completed its disintegration from an organization that presented polished “pro-marriage” talking points to one that applauds homophobia and openly attacks homosexuality like the rest of its fellow opponents of marriage equality. Phil Robertson, patriarch of A&E’s Duck Dynasty, said in a new GQ interview published Wednesday that homosexuality is a sin comparable to bestiality, adultery, and prostitution, musing, “It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus,” and NOM’s Brian Brown couldn’t agree more:
Well guess what — homosexuality IS a sin in the bible, and virtually every other sacred text out there. Engaging in homosexual sex IS considered by God to be sinful according to the teachings of most religions. And sin is NOT logical.Sin is deceitful, harmful and degrading to the human soul.
After harsh blowback for the comments, Robertson issued a non-apology, and by the end of Wednesday, A&E had announced he was “under hiatus from filming indefinitely.” Under the guise of a “petition” that doesn’t display signatures — so it will really only be used to collect information for future fundraising requests — NOM encouraged supporters to “stand with Phil Robertson,” using his comments to decry LGBT groups who spoke out, like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and GLAAD:
But Christianity, and every other major religion, be damned in the eyes of the HRC, GLAAD and their allies. They will brook no objection, tolerate no dissent and accept no disagreement when it comes to their orthodoxy. In their twisted worldview, anyone who dares to speak the truth about homosexuality must be punished and effectively banished from civil society.
But HRC didn’t send its letter to A&E alone; it was a joint letter with the NAACP. That’s because Robertson also maderacially insensitive remarks, suggesting that African Americans were more content under Jim Crow laws: “They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” NOM makes no mentions of these remarks nor does it comment at all upon the NAACP’s joint reaction with HRC. This could be because acknowledging LGBT people and people of color standing in solidarity against oppressive speech would be contrary to their plans to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks.”
NOM is not alone in standing with Robertson. Conservatives across Twitter — tweeting with the hashtag #FreePhilRobertson— have joined together in rushing to his defense. A Facebook group called “Stand With Phil Robertson” already has well over 300,000 “Likes.” Fox News’ Todd Starnes was quick to attack detractors as “anti-straight groups.” Sarah Palin eagerly reminded her fans that she’s met the Duck Dynasty family, suggesting that “free speech is an endangered species.” The Westboro Baptist Church urged Robertson not to apologize because they were proud he “finally applied the Bible standard.” The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer proclaimed, “What Phil said was not hate speech. It was the truth. The truth is only hate speech to those who hate the truth.”
The rodeo clown who wore a President Obama mask at the Missouri State Fair committed a hate crime, an NAACP official said.
“I think that a hate crime has occurred,” Mary Ratliff, the head of the NAACP’s chapter in Missouri told KXNT Radio in Las Vegas on Thursday.
“I think a hate crime occurs when you use a person’s race to depict who they are and to make degrading comments, gestures, et cetera, against them.”
The rodeo clown donned the Obama mask before being chased around by bulls in a pen, according to reports. The clown was introduced by an announcer who asked the audience if they wanted to see “Obama run down by a bull.” The Missouri State Fair on Monday barred the clown from performing at the fair.
Ratliff said that her organization is asking the Department of Justice to conduct an investigation into the incident, adding that it is an “outrage” that taxpayer dollars were used to disrespect the president.
“We are taxpayers in the state of Missouri,” Ratliff said. “And when taxpayer money is utilized to discredit and be disrespectful to our president, whether he be black, white, Hispanic, Latina … it is an outrage.”
The act drew national attention and bipartisan condemnation, including from lawmakers like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Missouri’s Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.
H/T: The Hill
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis threw an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, some toothpaste and two books into his backpack, and prepared to lead a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The impromptu march was organized to call national attention to the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South and to protest the death of a young civil rights activist shot by police during a demonstration in a neighboring town.
Lewis’s group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had been trying to register voters in Selma since 1963. They hadn’t gotten very far. At the time of the march, only 383 of the 15,000 black residents in Selma’s Dallas County were registered to vote. At 25, Lewis had already been arrested twenty times by white segregationists and badly beaten during Freedom Rides in South Carolina and Montgomery.
On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Lewis and Hosea Williams, a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., led some 600 local residents marching in two single-file lines. The streets of downtown Selma were eerily quiet. “There was no singing, no shouting—just the sound of scuffling feet,” Lewis wrote in his memoir. “There was something holy about it, as if we were walking down a sacred path. It reminded me of Gandhi’s march to the sea.” Lewis thought he would be arrested, but he had no idea that the ensuing events would dramatically alter the arc of American history.
As they crossed the Alabama River on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers descended on the marchers with batons and bullwhips; some demonstrators were trampled by policemen on horseback, and the air was choked with tear gas. Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull from a clubbing, thought he was going to die. That evening, the prime-time network news played extensive footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Those scenes “struck with the force of instant historical icon,” wrote historian Taylor Branch.
Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before a joint session of Congress. “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country,” Johnson said. On August 6, 1965, a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, the VRA became law. It quickly became known as the most important piece of civil rights legislation and one of the most consequential laws ever passed by Congress. The VRA led to the abolition of literacy tests and poll taxes; made possible the registration of millions of minority voters by replacing segregationist registrars with federal examiners; forced states with a history of voting discrimination to clear electoral changes with the federal government; and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials, including Barack Obama. Lewis has the pen LBJ gave him after signing the VRA framed in his Atlanta home and a bust of the thirty-sixth president in his Washington office. “When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said on a recent trip to Alabama, “he helped free and liberate all of us.”
Lewis, now a thirteen-term congressman from Atlanta, was a leading participant in nearly all of the pivotal events of the civil rights movement—the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer. But his signature achievement is the VRA. Of all the surviving leaders of the movement, Lewis is most responsible for its passage and its overwhelming reauthorization four times by Congress. He is the soul of the voting rights movement and its most eloquent advocate. So many of his comrades from the civil rights years have died or drifted away, but Lewis remains as committed as ever to the fight to protect the right to vote. â€¨”I feel like it’s part of my calling,” he says.
On March 3, Lewis returned to Selma for the forty-eighth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Thirty members of Congress accompanied him—part of a pilgrimage to Alabama that Lewis has led since 2000—along with Vice President Joseph Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Lewis locked arms with Biden and Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ’s youngest daughter, and once again marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Fifteen thousand people followed, some of whom would continue all the way to Montgomery. “Woke up this morning with my mind/ stayed on freedom,” activists sang as they climbed the bridge. At the top, high above the Alabama River, Lewis grabbed a bullhorn and retold the story of Bloody Sunday. “You have to tell the story over and over again to educate people,” Lewis told me. “It is my obligation to do what I can to complete what we started many, many years ago,” he said in Selma.
Every return to Selma is meaningful for Lewis, but this trip had special significance. Just four days before, Lewis had sat inside the Supreme Court as the justices heard a challenge to Section 5 of the VRA, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting, primarily in the South, to clear election-related changes with the federal government. (A decision in that case, Shelby County v. Holder, is expected at the end of June.) Lewis calls Section 5 the “heart and soul” of the law, and was deeply disturbed by the arguments from the Court’s conservative justices. “It appeared to me that several members of the Court didn’t have a sense of the history, what brought us to this point, and not just the legislative history and how it came about,” Lewis said afterward in his congressional office, which is decorated with iconic photographs of the civil rights movement. “They seemed to be somewhat indifferent to why people fought so hard and so long to get the act passed in the first place. And they didn’t see the need.”
Justice Antonin Scalia said the law represented a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the federal government is discriminating against states like Alabama more than Alabama is discriminating against its own citizens. Chief Justice John Roberts implied that Massachusetts has a bigger problem with voting discrimination than Mississippi. Clarence Thomas, who as is customary didn’t speak, had already declared Section 5 unconstitutional in a previous decision.
Lewis called Scalia’s statement “shocking and unbelievable” and said he almost cried when he heard it. “So what happened to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?” he asked, shaking his head. “What happened to the whole struggle to make it possible in the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, for every person to be able to cast a free and open vote?”
Forty-eight years after Bloody Sunday, Lewis is once again in the fight of his life, with conservative officeholders resurrecting voter suppression methods not seen since the 1960s and Supreme Court justices asserting that the federal efforts to combat historic discrimination in voting—reforms that Lewis nearly died to win—are no longer needed. In January, he filed an amicus brief with the Court opposing the Shelby County challenge. It noted “the high price many paid for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and the still higher cost we might yet bear if we prematurely discard one of the most vital tools of our democracy.”
Lewis grew up a hundred miles southeast of Selma, in the rural Alabama Black Belt near Troy. He was the third of ten kids; his parents farmed cotton, corn and peanuts. Their farmhouse had no electricity, running water or insulation. He was a bookish, devout child who wore ties and preached to his chickens, sneaking away from the fields to attend school. His life changed when, at 15, he heard about the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955 and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. (who quickly became his idol) preaching on the radio.
While at college in Nashville, Lewis played an instrumental role in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides that hastened the demise of Jim Crow. “I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army,” he says. He soon became the movement’s field commander, assuming chairmanship of SNCC in 1963. “John was probably the most committed person I’ve ever met,” says South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who met Lewis at a SNCC conference in 1960. A lifelong adherent of peaceful resistance, Lewis saw his mission as “bringing the Gandhian way into the belly of the Black Belt.”
Lewis became head of the Voter Education Project in 1970, which took the lead in registering black voters in the South after the VRA’s passage. The VEP registered 2 million voters from 1970 to 1977, including Lewis’s mother and father. The group distributed posters that read: “Hands that pick cotton…can now pick our elected officials.” In 1986, Lewis won election to the US House from Atlanta, defeating his close friend Julian Bond. “Vote for the tugboat, not the showboat” was one of his slogans. Lewis became known as “the conscience of Congress,” with an unmatched stature on civil rights. “I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in the movement that carries the moral cachet that John Lewis has,” says Clyburn.
Lewis initially endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, based on their close friendship, but viewed Obama’s election as a culmination of what he and so many others had put their lives on the line for. “Because of what you did, Barack Obama is the president of the United States,” Lewis said in Selma following Obama’s 2008 victory, on the forty-fourth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
Lewis knew the president would be attacked because of his race, but the full-scale assault on voting rights that followed the 2010 midterm elections caught him and other movement veterans off-guard. More than a dozen states, including critical battlegrounds like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, adopted new laws to restrict access to the ballot—all of which disproportionately affected communities of color. “I was naïve to think voting rights were untouchable,” says Bond, former chair of the NAACP. “I didn’t dream that Republicans would be as bold and as racist as they are.”
Lewis saw the restrictions as an obvious ploy to suppress the power of the young and minority voters who formed the core of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” in 2008. “It was a deliberate, well-greased and organized attempt to stop this progress,” he says. “They saw all these people getting registered as a threat to power.”
In July 2011, when few were paying attention to the issue, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor about the right to vote. “Voting rights are under attack in America,” Lewis told the nearly empty chamber in his deep baritone. “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” He called voter-ID laws a poll tax—a year before Attorney General Holder would make the same comparison—and recalled how, before passage of the VRA, blacks who attempted to register in the South were required to guess the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jellybeans in a jar. “We must not step backward to another dark period in our history,” Lewis warned. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society.” To combat voter suppression, Lewis sponsored the Voter Empowerment Act, which would add millions of voters to the rolls and increase turnout by modernizing registration, mandating early voting and adopting Election Day registration.
On the last night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which took place just twenty-five miles from where Lewis was beaten â€¨as a Freedom Rider in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he implored the faithful to “march to the polls like never, ever before.” By that time, civil rights activists, the Obama administration and the judiciary had heeded his warning on voting rights, as ten major restrictive laws were blocked in court under the VRA and federal and state protections. “The election of 2012,” Lewis said on MSNBC, “dramatized…the need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”
Lewis spent the pivotal Sunday before the election campaigning in Ohio for Obama. The Ohio GOP had tried to prevent early voting three days before the election, but the Obama campaign had successfully sued to reinstate those days. As he approached the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati, Lewis saw the line of voters stretching for nearly a mile around city blocks, with hundreds waiting for hours in the damp cold. “This is very, very moving,” Lewis said as he walked the line. “This is living testimony that people who tried to make it hard and difficult and who put up stumbling blocks and roadblocks—it’s just not working.”
The successful resistance to voter suppression may be the most important story of the 2012 election. Compared with 2008, 1.7 million more blacks, 1.4 million more Hispanics and 550,000 more Asians went to the polls, versus 2 million fewer whites. The turnout rate among black voters exceeded that of whites for the first time on record, according to the Census Bureau. While the turnout rate fell among nearly every demographic group, the largest increase came from blacks 65 and over. Those, like Lewis, who had lived through the days when merely trying to register could get you killed were the people most determined to defend their rights last year.
Yet Lewis viewed Obama’s re-election as only a temporary victory, given the challenge to Section 5 before the Supreme Court. The mood in Selma during this year’s anniversary of Bloody Sunday was more somber than celebratory. “Here we are, forty-eight years after all you did, and we’re still fighting?” Biden said in Selma. “In 2011, ‘12 and ‘13? We were able to beat back most of those attempts in the election of 2012, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.” After Holder cited the continued importance of Section 5 in combating discrimination, the crowd at the foot of the bridge chanted, in what had to be a first, “Section 5! Section 5!”
“When it comes to voting rights,” says Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, “you realize the past isn’t the past.”
* * *
On May 20, 1961, Lewis and two dozen Freedom Riders traveling through the South to desegregate interstate bus travel were assaulted by a frenzied mob at the Greyhound station in Montgomery. Lewis was struck over the head with a Coca-Cola crate and left lying unconscious in a pool of blood. The Freedom Riders sought refuge at the First Baptist Church, disguising themselves as members of the choir to avoid police scrutiny. Three thousand white supremacists surrounded the church the next night and hurled Molotov cocktails through the stained-glass windows. “That night was unbelievable,” Lewis recalls. “I thought some of us would die.” After tortured deliberation, President John Kennedy sent in federal marshals to escort the Freedom Riders to safety.
This past March 2, when Lewis returned to First Baptist Church with 200 guests, Chief Kevin Murphy, head of the Montgomery Police Department, unexpectedly apologized to him. “We enforced unjust laws,” Murphy said. It was the first apology Lewis had ever received from a law enforcement official, after forty arrests and countless near-death experiences. They embraced, as the congregation cheered and wept, and Murphy gave Lewis his badge. “Chief Murphy, my brother, â€¨I accept your apology,” Lewis responded. “I don’t think I’m worthy of this.” Then he joked, “Actually, do you think I could get another?” Lewis kept the badge in his pocket for days. “I want to say to all of you here, it shows the power of love, the power of peace, the power of nonviolence,” he said.
The Montgomery Advertiser featured Murphy’s apology on its front page. Next to it, however, was a story about how, if the Supreme Court overturns Section 5, Republicans would likely dismantle the majority-black legislative districts protected under the act, which illustrates the South’s continuing racial divide. Obama, the article noted, won 95 percent of the black vote in Alabama last year, but only 15 percent of the white vote. “Whites won’t vote for blacks in Alabama,” said State Senator Hank Sanders of Selma. “That’s the state of race relations.”
Indeed, despite powerful moments of reconciliation, the South is far from a post-racial utopia. Six of the nine states fully covered by Section 5, all in the South, passed new voting restrictions after the 2010 election. “Section 5,” write law professors Christopher Elmendorf and Douglas Spencer, “is remarkably well tailored to the geography of anti-black prejudice.” Of the ten states where anti-black stereotypes are most common, based on data from the National Annenberg Election Survey, six in the South are subject to Section 5. Racially polarized voting and “explicit anti-black attitudes,” according to an AP survey, have increased since 2008. Arkansas and Virginia have passed strict new voter-ID laws this year, while North Carolina is considering a slew of draconian restrictions.
“Places like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, they forget recent history,” Lewis said. “We’re not talking about something that took place a hundred years ago, but a few short years ago. And some of it is still going on today. And if you get rid of Section 5 of the VRA, many of these places, whether it be state, county or town, will slip back into the habits of the past.”
Against this backdrop, it’s shocking that the Supreme Court appears to be leaning toward overturning the centerpiece of the country’s most important civil rights law. Last year, Lewis found out that his great-great-grandfather had registered and voted after becoming an emancipated slave following the Civil War, during Reconstruction—something that Lewis could not do until 100 years later, after the passage of the VRA. He wept when he heard the news. It underscored how delicate the right to vote has been throughout American history. If the Court upholds Section 5, as it has in four prior opinions, Lewis’s legacy will be cemented. And if the Court eviscerates it, Lewis’s voice will be needed as never before.
On Monday, President Obama weighed in on the alleged targeting of conservative nonprofit groups by the Internal Revenue Service, calling for a full investigation into what he said would constitute “outrageous" conduct. That’s one way to put it. Here’s another: depressingly normal. For much of the last century, abuse of the IRS for political ends has been the rule, not the exception. Under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, the IRS has gone after communists, students, black activists, young conservatives, and mainstream political rivals. Here are some prime examples:
Franklin D. Roosevelt: According to libertarian historian Burton W. Folsom’s New Deal or Raw Deal, Elliott Roosevelt, the president’s son, noted that FDR “may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution”—most notably against former Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long. (The famously corrupt Long, in fairness, was kind of asking for it.) Rep. Hamilton Fish, a New York Republican, alleged that Roosevelt’s IRS had gone after him on trumped-up charges—and when that failed, handed the investigation over to the FBI instead. Roosevelt’s longtime Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., admitted that the administration had deliberately targeted his Republican predecessor, Richard Mellon, on trumped-up charges of tax evasion.
Dwight Eisenhower: The FBI’s counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, relied heavily on the compliance of the IRS to go after members of the Communist Party. Per a 1976 Senate report, “In its efforts against the Communist Party, the FBI had unlimited access to tax returns; it never told the IRS why it wanted them, and IRS never attempted to find out.”
John F. Kennedy: In 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy teamed up with United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther to produce the “Reuther Memorandum,” which proposed curtailing the influence of far-right groups in two ways. The first was the enforcement of the Federal Communication Commision’s “Fairness Doctrine,” to limit their use of the airwaves. The second was the IRS, through an initiative called “The Ideological Organizations Audit Project,” which explored the political activities of conservative nonprofits. The program eventually expanded to the other of the side of political spectrum, but according to the 1976 Senate investigation, that was mostly a facade of nonpartisanship.
Richard Nixon: The godfather of “Nixonian tactics" believed he’d been a political target of the agency in the Truman administration—not that he needed an excuse to use the Internal Revenue Service as a tool with which to dispatch "enemies." Under Tricky Dick, the IRS created the Special Services Staff (SSS) to investigate thousands of perceived enemy groups and individuals. (Nixon aide Pat Buchanan feared that groups like the Ford Foundation and Brookings Institution were acting essentially as Democratic organs.) White House counsel John Dean testified that the administration pushed the IRS to audit reporters who wrote stories critical of Nixon, such asNewsday's Robert Greene. Nixon himself wanted the SSS to focus on political adversaries like 1972 presidential challenger George McGovern, student groups, and civil rights organizations like the NAACP. When the IRS audited Billy Graham, a Nixon ally, the president responded with force: “Get the word down to the IRS that I want them to conduct field audits of those who are our opponents, if they’re going to do in our friends.”
Jimmy Carter: Republicans accused the born-again Christian president of an “unconstitutional regulatory vendetta" against religious institutions after his IRS director, Jerome Kurtz, introducednew regulation to end the tax-exempt status of Christian schools. Kurtz ultimately had to retain Secret Service protection after a wave of death threats from supporters of religious education.
Ronald Reagan: This one hit close to home. Mother Jones had been around for six years when, in 1981, Ronald Reagan’s IRS tried to shut it down. The agency concluded that the magazine was not living up to its tax-exempt motives and instead functioned like any other publishing house, with the goal of making as much money as possible. That was weird, given that Mother Jones had to that point never made a profit. The timing was also suspicious—a half-dozen or so other left-of-center publications came in for the same scrutiny by the agency. MoJo eventually won—but not until it had burned hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Bill Clinton: The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which filed a string of lawsuits against the administration centering on public records, alleged that it was in the crosshairs of the Clinton White House—along with a dozen other groups and individuals that had gotten on the president’s bad side. The list of of audited parties in the Clinton era included Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, the Heritage Foundation, and the National Rifle Association. Documents later released by the IRS during the Bush administration revealed that high-ranking Democrats, including a half-dozen members of Congress, had written to the IRS requesting an investigation into Judicial Watch’s nonprofit status. One IRS official allegedly told the group, “What do you expect when you sue the president?”
George W. Bush: The NAACP experienced an unwelcome case of Nixon Nostaliga in 2004, when it found itself under IRS scrutiny after the group’s chairman, Julian Bond, told attendees of its annual convention to oust Bush. (The president had been invited to the convention but declined.) After a two-year investigation, the IRS backed off.
SPRINGFIELD-Advocates for same-sex marriage in Illinois scored an important endorsement Friday in their bid to win over black Illinois House members, who may hold the key in determining whether legislation legalizing gay marriage passes.
Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2009, signed a letter of support that went out to the Illinois House, which could take up the legislation when lawmakers return from their two-week spring break next week.
"I’ve experienced the joys of marriage for more than 20 years. My wife, Pamela, and I stood before our friends and family and made a lifelong commitment to one another. We’ve taken care of each other ever since," the civil rights leader and longstanding backer of gay marriage said in his letter.
"My gay and lesbian brothers and sisters simply want the freedom to make that same commitment. And they deserve the same protection that my wife and I have. It’s just that simple," Bond said.
Bond’s entry into Illinois’ gay-marriage debate came the same day that Cardinal Francis George joined a group of African-American pastors in denouncing the legislative push and insisting marriage should only exist between a woman and a man.
Supporters of the legislation, Senate Bill 10, need 60 votes to pass the Illinois House, and House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) said last month the measure was about a dozen votes shy of meeting that threshold.
Since then, both sides of the contentious debate have been working the legislation. Between three and five House Republicans are expected to be on board, leaving supporters having to nail down backing from 55 to 57 out of a total of 71 House Democrats.
h/t: Chicago Sun-Times
A group of prominent black conservatives is trying to help scrap a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil rights-era legislation that enshrined the right of black Americans to have equal treatment at the ballot box.
The law was signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson in the presence of civil rights leaders like Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and it represented one of the milestone victories in ending the Jim Crow segregation of the deep south.
Now, however, a black conservative group called Project 21 has filed a legal brief before the US supreme court in support of a case aimed at overturning key provisions of the act. The bid, on which the supreme court is set to rule this summer, has been brought by the authorities in Shelby County in the southern state of Alabama.
Project 21′s argument focuses on the part of the Voting Rights Act called Section 5, which holds that certain areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination when it comes to voting rights need to get federal approval before changing any of their voting procedures.
Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a former senior counsel for the US Senate judiciary committee and a co-founder of Project 21, told the Guardian that her group – which represents numerous high-profile black conservatives – supports the scrapping of Section 5 because she believes America had changed so much since the law was signed.
“Now we are in 2013, and the Voting Rights Act was something that came from a historical context. We need to update the law and this part of it is no longer needed,” Harley LeBon said. She said her own father had hailed from the deep south and had left the region at times to get away from racial discrimination, but she insisted changing the act now was still the right thing to do. “Just because issues may be difficult to deal with does not mean they should not be dealt with,” she said.
However, the effort to scrap part of the Voting Rights Act has met stiff opposition with many civil rights groups, especially those seeking to represent black Americans. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has come out strongly against the legal bid by Shelby County and its supporters.
Harley LeBon disagreed, saying that Section 5 was an unfair intrusion by the federal government into the rights of local government to organise their own affairs and that she was happy for black conservatives at Project 21 to spark a debate on such a thorny racial issue. “This is what America is all about: having a discussion. There is a whole network of black conservatives. The Democrats do not have a lock on black support,” she said.
Project 21 is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington-based foundation that says it is dedicated to finding “free market solutions” to social problems. According to its website, the NCPPP opposes environmental regulation, the influence of the United Nations and wants to drastically cut government spending.
H/T: The Raw Story
Residents in Richmond, Virginia have reported seeing more recruitment flyers from the Ku Klux Klan, in part of what one Klan member told WTVR-TV is a push for a membership surge fueled by opposition to President Barack Obama. “Since Obama’s first term our numbers have doubled,” said the hooded man, who identified himself as a “Grand Dragon,” a leader of the state network. “And now that we’re headed to a second term it’s going to triple, this is going to be the biggest resurgence of the Klan since 1915.”
Conservative blogs and news media are all buzzing about a team of international election monitors coming to observe the presidential elections in November. The observers are arriving at the invitation of the State Department and the behest of a number of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, ACLU, and others.
The latter groups’ call for an international team to keep an eye on the U.S. elections focuses particularly on states that have enacted strict voter I.D. laws and other curtailing of voting rights. An NAACP delegation visited the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland in September to bring attention to the issue. The NAACP’s move, and the idea of foreign presence in the U.S. to observe elections, has infuriated many on the right.
The response at the state-level is varying. Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard is, in protest of the monitors’ presence preparing legislation to have all poll watchers in Alabama hold U.S. citizenship. “It’s bad enough that Alabama remains trapped under the provisions of the Voting Rights Act,” Hubbard said “So we certainly don’t need anyone from the United Nations coming into our state and meddling in our elections, as well.”
Catherine Engelbrecht of True the Vote appeared on Fox News on Monday claiming that the monitors’ presence was actually intended to prevent and discourage U.S. voters from exercising their rights. Fox’s Megyn Kelly readily agreed, stressing the left-leaning nature of the civil rights groups, seemingly unaware of the State Department’s role in inviting the monitors. It’s worth mentioning that True the Vote, itself a Tea Party group voter suppression effort, is currently under investigation for possible criminal conspiracy.
What none of these commentators mention is that this is neither an unprecedented event nor particularly worrisome. The Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) is a group of over fifty countries in North America, Europe, and Central Asia committed to security and strengthening democracy. Counter to many of the exclamatory statements by the right-wing, the OSCE is not a part of the United Nations, but instead is loosely affiliated with the global organization.
Also, counter to conservatives, the monitors have no mandate to interfere in the elections.
Sarah Palin sounded off on Mitt Romney’s NAACP speech on Thursday, criticizing Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for theorizing that the presidential candidate wanted to get booed.
During an appearance on Fox News’ “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren,” Palin was asked if she would have advised Romney to speak at the conference, where the audience booed the presumptive Republican nominee for pledging to repeal Obama’s health care law.
"Heck yeah, I am so glad he went there," Palin said.
When Van Susteren asked the former Alaska governor what she thought of Pelosi’s suggestion that Romney had “calculated” the negative response, Palin said the congresswoman was “paranoid.”
"You know what they would say if he didn’t show up," Palin said. "They would say he’s racist and chose not to speak to this group. You know, that is one paranoid politician who would take such a stretch there … and accuse him of this false accusation."
Pelosi is a frequent target of Palin’s ire. Last month, Palin called the California congresswoman a “dingbat" during an appearance on Fox News’ "Hannity."
Earlier in the interview, Palin weighed in on the rumor that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on Romney’s short list for a potential running mate. Palin, who ran alongside John McCain in 2008’s presidential race, said that while she does not agree with Rice’s “mildly pro-choice" stance on abortion, she believes Rice would be a good candidate for vice president.
"I would certainly prefer a presidential and vice presidential candidate who had that respect for all innocent precious purposeful human life and showed that respect via being a pro-life candidate," Palin said.
Source: The Huffington Post
Conservative Activists Demand NAACP Abandon Gay Rights Support, Just as Martin Luther King Jr. Would Have Wanted | rightwingwatch.org
A group of anti-gay pastors is heading to Houston to hold a press conference outside of the NAACP’s convention today, protesting the organization’s decision to endorse marriage equality. The Coalition of African American Pastors is led by William Owens, a Memphis preacher who has been a consistent advocate on behalf of state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and is a founding member of the anti-gay Arlington Group. Owens launched a new coalition, 100,000 Signatures for Marriage, to stop the “hijacking of the civil rights movement by homosexuals, bisexuals and gender-confused people” and to “speak out against President Obama’s support for this destructive agenda,” and is now alleging that Obama is snubbing African Americans for not speaking at the NAACP convention even though he held a gay pride event:"He can have the gay pride celebration in the White House, he can have Lady Gaga in the White House, and he’s in the White House today because of the civil rights movement and the price that was paid for civil rights," said the Rev. William Owens, the president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, a group that opposes Obama’s gay marriage stance. "He has met with the Latinos; he meets with everything except for the people who put him where he is."
He told the Christian Post today that he is going to the NAACP convention not only to protest Obama but also attack the group’s position on marriage equality, saying that the NAACP is abandoning “its roots” and must do what “Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., called on us to do,” which according to Owens is to oppose gay rights.
h/t: Brian Tashman at RWW