This op-ed by Andrew Gillum, Director of Youth Leadership Programs, People For the American Way Foundation, was originally published at The Huffington Post.
In the quick unraveling of Rep. Aaron Schock's political career, some have questioned if Millennials are ready for Congress, but it’s wrong to conclude that Schock’s youth was the reason for his mistakes. And it’s even worse to write off young people as unfit for public office.
To the contrary, electing Millennials to public office has the potential to be tremendously beneficial to our country. As Tina Nguyen at Mediaite puts it “Hell, there needs to be more Millennials in Congress, but ones that demonstrate other millennial virtues — tech-savvy, ambitious, and striving to be self-sufficient.” I couldn’t agree more.
And while it’s easy to celebrate the potential that young people could bring to the business of governing, no one should think that it is only future “potential” that young people have. A quick look at communities around the country demonstrates the striking impact that young people in public office are already having. I know, because I see it up close every day. As Mayor of Tallahassee and as Director of Youth Leadership Programs for People For the American Way Foundation, I’ve collaborated with young elected officials who work diligently and effectively for their constituents and communities, while progress by their – literally – senior counterparts in Washington stalls. (This Congress has one of the oldest median ages on the books, so anyone who thinks that longer life experience is all it takes to be an effective legislator hasn’t been reading the news.)
While Congress’s inability to govern has been on display time and time again, I’m constantly amazed at the ability of young people at the state and local level to actually get things done. We don’t expect to see an increased federal minimum wage anytime soon, but young electeds have sponsored both living wage ordinances and minimum wage legislation across the country. One of our members, Rep. Matt Lesser, co-sponsored and successfully advocated for the historic minimum wage increase in Connecticut. A cohort of young electeds pushed for a minimum wage increase in Wisconsin tied to inflation.
Young legislators in Colorado have tackled what seem to be losing battles in Congress: universal pre-K and Head Start funding. Rep. Crisanta Duran sponsored a bill to provide affordable child care for low-income families, and Rep. Dominick Moreno helped create the “Breakfast After the Bell” legislation that now gives more than 80,000 kids free breakfast in Colorado, a state where one in five children experience hunger.
And across the country, young people in public office bring innovative solutions to the problems their communities face. Nebraska State Senator Amanda McGill has worked on initiating telehealth services in schools. Cambridge Councilman Leland Cheung created incentives for start-ups in mixed use zoning areas. Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak in Pittsburgh has championed open data and transparent government.
Everywhere I go, I meet people of every age eager to tell me about some extraordinary young elected official they know, as if that experience is unique to their community. It’s up to me to tell them that dedicated, effective young people in government aren’t the exception in communities across the country -- they’re the rule.
In all 50 states, young people are offering new perspectives and outside-the-box solutions. In a country that’s seemingly more divided than ever, we need more young people lending their voice and stepping up for public service. Don’t look to Aaron Schock as the face of young politicians – look in your own backyard.
On Friday PFAW Foundation joined the Anti-Defamation League and an expansive coalition of religious and civil rights organizations in submitting an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to rule state-level marriage bans unconstitutional in the four marriage cases before them this term. One specific religious conception of marriage, the signers argue, should not define our nation’s laws on it.
The brief outlines instances in our country’s history in which discriminatory laws have been justified on the grounds of “religious and moral disapproval,” from laws supporting slavery to segregation to discrimination against women. But, the signers note, the Supreme Court has rejected these types of arguments over and over – and should again with regard to the marriage bans.
The brief also takes apart the “religious liberty” arguments of those opposing marriage equality, noting that overturning the bans will not threaten freedom of religion since religious groups will still be able to define what marriage means in their tradition:
[C]ontrary to the arguments of some who defend the marriage bans, invalidating the bans will not jeopardize religious liberty. As an initial matter, the cases before this Court concern whether same-sex couples are entitled to the benefits of civil marriage. Religious groups will remain free, as they always have been, to choose how to define religious marriage and which marriages to solemnize…. Religious liberty should serve as a shield, not as a sword to discriminate against members of a disadvantaged minority group.
This amicus brief was one of a stunning array of briefs filed in the Supreme Court last week in favor of marriage equality, including briefs signed by more than 2,000 clergy; 200 police officers, EMTs, and firefighters; 400 companies, including forty of the nation’s largest corporations; more than 200 mayors; and more than 300 conservative leaders.
This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Fifty years ago in Alabama hundreds of peaceful marchers calling for voting rights were violently attacked by state police. Fifty years later Americans from all walks of life are expected to gather this weekend to mark the anniversary of what became known as Bloody Sunday and embrace the spirit for courage, sacrifice and justice of those women and men who marched, were beaten and no doubt underestimated the impact that their bruises would have on future generations.
The events of that day and the tense days and weeks that followed shocked our national consciousness and became a catalyst for passage of what some call the "crown jewel" of the civil rights movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It's a law that held bipartisan support and helped protect countless Americans from discrimination at the ballot box for almost five decades.
Every year since that bloody day we have honored those 600-plus marchers who put their lives on the line in pursuit of basic democratic rights and racial justice. But this year, with a passion as never before, we must do more than just give lip service. This time marchers of today must clearly connect with the purpose in the pain that started in prayer on a Sunday morning and ended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with blood and tears in the afternoon. Why? Because as John Legend so eloquently put it last week, "Selma is now."
The shadow of Bloody Sunday is there, nearly two years after a core provision of the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in the Shelby County case, as we practice patience for Congress to restore and strengthen what was taken away. When our leaders say that they honor those who refused to turn around, will they also commit to restoring the kinds of voting protections that they were marching for?
Today, 40 bills to restrict voting rights have been introduced in states across the country, from voter ID legislation to proposals reducing access to absentee ballots to bills that would make it more difficult for those with past criminal convictions to vote. When our leaders say they honor those who were beaten and bruised with billy clubs 50 years ago, will they also commit to voting against proposed laws that would make it harder for all people to have an equal voice in our democracy? Will they commit to confirming the highly qualified Loretta Lynch, a woman with a strong commitment to civil rights, to lead -- as the first female African American -- the Justice Department in effectively monitoring and enforcing the voting rights laws we already have and those yet to come?
Today, African Americans and Latinos, especially males, endure being routinely profiled, targeted, and attacked by the police. The report released this week from the Department of Justice about policing in Ferguson, Missouri, revealed that 93 percent of arrests were of African Americans, though they make up only 67 percent of the city's population. It showed and confirmed that African Americans in Ferguson were disproportionately likely to have force used against them by the police. When our leaders say they honor those who were hospitalized for peaceful protest 50 years ago, will they also commit to fighting against discrimination and violence at the hands of those meant to serve and protect our communities?
Selma is now, and the march continues. Selma needed protection for voting rights then, and Selma needs protection for voting rights now. Many civil rights leaders, past and present, and even future leaders, will be in Selma this weekend. But thousands of others who can't be there in person will not be excluded from being a part of a new march. Men and women will with great intent make sure every registered voter gets to the polls to vote in every election, will minister with an activist heart to their neighborhoods when violence upends daily life, will use social media as a tool to motivate participation in work aimed at ending all forms of discrimination in the name of religion, and will organize their communities in active opposition when yet another bill is introduced to undermine, restrict, or deny basic civil and human rights.
On the evening of that Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. informed the media that ministers would march and called for clergy from around the country to join them. He said, "The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of America, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. ... In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land."
I was not there then, but today as with every day, especially because of the Shelby Counties and the Fergusons, I give thanks and will not forget that struggle. On March 7, 1965, the world watched as nonviolent mothers, fathers, students, workers, faith leaders were beaten, tear gassed and hospitalized. On March 7, 2015, let the world watch as this next generation genuinely honors those who had the courage to take a stand that Bloody Sunday "for the survival of democracy." How? By registering, advocating, teaching, speaking up, marching and continuing their work in pursuit of voting rights, freedom, and justice as if our unseen bruises, our lives, our souls depend on it.
Last week, Young People For (YP4) Director Joy Lawson, YP4 Fellowship Associate Vidushani Jayalal, and current YP4 Fellow Alyssah Roth of El Paso, TX, served as trainers during the pre-conference of the fifth annual “Take Root” reproductive justice conference in Norman, OK.
“Take Root” focuses on sharing the unique perspectives, experiences, and lessons learned from organizing around reproductive justice in conservative states. This year, YP4 developed and led the pre-conference to engage “Take Root” participants on guiding principles for social justice organizing. Participants took part in workshops and conversations on values-centered organizing, navigating ideologies in the reproductive justice movement, and more.
Additionally, several YP4 Fellows and alumni participated in the conference and led workshops and panels related to building access to the reproductive justice movement in under-resourced areas. After the workshops, many of the participants reflected that the trainings gave them “a vision of what they wanted to accomplish and what the process might look like.”
YP4 is a year-long leadership development program that helps a diverse set of young leaders turn their ideals into actions and create lasting change on their campuses and in their communities. YP4 develops Fellows’ leadership capacity and strategic thinking through a capstone project — the Blueprint for Social Justice — and offers opportunities to connect with others creating change across the country.
This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Some Supreme Court cases are really tough ones, with important, difficult, and complex legal questions about constitutional meaning or statutory interpretation, where justices have to choose between two powerful and compelling arguments. Sometimes the court is called upon to resolve an issue that has divided the circuit courts. Other times there is a lower court ruling so at odds with logic or precedent that it needs to be reviewed and corrected.
And then there's King v. Burwell, the Affordable Care Act subsidies case being argued this week.
Those challenging the law have an extremely weak legal case, there is no split in the lower courts, and there is no clearly wrong lower court ruling that needs to be corrected. This is a meritless case that was ginned up by conservatives seeking to enlist the Supreme Court in their political efforts to destroy the ACA. That at least four justices voted to hear the case is ominous enough. But a victory for the challengers would make it more clear than ever that political considerations are infecting a majority of the court.
Some background: Section 1311 of the ACA directs states to establish health insurance exchanges, creating competitive markets in every state for people to buy affordable insurance no matter where they live. But Congress also recognized that states might choose not do this, so Section 1321 says that in those cases the federal government should set up the exchange instead. The purpose of doing this was to ensure that even if states declined to set up an exchange pursuant to Section 1311, fully functional stand-ins would exist. This is essential to the structure of the law: The financial model relies on competitive markets with affordable insurance being available in every state.
To ensure affordability, the law also establishes subsidies for people below a certain income level to make sure they can buy insurance, which is necessary for the entire structure of the ACA to work. One subsection of the law establishes some key definitions, including an "eligible taxpayer" who is entitled to these subsidies, and the main criterion is income level. Try as you might, you won't find anything there saying that eligibility is at all tied to where someone lives.
A separate subsection says how to calculate the amount of the subsidy. Bizarrely, the conservative opponents of the ACA say that it is here that Congress chose to establish an enormously important additional eligibility criterion that, for some reason, they didn't put in the eligibility section: You have to live in a state that has set up its own exchange, rather than in one where the state has allowed the federal government to set it up instead.
This strange interpretation of the ACA depends on a deliberate misunderstanding of the subsidy provision's stating that the amount is based on the monthly premiums for a policy purchased through an exchange "established by the state under [section] 1311" of the ACA. But to interpret this provision the way the anti-Obamacare activists do, we'd have to deliberately blind ourselves to how it clearly fits with the ACA as a whole.
So we're supposed to pretend that Congress didn't specifically empower the federal government to set up fully functional stand-ins for state exchanges in states that declined to create them. And we're supposed to think that Congress hid a critically important criterion for subsidy eligibility in a section on calculating the subsidy amount. And we're supposed to accept that Congress intended to undercut the financial viability of the law and thwart its central purpose of providing affordable health care to all. As D.C. Circuit Judge Harry Edwards wrote, "[i]t is inconceivable that Congress intended to give States the power to cause the ACA to crumble."
No one could possibly believe that. You can't possibly look at the text of the Affordable Care Act and interpret it in the way that its enemies have conjured up.
And as journalists like Glenn Kessler have pointed out, congressional Republicans who today insist that Congress intended for subsidy eligibility to depend on what state you live in were saying nothing of the sort when the law was being debated. Their statements at the time show they assumed subsidies would be available nationwide.
It is also clear that state legislators -- regardless of party -- deciding whether to set up their own exchanges never contemplated the possibility that choosing to let the federal government do it would deny much-needed subsidies to people in their state. In fact, that point is made quite effectively in an amicus brief authored by the Constitutional Accountability Center on behalf of members of Congress and state legislatures.
When this nonsensical lawsuit was heard at the Fourth Circuit, it was rejected by a unanimous panel of judges. In his concurring opinion, Judge Andre Davis wrote:
What [the ACA opponents] may not do is rely on our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.
Yet when the ACA opponents appealed to the Supreme Court, at least four justices (the minimum required to grant certiorari) agreed to hear the case.
It would be nice to believe that the only reason was to issue a 9-0 ruling slapping down this lawsuit and condemning those who would abuse the court system by seeking to enlist federal judges in their political fights. Unfortunately, this is the Roberts court, a court with a history of bending the rules, twisting the law, and doing whatever it takes to get to an outcome beneficial to conservative and corporate interests. With cases like Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, Ledbetter, Shelby County, and so many others, a narrow 5-4 majority has made opponents of the Affordable Care Act think they could gin up a meritless case and carry the day.
If the Roberts Court chooses to sabotage millions of Americans' access to health care, the consequences will be catastrophic for many everyday people, and possibly fatal to some. While there may be Americans who weren't paying attention to some of the wrongly decided cases noted above, it is hard to imagine any American missing this one -- and not knowing exactly who to blame.
On Sunday two alumni of PFAW Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) program, Jamira Burley and Poy Winichakul, joined Melissa Harris-Perry on her MSNBC show to discuss activism among millennials. Both guests underscored the critical role young people have to play in today’s social and political movements.
“Right now there are not a lot of people who look like us in elected official positions, but we have so much potential,” said Winichakul. “I think we can take that leadership role. We can have a place to lead the country and share our perspective – to create policy.”
Later in the segment, Burley pointed out the extent to which young people are already engaged: “2012 actually marked the third election in a row where millennials came out more than 50 percent,” she said. “So people always say that we don’t vote, but we do. Numbers show it.”
What’s more, Burley said, young people are not only voting, they are staying engaged with leaders after they take office. “Not only are we electing people, we’re now putting precautions in place to hold them accountable,” she said. “And that means starting our own grassroots organizations, or calling them out on Twitter.”
Watch the full video here:
Last week, Young People For (YP4) staff attended the National LGBTQ Task Force’s National Conference of LGBT Equality, Creating Change.
Four alumni of YP4 programs — Michigan State Representative Jon Hoadley, National Director of Black Youth Project 100 Charlene Carruthers, Deputy Managing Director of United We Dream Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, and Klagsbrun Outreach Fellow at Alliance for Justice Erik Lampmann — led a workshop entitled "Movement Family Across Struggles" for a group of college students. In their session, YP4 alumni shared experiences effecting social change and discussed best practices towards building movements that cut across communities, campuses, regions, and issues.
Realizing that working to create change on college campuses and within communities can often be an isolating experience, the participants identified tactics to build alliances with other community members to help win victories on their issues and campaigns.
Young People For (YP4) is a year-long leadership development program that helps a diverse set of young leaders to turn their ideals into actions and create lasting change on their campuses and in their communities. YP4 develops Fellows’ leadership capacity and strategic thinking through a capstone project — the Blueprint for Social Justice — and offers opportunities to connect with other young people and partner organizations creating change across the country.
Yesterday PFAW Foundation joined the National Women’s Law Center, the law firm Hogan Lovells, and close to 70 other organizations in submitting an amicus brief in King v. Burwell, the pending Supreme Court case on tax subsidies for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The brief notes that a decision in favor of those challenging the subsidies would threaten a central goal of the law: making access to health insurance possible for millions of people across the country.
The ramifications of a wrong decision in this case could be enormous, causing serious harm in the lives of people now relying on health insurance through the ACA. If the core tax subsidy provision were to be struck down, the brief points out, women of color would be especially hard-hit:
These tax credits are critical. Over 9 million women, who would otherwise go without affordable health insurance, are eligible to benefit from them, including a disproportionate number of women of color.
…The tax credits are not only critical to women’s health; they are critical to the ACA’s continued viability. Congress encouraged participation in the insurance market primarily through the careful interrelation of the individual responsibility provision, market reforms, and tax-credit provisions. Eliminate the tax credits, and the system unravels.
The amicus brief highlights the stories of many real women who depend on the tax credits to access needed health care:
Marilyn Schramm, 63, is a 26-year cancer survivor from Austin, Texas. She endured treatment for cervical cancer in her thirties and has experienced life-long complications from that treatment that have required surgeries since then. Marilyn retired several years ago. When her COBRA rights were exhausted, Marilyn was forced to go without insurance for six months because of her “preexisting conditions.” But in January 2014, Marilyn could finally purchase insurance on the federally-facilitated Exchange in Texas, with at least half of her premium covered by the ACA’s tax credits.
Marilyn has now been diagnosed with colon cancer; following surgery, she began chemotherapy this month. Her coverage depends on the ACA’s prohibition on excluding those with pre-existing conditions, and on its premium tax credits: With her modest retirement income, Marilyn is unsure whether or how she could pay her insurance premium without the tax credits.
As we have noted before, this case is a blatantly political attack intended to do serious damage to the Affordable Care Act. The millions of women and men across the country who rely on the ACA in order to access health care ranging from preventative screenings to cancer treatments deserve far better.
This weekend, thousands of Americans from all walks of life took to the streets to protest the unaccountable deaths of unarmed African American men at the hands of police officers.
The multiethnic, multi-racial, multi-generation, LGBT and straight crowds filling streets in major cities were reminiscent of demonstrations that we have seen so many times before: marches for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, workers’ rights.Those marching this weekend recognized that after so many struggles and so many victories, we are still struggling to build a society that treats every human being with dignity under the law.
Something is wrong in America when people of color — particularly African American men and boys — do not feel safe in their own communities. Something is wrong when that sense of unease comes from the very systems we all have been taught to respect, honor, and count on for trust and protection.
This journey has never been easy, and has never moved forward without fearless social movements. Even after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, our laws encoded racial segregation for decades and enabled an explicit system of control over Black lives. Even then, African Americans were subjected to the Tuskegee experiment, witnessed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mourned the 1985 police shooting of 66-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs. In our history, just as in our present reality, African Americans have faced a dramatically different justice system from the one that white Americans experience.
Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun, is shot dead in a park because he is seen as a threat. A father, Eric Garner, allegedly selling cigarettes on a streetcorner dies at the hands of a police officer, and the case never goes to trial. Death without trial is seen as an appropriate punishment for Michael Brown, a teenager who may have stolen a box of cigars. These cannot be trivialized as flukes, or as isolated acts. They are the products of a justice system that still does not value or see all Americans equally.
Those who are involved in any struggle — for the recognition of the humanity of people of color, of immigrants, of women, of LGBT people — must recognize that when a justice system puts one group at risk for rights denied, every group is at risk. No struggle for civil rights will be complete until this injustice is rectified and yes, it can be rectified. But it will require getting to the root causes of racial injustice to forge a democracy that truly represents all of us and build a justice system that protects all Americans.
This past weekend demonstrators, in a unified voice, demanded stronger laws against racial profiling, special prosecutors in cases of police misconduct, and the demilitarizing of police forces. These are reasonable, doable demands. But the solutions must also also go beyond the criminal justice system.
Those of us fighting any civil rights fight must open our eyes and keep them open to the truth that all men are not treated equally in America. Because of this, the voices of four mothers who have lost their sons – Trayvon, Jordan, Michael and Eric – have become a call, a movement for justice like nothing seen in the past decade. There can be no justice for any of us until we consider all lives fully human, fully worth living.
The infusion of big money into our democracy is helping to perpetuate racial inequalities, according to a report released yesterday by Demos. As we have seen in recent election cycles, the most aggressive and influential political donors are overwhelmingly white and affluent, paving the way for elected officials to be beholden to a donor class and far less concerned about the needs of most Americans.
While the economic biases of money in politics are clear, the report, called “Stacked Deck: How the Racial Bias in Our Big Money Political System Undermines Our Democracy and Our Economy,” also highlights some unsettling information on how elections dominated by wealthy special interests impede efforts for a more racially diverse and responsive political system:
Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win. Ultimately, people of color are not adequately represented by elected officials.
• A recent study of black candidate success concluded that “the underrepresentation of blacks is driven by constraints on their entry onto the ballot” and that the level of resources in the black community is “an important factor for shaping the size of the black candidate pool.”
• Candidates of color raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in 2006 state legislative races, and 64 percent less in the South.
• Latino candidates for state House raised less money than non-Latinos in 67 percent of the states where Latinos ran in the 2004 election cycle.
• In a typical election cycle, 90 percent or more of the candidates who raise the most money win their races.
• Ninety percent of our elected leaders are white, despite the fact that people of color are 37 percent of the U.S. population.
• In a 2011 study, researchers found that white state legislators of both major political parties were less likely to reply to letters received from assumed constituents with apparently African American names (like “DeShawn Jackson”).
Tellingly, a governing body that skews heavily white also creates policies that can have detrimental impacts on racial minorities. The report also compiled case studies that demonstrate how big money disrupts progress on racial equality on a variety of issues, including:
• Private Prisons and Incarceration. Incarceration in the U.S. has increased by 500 percent over the past three decades, with people of color vastly over-represented in our nation’s prisons and jails. This is the result of policies that have put more people in jail for longer sentences despite dropping crime rates, policies boosting the bottom line of the growing private prison industry.
• The Subprime Lending Crisis. Because of rampant discriminatory lending practices, the subprime-lending crisis hit people of color especially hard. Banks and other mortgage lenders used millions of dollars of political contributions and lobbying to weaken and circumvent consumer-friendly regulations, resulting in the largest loss of wealth in communities of color in American history.
• The Minimum Wage. The federal minimum wage has remained stagnant, losing real value over the past several decades. Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would lift more than 3.5 million workers of color out of poverty, but Congress has instead prioritized policies favored by the wealthy.
As money continues to dominate the process by which we elected public officials, our government moves further away from the true definition of a democracy and continue to serve only a very narrow segment of Americans.
The federal court ruling striking down Mississippi’s ban on same-sex couples getting married is worth reading for many reasons. Paul wrote earlier about U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves’s compelling explanation of the role of the courts in protecting Americans’ constitutional rights. The ruling is also filled with rich historical detail about the extent to which the state of Mississippi and the federal government have discriminated against LGBT citizens over the years, as well as the ways in which groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the notorious Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission used anti-gay rhetoric and innuendo in their attacks on African American civil rights leaders and institutions.
This history is an important rebuttal to bogus claims by anti-gay activists that gay people do not need to have their rights protected in law because they have never suffered from discrimination.
Quotes from the opinion, with citations removed for readability:
Any claim that Mississippians quietly accommodated gay and lesbian citizens could no longer be made in the 1960s, when prejudice against homosexuals (and other groups) became more visible during the civil rights movement. Segregationists called their opponents “racial perverts,” while U.S. Marshals – summoned to enforce civil rights – were labeled “sadists and perverts.” Klan propaganda tied together “Communists, homosexuals, and Jews, fornicators and liberals and angry blacks – infidels all.”
One Klan photo showed a black man touching the crotch of the white man sitting next to him, attempting to make the link between racial equality and homosexuality explicit.
Civil rights leaders had predicted the attack. In selecting the Freedom Riders, James Farmer had conducted interviews to weed out “Communists, homosexuals, [and] drug addicts.” “We had to screen them very carefully because we knew that if they found anything to throw at us, they would throw it,” he explained.
This reflected society’s notion that homosexuals were “undesirables.” It also placed civil rights leaders in the position of seeking rights for one disenfranchised group while simultaneously seeking to avoid association with another disenfranchised group. Mississippians opposed to integration harassed several civil rights leaders for their homosexuality. Bill Higgs was a prominent gay Mississippi civil rights lawyer. He was targeted for his activism, convicted in absentia of delinquency of a minor, and threatened with “unlimited jailings” should he ever return to Mississippi.
He never did.
Reeves also discusses the case of Bayard Rustin, the openly gay African American civil rights activist who organized the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The most interesting part of Rustin’s story, though – and the reason why he merits more discussion here – is that he was subjected to anti-gay discrimination by both white and black people, majority and minority alike. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, a black Democrat, threatened to feed the media a false story that Rustin was having an affair with Martin Luther King, Jr., unless Dr. King canceled a protest at the Democratic National Convention.
Other persons within the civil rights movement were similarly “put off by Rustin’s homosexuality.” Roy Wilkins, an NAACP executive, “was particularly nasty to Bayard Rustin – very hostile,” in part because he “was very nervous about Bayard’s homosexuality.” Dr. King eventually had Rustin resign “because of persistent criticism of Rustin’s homosexuality and Communist ties and because of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell’s threat.”
Rustin reemerged years later as one of the principal organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King wanted Rustin as the march’s chief organizer, but Wilkins pushed back “because [Rustin] was gay . . . something which in particular would offend J. Edgar Hoover.” The group ultimately “decided Randolph would be in charge of the march, that Rustin would be the principal organizer, but that he would stay somewhat in the background.”
The concern about offending Hoover was prescient, as the FBI Director and other top officials soon moved to use Rustin’s homosexuality against him. In August 1963, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and President John F. Kennedy urgently reviewed the transcript of a FBI wiretap in which Dr. King acknowledged Rustin’s homosexuality. A day later, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina “rose in the Senate to denounce Rustin for sexual perversion, vagrancy, and lewdness.” FBI “headquarters badgered the field offices for new details” of Rustin’s sex life for months.
As Reeves makes clear, this kind of persecution was not only reserved for civil rights activists.
Rustin’s story speaks to the long tradition of Americans from all walks of life uniting to discriminate against homosexuals. It did not matter if one was liberal or conservative, segregationist or civil rights leader, Democrat or Republican; homosexuals were “the other.” Being homosexual invited scrutiny and professional consequences.
These consequences befell quite a few Mississippians. Ted Russell, the conductor of the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, lost his job and his Belhaven College faculty position after he was caught in a gay sex sting by the Jackson Police Department. In the early 1980s, Congressman Jon Hinson drew scrutiny for frequenting an X-rated gay movie theater in Washington, D.C., and although he won reelection, he resigned when he returned to Washington and was caught performing gay sex acts in a Capitol Hill bathroom. As early as 1950, the State’s flagship institution of higher learning, the University of Mississippi, “forced three homosexual students and one faculty member to leave the university” because it “did not tolerate homosexuality.” Lesbian instructors at Mississippi University for Women were pushed out of their jobs, while students at other Mississippi public universities were expelled for their homosexuality. A 1979 article on gay Jacksonians said “most” remained closeted because “they fear losing their jobs, friends and families.”
Reeves discusses the anti-gay actions of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was created in 1956 to maintain racial segregation by any means necessary.
Sovereignty Commission “[i]nvestigators and local officials also targeted local blacks and outsiders involved in civil rights activities as being sexually deviant.” They singled out Rust College, a private historically black institution, on reports that instructors there were “homosexuals and racial agitators.”
Those with power took smaller, yet meaningful, actions to discourage gay organizing and association in Mississippi. The State refused to let gay rights organizations incorporate as nonprofits. The newspaper at Mississippi State University – student-led, with an elected editor – refused to print a gay organization’s advertisement notifying gay and lesbian students of an off-campus “Gay Center” offering “counseling, legal aid and a library of homosexual literature. An advisor to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the Jackson Police Department took “a series . . . of maneuvers to harass members of Jackson’s gay community.” “As of 1985 not a single university campus in Mississippi recognized a lesbian and gay student group.”
Reeves’s ruling also makes clear that official discrimination is not only in the state’s past.
In 1990, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a trial judge who declared that a mother, who was a lesbian, could not visit her children in the presence of her female partner. In Weigand v. Houghton, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed a trial judge who refused residential custody to a father in large part because he was in a long-term relationship with another man. A dissent complained that the father’s sexuality had impaired the court’s judgment, since the child would now have to live with “the unemployed stepfather [who] is a convicted felon, drinker, drug-taker, adulterer, wife-beater, and child-threatener, and . . . the mother [who] has been transitory, works two jobs, and has limited time with the child.”
In 2002, one of Mississippi’s justice court judges, frustrated with advances in gay rights in California, Vermont, and Hawaii, “opined that homosexuals belong in mental institutions.” Although he was reprimanded and fined by the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated the sanctions. It was more important for gay citizens to know that their judge was biased and seek his recusal than to “forc[e] judges to conceal their prejudice against gays and lesbians,” it wrote. The “Commission urges us to ‘calm the waters’ when, as the guardians of this state’s judicial system, we should be helping our citizens to spot the crocodiles.”
Reeves details a number of recent complaints and lawsuits challenging discriminatory treatment by state and local governments as well as legal inequities such as the fact that Mississippi law permits a single person to adopt a child but not gay or lesbian couples.
This kind of restriction was once supported by pseudoscience. We now recognize that it actually “harms the children, by telling them they don’t have two parents, like other children, and harms the parent who is not the adoptive parent by depriving him or her of the legal status of a parent.”
Reeves concludes the historical section of the ruling this way:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That is as true here as anywhere else. Seven centuries of strong objections to homosexual conduct have resulted in a constellation of State laws that treat gay and lesbian Mississippians as lesser, “other” people. Thus, it is easy to conclude that they have suffered through a long and unfortunate history of discrimination.