We here at People For the American Way Foundation are deeply saddened by the passing of Julius Chambers, a trailblazing civil rights lawyer and former People For the American Way Foundation board member. In the 1960s, Chambers opened what became the first integrated law firm in North Carolina and later went on to lead the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Throughout his life, he fought and won cases on school desegregation and discrimination, including a case on public school integration – Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education– that went all the way to the Supreme Court and paved the way for the use of busing to counter segregation.
But as the New York Times noted yesterday:
Mr. Chambers’s victories came with a cost. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Swann, his offices were firebombed. After his successes in 1965, his car was firebombed and two bombs exploded in his home.
His response was defiant; he said he would “keep fighting.”
More than forty years later, during a 2008 PFAW Foundation panel on the future of the Supreme Court, Chambers made it clear that he was still fighting. He underscored his commitment to “us[ing] the courts to correct the injustices that we see still perpetuated today,” including discrimination against low-income people.
It is not difficult to see why the North Carolina NAACP chapter described Chambers as “a man of tremendous courage.”
Last week, People For the American Way Foundation joined a campaign to fight book censorship in a Colorado school district. The censorship battle began when a group of parents launched a petition to keep Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye out of the Legacy High School curriculum. Legacy High student Bailey Cross started a counter-petition emphasizing the dangerous precedent that this censorship would set and encouraging the school district to keep the book on the approved reading list.
PFAW Foundation sent a letter to the Adams 12 Five Star School District Board of Education showing support for the student’s campaign and urging the district to reject the attempts at censorship.
The efforts of the Foundation were highlighted by the Denver Post yesterday. Staff writer Yesenia Robles wrote that the parents involved claim the book is “developmentally inappropriate” and should be kept out of the classroom.
People For the American Way Foundation disagrees. Robles reports,
"We do understand this book has themes and content that are really challenging, but that's why it should be taught," foundation spokesman Drew Courtney said. "An important role of classrooms is to help students and young adults deal with that, to have those conversations in an intelligent way in the classrooms. Offering an alternative assignment is appropriate, but banning a prize-winning novel isn't prudence. It's censorship."
See the full Denver Post article here.
“If one book is banned from being taught in a classroom setting, then it opens the door for all books – and ideas – to be banned as well.”
These are the closing words to a petition launched by high school student Bailey Cross in response to an attempt to eliminate Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from the high school curriculum in her Colorado school district. The school board will have to decide the fate of the book in the district’s classrooms, which a local news source has reported could happen as early as August.
In their petition, the students point out that parents or students who object to the reading assignment are already offered an alternative novel. In addition, teachers are not forced to teach the book. The outright elimination of this important piece of literature from the classroom would set a troubling precedent.
Today People For the American Way Foundation sent a letter on behalf of our 718,000 members to the Adams 12 Five Star School District Board of Education urging them to reject the attempts at censorship. The letter notes,
“Since it was first published in 1970, The Bluest Eye has been the target of censorship attempts because of its frank portrayal of racism and sexual assault. But shielding high school students from these subjects and from Morrison’s discussion of them does nothing to eliminate them from the world. Instead, Morrison’s nuanced discussions of difficult issues serve to help readers understand, discuss, and confront those issues…
“Our nation’s schools are meant to be places that encourage the free exchange of ideas.”
Let’s make sure we keep them that way.
In what the Miami Herald is calling the “longest sit-in demonstration in recent memory,” a group of more than sixty young people called the Dream Defenders came to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office last Tuesday and have not left.
Arriving at the Florida Capitol just a few days after George Zimmerman was acquitted, the group is pushing for a special legislative session to take up a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act which would repeal the state’s Stand Your Ground law and address racial profiling, the school-to prison pipeline, and more. Among the many young people in Gov. Scott’s office is Dream Defenders leader Phil Agnew, a 2005 graduate of PFAW Foundation’s Young People For (YP4) leadership development program, as well as eight to ten other current or former YP4 Fellows.
Agnew told the Miami Herald that the work is broader than their specific demands:
“It’s also about a paradigm shift,” Agnew said. “It’s about empowering the next generation.”
PFAW Foundation has been helping support the courageous young people at the Capitol in any way we can, from providing administrative and financial support – including meals – to sending video cameras to help document their experiences. Young People For Director Joy Lawson highlighted the sit-in in a Huffington Post op-ed and is leading a powerful photo campaign collecting statements of support for the Dream Defenders.
Together, we are showing the Dream Defenders, and the country, that young people are standing with them in this fight.
Few Americans would argue that they want to see more big money flowing into our political system.
Yet yesterday the Republican National Committee asked the Supreme Court to strike down limits on the total amount an individual donor can contribute to campaigns in a single election cycle, filing an opening brief in what is sure to be a high-profile Supreme Court case. If the RNC and the Republican donor who together filed the case in Shaun McCutcheon, et al. v. Federal Election Commission are successful, the limit on aggregate individual contributions per cycle could jump from $117,000 to $3 million.
As PFAW noted in February, this case threatens to be the next stage in the ongoing attack on our country’s democracy. By calling for a gutting of our country’s campaign finance reform regulations, Republicans are ignoring the majority of Americans who believe there is already far too much big money being poured into our elections.
The powerful right-wing organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has long claimed that it “respects diversity of thought” and that it is a “non-partisan policy resource for its members,” Democrats and Republicans alike. Indeed, in a television interview with FOX news, an ALEC spokesperson once stated, “we have legislators of all political stripes coming together to talk about the most critical issues facing the states,” and adamantly defended the non-partisan nature of the organization.
It does not take much examination of ALEC policies, funders, or public-sector membership rolls to put these claims into true perspective. ALEC’ s right wing policies are so extreme that over 43 corporations – from Wal-Mart to General Electric – have cut ties with the organization. As documented by the Center For Media and Democracy, more than 99% of ALEC’s public sector leaders are Republican lawmakers. And a quick perusal of ALEC funding reveals that the same funders who back the network are also major sponsors of many Republican initiatives.
Yet what may be the most telling evidence of ALEC’s ties to the GOP emerged just this morning. Today, the Republican National Committee (RNC) released its wide-ranging “autopsy” report in response to the party’s disastrous 2012 elections. The report, entitled “Growth and Opportunity Project,” outlines a variety of policy recommendations including, among other base ideas, abolishing campaign spending regulations and contribution limits. In the report, the RNC specifically calls on ALEC to help develop and implement model legislation to “improve” these campaign finance laws.
The RNC places ALEC alongside the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and the RNC as an organization that is well-suited to “improve” campaign finance laws and propagate them nationwide:
The RNC has called upon ALEC to do its bidding because it knows that ALEC is 100% in support of its anti-democratic agenda. Beyond pushing for Voter ID laws and adopting restrictive registration requirements – like the registration requirements that ALEC adopted years ago as model policy and that today are being argued over in the Supreme Court – ALEC has a history of opposing campaign finance reform. The organization has consistently opposed public financing of elections and even issued a resolution in favor of the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision.
If ALEC and the GOP were truly interested in “improving” campaign finance laws, they would be pushing for greater oversight, not trying to dismantle what little there is left of campaign finance regulation in America. If they really cared about American democracy, they would join the growing chorus of voices who are calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and enact free and fair elections.
Yet ALEC and the GOP care more about gaming the system and rewarding their corporate constituents than empowering the American people. As today’s report makes perfectly clear, their pro-corporate and anti-voter agendas unmistakably go hand in hand.
** Public Policy Intern Kyler Geoffroy contributed to this blog post
Last week the Equal Justice Task Force of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, a program of People For the American Way Foundation, joined with a broad coalition of organizations in filing amicus briefs for the marriage equality cases being considered by the Supreme Court. These cases – Hollingsworth v. Perry, which challenges California’s Proposition 8, and Windsor v. U.S., which challenges Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – represent landmark opportunities for our nation to move toward making marriage equality a reality for all Americans.
“As African American faith leaders, we feel it is our responsibility to question hatred and discrimination wherever it happens – and especially in our laws,” said Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of the African American Ministers Leadership Council. “Laws singling out and preventing same-sex couples from getting married are blatantly discriminatory and they hurt our communities. These amicus briefs voice our support for equal rights and equal justice for all of God’s children.”
The amicus brief for the Hollingsworth case, a continuation of the 2010 brief PFAW Foundation submitted when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case, exposes the discriminatory nature of the supposedly “moral” rationales for Proposition 8:
This Court has refused for three-quarters of a century to uphold laws disfavoring minority groups based on religious or moral disapproval alone—with the one, now-discredited exception of Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986). And for good reason: Time and again throughout our nation’s history, laws that disadvantaged or degraded particular groups have been justified by resort to morality and religion. And time and again, our society has come to see those laws as repugnant, and the religious and moral disapproval justifying them as little more than a means to enshrine the status quo.
Likewise, the amicus brief for the Windsor case points out:
This Court has long implicitly acknowledged the connection between religious justifications and the Equal Protection guarantee. The Court’s decision overturning Virginia’s law forbidding marriage between persons of different races is illustrative. In Loving v. Virginia, the Court dismissed the Virginia trial judge’s proffered religious-based rationale, which cited God’s hand in creating different races, recognizing instead that “[t]here is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification.” 388 U.S. 1, 11 (1967). Ultimately, the Court recognized that the anti-miscegenation law served no secular purpose, and was based on nothing more than racial discrimination—even if disguised as a moral or religious belief.
As these briefs highlight, discrimination – even if cloaked in the language of religious or moral beliefs – is still discrimination.
By Jamira Burley
Alumna, PFAW Foundation's Young People For Program
Eight years ago, in 2005, I was just a normal high school student. I faced my share of adversity, but nothing I thought I couldn't handle -- even after the repeat incarcerations of both my parents and all 10 of my older brothers. That is, until I received a phone call that changed not only the way I viewed the world, but also my place within it.
My 20-year-old brother Andre was shot and killed one month before his 21st birthday. His death devastated my family and still continues to hold a dark shadow over our lives today.
What continues to surprise and sadden me to this day is the fact that my brother isn't the first or the last. Why? Every single day in America, news stories flash snapshots of lives that once were. Years of a young person's life are funneled down to less than two paragraphs in the back pages of a newspaper. Burial plots are assigned and soon the names are forgotten in the media. Those lives are only remembered by the ones that loved them most and the heavy tombstone, bearing witness to the lives they once lived.
Stories like these are happening every single day in America, where young people are dying before they are even old enough to vote; where the price of leaving your home may mean death.
We lose more Americans to violence on our own city streets than on the battlegrounds of war. We have made kid soldiers out of our youth, criminals out of the disadvantaged, and funeral attendees out of us all.
Guns are becoming more accessible than textbooks and supermarkets. Yet we continue to serve them up to the unfit and unqualified, which is resulting in mass murders and mass shootings.
This begs the question: what can and must be done?
Young people, especially black men and boys, are being killed in our classrooms and city streets. The selling of fire arms to criminals is placing our family members, neighbors, classmates and coworkers at risk. In some states anyone can walk in to a gun show without an ID and purchase a firearm. That means a criminal or an unfit person could have access to a gun with 10 rounds or 100.
In addition to closing the private sale loophole, the following measures must be put in place if we want to stop one more person from falling victim to a bullet:
• Fix the gun check system in a way that will allow enforcement agencies to upload and share current and accurate information.
• Require ID and background checks for all gun purchases.
• Make gun trafficking a federal crime.
• Create common-sense laws that address what type of guns should be in the hands of average Americans.
• Address the high rate of crime in urban communities.
• Increase positive mental health accessibility without stigmatizing those who need and want it.
• Recognize that in urban communities, violence is related to a lack of economic opportunities and a hopelessness mentality among youth that needs to be addressed.
No one is saying that guns have to be eliminated, but like most other potentially dangerous things in America, restrictions need to be put in place for the sake of safety. Many of us agree that background checks and ID requirements are needed, and Americans are united in the belief that support for the Second Amendment goes hand in hand with keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
My brother Andre and many others have been killed because of the lack of safeguards in place to protect their fundamental right to live. As an alumna of Young People For and a member of the Roosevelt Institution Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, both programs that empower young leaders to create lasting change in our communities, I know that inaction is not the answer. We can no longer sit on the side lines and allow gun lobbyists to place band aids on gunshot wounds. We need and must demand common-sense gun violence prevention measures.
The probability of another death increases every second we hesitate.
My family is from Selma, Alabama. My grandmother, aunt and mother (both teenagers at the time) were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, what the history books now record as Bloody Sunday. Due to the terrible violence that occurred, my grandmother, a nurse, was called to the hospital to help treat the numerous people who had been injured, one of them being Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis.
I grew up hearing my family members’ Civil Rights Movement stories, continually in awe of their courage and determination. They had to deal with fire hoses, dogs, and police batons in order to receive what my generation now takes for granted, the right to vote.
Yesterday, nearly 50 years after Bloody Sunday and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, I stood outside the Supreme Court with many others who chanted, sang and rallied to protect the VRA’s Section 5. Yes, the dogs and the cattle prods are gone, but the spirit to oppress some of America’s citizens remains.
It saddens me that we still have to fight for our right to vote, and that there are those who are still trying to deny others their rights at the ballot box. But I was encouraged by the number of people who were outside the Supreme Court yesterday, people of all races and creeds and ages who are dedicated to and invested in protecting the right to vote! Together we sent a message to the Justices and to the nation that Section 5 is still needed, because while our country has come a long way from that grainy black and white footage of people getting beaten while fighting for their rights, discrimination and attempts to disenfranchise still exist, especially in the states covered by Section 5.
It’s often said that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, but in my case, I am truly a descendant of Civil Rights heroes whose names will never be in the history books. They took a risk, put their lives on the line, not just for themselves but for me, someone who would not be born for another 15 years. When I hear my grandmother at 86 years old say that she will put on her marching shoes if she has to, then I know that I have no choice but to put on mine. I was proud to be at the rally to protect Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act yesterday. I was proud to honor the legacy of my family and anyone else who participated in the Movement. I was proud to continue the fight to ensure that no one is denied the right to vote.