The following is a guest post from the Reverend Dr. Merchuria Chase Williams, a former school teacher and a member of People For the American Way Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.
Last month, sixty years after the Supreme Court threw out the toxic doctrine of “separate but equal,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked us to keep our “eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” She pointed out that in law and in daily life, race still matters deeply and cannot “be wished away.”
Justice Sotomayor wrote those words in a dissent to the Schuette decision that upheld Michigan’s state constitutional ban on race-based affirmative action, six decades after the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling that said schools may not be segregated by race. It’s no coincidence that both of these decisions were about education. If anything proves that race still matters in America, it’s our public schools.
While the 1954 Brown decision brought badly needed change and helped invigorate a nationwide civil rights movement, glaring racial inequalities persist to this day – and nowhere are they more evident than in the classroom. In recent years, school segregation has actually gotten worse rather than better. On average, a black student today goes to a school where 29 percent of her fellow students are white – a percentage that has dropped seven points since 1980. Students of color are less likely to have access to a broad range of math and science courses and are more likely to be suspended than their white peers. And according to the Center for American Progress, on average American schools spend hundreds less on each student of color than they do on each white student.
While we may no longer be legally separate, educational opportunities and conditions for our nation’s students are far from equal.
Despite these gaps, big funders on the Right continue to pour money into efforts to privatize the education system rather than strengthen the public education system that the vast majority of our nation’s children use. The Walton Family Foundation, created by the family that established Walmart, has pumped millions into efforts to expand private school vouchers, undermining the public schools that are, in education advocate Diane Ravitch’s words, “the heart of most communities.”
Those of us who have been working for many years to improve the education system in Atlanta and across the country know that we need to support and strengthen public education, not undercut it. We need to work to address ongoing education inequalities for students of different backgrounds, not pretend that race simply doesn’t matter or that racial inequalities do not exist. Let’s use the anniversary of this landmark decision to recommit ourselves to building an education system that truly provides equal opportunities to all of our nation’s children.
Today’s Supreme Court majority may not get it, but the millions of children failed by our school system do.
Today I am inspired, today I am hopeful.
Not because we have won the fight that our Civil Rights leaders began. Not because we have created the world of which Dr. King dreamed. But because, 50 years later, we are still fighting. 50 years later, we march on.
As Dr. King said 50 years ago, ‘1963 is not an end, but a beginning.’ Those who marched in 1963 knew they wouldn’t heal all of our country’s wounds. They knew that new wounds would open and new struggles would arise. What they gave us was a framework for the fight, a blueprint for justice.
As we gather on the National Mall today to commemorate that day in 1963, let’s remember Dr. King’s words. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t shut the door on our painful past. Instead, it opened the door to a more just future.
Today, we are still fighting for equal access to the ballot box; for a criminal justice system that dispenses equal justice under the law; for the right to unionize and earn a living wage; for women’s equality; for the recognition of all families in the eyes of the law; for the rights and dignity of immigrants; for economic opportunity and access to the American dream.
The March on Washington gave a loud and clear signal that change is not only possible, it’s necessary.
As we begin the next 50 years of the fight, we must heed the call of 1963. We must call injustice by its name. We must keep on pursuing the dream, no matter how difficult, no matter how long the fight.
Guest post from Reverend Dr. Geraldine Pemberton, Assistant Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia and member of PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council.
As a 74 year old retired nurse, I can remember the original March on Washington well. I wasn’t able to be there in person that day, but many of my family members were. After marching with Dr. King and more than 200,000 other Americans, they were inspired to come home and fight for justice.
I myself am of the Jim Crow era. The injustices that Dr. King described that day as the “chains of discrimination” were injustices I faced first-hand. My father, who was born in North Carolina, would take my family down from Philadelphia for visits to his home state. He would try to prepare us as much as he could, but it was always overwhelming. I remember that once we passed the Mason-Dixon line, we couldn’t use most bathrooms. We would have to use outhouses behind gas stations instead.
Today I can see how far we’ve come, but also how much further we still have to go. I have spent much of my life fighting the injustices that drove the first March on Washington, especially health disparities facing women of color. Justice, I have learned, is a very big umbrella that must include equality for women. A just society has to be one that values women’s voices and fights back against health disparities that threaten black women’s lives.
Twenty years after that march, I went to another major event that inspired people from all over to drop what they were doing and travel across the country – the 1983 Spelman College conference on women’s health, which birthed what is now the Black Women’s Health Imperative. My friend and I saw a flyer for it but didn’t think we could afford to go. We maxed out our credit cards and drove down to Atlanta. Thousands of women showed up for the conference – young women, older women, women with children, women who had hitchhiked there. We just showed up - we had to be there.
That conference unfolded into a lifetime of work in pursuit of improving the health outcomes of African American women. As a former Director of Nursing and a current Health Committee Director for an alliance of Black clergy in Philadelphia, I know that women of color need improved access to care and greater provider sensitivity. Women need more information on the diseases that affect us most. And as a 74 year old Philadelphian, I’m still fighting for women’s health and justice. This year I am organizing health forums at churches throughout the city to give women more information about diseases, healthy living, and greater access to health services though the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act commonly known as “Obamacare.”
The first health forum is this weekend – fifty years after the March on Washington. In so many ways, we are still marching.
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.
On a weekend that features both the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is a timely moment to "take the temperature" of our democracy. Dr. King once said, "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself." What is the status of that right today? Or, to pose a broader question: what is the status of our democracy?
In the past year I worked with a network of 1,100 African American churches and 7,000 pastors to educate, motivate, and turn out our congregations and communities on Election Day. We facilitated hundreds of thousands of voter registrations, made more than a million contacts and even transported over 27,000 people to the polls. While we are proud of the work accomplished this year, it is clear to me -- and to many who facilitated get out the vote work -- that our elections aren't working equally well for everyone. More often than not, those for whom they are not working are people of color.
One of the reasons is that Americans -- and especially Americans of color -- are questioning whether our voices can be heard over the noise of massive corporate and special interest political spending in the wake of Citizens United. In the last election, more than 1.3 billion dollars of outside money flooded the airwaves, and voters understand that politicians are paying close attention.
Last year the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law conducted a national survey on American's perceptions of Super PAC spending and the implications for our political system. An overwhelming majority of respondents (77 percent) agreed that members of Congress are "more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest." Americans are seeing that excessive special interest spending is overwhelming the voices and priorities of individual voters -- as well they should. I believe that this is especially true for people of color, many of whom are starkly aware of the reality of the lack of power, influence and opportunities often available to us politically.
And as Colorlines' Brentin Mock pointed out, that's all before we even set out to vote. Faith leaders on the ground all across the country who I worked with witnessed the effects of voter suppression tactics such as voter ID laws and early voting restrictions. We all remember seeing photographs of voters standing in six hour long lines until 2:00 am on election night, waiting to cast their ballots even after the presidential election had been called. And a number of new suppressive laws may go into effect this year.
A democracy in which Americans do not have a fair opportunity to have their voices heard -- whether through discriminatory voter suppression tactics or through the overwhelming influence of big money on the political system -- is not a democracy working as it should. It is a democracy in need of healing.
That's why organizers around the country are speaking out this weekend to bring attention to the interrelated attacks on our democracy today. Under the banner of Money Out/Voters In, organizers are hosting "Day of Action" events in more than 76 cities in 33 states. Some of the same faith leaders who devoted their time and energy to GOTV efforts are leading teach-ins this weekend about the dual threats of voter suppression and unlimited corporate and special interest money in politics. As African American faith leaders who value the ideals of justice and fairness, we believe it is our responsibility to advocate for a system that puts electoral power in the hands of everyday Americans rather than corporations.
Perhaps Elder Lee Harris of Jacksonville, Florida -- one of the African American faith leaders organizing voting efforts this fall -- put it best: "We've come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing this morning on “The State of the Right to Vote After the 2012 Election.” 2011 and 2012 saw an influx of state laws and administrative decisions designed to make it harder for certain groups of people to vote, actions that we documented in our 2011 report “The Right to Vote Under Attack” and in a 2012 update.
People For the American Way Foundation’s leadership programs were active in combatting voter suppression efforts across the country by getting out the vote among targeted groups. PFAW Foundation’s Young People For program worked with campus leaders across the country to mobilize over 22,000 young voters. And PFAW Foundation’s African American Ministers Leadership Council worked with African-American clergy in 22 states to facilitate 400,000 voter registrations and transport over 27,000 people to the polls.
Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, Director of African American Religious Affairs, submitted testimony [pdf] for today’s hearing about AAMLC’s voting rights work. She wrote:
Across the country, restrictions on voting led to confusion and discouragement among voters. But they also were a powerful motivator, especially for those of us who lived and fought through the Civil Rights Movement. As Elder Lee Harris of Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, put it, “We’ve come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again.” Our task was to reach out to as many voters as we could to educate them on what they needed to vote and to make sure they got to the polls and stayed there.
Minister Malachi also emphasized the importance of the Voting Rights Act, which will be reviewed by the Supreme Court next year:
In the end, our efforts to educate and organize can only go so far. Equally important in the effort to maintain the right to vote has been the role of state and federal courts, where Americans can turn when powerful forces seek to deprive them of their right to vote. Federal courts play a particularly important role in protecting the guarantees set forth in the Voting Rights Act. From Ohio to Florida to Pennsylvania to South Carolina to Texas, the courts were critical in tamping down efforts to suppress the votes of African Americans and other targeted groups. As the Supreme Court prepares to review Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, this year offered us many powerful reminders that the preclearance provisions of the VRA are still relevant and still vitally necessary. In August, when a federal court struck down Texas’ new voter ID requirement, Rev. Dr. Simeon L. Queen of Prairie View, Texas, offered these words:
“It is inexcusable that nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, politicians are still trying to make it harder for African Americans in Texas to vote. I wish the Voting Rights Act wasn’t still necessary, but thank the Lord it’s still there. African Americans in Texas have struggled throughout our history to exercise all of our rights as citizens, including the right to vote without unnecessary restrictions meant to discourage and disenfranchise. Today, thanks to the Voting Rights Act, a major threat to that effort has been defeated.”
You can read Minister Malachi’s full testimony here [pdf].
Whether by reaching out to people of color, young people, women, or other key communities, People For the American Way Foundation has been on the ground all across the country these past few weeks getting out the vote.
The VESSELS project of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, which is committed to increasing civic participation in communities that have traditionally experienced disenfranchisement and discrimination, has organized GOTV events in more than thirty cities across the country. From Buffalo to Miami, Las Vegas to Baltimore, and many places in between, VESSELS have been organizing in their communities to get people to the polls. Ms. Ruby Bridges spoke at a rally in New Orleans, while Dr. Ralph Abernathy III took the stage in Cleveland. In other towns, volunteers have organized trips to the polls following Sunday worship services and GOTV concerts.
Youth organizers have also been working hard to turn out the vote. Despite the fact that nearly 85% of young people were not reached out to by either campaign, we know from our Young People For (YP4) Fellows that young people are busy organizing. They are centering their efforts around a campaign called ARRIVE WITH 5, because while every vote is powerful, they know that when they ARRIVE WITH 5 (or more!) friends to polls, the impact of the youth vote is magnified. At Pitzer College in California, YP4 Fellows are organizing an ARRIVE WITH 5 caravan to the polls – providing electric go-cart rides from their campus to the polling station. At Oberlin College in Ohio, student leaders are hosting voter information events, phone banks, and dorm storms. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, they sang to get out the vote. Local bands and a cappella groups performed everything from jazz to techno while attendees got excited about making their voices heard on Election Day. And these are just a few of the events YP4 Fellows organized this year, collectively reaching thousands of students across the nation.
People For the American Way Foundation was founded more than three decades ago with a vision of a vibrantly diverse democratic society in which all Americans are encouraged to participate in our nation’s civic and political life. The hard work of PFAWF’s Fellows, VESSELS, and other volunteers this election cycle have helped bring that vision to life in a very real way.
The day after the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, a group of undocumented youth in Atlanta honored him by applying his message of peaceful protest against injustice. Supported by civil rights leaders like Rev. Timothy McDonald – a PFAW Board member, the founder of the African American Ministers Leadership Council, and the chair of African American Ministers In Action – they engaged in civil disobedience and highlighted the injustice of laws effectively barring them from higher education because of their parents' immigration decisions. As reported in the Washington Post:
Eight young illegal immigrants were arrested Tuesday for sitting in the middle of a busy street in front of the Georgia Capitol, protesting their lack of access to higher education in a scene reminiscent of civil rights demonstrations decades ago.
The group, made up of mostly students, believe their plight is similar to movement the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led, and they met with former activists from the 1960s to hash out their civil disobedience plan. As the foreign-born youngsters sat in the road, at times holding hands, hundreds of supporters lined the street and cheered in support as the illegal immigrants were led away in handcuffs.
Before the sit-in the youngsters, their voices trembling, each stood before the crowd, took a microphone and announced: "I am undocumented, and I am unafraid." ...
The Rev. Timothy McDonald was one of the activists who met with the students at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the room where King and other preachers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization that led the movement for equality and justice for blacks.
"We felt the connection," McDonald said. "We pointed out that there has never been a successful movement of any kind without young people, and that was especially true of the civil rights movement. It was the students who filled up the jails, not the preachers."
As these young people show, part of the strength and beauty of King's message is its universality