Tag Archives: civil rights

Wherever they are, that’s where I am, too

Sunday is Mothers’ Day.

I think about motherhood all the time, honestly, so, for me, a set-aside day to think even more about being a mom isn’t too big of a deal.

And I’m not exactly the breakfast-in-bed type.

This year, instead, as I approach Mothers’ Day, I’m reflecting on the kind of mother I am, and the kind of mother I want to be.

And I’m remembering my favorite passage from one of the most marvelous books I’ve ever read, The Children, the story of the youth in the civil rights movement.

There’s no way to do justice to the passage without quoting it, and, so, to briefly introduce it (and acknowledge that it’s actually about a father and his son, but it still speaks to me as a mother), it tells the story of a parent whose son was arrested for participating in a sit-in. The father lived in a rural community and, as an African American, was vulnerable to reprisals from the white power structure for his son’s audacious behavior while away at school. When the father first found out that his son was participating in the sit-in movement, he visited him in jail and told him to worry about himself, not about the family back home, giving his implicit approval for behavior that must have been quite frightening to contemplate.

This scene is what reverberates in my mind:

“Everyone in Whiteville, it seemed, knew what Curtis had done; the story was big news there. A few days after Curtis’s arrest, Buck (the father) was walking down a street in Whiteville when a white man he knew yelled over at him. “How’s that jailbird son of yours doing?” “He’s doing just fine,” Buck had answered. “Where is he?” the man said, mocking him. “Is he still in the Nashville jail?”

“Wherever he is, I am too,” Buck Murphy had answered, and when Curtis heard that story a few days later, he knew that whatever else happened during the sit-ins, he might never again feel so close to his father.”

I know that my children will take on battles that I cannot join, and that I may not even understand.

I know that their journeys will take them away from me, and that I cannot hope to follow.

I know that they will have their own struggles, and that they may, in fact, sometimes struggle against me.

And I know, above all else, that “wherever they are, I am too.”

Happy Mothers’ Day, to the three wonderful kids who let me be a mom.

Of economic justice and dreams unfulfilled

When my oldest son and I were in Washington, D.C. for a vacation last fall, we passed a tour group at the Lincoln Memorial. There, we overheard the tour guide explain to his guests, “Here, a man said he had a dream. That dream came true.”

It struck me that this rather stunningly incomplete and, indeed, extraordinarily inaccurate, statement is, in fact, not that far from how many Americans perceive Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy: a sort of fuzzy, feel-good, “can’t we all just get along” dream, that, for the most part (since there aren’t many lynchings anymore, and African-Americans can use whichever public restroom they choose, and, for crying outloud, we have a black president) is a resoundingly successful piece of our country’s history. While we’re at it, much of that history counts the civil rights movement, and the gains it achieved, as a shared victory for Blacks and Whites alike, ignoring the years of violent, organized, and entrenched opposition and oppression endured by freedom fighters and ordinary folks.

I would certainly never seek to deny the tremendous progress we’ve made on racial justice, although King’s dream, as I understand it, is far from totally realized. But what I lament even more than the uncritical characterization of our society as “color-blind” is the almost complete forgetting of Dr. King’s stance on economic injustice and the violence that poverty wreaks on the lives of people of all racial backgrounds, even in this, the richest society in the world.

While not the Communist that many, including powerful figures in the U.S. government, tried to paint him, he had admittedly “anti-capitalistic feelings”, and he was as deeply troubled by unemployment, hunger, and economic desperation among African-American households and communities as by the overtly racist policies and practices to which they were subjected. He moved his entire family into a tenement in Chicago to dramatize the poor housing conditions, and, of course, he gave his life during a witness for the economic and human rights of garbage collectors in Memphis.

And that’s the part of Dr. King’s dream I’m spending the most time thinking about today, because it’s the part that we have not only failed to reach but, really, failed to keep reaching for. It’s the part that we’re all too willing to forget, to wash out of this memory we want to claim for ourselves, even though it was in the middle of this struggle that he gave his life.

This video clip features some of Dr. King’s thinking on poverty in the United States, and its evils, overlaid with video footage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, uninsured people waiting in line for health care, and other images of economic injustice in modern-day America.

This year, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, here’s to his dream.

All of it.

History will see this as injustice, too

Yesterday, December 1, was the 55th anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Despite my oldest son’s obsession with her (in part, I think, because he lives in constant hope that he’ll get to ride a bus to school some day, so he gets it that boycotting bus rides is a really, really, really big deal), and the fact that I can never resist that picture, this isn’t a post about Mrs. Parks, or the role that she played in the civil rights movement, or even about that movement itself.

It’s really more of a promise broken, on my part, I guess–a promise, after I read Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s completely spot-on and utterly amazing editorial about Arizona’s racial profiling law (SB1070), that I wouldn’t write a post about it, since that really deserved to be the last word.

But the anti-immigrant atmosphere that has infected our country (and our policies, and our elections) has been foremost on my mind every single day for the past eight months or so. And when I read in The Political Brain about how campaign after campaign shows that racist candidates lose when their opponents shine a light on their racism (but prevail when they’re allowed to fly under the radar), and when I stood in solidarity with young NAACP members at a pro-immigrant protest, and when my 84-year-old grandfather-in-law pointed to a headline about Arizona and said, “they’d probably arrest me down there”…

it just has to be said: The way that we are treating immigrants in this country is wrong.

No surprise to any of you, I know.

But what really made me break my vow of silence on this is perhaps more of a revelation:

it will, I truly and fervently believe, be judged to be wrong, too.

The same way that majority opinion and public law about equality for African Americans is vastly different in the United States today (even though, quite obviously, we’ve yet to reach real racial justice) than when Mrs. Parks sat down so others could rise up, one day people in this country will look back on the actions we’re taking against immigrants today (not just Arizona, but the abuses in detention, the inhumane workplace raids, the long family separations) and think, for shame.

My friend and former Kansas state senator David Adkins said during his passionate defense of gay marriage, “I’m confident I’m standing on the right side of history,” and those of us standing up for immigrant rights today can take the same comfort. Just 6 years after he was excoriated for his courageous position, he’s being proven correct (again, it bears mentioning that the struggle continues), if not yet in our state, then with actions elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world.

I don’t know exactly when, or exactly how, the tide will change. But then, of course, neither did Mrs. Parks.

The next frontiers for voting rights

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Amidst rather uniformly dismal election results for those of us committed to a vigorous collective response to the challenges that face us, including the truly concerning recall of judges over disputes of ideology in Iowa (a major blow to the doctrine of judicial impartiality and separation of powers), there was one bright spot:

Kansas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to strip the legislature of the power to deny Kansas citizens with mental illnesses the right to vote.

It’s one of those things that I can’t imagine 289,740 people voting against really, but it’s still encouraging that 482,222 voted for it, and especially rewarding to see the grassroots campaign that mental health advocates, including a strong consumer contingent, put together to take advantage of this opportunity to educate the public about mental illness, civil rights, and the importance of equality.

So, see–something good from November 2, 2010.

But, especially in the aftermath of Election Day, we’ve got serious work to do, and not just to protect critical policies and continue to push for progressive advances in tax policy, the social safety net, economic recovery, entitlement reform, health care reform, K-12 and higher education and, well, just about every other aspect of American life.

We’ve also got to make voting rights a top priority.

We need to expand suffrage, and vigorously defend it, not just because increasing the number of people who can and do vote is a good way to ensure that we’ll be happier with the outcome. We need to prioritize voting rights, too, because it restores the American ideal of an engaged citizenry, and it makes us proud of who we are and what we can do, together.

Our finest moments have been when we realize that the rights of citizenship are the most secure, and the most honored, when they’re extended broadly and valued deeply.

On the list that demands our attention:

  • Commitment to easing the process of re-entry for ex-felons, and revisiting the process of even temporarily denying voting rights to those who commit crimes–this is important not just because it expands the right to vote but also because it sends a message to those who are incarcerated: “we don’t want you cut off from the society into which we’ll expect you to successfully reintegrate”
  • Defense against restrictive photo ID requirements–I want to scream every time someone says, “but you even need to show ID to see a movie.” Um, last time I checked, seeing an R-rated movie is NOT a constitutionally-protected right. Voting is. Unless we’re going to provide free, easily available photo identification to all American citizens, with exceptions for those with religious objections to photographs, requiring photo identification to vote is a poll tax, it’s abhorrent, and we can’t stand for this attack on democracy masquerading as concern with (largely invented) “voter fraud”. I almost wrecked my car when I heard about the Obama Administration dropping its legal challenge to Georgia’s voter identification requirements. This could move us back to 1964, and our nation can’t afford that.
  • Aggressive protection of voter privacy and the integrity of the election system–I am not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think that the private companies that manufacture voting machines are intent on overtaking our elections. But I am very concerned about two things: first, that there’s enough truth to the threat of that scenario to make some people wary of the election process and, second, that it does represent another example of turning some of our most sacred public functions over to private companies. There are some things that government should just do itself, whether or not it’s the most efficient, because to farm it out just looks bad and, well, running the democratic process is one of those.
  • A constitutional amendment specifically guaranteeing the right to vote–108 democratic nations have this language, while the U.S. and 10 others don’t. Words do matter, and having these words in the U.S. Constitution could provide the legal foundation for challenges to all of the exclusions above, too, setting the stage for a reorientation towards an affirmative right to civic participation that has to be disproven, rather than the effective opposite, which is the status quo.

    It’s time for a national conversation not just about the results of our elections but the process of them: do we want paper ballots again? what about open-source electronic voting technology? should we have mandatory public audits of elections? if so, who should conduct them? how would we engage the public in oversight of elections, and how could this make a difference in how people engage in the acts of democracy? why can’t people register to vote on Election Day?

    Did you see any violations of voting rights this past Election Day? Did your clients vote? If not, why not? What changes to voting laws might facilitate their participation? What are your thoughts about expanding suffrage rights in the next decade?

  • Why direct practice will always matter

    Lyndon Johnson was no social worker.

    But it is a speech of his, or rather a section of one, made on March 15, 1965, one week after the march in Selma, Alabama that drew the nation’s attention to the urgency of the struggle for racial justice, that, for me, best highlights why it is so critical that policymakers, in any profession, be rooted in the lives of those who will be most touched by the policies they create.

    Towards the end of his speech outlining for Congress his vision for The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which remains, in 2010, an essential piece of civil rights legislation and one of the core victories of the African-American struggle for equality, he said:

    “My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

    Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.

    I never thought, then, in 1928, that I would be standing here, in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

    But now I do have that chance–and I’ll let you in on a secret–I mean to use it.

    And I hope that you will use it with me.”

    We will not all become President, certainly, nor wield the kind of power that Lyndon Johnson did at his peak, but we can cultivate positions of power and authority in our pursuit of social justice, in the expectation that we will, too, someday have the chance to do great things on behalf of those who have touched our lives by allowing us to walk with them.

    Failing to seek that power gives up that chance. And it’s inexcusable.

    As is forgetting those faces once we’re in a position to do something to help them.

    And, for all his many, many failings, that’s something Lyndon Johnson, the teacher and the President, can help us remember.

    The courts and the tyranny of the majority

    The evening after the California court decision ruling Proposition 8 (California’s voter-approved gay marriage ban) unconstitutional, I posted this status update on my Facebook page:

    [Melinda Lewis] would like to thank Judge Vaughn Walker for single-handedly lifting my post-primary depression. That’s why we have three branches, folks!

    Later that night, one of my former students initiated an online conversation about the role of the courts in overturning what, in this case, was obviously the will of the majority. She asked some very profound questions about who should determine public policy in this country, and about the role of the courts within our democracy. She cited examples where time has definitively proven that the courts were correct, such as desegregation of public schools, and much more questionable decisions, such as this year’s campaign finance law.

    This is why I love teaching.

    Early the following morning, I crafted a response, and that exercise got me thinking, anew, about the way in which our system of government works, and why the courts are, to me, such a critical component.

    I responded, “It’s a good question. The key is not whether the will of “the people” is being upheld; while few would argue (I am actually one of the few, but that’s another issue!) that the legislative and executive bodies’ roles are to represent the people, the courts’ role, according to our system of government, is very definitely not. The courts are accountable only to the Constitution, not to public sentiment (which is why, of course, they’re not elected). Of course one’s interpretation of what accords with the Constitution can differ, which is why the appointment of judges is so contested. You’re absolutely right to point out examples where the courts’ judgments have countered public opinion in a way ultimately judged to be correct, and also to point out the fallibility of the judiciary. Even in the case of the campaign finance decision, though, Congress was given a sort of “blueprint” of the kinds of campaign finance laws that would pass constitutional muster, although it remains to be seen if they can get the political will to do so. That’s what I mean by the three branches–people call it a separation of power, but it’s not so much a check and balance on each other, really, as it is the inclusion of a branch accountable only to our Constitution, our core government principles, so to speak, not to popular sentiment (which is the only way that a minority’s rights can ever be protected–if everything went according to the will of the majority, there would be no such vehicle). So, in essence, it’s not that the Court has a “right” to overturn a popular vote, but, rather, that no legislative body or group of citizens has a “right” to pass an unconstitutional law.”

    We had a couple of additional exchanges, related to the passage of clearly unconstitutional laws as political messages and organizing vehicles, and the resulting distortion of the policymaking process.

    But the idea to which I keep returning is the courts as protector of those who, by very definition, are likely to be excluded in the more “democratic” functions of government–the minorities whose rights are not, well, ‘popular’ enough for popular sovereignty.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much of my career representing a group–undocumented immigrants–who most often come out on the short end of votes subject to the will of the majority, but there are many moments, in our history and still today, when the beauty of our constitutional system is almost breathtaking, in its power to lift up the most downtrodden.

    Even when it would have been expedient, like when we were sued by anti-immigrant organizations trying to overturn the instate tuition legislation for which we had fought so hard in the Kansas Legislature, I wouldn’t use the “courts should not overturn the will of the people” argument. Because you just never know when you might need that one yourself.

    As an advocate of social justice, first and foremost, I celebrate fervently the power of the courts to do what’s right, even if that means telling many, many people that they’re wrong.