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Rights leaders say new strategies necessary for old issues

8th April 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Hazel Trice Edney

When Barbara Arnwine sensed the pending attack on voting rights across the country by a string of Republican plotinians attempting to enact voter identification and other questionable laws last year, she immediately tried to warn everybody who would listen.

But, it was her son, Justin, 25, who gave her the ultimate tool by which to warn the nation.

“He said, ‘Mom, you need a map…And he said it would ‘go viral,’” she recounted at an annual forum at the National Press Club.

From that concise suggestion was born the now famous “Map of Shame.” With this map, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and its partner organizations charted and fought the legislative movements of dozens of states as they attempted voting changes that would ultimately result in a civil rights backlash. That backlash included a grassroots ground operation, church to church get out to vote inspiration, social media strategies, phone banking and word of mouth that galvanized the largest Black turnout in voting history in the November 6 presidential election.

Arnwine, president/CEO of the Lawyers’ Committee, credits youth ingenuity, coupled with seasoned civil rights minds for the successful result.

“We’ve got to have that intergenerational and multigenerational fight,” she told the audience at the “Stateswomen for Justice” luncheon and forum March 28. “Let’s unite, let’s stay vigilant, let’s remember that we never prevail by sitting back and thinking others will take care of our issues.”

As a part of the Third Annual forum — a celebration of Women’s History Month—Arnwine was being honored by the host, Trice Edney Communications and News Wire, for her 30 years of civil rights leadership with the Lawyers’ Committee, now in its 50th year.

The forum, moderated by Dr. Elsie Scott, founding director of the Ronald W. Walters Center at Howard University, featured Arnwine alongside four other leading women in civil rights. They outlined crucial issues and future methods of engagement five decades since the March on Washington and founding of the Lawyers’ Committee.

Tonya Robinson, special assistant to President Barack Obama for justice and regulatory policy pointed out yet another important anniversary this year, 50 years since President John F. Kennedy’s signing of the Equal Pay Act, a goal that has yet to be attained.
“In the five decades since the signing, [there has been] tremendous progress, but women on average still earn only 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns,” she said, noting the significant difference of 23 cents. “Perhaps unsurprisingly to this crowd, the gap is even more stark for women of color with African-American women earning 64 cents” and Latino women earning only approximately 50 cents for every dollar.

With 23 million working mothers, “Regardless of where you are, your race or your age, the 23 cents matters,” she said. She said President Obama drew a “line in the sand” with the Lilly Ledbetter Act as the first piece of legislation he signed in his first term, extending the time that a woman can sue over pay issues. Still, she said, there remains “a compelling economic case that especially impacts women of color and African-American women with respect to the need for African-American women to finally close the pay gap.”

For the most part, the string of modern-day civil rights battles discussed among the leaders reflected a continuum of the battles of the 1960s.

“All of these anniversaries are coming at us at a single moment in time — WEB DuBois’ death, whether it’s the assassination of Medgar Evers or whether it’s the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice…And here it is, here we are 50 years later and guess what we need to march for — jobs and justice,” said Kim Keenan, NAACP general council. “That work is not done. The work isn’t based on the color of the president.”

Civil rights battles take place from the streets to Congress to the courts. Diversity and conscious people on the inside of institutions have historically made a difference said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington, D.C. office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“Civil rights laws are only as strong as the judges who enforce them,” she said. “We need to get some African-American women nominated and confirmed. It’s very important that new people get nominated to take over the mantle.”

Proll cited startling numbers. She said there are only 75 judges on the district court benches and 50 of them are men. “I hope you will join in this fight,” she said. She said Obama’s judicial nominees are often slowed by partisan politics in the U. S. Senate.

One of the reasons fair judges are needed is because of the disparate numbers of African Americans and other people of color coming through the system, said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“From the moment that we enter the criminal justice system, African Americans are treated differently…There is still rampant racial profiling in the United States,” Murphy said. For this reason, Murphy disagrees with Vice President Joe Biden who wants more security officers in public schools.

“Those police officers in the schools are much more likely to send African-American and Latino students into the criminal justice system. I’m not just talking about teenagers, I’m talking about” elementary-aged children, she said. “I am very concerned because this is the first step in the school to prison pipeline …Once kids are brought into the criminal justice system, they get records, they are more likely not to graduate, they are more likely to get suspended. We’re talking about young people who often encounter police officers when they need guidance counselors or tutors. We’ve over-criminalized America. We have more people in prison than any nation in the world.”

Murphy said current immigration laws are exacerbating the arrest rate of people of color as some go to jail “merely for crossing the border…The Department of Homeland Security spends more money on border security than the DEA, the FBI and the Justice Department combined. We are talking about billions of dollars…I’m appealing to taxpayers to look at how many people’s lives we’re ruining because they have to have encounters with the criminal justice system.”

The civil rights leaders told the audience what must be done to heighten public involvement in those issues: Those recommendations included the following:
• Become more active in the community. “Don’t stand there and let this happen,” said Keenan. “We have been chosen to carry on this legacy, to carry on this work. I submit to you that it’s never done because once it’s done, we have to make sure it’s not undone.” She told a group of Maya Angelou Public Charter School students in the audience, “We need you all coming hard and strong with the biggest, baddest of everything you can bring because this fight must go on and we will not give up.”
• Get on the email list of civil rights organizations, including the ACLU, and make sure notices don’t go to the SPAM folder, said Murphy.
• As for influencing members of Congress, “Never underestimate the power of one visit or one call,” says Proll. “Your weighing in on the ground is really the most important thing. Call the local office.”

Arnwine stressed the importance of remembering the enemies of justice and how they work.

“Those of us who are driven by a vision of inclusion and diversity and love have got to realize that there are people who are equally driven by a vision of exclusion, privilege, racial superiority and other thoughts,” she said. “We can have an African-American president in the White House but at the same time have people trying to take our voting rights so you must be vigilant.”

This article originally published in the April 8, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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