- Created on 22 January 2013
So many in my parents' generation – and ours – never thought we'd see an African-American elected president of this country. Now, not only have we been blessed to see that day, but on Jan. 21, we will witness the president accept a second term on the same day that our nation pauses to acknowledge the contributions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What a tremendous honor it is to witness this moment in history. On the one hand, we are celebrating the legacy of someone who gave his blood, sweat, tears and life to make a better future for generations unborn. And on the other, we have someone who personifies the very substance of Dr. King's dream taking the Oath of Office for a second time.
This is much more than a footnote in the history books. In fact, as a man of faith, I am compelled to believe that this is not a mere coincidence; rather this is a seminal moment for us all.
This is an opportunity for this generation to be inspired by the aspirations of those who came before us.
There is still much to do, and President Obama remains uniquely positioned to help our nation achieve the tenets of humanity and equality of which Dr. King could only dream.
I hope that the Congress will work with President Obama to change our national discourse during his second term.
We must refocus our conversation and our efforts on what really matters – creating jobs; increasing and expanding access to effective, efficient and affordable healthcare; and strengthening our education system so more of our children can succeed.
This isn't about agendas. This isn't about Republicans versus Democrats. This is about doing what's right because no people – no matter what their race or station – can survive and thrive in the absence of healthy systems of economic development, healthcare and education.
I also hope that the president will resist changes to Social Security benefits and Medicare in his second term. Many Social Security beneficiaries – particularly those from black and poor communities – have only Social Security benefits on which to live. They have no pension, no savings, no 401(K), and now, thanks to the recession, some of them don't even have a house or a job.
When we add to that a lack of health care, increases in the cost of living and Medicare premiums, as well as decreases in access to quality care, what we have is a group of people marching toward their senior years who will lead shorter, sicker lives.
Instead of protecting the future of our senior citizens, there are some looking to make the country solvent on their backs. We must do better.
Finally, I hope that all Americans who cherish democracy will be vigilant. Our 21st century civil rights movement to expand and preserve our voting rights has just begun.
Last November, a months-long campaign to suppress the votes of the elderly, the poor, students, Hispanics, and African-Americans came to a head when record numbers turned out to vote.
Many voters of all ethnicities withstood remarkable odds just to cast their ballots for President Obama. Long lines, hours-long waits, and state-imposed restrictive voter ID laws all threatened to rob many of their votes.
A strategic, nationwide campaign to remove early voting opportunities was launched, attacking the bedrock of the African-American voting tradition. Early voting hours in many states, like Ohio and Florida, were all but eliminated. Where they weren't successful, it appeared that organizations like True The Vote stepped in with aggressive poll monitoring techniques to support the Republican agenda.
Now is not the time to become complacent in our efforts to fight voter suppression. We can do better as a nation in upholding this fundamental Constitutional right – and with the president's leadership, we can preserve this key right for generations yet unborn.
In April 1960, Dr. King gave the Founders Day address at Spelman College. He closed his remarks, "Move From This Mountain," by reading Langston Hughes' poem "Mother to Son" and offering this appeal: "If you can't fly, run; if you can't run, walk; if you can't walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving."
Dr. King and our forefathers and mothers passed the baton to President Obama and all of us. It is up to us to continue to stand up for what's right. We must not drop the baton. We must continue moving forward.
- Created on 18 January 2013
(CNN) -- I carry in my mind a picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as we all gathered at the start of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march on March 21, 1965. What makes that picture so vivid to me 48 years later, as we prepare to celebrate his 84th birthday this month, is that voting rights issues have resurfaced on a national scale.
The biggest difference between then and now is that today's voter suppression efforts are highly sophisticated, compared with the crude, racist ones conducted by Southern sheriffs and voter registrars through the middle 1960s.
Before the 2012 elections, well-funded efforts in state after state tried to curtail the participation of poor and minority voters by introducing burdensome voter ID requirements, despite a record showing individual voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the United States.
A five-year, nationwide investigation into voter fraud by the George W. Bush administration resulted in just 86 convictions.
At the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, King delivered one of his most memorable speeches before a crowd of 25,000 on the steps of the capitol. "Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered on the right to vote," he declared. "We are on the move now, and no wave of racism can stop us."
The beginnings of the march, which came about after violent clashes between Alabama police and state troopers and civil rights protesters trying to get on the Alabama voter rolls, were more uncertain. By current demonstration standards, those of us gathered at Selma, a hard town to reach for anyone who didn't live nearby, were few -- 3,200 by most estimates.
As he moved to the front of the line, King seemed eager to get started. As the march moved down U.S. Highway 80, he appeared unperturbed by the counterprotest that seemed jolting to me: a "Coonsville USA" sign, young kids carrying BB guns screaming "white nigger."
King had, I realized, accepted such hatred as part of his lot in life. He could not know that by August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act would be signed into law by President Johnson. He could only hope the Selma march changed more minds than were in the rows of us walking behind him.
The voter suppression efforts that were aimed at preventing President Obama from being re-elected in 2012 are a reminder that the decisive victory the 1965 Voting Rights Act provided can be undermined if we are not vigilant.
The Supreme Court already has on its calendar a case, Shelby County v. Holder, that tests the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires state and local governments, primarily in the Deep South, with a history of discrimination to obtain "pre-clearance" from the Justice Department before making any changes affecting voting.
Motivating the Republican politicians, who in recent years have sought to suppress voting with tighter ID requirements, is their fear that the demographic tide is running against them.
We have come 180 degrees from 1968, when Kevin Phillips in his landmark political study, "The Emerging Republican Majority," noted that by virtue of capturing the loyalty of the anti-civil rights whites of the South along with a majority of voters from the nation's heartland, Republicans were in a position to be the dominant party in the country after decades of Democratic rule.
In 2012 the tide has shifted again. Despite taking 59% of the white vote, Mitt Romney could not win an election in which the votes of minorities and new immigrants make up such an important share of the electorate. Republicans, aware that their hostility to such issues as future citizenship for undocumented immigrants and affirmative action has put the majority of nonwhite voters beyond their reach, have sought to do what white Southerners did before 1965 -- erect voting barriers to preserve their power.
The voting barriers that King and the civil rights movement battled in the 1960s had their historic origins in such 19th century measures as the Mississippi Plan of 1890, in which the state instituted the poll tax as well as the requirement that a voter be able to read or interpret any section of the new Mississippi State Constitution.
The emphasis on photo IDs, which so many poor and minority voters lack because they do not own a car and cannot afford to fly, is a variation of this past Southern strategy, as Georgia's Democratic Rep. John Lewis, who was badly beaten at Selma during the "Bloody Sunday" protest of March 7, has pointed out.
The rhetoric of the Old South and the present can even sound alike when it comes to voter registration. We need only compare Judge R. H. Thompson bragging about how the Mississippi State Constitution of 1890 preserved the white vote "by Anglo-Saxon ingenuity" and Pennsylvania GOP House majority leader Mike Turzai telling a Republican State Convention this June, "Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done." (That Pennsylvania law ran into trouble with a judge and voter IDs were not required in the November election.)
It is easy to imagine King being dismayed by these regressive links, but it is hard to imagine him being moved to silence or inaction by them.
The same attitude should hold for those of us who honor his birthday. We cannot duplicate King's eloquence, but his tirelessness, so visible that first day of the Selma march, can in some measure be ours as we struggle to maintain 21st century voter rights.
- Created on 17 January 2013
In each of the first three years of his presidency, I urged Barack Obama (in vain...read here, here and here) not to vacation on Martha's Vineyard—the summer redoubt of notables ranging from the Kennedys to Oprah—even if it is, among African Americans at least, as sure a sign as any that you've "arrived."
Because it's also a place where elite folk go to escape the hoi polloi, and so Obama risks looking like he's out of touch if he's living a lifestyle that's above the pay grade of average Americans, according to David Swerdlick on The Grio.
But the National Rifle Association has taken that line of reasoning one perverse step too far with its new ad that tags Obama as an "elitist" and a "hypocrite" for eschewing their calls for more armed guards in public schools while the president's children have 'round-the-clock security.
After disingenuously asking "are the president's kids more important than yours?" the ad goes on to argue that Obama "demands" that wealthy Americans pay a "fair share" of taxes, but that "he's just another elitist hypocrite when it comes to a fair share of security".
In other words, the NRA cares if your kids get shot at school, but not Obama. Oh, and if he really favors gun control, he should either find a way to furnish armed guards for every child in America, or give it up for his own daughters, as well.
- Created on 16 January 2013
(CNN) -- Massacres such as Newtown are horrifying and heart-rending. They are also nothing like the typical American gun murder.
The typical murder has one victim, not many. The typical murder is committed with a handgun, not a rifle. And in the typical murder, both the perpetrator and the victim are young black men. Blacks are six times as likely as whites to be the victim of a homicide. Blacks are seven times as likely to commit a homicide.
The horrifying toll of gun violence on black America explains why black Americans are so much more likely than whites to favor gun control.
Conversely, fears of being victimized by violence explain why so many white Americans -- especially older and more conservative white Americans -- insist on the right to bear arms in self-protection. They see gun violence as something that impinges on them from the outside. They don't blame guns for gun violence. They blame a particular subset of the population. And they don't see why they should lose their right because some subset of the population abuses theirs.
A writer I greatly admire, Rod Dreher, an independent-minded conservative, gives voice to such feelings in an article posted this weekend on the American Conservative website. Dreher expresses himself forcefully and frankly. That frankness should be welcomed, because the more clearly a mistaken idea is put, the faster we can reach a better understanding.
"Yesterday the Baton Rouge Advocate published a lengthy analysis of the 2012 murder stats in the city. Take a look at this PDF of one of the inside pages. Last year, 83 people died by homicide in Baton Rouge. Of that number, 87% were black, and 87% were male. Two-thirds had been in trouble with the law before, and one-third had been in trouble with the law for drugs. The median age of victims: 26.
"Of the perpetrators, the median age was 22. Get this: 96% of them were black, and 90% were male. Almost two-thirds had previous arrests. One out of four had a drug record.
"Most of the murders took place in the poorest parts of the city.
"What can we learn from these statistics? That murder in Baton Rouge is almost entirely about young black men from the poor part of town killing other young black men from the poor part of town. It's mostly a matter of thugs killing thugs."
If you look at the world that way, gun control must seem a pointless diversion from the real problem: not guns, but one particular group of gun owners. Somebody else's problem. But life is not so neatly separated.
Guns offer equal opportunity tragedies. More than 8,000 white Americans had to be treated for nonfatal gun injuries in 2008. Eighty percent of those who commit suicide with a gun are white males. The gun that the suburban family buys to protect itself from "thugs killing thugs" ends up killing its own: One important new study finds that a gun kept in the house is 43 times more likely to kill a household member than to be used in self-defense.
Thugs killing thugs? Maybe. But many of those seeming thugs are carrying guns for the same reason that people who consider themselves respectable carry them : in a futile quest to protect themselves with greater firepower. One person can find safety that way. But if two people carry firearms, a confrontation that might otherwise have ended in words or blows ends instead with one man dead, and the other man on his way to prison for life.
Louisiana sends more people to prison than any other state, at a total cost of almost 7% of its state budget. Prison is always expensive, but the incarceration of murderers costs the most, because they remain in prison to the end. The oldest of Louisiana's prisoners cost the state almost $80,000 a year, including their health care.
Widespread gun ownership means not only more gun killings, but also more gun maimings and cripplings. The National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre hailed the ability of a "good guy" with a gun to stop a "bad guy" with a gun. Sixty seconds later, however, that bad guy may need a wheelchair for life. We can't dismiss these human costs as pertaining to only somebody else. They are all part of us.
Yet the urge to subdivide runs strong among Americans. Monday on Fox News, the popular conservative commentator Ann Coulter claimed that the murder rate among white Americans is as low as the murder rate in Belgium. "So perhaps it's not a gun problem," she concluded. "Perhaps it's a demographic problem."
But countries cannot dismiss the sufferings of great blocks of their people by dismissing some "demographics" as unworthy of attention.
If you ignore America's poor, you can make all kinds of problems disappear from view. Not counting the poor and minorities, the country does not have an obesity epidemic. Not counting the poor and minorities, the United States has perfectly adequate schools. Not counting the poor and minorities, America would have a higher average income.
Likewise, not counting hurricanes, America would not have so many natural disasters. Not counting divorces, America would have more intact families. Not counting wars, America would have a smaller public debt. But what's the point of this exercise? The people who make up America count as Americans, and their problems count as America's problems. Their problems do not occur in isolation, but are manifestations of failures to which all Americans contributed together.
Those young men in Baton Rouge who are killing each other in such horrific numbers do not manufacture their own guns. They did not organize the gun trade that brings the guns to their town. They did not write the laws that prevent their town government from acting against guns. They carry guns -- and misuse guns -- thanks to a national system of gun regulation that makes guns easily accessible to those least likely to use guns responsibly.
The gun laws intended to put guns into the hands of "good guys" are the laws that also multiply guns in the hands of "bad guys" -- bad guys who might not have become such bad guys if the guns had not been available to their hands.
The price of redefining gun violence as an issue pertaining only to "those people" -- of casting and recasting the gun statistics to make them less grisly if only "those people" are toted under some different heading in some different ledger -- the price of that redefinition is to lose our ability to think about the problem at all.