Equality and Liberty

  • August 26, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor, West Virginia University College of Law. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom represented the high point of the decades-long civil rights movement against Jim Crow apartheid. The March brought heightened international attention to African Americans’ demands for social, political, and economic justice.  And the March offered a snapshot of the battle to awaken the moral imagination of the country. Indeed, the progress achieved in the 1960s battle for civil, political, and economic rights could not have been made without first winning the battle for the moral imagination of the United States. 

    The movement made apparent the injustices of Jim Crow. The movement called white America’s attention to the terrorism of lynching and bombings. The movement forced Americans to consider the effects of segregated facilities. The movement demanded equal participation for African Americans in the political process. The “I Have A Dream” speech spoke for many in the movement by setting out specifically the moral question of civil rights for African Americans to the country.

    Dr. King sought not just to evoke the question, but also to show the necessity of answering the question immediately. He said that “[w]e . . . come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”  Yet, the question we must confront in 2013 is whether we have been tranquilized into the lethargy of gradualism concerning the work that needs to be done. 

    Fifty years ago, because of the public shaming of nonviolent protest, the majority society of 1963 could no longer ignore the tyranny of American apartheid. As a result, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  We can rightfully rejoice in the fact that America today cannot be called an “apartheid” country. But the majority society of 2013 seems to have forsaken the Civil Rights Movement’s call to moral imagination. Instead, many in society seem to have fallen victim to a new kind of gradualism.

  • August 23, 2013
    Guest Post

    By Joseph Hansen, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    The UFCW is proud to stand with our brothers and sisters from across the country to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Fifty years ago on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The march, organized largely by civil rights and labor leaders to promote freedom, economic equality and jobs, was one of the most important events in U.S. history and paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    In spite of the advances we have made over the last 50 years -- including the election of our first African American president -- thefight for social and economic justice continues.  The Great Recession has widened the gap between the rich and poor, and the very concept of the American Dream -- namely that hard work pays off and the next generation will do better than the current one -- is in jeopardy.

    The African American and Latino communities, in particular, have been hit the hardest by the recent economic downturn, and the unemployment rate among African Americans continues to register in the double digits. Comprehensive immigration reform has not yet been realized, and our current system penalizes too many people whose only crime is trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. Minority communities have also been the targets of voter suppression, and the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down key parts of the Voting Rights Act will undermine their access to the ballot.

  • August 23, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Nicole G. Berner, Associate General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Elena Medina, SEIU Law fellow. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    Fifty years ago, a quarter of a million Americans converged at our nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They demanded, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., payment on the nation’s promissory note for racial and economic justice. Our founding leaders executed that note when they signed into law the inalienable rights set forth in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Yet almost two centuries later, the country was mired in racial segregation and discrimination. So on August 28, 1963, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders and activists called on America to cease defaulting on its obligations to its citizens of color.There have been many crucial victories since that historic day, but five decades later the promises of that note remain out of reach for too many people. Due to the proliferation of low-wage jobs, too many hardworking Americans still cannot afford basic necessities like groceries, rent, childcare and transportation. 

    Dr. King understood that the struggles for racial equality and economic justice are inextricably linked.  In his words, “[w]hat does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” Dr. King therefore fought tirelessly alongside labor activists for what he believed were the rights of all workers to “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

    Indeed, it was the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. Thirteen hundred Black sanitation workers had walked off the job to protest unsafe working conditions and discriminatory treatment. They refused to return until they secured better pay, improved working conditions and union recognition. Dr. King applauded them for “reminding, not only Memphis,” but also “the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” Tragically, he was assassinated the following day. But he would have been proud to know that those sanitation workers went on to negotiate an agreement implementing all of their demands.

  • August 23, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Neil Weare. Mr. Weare is lead counsel in Tuaua v. United States, and President of We the People Project, a national organization working to achieve equal rights and representation for the nearly 5 million Americans living in U.S. territories and the District of Columbia. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    On the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, more than 4 million Americans living in U.S. territories – a population greater than that of nearly half the states – are still waiting to realize the dream. 

    Speaking from the Lincoln monument, King proclaimed that “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”  That promise has fallen far short for the residents of U.S. territories because of a series of controversial Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases.

    The Insular Cases considered whether the Constitution “follows the flag” to overseas territories acquired after the 1898 Spanish-American War.  Breaking from prior precedent, they established a judicial doctrine recognizing two classes of U.S. territories: “incorporated” territories where the Constitution applies in full, and “unincorporated” territories where only certain constitutional rights apply. 

    First Circuit Judge Juan Torruella has criticized this as a “doctrine of separate and unequal,” comparing the Insular Cases to Plessy v. Ferguson, which just a few years before the Insular Cases had created a legal fiction to sanction racial segregation.  As in Plessy, Justice John Marshall Harlan was a passionate dissenter in the Insular Cases, writing: “The idea that this country may acquire territories anywhere upon the earth . . . and hold them as mere colonies or provinces,-the people inhabiting them to enjoy only such rights as Congress chooses to accord to them,-is wholly inconsistent with the spirit and genius, as well as with the words, of the Constitution.

    Like Plessy, the Insular Cases belong in the dustbin of history.  Just as our constitutional rights should not depend on the color of our skin, neither should they depend on where we live within the United States.  Fortunately, the Insular Cases may be on the ropes. 

  • August 16, 2013

    U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during this year’s ACS National Convention spoke a bit about his upbringing in a brutally racist society in rural Alabama. It was as Lewis recounted a time when he found inspiration in the words he heard over the radio from Martin Luther King Jr. and about the actions of Rosa Parks.

    “The action of Rosa Parks, the leadership and words of Dr. King inspired me to get in the way, to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said at the ACS Convention.

    Lewis, in a New York Times feature, said that 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Lewis spoke, the nation is still haunted by “our dark past.” This summer alone has provided too many examples of a nation resistant or fatally indifferent to the lives and rights of minorities. Indeed great economic inequalities and blatant inequalities in the criminal justice system are festering, not receding. These inequalities are decimating minority communities from coast to coast.

    At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, Lewis in front of the Lincoln Memorial provided a rousing call for equal opportunity, equality under the law. Today he is still pursuing the cause. At the ACS Convention Lewis presciently anticipated a devastating opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act. Lewis said, “I have a strange feeling in America, at this point in history, we’re just a little too quiet. We’ve come to a point where we almost want to resign, and say this is just the way it is. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are still too many people in our society who have been left out and left behind.”

    Starting next week and running through Aug. 28 an array of groups, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil & human Rights, The Urban League, NAACP, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, SEIU, MALDEF, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and many others will host events daily commemorating the historic March and talking about the challenges and obstacles to genuine equality and economic justice that remain. A schedule of those events is available at the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s website.

    As Lewis said at the ACS Convention the nation has made strides, but much work remains to be done. Lewis urged the gathering, “Don’t give up, don’t give in, our struggle is one that does not last one day or one week, or one year. It is a struggle of a life time, or many life times. We must do what we can, as Dr. King said, to create the beloved community.” Video of Lewis’s speech is here.