Equality and Liberty

  • September 6, 2013

    by Samantha Batel, James Colligan, Nicandro Iannacci and Jane Wang Williams, the 2013 ACS Fellows. Also see the ACSblog’s symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    On the morning of August 24, tens of thousands of people assembled to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That march, which sought to secure civil and economic rights for all Americans, paved the way for the modern civil rights era. Those who gathered last month reflected on how far we have come since Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but even more attention was given to the progress we have yet to make.

    Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement accomplished a remarkable feat, setting a standard for equality that would resonate not just with African-Americans but with all Americans facing injustice. This year’s march embodied this living movement, acknowledging the struggles of the present while remembering the victories of the past. Speeches and signs emphasized that there is still much more to be done for U.S. minorities, highlighting immigration reform, mass incarceration, LGBT rights and educational equity.

    The contemporary civil rights movement echoed its predecessor as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, borrowing rhetoric from Dr. King, emphasized “the fierce urgency of now.” Representative John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the original march 50 years ago, also called the crowd to action. “You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out, and get in the way,” he said. His comments echoed those he gave earlier this year at the ACS National Convention.

  • August 29, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Janai S. Nelson, law professor, associate dean for faculty scholarship, and associate director of the The Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development,  St. John's University School of Law. She is also author of the article, “The Causal Context of Disparate Vote Denial” on the Voting Rights Act. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    The commemoration of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is a reminder both of how far we've come as a nation and how far we’ve yet to go.

    The 1963 march signaled the beginning of the end of America’s racial apartheid regime and brought over a quarter of a million citizens together, largely African-Americans, in one of the nation’s largest human rights demonstrations.  The power of their presence and the movement they represented forced the nation’s leaders finally to allow the words of the American constitution to ring with unprecedented truth. 

    However, many of the legal victories of the civil rights movement -- affirmative action, voting rights, and equal employment opportunities -- have been scaled back by the Supreme Court in recent years.  The real change in our democracy envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others requires immediate and sustained attention from our legislators and advocates.  It means strengthening the Voting Rights Act by reinstating federal oversight of our nation’s most troubled voting locales.  It also means articulating an affirmative, equal right to vote, and making voter registration automatic. 

    These are fundamental steps to ensure that the commemoration of the march and King's dream speech is more than just a remembrance but rather is a call to action. As I’ve written in this post on Reuters, “The promise held in King’s dream is to wake up one day to its reality — not to slumber while discrimination marches on. The immediate step we can take is to reverse the continuing assault on voting rights and expand participation in our democracy. Rehabilitating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, following the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down one of the law’s most important provisions, should be at the top of this agenda.”  The full text on this post, “King’s Deferred Dream of Democracy,” is here.

  • August 29, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Stephanie Schlatter, Board Chair Ex Officio of the Washington, D.C. Lawyer Chapter. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    I remember asking my parents years ago about the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and all the events of the 60's and wondering what stood out in their mind. My mom spoke about her memories of the May 1961 bus burning in Anniston, just down the road from her home and a few weeks before she graduated from high school.  She remembers how so many people were sickened by the Klan, yet frightened about speaking out.  My dad spoke of being a young Army officer and meeting with the African American soldiers when the news came about what happened that fateful day in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and how he struggled to find the words to answer their questions of how and why they should fight for a country where a man like Dr. King could be assassinated. I remember thinking how my dad must have struggled with his answer, knowing that only a few years earlier he had been in Montgomery with the crowd that welcomed Dr. King and the marchers from Selma.

    As I set out the morning of Aug. 28 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I sensed the reasoning in his answer - this is our country. All of us.  And we must be willing to fight, and speak up, and speak out, to make it a more perfect union for all of us - men, women, young, old, gay, straight, immigrants, employed, unemployed - everyone. We all hold the dream of America in our hearts - that is why we march. That is why we remember.

  • August 28, 2013
    Guest Post

    by William E. Forbath, Associate Dean for Research, Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law, University of Texas at Austin School of Law. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    Not only conservatives, but we liberals and progressives have forgotten much about the kinds of rights and the kinds of equality demanded by the March on Washington half a century ago today.  Conservatives have fastened on the famous line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – that one day black children will “be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” – and tied the March and King’s “Dream” to their color-blind Constitution.  But liberals and progressives also have fashioned a story-line that ties the March to a narrower vision than the one that actually animated the organizers and marchers that day.  Our standard accounts tend to slight the links that the March forged between racial equality and economic justice.   They say that the March focused on the right to vote and an end to segregation and discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations.  In that way, they too suggest that the marchers’ main demands for legal change were met. 

    For conservatives, the March stood for color-blindness, which is already within our grasp, if all of us only shared the courage of the Chief Justice’s convictions about our over-reaching civil rights laws and doctrines.  For liberals and progressives, the March stood for the advances in civil rights embodied in the great civil rights statutes of 1964 and ’65.  So, for us, too, if only the venerable 1960s civil rights laws were enforced to the hilt, the “Dream” of 1963 would be within reach.

    Our standard liberal accounts, in other words, depict the March as a great landmark in what we have come to depict as the hopeful “early” phase of the civil rights movement, demanding the kinds of laws that Congress soon would enact.  Only later – in this familiar “early”/ “later” phase narrative of the civil rights movement – did the civil rights movement “go North” and confront for the first time the “intractable problems” of urban poverty and economic deprivation, on which the movement foundered.   This is the narrative that informs such liberal classics as the great “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series; one finds it in most constitutional law casebooks; and it also shapes the contrasts President Obama has drawn between the “economic populism” of the New Deal, with its focus on jobs and economic justice, and the 1960s battle for civic equality and an end to Jim Crow, as the core of what the civil rights movement was about.   

    In fact, however, economic injustice, joblessness and exploitation were squarely on the March on Washington’s agenda back in 1963. If the March is a landmark of the “early” phase of civil rights movement history – its demands a key source for our accounts of the original, core meaning of the movement’s vision of rights and equality, then we must include economic enfranchisement in the original mix.  The March’s demands were riveted on what its organizers called the “twin evils of racism and economic degradation.”  

  • August 28, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Gabriel “Jack” Chin, Professor of Law, University of California, Davis School of Law. Professor Chin is the author of The Tyranny of the Minority: Jim Crow and the Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review(with Randy Wagner). This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.    

    As Americans reflect on events a half century in the past, I hope they will consider how it might guide our actions now. In particular, I hope people will think about what Americans still owe the African American community.

    On August 28, 1963, the date of the March on Washington, the United States was pervasively discriminatory to a degree not fully appreciated today.  African Americans bore a significant burden; in many or most parts of the country, they could not vote, attend public schools with whites, patronize the public accommodations or live in the housing that they wished, or hope to be hired for a broad range of public and private employment. 

    But African Americans were hardly the only oppressed group. Rape within marriage was no crime, and, although the Equal Pay Act was on the books and would take effect in 1964, employers could get around it simply by not hiring women for good jobs.  The idea that gay men and lesbians might legally marry someone of the same sex was absurd; instead, investigation, prosecution, and imprisonment for sodomy were an important part of the business of law enforcement.  Un-American immigrants (Africans, Jews and Catholics) were discouraged from immigrating through gerrymandered quotas; Asians were excluded by race.  The list of those whose marginalization was justified and defended as obviously correct was long, and included people with mental or physical disabilities, Indians, religious minorities including Jews and Muslims, children born out of wedlock, and single mothers.

    America was remade thanks to the bodies and blood of African Americans -- whites and others also participated in the civil rights movement, of course, but, primarily, it was African Americans. The civil rights struggle, exemplified by the March on Washington, had revolutionary consequences. Part of its effect was near-term changes like passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the unsung but perhaps most effective anti-racist legislation of the period, the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, which, by allowing for immigration on a non-racial basis, put America on the path to being a majority-minority nation.