On Wednesday, March 20th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored the UAB Lecture Series alongside Undergraduate Student Government, Graduate Student Government, Student Involvement & Leadership, and Leadership and Service Council to present political strategist and commentator Symone Sanders.
Sanders began by critiquing the cliché of how one would change the world if they had a magic wand. However, in this world, she insisted we’ll never have that opportunity because social change doesn’t operate through a blank slate. As a result, we must work with a system that doesn’t want to change which warrants radical revolutionary leadership in the spirit of community.
This evoked Sanders to propose her tenants for being a radical revolutionary:
First, you must be willing to buck the status quo and take a risk.
Second, you must be willing to feel uncomfortable and act.
Third, you must be willing to stand in the gap for other people.
Fourth, you must be willing to take on your adversaries as well as your allies.
Finally, you must pick an issue and care about it.
Sanders admitted these tenants were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s commitment to social change by claiming that immediately after his assassination, many Americans blamed him for his own demise because they believed he was doing too much. In contrast, Dr. King’s current legacy of racial and economic justice is well-respected. Sanders insisted Dr. King was often very uncomfortable when addressing injustice across the country and implored the audience to be more like him when it comes to strategic community building, namely when it comes to intersectional and intergenerational coalitions. As for challenging your allies, Sanders admitted that she recently had to condemn the sexual assault allegations against her friend and Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax because truth is truth and much like Dr. King, “…silence is betrayal”. She claimed radical revolutionaries are vigilant about what’s happening to marginalized communities across the country and allow themselves to hope, dream, and have an outline for social change.
Amid political and social turmoil nationwide, Sanders’ lecture about becoming a radical revolutionary is timely as well as necessary. By modeling this approach from Dr. King’s legacy, Sanders has drafted a pragmatic, although challenging, formula that has and will continue to confront injustices that have outstayed their welcome in U.S. culture. Sanders largely addressed the challenges of race and sex-based discrimination, not only in the political area but in her personal life, who as a Black woman must constantly confront intersectioning prejudices that attempt, but fail, to undermine her Black womanhood.
Sanders said to the crowd, which was predominantly UAB students, there is no one more powerful in the world than young people in U.S. and that we must be willing to do things that have never been done before. This claim is particularly salient to a group of people that were likely ineligible to vote in the most recent U.S. presidential election. For this reason, these young, aspiring minds are capable of taking this narrative to their families, friends, classmates, and the voting polls which can embolden the revolutionary change our society needs and deserves.
On Wednesday, February 13th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside UAB’s Department of English and the Jemison Visiting Professorship in the Humanities about the legacy of civil rights activist Reverend Charles Billups. The lecture was led by civil rights scholar Dr. Keith Miller (Arizona State University) then followed with a conversation from Billups’ daughter, Rene Billups Baker.
Charles Billups’ was a pastor at New Pilgrim Baptist Church in (Birmingham, Alabama) and one the founders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), a faith-based organization addressing civil rights from 1956-1969. Members of ACMHR would meet every Monday night to coordinate boycotts and lawsuits relating to segregation. Billups was a friend of fellow ACMHR member and civil rights icon Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and was the first person on the scene after Shuttlesworth’s house was bombed. Shuttlesworth would also be the one to drive Billups to the hospital after he was beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
With the civil rights movement facing discouragement nationwide, Billups was chosen by the ACMHR to lead the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham because he attended all their strategy sessions. During the demonstration, local law enforcement warned demonstrators that if they were to not back down, they would turn the dogs and fire hoses loose. Matching their physical force with the soulful force of civil rights activism, Billups taunted these threats and, as fate would have it, firefighters refused to spray the demonstrators. As a result, the Children’s Crusade, and the larger Birmingham Campaign, become a model for non-violent direct-action protest and overall success for the civil rights movement.
After her father’s death, Baker claimed she was angry with the world as well as God; all Baker wanted back was her father. For years, she didn’t even like to murmur the words or discuss “civil rights”. However, through the years, she has learned to forgive and wants younger generations, such as her nieces, to know about her father’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement. With a greater appreciation for her father’s perseverance and sacrifice, Baker closed by saying that he, MLK, Jr., and Shuttlesworth are all smiling down on her agreeing, “She’s alright now”.
Baker’s book, My Life with Charles Billups and Martin Luther King: Trauma and the Civil Rights Movement, can be purchased here.
China’s newfound economic prowess since the reform and opening has been shouldered by its massive population of migrant laborers. A significant surplus of unskilled workers and a lax regulatory environment has given Chinese factories, like those in many developing countries, a competitive edge over their counterparts in the Global North. In this troubling “race to the bottom,” a great number of Chinese factories overwork and underpay their rank-and-file employees, at times subjecting them to sordid and dangerous conditions. Although brands such as Nike, Walmart and Apple have been pressured by the international media and human rights organizations to take responsibility for labor rights within their supply chains, it is difficult to separate the profits of these corporations from their habitual exploitation of the weak human rights standards and ineffective enforcement of regulations in countries like China.
For most of China’s 131 million migrant workers, leaving the village and traveling to the city to find gainful employment is the greatest opportunity as well as the most harrowing journey of their lives. The freedom and ability to leave their rural hometown are points of pride for migrant workers, yet the enormous surplus of labor in the urban areas has led to fierce competition in the market, forcing them to accept low wages, no benefits, poor working conditions, strict work regimes, and little job security. In the documentary China Blue, we see employees of the blue jean factory worked for pennies an hour, less than the minimum wage, and are often forced to work overtime – even overnight – to meet shipping deadlines. Some are so exhausted by continuous hours of labor that they fall asleep at their workstations, risking reprimand by their supervisors. Factory workers often do not get paid on time and new workers lose their first month’s paycheck as a “deposit,” a sum of money they never receive if they choose to quit. Furthermore, migrant workers have no access to healthcare or education in the city as a result of the discriminatory hukou system that binds them legally to their rural hometowns. China has a comprehensive set of labor laws including minimum wage, but local and provincial officials rarely enforce them in order to attract foreign businesses and boost their regions’ economic growth. As a result, migrant workers are exploited on dual levels, by the factories that employ them and the state that fails to protect them.
Most migrant workers do not understand their legal rights; they have no organized way to defend them. Workers have some inkling of their rights when it is most obvious. However, they lack knowledge of the comprehensive but unenforced regulations protecting them. In China Blue, the workers at the blue jean factory held a haphazard strike after their pay had been delayed for three months. There have also been some success stories of migrant workers taking legal actions against their employers. Lawyers like Zhou Litai have made triumphant careers from helping injured workers litigate with their employers for rightful compensation. Yet a string of individual cases won by workers has not changed the basic conditions of factories. Because of an authoritarian government that fears the rise of civil society, the Chinese government has not allowed independent labor unions to form in China. In developed countries, these types of organizations undergirded the labor rights movement during the industrialization process. They educated workers, negotiated with factory owners on their behalf, and organized strikes when necessary. If Chinese workers are not empowered to speak up for themselves, then who has the luxury to speak for them?
One might argue that Western consumers have the luxury to speak up for these exploited workers by demanding corporations to “clean up” their supply chains. The anti-sweatshop movement has gained great momentum in the past two decades. Due to negative media attention and pressure from NGOs, many multinational corporations that source overseas have devoted significant resources and efforts to audit the factories in their supply chains, even establishing social compliance divisions solely dedicated to this goal. Brands such as Nike at first defended the conditions in its Indonesian factories, contending that their corporation has created thousands of jobs for people who lack better opportunities. Philip Knight, the founder of Nike, pointed out: “People argued that we were taking advantage of the poor Japanese workers 20 years ago. Now Japan makes no Nikes and imports $100 million of them.” Nevertheless, Nike soon followed cues from other corporations and drafted a code of conduct for its factories.
The global movement for labor rights has brought international attention to the plight of workers in developing countries and put the issue on the table for multinational corporations. However, there is a serious inherent problem in letting corporations police themselves: a misalignment of incentives. The primary aims of private corporations are to make profits, satisfy customers, and reward shareholders. They accomplish these goals by constantly trying to improve cost efficiency, which is what attracts them to developing world factories. Apple, for example, produces its products in China because of the huge economies of scales that can be achieved there as opposed to the United States. The speed and flexibility of the Chinese manufacturing sector has drawn in companies like Apple, but it comes at the price of poorer labor conditions. Cost efficiency puts the corporations’ incentives in misalignment with social compliance divisions. Because social compliance divisions do not usually cooperate with buying departments, multinational corporations are essentially asking factories to improve the conditions for their workers while still demanding the same low prices. This disjunction has led to massive falsification of records by factory owners, undermining the integrity of the audit process. The audit profession itself is also plagued with human capital problems and instances of bribery. Corporations, in turn, have little incentive to investigate fraud so long as they can present a picture of compliance to concerned consumers. They can essentially pay lip service to the human rights movement by going along with the records presented to them. In the case of mass falsification, concerned consumers cannot even be certain that a brand which claims to buy from only factories with good labor conditions is, in fact, doing so.
Instead of simply paying attention to better audits of factories from corporations, consumers who are concerned about the labor conditions in China should also demand “responsible prices” at the manufacturing level. Currently, the prices that brands pay to factory owners in China are so low that they face the dilemma of improving labor conditions and losing business or falsifying records to comply with labor standards. Timberland, for example, will pay only $20 per shoe that it buys from a manufacturer, while selling it to the retailer for $50, which then sells it to consumers for $100. In the $80 of revenue gained after the product has been purchased from the manufacturer, there must be some room to offer the manufacturer a better price without passing on the cost to consumers. Consumer groups should scrutinize the profit structure of brands and retailers and buy goods that pay manufacturers better, so that manufacturers can pass on the generosity to their workers. This requires the buying department and the social compliance division to work together to establish an agreeable price for products that takes into account favorable labor conditions. This doesn’t necessarily have to come with a loss of profits for the brands and retailers. Favorable corporations will gain the loyalty and goodwill of a growing number of consumers who are concerned about emerging market labor conditions.
However, a consumer can only do so much on the demand side. Much of the work to be done on labor rights must come from the workers themselves. NGOs working in this field must continue educating workers on labor rights, encouraging them to organize, and advocating for the establishment of true, independent labor unions. China’s official labor union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), functions more as a peacekeeping organ between workers and management rather than a labor union truly representing the interests of workers. Although the ACFTU has considerable political clout at the national level and lobbies for labor protection laws, its chapters at various factories rarely make demands on behalf of workers. ACFTU union leaders are generally chosen by the factory management and remain beholden to the management. Chinese workers need unions with democratically elected leaders who will truly represent their interests rather than serving as a “bridge” between workers and the management. Without autonomous labor unions representing them, workers cannot bargain collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Their rights enshrined by Chinese law will go unheeded.
From one perspective, multinational corporations that choose to manufacture their products in China are giving thousands of Chinese workers opportunities they would never have had in the countryside. Although migrant workers often face laborious conditions in factories, they are earning far more than their rural counterparts and gaining more consumption power. As China becomes wealthier as a result of the economic growth driven by the export-oriented manufacturing sector, workers will naturally begin to demand more rights and better living standards. This process has taken place during the industrialization process in many former developing countries. In the meantime, however, multinational corporations are keen to exploit – for as long as they can – an inherently broken legal system and a profoundly undemocratic culture that has relegated millions of Chinese migrant workers to second-class citizenry. When China introduced in law in 2006 to give labor unions more concrete power, multinational corporations were the first to protest by implying they would move their factories elsewhere. Rather than relying on a social compliance scheme that often tolerates the falsification of records during audits, consumers should also urge corporations to offer responsible prices for manufacturers so that they can give workers better treatment without losing business. Most importantly, the Chinese and international human rights movement must continue their efforts to educate workers on labor rights and promote a political environment that will allow the formation of independent labor unions.
Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.
On Thursday, October 18th, an event titled How Germany Has Come to Terms With Its Past was held at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The evening began with a lecture by former German diplomat Stefan Schlüeter who discussed how Germany has addressed its notorious role in World War II. Following, Schlüeter participated in a panel discussion with Laura Anderson (Alabama Humanities Foundation), Kiara Boone (Equal Justice Initiative) and Gregory Wilson (History Instructor at Lawson State Community College), putting this topic in the context of United States history.
Stefan opened by claiming there was silence in Germany after World War II, likely due to embarrassment and shame of the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Schlüeter insisted we must keep the memory alive and never forget the millions who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Although there is an obvious presence of the country’s past, since the 1960s, German students have learned about the Third Reich in which he explained the teaching style and age of the student can mold how one processes this information; therefore, it is pivotal how one is taught. Such attempts to highlight and critique bigotry are a work in progress as we’ve clearly witnessed a resurgence of populism throughout Europe and North America.
The subsequent panel discussion centered on three main questions: How do we talk about the past? Who owns the past? How do we come to terms with the past? As a result of Birmingham’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement, the discussion largely addressed the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States.
The discussion began by addressing how Americans are forgetting about controversial moments in history such as the Holocaust and Civil Rights Movement. This generated discussion about the possibility of mandating education of these histories, to ensure such events are never forgotten or to occur again. Wilson explained how he takes his students to museums, so they can view archives and artifact preservation behind the scenes, giving history a tangible presence. The panel then suggested there are holes in history and how bridging them with more information can cultivate nuanced discussion.
As for memorials, such as The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, it was suggested they be accompanied by information about the events as well as add individual narratives to the numbers of those who experienced oppression. The use of storytelling puts a face to a story, such as Harriet Tubman, and is better suited to resonate with audiences. Although, we can’t just change laws that mandate education, we need to change heart and minds of those who might carry attitudes that reflect the past.
When discussion centered on who owns the past, the panel demonstrated mixed feelings. It was argued that because we are all linked to history, we all own it. However, it was also demonstrated how depictions of history are predicated on power, leading to critiques of about Civil Rights education such as the lack of teaching around activist tactics and methods of the opposition. Such critiques beg us to further investigate these events and amplify the voices of people missing from these histories.
Following the panel discussion, audience members contributed to the discussion with their own questions such as: To what extent should Civil Rights education be focused on shock value? How do we integrate the legacy of colonialism into these teachings? What does it mean to be a good ally? Ultimately, dignifying these questions not only give us a more informed, honest account of history but also ensures those who need their voices heard the most are afforded their agency and liberation.
On Thursday, September 13, the Institute for Human Rights had the opportunity to host Joan Rater and Tony Phelan, parents to actor and student Tom Phelan; and Brianna Patterson, a transgender activist, veteran, former firefighter and UAB health educator. Joan covered her journey as a parent supporting her transgender son and advocating for trans representation on television, while Brianna shared her story of being a transwoman from the South, moving from social isolation to embracing her womanhood.
Joan opened with a presentation titled “Transforming My Family”, where she spoke about Tom’s transition that began at 17 but addressed his once reserved feelings about his gender. Tom was very confident as child, but this withered with his teens, becoming suicidal and even briefly moving from Malibu to Boston with his family so he could receive outpatient treatment. One day, after his mental health improved, while being dropped off at school, Joan and Tony received an email from Tom as he walked to class. The email was Tom’s proclamation of being transgender, at the time using they/them/their pronouns, while including resources for his parents to better understand. Usage of the internet and technology has proven to be a positive resource, not only for people in the transgender community to communicate, but to inform allies about the transgender experience, allowing to amplify these traditionally marginalized voices.
A year into his transition, with support of his parents, Tom pursued “top surgery” which is the process of removing one’s breasts through medical procedure. As soon as he had his doctor’s approval to workout, he began jogging without a shirt, feeling a sense of liberation. Soon after, Tom debated the idea of hormone therapy that would ultimately change his voice, becoming a compromise between his options as an actor and happiness. Tom chose the latter, eventually leading to a role as a trans teen, Cole, on ABC Family’s The Fosters. Once Joan saw her son’s role validating the experience of transgender fans, she saw it was her and Tony’s obligation, as television producers/screenwriters, to amplify such voices through media representation. This led to emergence CBS’s Doubt, including Laverne Cox as Cam, a transgender law graduate from Yale University who often litigated for underrepresented clients, contributing to the mainstreaming of complex, genuine transgender identities.
She then demonstrated the importance of voting in support of transgender rights and, if possible, donating to people and organizations who fight injustice professionally. Joan closed by insisting that when facing transphobia, we must be brave and cannot allow intolerance to go unchecked.
Brianna Patterson, an Alabama native and current health educator at UAB’s 1917 Clinic, shared the challenges and accomplishments throughout her journey, including her transition that began in 2012. Brianna expressed the first time she “felt different” was in 1st grade, not knowing how to identify these feelings and consistently using the girls’ restroom. Also, with being raised by strict grandparents, Brianna claimed to have been disciplined violently when caught experimenting with her grandmother’s clothes. At the age of 14, Brianna experienced her first suicide attempt, followed by self-isolation in high school, poor grades and an immediate retreat to the United State Marine Corps (USMC) at 17.
Brianna felt her new home in the USMC gave her the unconditional love she didn’t receive back home. Although, she described having internalized transphobia because she didn’t feel masculine enough. However, after serving her term in USMC, which included tours during the Somalian civil war, Brianna, still, didn’t feel masculine enough. This led to her joining the fire service at a local department in Alabama, which she served for 23 years. Toward the end of this career, Brianna pursued hormone therapy, but was first refused care by nine different physicians throughout the state, demonstrating the discrimination transgender patients experience in the health care field. One day, after producing her driver license with her new name, following a traffic accident, the local officer spread the word about Brianna’s identity. As a result, two years before being eligible for retirement, the city council voted to demote Brianna’s Captain status, highlighting how Alabama doesn’t provide protections for the transgender community.
Soon after, Brianna finished her Master’s in Public Health, first working for Planned Parenthood and now representing UAB’s 1917 Clinic, a job she loves because she gets to address vaccine education, recruit research participants and address health issues salient to the transgender community. Although there was a silver lining in Brianna’s story, many don’t include such an ending, demonstrating the need for local, national and international protections for the transgender community.
Following Joan and Brianna’s presentations, the guests, alongside Tony, fielded questions from the audience, including insurance coverage for gender confirmation surgery, internet support networks, advice for coming out and how to be a genuine ally to the transgender community. Brianna responded to the latter by confidently saying, “The best way to be an ally: Treat everyone like a human being. Educate yourself. And if you wouldn’t ask a cis woman that question, you shouldn’t ask a trans woman that question.”
August 6, 2018 marked the fifty-third anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson signed this legislation in the hopes that it would end discriminatory practices that made it difficult for African Americans and other people to vote.
As idealistic as it was, the legislation did not stop such difficulties. Like other laws, the Voting Rights Act has produced mixed results.
But, given recent developments, it appears that the legislation has done more good than harm. Enforcing its measures has supported the voting efforts of many people, while suppressing its measures has had the opposite effect.
What Is the History Behind the Voting Rights Act?
Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stated that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
But, for decades, authorities still found ways to disenfranchise African Americans, immigrants, and the poor. They issued literacy tests under the pretense that only the educated should allowed to vote. They levied poll taxes that charged people fees to vote. U.S. women, of course, faced blatant discrimination, too, since they did not have the right to vote until 1920.
Protests against disenfranchisement and other violations of human and civil rights, especially in the 1960s, shone spotlights on these injustices. This publicity sometimes came at great costs to the participants.
Protesters sometimes needed medical care due to the brutal treatment they received at the hands of police or civilian vigilantes. Vicious beatings, attacks from police dogs, blasts from fire hoses, and death threats were common tactics used against the protesters.
Some attacks were even worse. Some people lynched or shot protesters who questioned the status quo.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner traveled to Mississippi in June, 1964 to advocate for educational and voting opportunities for African Americans. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) murdered them. The KKK members did not face criminal prosecution for the crime at the time.
Decades later, in 2005, a local newspaper investigation produced evidence that helped lead to the conviction of a local Klansman. But, even then, justice was muted, since the Klansman’s conviction was on charges of manslaughter, not murder.
People thus used both discriminatory legislation and outright illegal intimidation to prevent African Americans from voting. The Voting Rights Act aimed to end these tactics.
What Did the Voting Rights Act Do?
Partly, at least for a time. The Voting Rights Act significantly increased the number of African American voters in some areas. In Mississippi, six percent of African Americans voted in 1964. Just five years later, sixty-nine percent of African Americans voted in Mississippi.
Because of the Voting Rights Act, states and local governments are no longer able to issue tests that restrict some people from voting. It is no longer legal for authorities to intimidate people physically, mentally, or financially in order to prevent them from participating in government affairs.
To enforce the act, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act created a coverage formula to determine if jurisdictions complied with the act. As part of this formula, the federal government monitored jurisdictions that had discriminated against voters in the past.
Suspend literary tests or other tests used to determine whether people were eligible to vote.
Submit themselves to review by the U.S. attorney general or Washington DC’s district court if the jurisdictions made voting-related changes.
Agree to be under the review of federal examiners who would prepare lists of eligible voters.
Work with federal observers in jurisdictions with federal examiners.
Allow people who have attended foreign-language elementary schools to vote.
Provide information and voting opportunities for non-English speakers.
Many of the stipulations in the coverage formula required federal oversight if jurisdictions wanted to change election procedures or laws, a process known as preclearance. Preclearance was the law of the land for decades, but it was not without its criticism.
The criticism prompted many challenges and lawsuits, which culminated in the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder. This decision invalidated the coverage formula and said that the U.S. Congress could create new coverage formulas, but Congress has not done so.
What Do Voting Rights Look Like Today?
Less oversight has eroded the Voting Rights Act and voters’ rights in general. Despite this legislation and the gains it brought, people are finding an increasing number of barriers to voting.
A growing number of jurisdictions have added requirements for voting or are asking voters to consider such requirements:
Many states require people to possess specific forms of identification, such as driver’s licenses, in order to vote. Many older or disabled adults do not have such identification, so it can make it difficult for them to register to vote.
Alabama closed thirty-one offices that issued driver’s licenses in 2015 even though the state had strict laws that required voters to show identification, such as driver’s licenses, in order to vote. Many of the offices were located in areas with high African American populations and were reopened due to criticism.
North Carolina residents will vote in November 2018 to determine if the state should add an amendment to the state constitution stating that voters will need photo identification to vote in future elections. A federal court struck down a similar North Carolina law in 2016.
Wisconsin residents at a 2018 hearing testified that changes in their voting districts had spread Democratic Party voters across such a large geographic area that their votes were rendered less powerful. Critics also claim that the state has excessively strict voter ID laws that disproportionately affect Democratic Party and African American voters.
Wisconsin residents voted for Republican Party candidate Donald Trump over Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump’s narrow victory in Wisconsin helped him win the Electoral College and the presidency.
If Wisconsin’s Democratic Party voters were in fact suppressed, voter suppression could have decided the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Voter suppression thus could have wide-ranging consequences.
Why Are Voting Rights Important?
As the case of Wisconsin indicates, changing the voting districts can muffle citizens’ voices – and those are people who are allowed to register and cast votes. Voter suppression laws also make it difficult for people to even register to vote in the first place.
But, voting is a fundamental tool of citizenship. It enables people to express their opinions through their ballots. In the words of Ajanet Rountree, voting invites people to join the “political and social narrative.”
If people cannot vote, they cannot join this discussion. If disabled people lack certain types of photo IDs in states that require such IDs, or if they are not able to arrange transportation to the polling places, they will be unable vote or even to register to vote.
The disabled people might miss opportunities to vote for candidates or issues that have direct bearing on their lives. For example, they might miss the opportunity to vote for a candidate who consistently votes in favor of expanded Medicaid coverage.
The suppressed voters might rely on Medicaid to pay for their considerable medical expenses. But, if they do not have adequate Medicaid coverage, they could experience problems with their physical and mental health. This lack of Medicaid coverage could even affect the people’s finances and living situations if their rent/mortgage money has to be reallocated to pay for their rising medical costs. Not being able to vote could thus directly impact people in several ways.
Proponents of strict ID laws say that the requirements can help prevent voter fraud. But, observers note that voter fraud appears to be more common among people who use absentee ballots, people who are predominantly white. ID requirements do not typically address absentee ballots.
Voter identification laws disproportionately affect nonwhite voters. Writing in Newsweek, Mirren Gidda noted that “the turnout gaps between white and ethnic minority voters are far higher in states where people must show ID during or after voting.”
Others commentators echo these findings. “[R]esearchers found that strict ID laws doubled the turnout gap between whites and Latinos in the general elections, and almost doubled the white-black turnout gap in primary elections,” wrote Vann R. Newkirk II in The Atlantic.
Because of this disparity, organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have worked to challenge discriminatory laws and enforce the provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The NAACP sued Alabama after the closure of many driver’s license offices and was active in the Shelby County v. Holder case.
Organizations such as Let America Vote are hoping to invite more people to join the civic discussion. The organization includes information about registering to vote and voter guides to different elections. It supports candidates in different states who have worked to uphold voter rights.
The NAACP and Let America Vote join other organizations that promote enfranchisement. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website includes a wealth of information about its advocacy and other efforts to promote voting rights.
Voter suppression currently exists. But, if we utilize the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other efforts that support voting, we can work to restore and enforce this fundamental right of democracy.
About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor interested in current events, history, health, business, and a wide variety of other topics.
**Today is the 64th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision. The decision acknowledged and established the unconstitutionality of the notion “separate but equal”. This blog is a repost from the fall.
What do you think of when you hear the word “segregation”? You probably flash back to your high school history class, when you learned about the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bus boycotts, the Little Rock Nine, and Ruby Bridges. Segregation is something we generally think of in the past-tense, as a phenomenon that occurred throughout much of history but ended in the 1960s. A common assumption is that these issues of racial discrimination and segregation on a systematic level are over. However, this is not the case. Schools in the United States seem to be going through rapid re-segregation. A reminder of our nation’s shameful past of dehumanizing and oppressing people on the basis of skin color, the idea is a hard pill to swallow. Many people find it difficult to come terms with our history and find it even more difficult to admit that serious issues related to race are still present in our society.
In 2010, Jefferson County opened Gardendale High School, one of the few high schools in the county that were actually well-integrated. By 2012, the campaigning for the secession of the schools of Gardendale from the district school system had begun. The concept of city school systems has grown increasingly popular in recent years. Many communities believe that it would be best if the taxes from their local areas only contribute to local schools. They have made claims that they believe that this would greatly improve the academic success of schools. In the case of Gardendale, these claims are not well supported. Creating a new school system would actually make it more difficult for students to attend the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate school (JCIB), which has been ranked by the Washington Post as the best school in Alabama and the seventeenth best school in the country. In order to attend JCIB, students would have to pay $1,500 in out-of-district tuition. In 2013, the Gardendale City Council voted to create a separate school system, and a new property tax was implemented later that year in order to fund the new system. An all-white school board and superintendent were then appointed for the system.
However, there were still obstacles for the new school system. Jefferson County is still under the desegregation order from the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Gardendale would have to receive approval from Birmingham’s federal court in order to secede from the district. There were three main forces that all agreed that allowing Gardendale to secede would create significant problems for the efforts to continue desegregation. Representing the black children of Jefferson County was Legal Defense Fund Lawyer, Monique Lin-Luse. The Obama administration had involved the revitalizing of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Jefferson County had just hired a new superintendent who was dedicated to desegregation. Though the residential area of Gardendale is 88% white, the schools are 25% black due to the busing of students from North Smithfield. For the majority of residents who want a completely separate school system for the city, the goal is to have a system that contains only students who live in Gardendale. Though this would not completely remove all of the black students, it would seriously reduce the number of them.
In the court decision regarding the Gardendale school system, the judge, Madeline Hughes Haikala, found that the motivation for the secession of Gardendale was undoubtedly based in a desire to control the racial demographics of the city’s schools. Despite this, Gardendale was not exactly denied their request. For the 2017-2018 school year, the city of Gardendale is operating Gardendale Elementary School and Snow Rogers Elementary independently from Jefferson County. If the city is able to run the schools for three years “in good faith,” then they have a chance at a full secession from the district. They were given three requirements. First, they are obligated to appoint a black board member to the school-board. Second, they must work with the plaintiffs of the decision and the Justice Department to create a desegregation plan for the new district. Lastly, they must either give up Gardendale High School, which was paid for by the residents of Jefferson County, or repay the $33 million that the county spent building the school. If Gardendale can show “sufficient” evidence of integration, then they will be released from the court order.
The release from this court order would be much more significant than one might think. Let us consider Central High School in Tuscaloosa, whose city school system was released from its desegregation order in 2000. By the 1980s, Central had developed into a very well-integrated school. However, after the desegregation order ended, and a new school was built in the mostly white and affluent part of the county, 99% of the Central High School students were black. Combined with the United States’ long history of systematic racism and economic disparities, this also led to the school having higher rates of poverty and less access to important academic resources. This shows that even a “sufficiently” integrated school has the potential to re-segregate without a desegregation order.
Clearly, the inequalities re-segregation creates between black and white students are unjust and need to be addressed, but it is important to realize that re-segregation is wrong regardless of whether or not it has negative impacts on black students. Even in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Brown family was not pursuing the issue because of a dissatisfaction with the quality of education at the all black school their daughter attended, but because black and white children should not be separated simply because of race.
When it comes to specific cases, such as in Gardendale, it can be easy to be misled by what seem to reasonable claims, such as the improving of education, that do not actually have any solid support. We have to pay attention to the larger scale impacts of situations like the one in Gardendale. If we do not pay full attention to the things that are happening, we can overlook serious effects of seemingly small situations. Tuscaloosa and Gardendale are just two of many places in Alabama where systematic racism is still very much a living issue. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent or to think that racism is over. The fact of the matter is that slavery occurred over hundreds of years, and legal racial segregation continued long after that. It would be foolish to believe that everything would be perfect only 63 years after the Brown v Board decision and 53 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Change takes time and diligence. This makes it absolutely necessary that we be fully aware of what is going on in our own backyard.
I was enthused and a bit trepidatious when professor Madden-Lunsford announced we would be attending, as a class, the lecture of a Holocaust survivor and an African American woman whose father had been lynched when she was a child. I knew their stories would be both amazing and difficult to hear.
During my undergraduate studies in the early 90’s at Auburn University at Montgomery, I took a history course on the Holocaust. Before the course I had considered myself knowledgeable of the Holocaust. I discovered how ignorant I was when I learned of: the depth and breadth of the brutality and mass murder; the willing collusion of many nations and millions of people; how many nations including the U.S. denied sanctuary by not increasing immigration visas; how entire educated societies and cultures readily accepted the expansion of racism and anti-semitism to point whole scale genocide without question, because it fed their fear and anger; the discovery that if a group can be successfully scapegoated almost anything can be done to them, with little resistance, because to defend a scapegoat with logic and reason is to become a scapegoat. The most shocking discovery for me was that despite mountains of irrefutable evidence, the number of Holocaust deniers was growing. The knowledge I learned in that course changed me permanently and profoundly. I lost much of my faith in mankind. For a period of time during and following the class I suffered recurring nightmares.
Before entering the class I had naively believed that such an event could never happen again. I now know that not only could it be repeated, but that it has, in Cambodia, and most recently Sudan.
However, I also discovered that individual human courage was boundless and that miracles large and small happen. That was where my last personal seed of hope took refuge.
It is with this background and knowledge that I intellectually looked forward to, and was emotionally apprehensive of, hearing Riva Hirsch and Josephine McCall speak. I knew that these women were and are courageous. I wanted to be near that courage and learn from it.
Riva is a force of nature. She spoke of her own miracles; being found in Ukraine by people who spoke German and because of her Yiddish background being able to understand them (She referred to Yiddish as Jewish and I hoped that didn’t confuse too many people in the audience); the guard not looking underneath the carriage where she was hiding during her flight to safety; being hidden by a nun, who also spoke German, and that nun paying the ultimate sacrifice for helping her. When she spoke of being all alone in the forest, battling malnutrition, typhus, malaria, and hordes of lice, I knew she was made of far sterner stuff than I.
Riva spoke of her father’s business and how her family and his workers were a close knit group, an extended family before the war came to the Ukraine. Yet, for fear of putting themselves and their families in danger, these workers shut their doors to Riva and her family during their flight. Only one offered temporary refuge and only after Riva’s mother gave him all her jewels. As Riva spoke, so many of the atrocities I had learned of in that Holocaust course came back to the forefront of my mind. My faith in mankind was eroding again.
Though I had girded myself for Riva’s story, Josephine, was like so many neighbors, coworkers, and friends I have known over the years. I had heard voices like hers over countless retail counters, through back screen doors and hollered from front porches. Her soft Blackbelt accent lulled me into a sense of comfort.
Riva’s story had taken place in WWII era Ukraine; a place I had only known through books and movies. But, I am familiar with Lowndes County, Alabama. I spent my childhood in neighboring Montgomery county. I had crossed Lowndes county many times on both the Old Selma Road and Highway 80. I knew the upper echelons of white society in Lowndes county were mockingly referred to as cornbread millionaires. They lived in antebellum mansions full of antiques; they were land rich but money poor. So much so, that if you went to their homes for supper, the only thing they could afford to serve in their heirloom china and silver was cornbread and beans with hog meat. I had heard it discussed that this facade and lack of resources made whites in Lowndes County particularly brutal in their treatment of black folks.
I am well steeped in the culture and nuances of Southern race relations. Though my experience of it is as a white male, born in 1964. This was the first time I had heard someone speak personally of the loss of a family member at the hands of open, socially sanctioned racist. I was surprised to learn that lynching was defined as death at the hands of three or more people and was not limited to death by hanging. I should not have been as surprised, as I was, when Josephine informed the audience that indenture (the practice of holding someone on your land as a laborer if they owed you a debt, essentially de facto slavery) was still enforced by they law in Lowndes County in 1947.
Josephine stated that her father, Elmore Bolling’s crime in the eyes of white men was that he had succeeded and purchased land, resulting in a white woman having to move off the property. Even though Mr. Bolling helped the women move and found her exactly the accommodation she wanted, his actions still constituted a crime against an unwritten social code, punishable by death.
I knew whites who thought this way, including many within my own family. They believed that all black men were lazy and stupid. Therefore, if a black man succeeded and had wealth, he must have cheated a white man or had help from interfering Northern whites and/or the Federal Government, which was the same as cheating a white man.
That was what was most disturbing for me about Josephine’s story. Her father’s murderers could have been friends of my grandparents or distant relations. Many people within my family were certainly capable of such a crime. Even the more moderate older family members believed that if a black man was lynched he must have done something stupid to put himself in harms way.
Both Riva and Josephine talked about how we must continue to speak up and talk about such atrocities and not let the deniers corrupt history and attempt to repeat it. Silence is the enemy of justice.
My lack of faith in mankind was growing. I wondered if speaking out was enough. The attitudes of many whites I know, especially those young enough to know better, is still shockingly racist. Just this week, I spoke with a friend who teaches high school English. She was distraught because a student had turned in an essay that was essentially a white supremest manifesto. The student was not a child on the fringe but rather a well liked person very popular in the high school social structure. I am often gobsmacked when I hear well educated white colleagues use the N-word, assuming I am as racist as they. I looked around at the audience in attendance and found them to very simpatico with the Riva and Josephine. The people who most needed to hear the speakers were not there. Just last night the local CBS news reported that according to the Anti-defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents were at a twenty year high. Up 47% in just the last two years.
I am honored to have heard Riva and Josephine’s stories and bask in the presence of their courage. I will speak up and continue to seek to root out my own internal vestiges of racism.
I spoke to Josephine after the presentation. We chuckled about Lowndes County’s cornbread millionaires. She told me where her father’s historical maker, that she had worked so hard to get erected, was located in Lowndesboro, just two hundred yards from the yellow flashing caution light. I knew the spot.
I spoke of my racist father who carried a badge and a gun for the Montgomery police force for twenty-five years and then twenty years more as an Alabama State Trooper. I told her, with dismay, of my father’s braggadocios, I heard as child, after he had a few beers. He told how he and his friends in high school would lay in wait in the dark, to catch the black men walking to town along the railroad tracks on Saturday night to visit their wives or girlfriends who were domestics and nannies in town. They subjected these men to humiliations and tortures. Their favorite being to strip them of their clothes and put them in the trunk of a car. They would release them naked on the highway, hands bound with lit firecrackers tied to their ankles and backside. My father always smiled with glee when he told these exploits. Josephine, compassionate and understanding of my grief over having such a father, clasp my hand and nodded. She was familiar with these kinds of events.
I left the lecture remembering that in my youth, in the seventies and eighties, I had believed by now we, as a society, would have a more level field of justice and opportunity for all, and that hate crimes would become fewer and fewer as society became more enlightened and heterogenous. However, as I walked to my car, a fear chewed at me. Was the leveling so many had fought for, and were still fighting for, beginning to slope again, becoming muddy and slippery, rising in elevation to the disadvantage and injustice of minorities? Will there be enough voices speaking up to again seek a leveling? History does not make me hopeful.
Leonard Lee Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Auburn University at Montgomery. He is a non-degree seeking graduate student in writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham. He won a Hackney award in 2012 for short fiction. He has told stories for The Moth Radio Hour
In honor of the 50thAnniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Institute for Human Rights is publishing various outlooks on the life and contributions of Dr. King. This is the second entry in the series.
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9
The Peacemaker Defined
When confronted by a system permitting injustice, denying universal human rights, and thwarting peace for marginalized groups, many of us are deeply unsettled. To fully understand the destruction humans have wrought on one another is to simultaneously accept one’s own capacity to perpetuate evil in the world. Humans are capable of peace and war, justice and violence. A critical question arises here: what compels an individual to choose peace in the face of adversity? What inspires an individual to rise above violence, utilizing an ethos of peace as both a means and an end? In short, how can we become peacemakers?
Informed from many interviews of indigenous persons weaving peace from conflict, Marc Gopin offers the following personal traits that embody the peacemaker:
A strong sense of ethnic roots that is combined paradoxically with universal love
An embrace of love and the way of the heart as the key to peace
A consistent desire to seek out shared values across the boundaries of groups
A desire for leadership through social network creation
Long-term engagement with adversaries and faith in the value of ongoing debate and slow and steady influence
In Bridges Across an Impossible Divide, Gopin (2012) is quick to add that any and all of us can be peacemakers – if we so choose. It boils down to choice: choosing how to move through conflict, choosing to leave the world better than we found it.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Peacemaker
There is no doubt Dr. King ushered a new wholeness to American culture. His contributions to American society are legendary: leading the American Civil Rights Movement, raising collective American consciousness to address structural discrimination, and developing innovative strategies of nonviolent social protest still used throughout the globe. He taught a generation of civil and human rights footsoldiers, he constructed new theological language grounded in human equality, and he personally transformed the lives of those around him. He was a person of immense spiritual power– calling on his training as a man of the cloth to inform his philosophy and theology demanding racial equality in the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among the most prominent and revered peacemakers the world has ever seen.
Per Gopin’s definition, peacemaking describes not only works but also the personality of an individual. Being a peacemaker is not just directing policy change or charismatic leadership, but an ethos of resilient gentleness, and formidable commitment to the transformation of conflict to better the human experience. It is an understanding that peacemaking is not a vocation – it is a divine calling. Today, we remember that his faith and deeds literally transformed the soul of America. Dr. King was a true American peacemaker.
Gopin, M. (2012). Bridges across an impossible divide: The inner lives of Arab and Jewish peacemakers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
** The succession of package bombings presently terrorizing the citizens of Texas has prompted a repost of this blog.
After the events in Charlottesville and the incredible outpouring of hate and violence, many of us are wondering – what can I do to confront hate, white supremacy, and racism? I know that many of us feel disheartened, furious, or even helpless in the face of evil. What can we do to take action?
Here is a practical guide based on my experience in human rights and peace advocacy.
1. Know your human rights.
This is an important step that often gets forgotten. Learning the content and extent of basic human rights will give you the tools and language to confront hate. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the key document guiding human rights advocacy. It is based on the universality, inalienability, and indivisibility of human rights and is founded on the core values of equality, non-discrimination, and human dignity. Each human life is of equal value, and the human rights of all are worth fighting for.
Discrimination, suppression, racism, marginalization, and violence against individuals or groups are human rights violations that must be confronted. There are many different ways to do that: by reporting human rights violations to the authorities or other entities (e.g., you can report civil rights violations to the ACLU; if you are at UAB, you can contact the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), by documenting them, or by learning about them and educating others. You can learn more about international human rights by visiting the website of the United Nations Human Rights and by reading our blog, in which we cover international human rights issues.
2. Speak up in the face of injustice.
Once you know what human rights and human rights violations are, I encourage you to pay attention and speak up in the face of injustice. Document, record, and monitor what’s going on around you. Pay attention to what happens in your everyday life, and if you see injustice, say something. Notice if someone speaks over your colleague of color or always disrespects the points made by the women on your team. Think about diversity when creating a job ad. Call your friend out on that racist or sexist joke. Talk to your relatives about your views (I know, that is a hard one). If you feel uncomfortable confronting the perpetrator, team up with others who agree with your view that racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. are unacceptable. Again, document and report what happened and find a way to inform authorities, your diversity officer, or your equal opportunity department. Look for ways to empower the victim by expressing your support, talking to him/her, and educating them about their human rights.
The goal is to make “every day” suppression of a specific group based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability status just as unacceptable as the violence and hatred in Charlottesville. It’s these “normal”, hidden human rights violations that are particularly dangerous to our society and that we have to confront together.
3. Be aware of your own biases.
The last months, and especially the events last weekend in Charlottesville, have shown that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and any other systematic suppression of specific groups has become socially acceptable in certain circles. Racism is now fully in the open; white supremacists feel emboldened to show their faces while expressing their hateful views. This has an impact of how we view ourselves and our position in society. It is on all of us – and especially on white people – to confront hate. As a former neo-Nazi said to the Huffington Post, “White people need to solve the problem of white supremacy. It’s white people’s problem, we created it, and it’s a problem we need to fix.”
It is incredibly important to be aware of your own biases (and we all have them). Realize if you cross the street when a black man walks towards you. Notice if you assume that someone is less competent because she is a woman, a person of color, or Muslim. Think about systemic racism and structural violence in your own environment and find ways to confront them. Actively learn about how our society has grown to marginalize some to the benefit of others.
One of the ways to overcome some of these biases and stereotypes is to engage with those who are different. Research reveals that interpersonal contact is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice, a theory usually referred to as “contact hypothesis”. I encourage you to reach out and make new friends outside of your race, religion, and gender.
4. Join a movement or a cause that fits your passions and interests.
Obviously, being aware is not enough. Join a movement and talk with others who feel the same. Look for a rally in your community. Organize a vigil. Participate in a discussion. Engage with others. Get together formally or informally. Look for opportunities to talk. Here in Birmingham, you can become part of the StandAsOne Coalition . If you are a UAB student, you can join the Students for Human Rights student club or come talk to us at the Institute for Human Rights.
It is important to find a cause that fits your interests, your passion, and your skills. I know I said this before – not all of us are born to be activists or community organizers. We cannot all become Martin Luther Kings, Nelson Mandelas, or Leymah Gbowees. But we all can contribute by supporting the movement. Maybe you have great writing or social media skills. Maybe you like to organize or have great experience on how to implement ideas. Maybe you know about technology. Maybe you love public speaking. Think about what you are good at and how your skill and talent can be used to move the cause forward.
5. Call your representatives.
One of the most effective ways to achieve policy change in this country is to call your representatives. It is a very easy and quick thing to do. FYI – calling is much more impactful than writing an email, Facebook message, or letter. The message can be brief and go something like this:
My name is ____________________.
I live in Representative/Senator ______________________ ‘s district. (Since you can vote for/against the legislator, your opinion is more important.)
(At some point the staff will probably ask you for your zip code. This helps them verify that you do live in their district.)
I would like Representative/Senator _________________ to denounce the violence and hate in Charlottesville (or support any other cause relating to human rights, civil rights, etc.) (This is a general request.)
I would like Rep/Senator _________________ to vote in favor of House Bill XYZ/Senate Bill XYZ (This is a specific request.)
You can also include a personal story of how your human rights have been violated or about injustices you observed. Keep it brief and to the point.
Thank you, __________________ for your time.
Please be polite to the staff (which is who you will most likely get on the line). The staff does not have influence on the decision-making process, but they will record your call. They do not mind taking opposing views as long as the conversation is civil.
Educating others about the dangers of evil is key to confronting hate. The movement will grow momentum by gaining new members. Education does not necessarily have to be formal (as in “let me sit you down and tell you about human rights”, although this is important too), it can be informal, by leading by example, or by bringing a friend along to a conversation you’re having. It can happen person to person, on social media, or any other platform you use to connect with others. Creating art, poems, and performances are incredible ways to get your point across to people who might find formal education doesn’t resonate with them.
Personally, I think it is such a privilege to be an educator. It is one of my favorite parts of my job to talk to students about issues that affect the world and to encourage them to learn more about these topics. You can do that too: Teach your children (or your nieces, nephews, cousins…) about kindness, human rights, and peace building. Teach them also about systemic suppression, racism, and the way our society has oppressed minorities. Talk to them about what bothers you and what you would like to achieve. You don’t have to be a professor or teacher to educate others. You have learned about human rights, and sharing this knowledge with others will be useful not only to them, but also to you. It will help you specify your ideas and clarify what you deem most important.
One of the fastest and easiest opportunities to make an impact is to donate to an organization that fights for human rights or civil rights. We at the Institute would certainly appreciate your donation because raising awareness for human rights is our daily business – thank you for thinking about it – and here are some other organizations to consider as well:
Finally, and most importantly, self-care is incredibly important for all of us who work in advocacy. Confronting hatred, violence, and suppression is a big task, and honestly, it is exhausting, depressing, and hard to deal with mentally and physically. It is easy to get discouraged and to give up. It is therefore important to know what you can do (and what you cannot do), what you are willing to do, and what your priorities are. You cannot do everything, but if everyone does their part, we will eventually get there, step by step. Focus on the local level, your own community as a start. That is how we change the world – person by person.
Also, make sure you do not get overloaded with terrible news. Take care of your needs and shut down Facebook, Twitter, cable news, etc. when you start to feel overwhelmed. Enjoy time with your friends and family. Be kind to yourself and realize that real progress takes patience.
Remember, we are in this together. We can do it, one step at a time.
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.