Civil rights and the vote: yesterday and today

During the 2015 International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies conference in Alabama, PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau developed a travelogue about the discoveries she and her colleagues made. Those thoughts seemed even more poignant for this Election Day.

Amid ongoing national commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act, in Philadelphia, people are being enticed to vote tomorrow with a chance to win $10,000.

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau poses at the Civil Rights Memorial Center with Julius Erven McSwain, her bus mate and a veteran investigator for the City of Omaha's Human Rights and Relations Department.

PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau poses at the Civil Rights Memorial Center with Julius Erven McSwain, her bus mate and a veteran investigator for the City of Omaha’s Human Rights and Relations Department.

It comes in stark contrast of the tour of the Yellowhammer State Landau and dozens of others committed to social justice work traveled the routes to the places where men, women and children chose to stand for equality and fight for their right to vote, facing improbable and daunting odds.

Among the hosts for this trip was Birmingham Mayor William Bell, who co-chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ My Brother’s Keeper initiative, along with Mayor Michael A. Nutter. Bell also chairs the U.S. Coalition of Cities Against Racism for the conference.

Those gathered heard from people such as former U.S. Attorney G. Douglas Jones, who led the cold case prosecution of former Ku Klux Klansman, some 40 years after their infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and retired federal judge U.W. Clemon, who handled school desegregation cases throughout North Alabama, including the vaunted University of Alabama’s football program in 1969. He also was one of two African Americans elected to the Alabama Senate post-Reconstruction, in 1974.

“For the past 150 years, states, mostly southern, have come up with schemes to overcome the 15th Amendment,” Clemon said. “That’s why we marched. That’s why the marching hasn’t stopped.

“It’s about the right to meaningfully participate in the American Democracy. The crown jewel in any nation is the right to vote.”

His words blended in with those of iconic and hidden heroes of the movement, from the Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian to youth activists-turned-marchers who today are keepers of the flame, such as Joanne Bland, who served as a tour guide during the conference.

Kirk Carrington and Ruth Brown Anthony were youngsters during the march across the Pettus Bridge, but they were fully aware of what their actions meant. "When you don't vote, it hurts me," Carrington said. "It was our blood spilled on that bridge to get the right to vote, and now people don't exercise that right?" Anthony added.

Kirk Carrington and Ruth Brown Anthony were youngsters during the march across the Pettus Bridge, but they were fully aware of what their actions meant. “When you don’t vote, it hurts me,” Carrington said. “It was our blood spilled on that bridge to get the right to vote, and now people don’t exercise that right?” Anthony added.

The presentations were seminal for attendees such as Akia Haynes, deputy director and general counsel for the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

“Reopening the case of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the conviction in 2001 was one of the reasons I went to law school,” Haynes said. “If this doesn’t change you, if you don’t feel something, then you’re in the wrong line of work.”

In addition to the speakers, there were a host of workshops and presentations, such as the session Landau moderated on community-police relations. For many of the participants, the entire IAOHRA conference was a powerful experience.

“I’ve gone to corners of my mind that I’ve never been to before,” said Cheryl Sharp, deputy director of the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

And it was deeply impactful for more than just the African American attendees.

“This tour made it clear to me that this was not so long ago,” said Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, one of the largest in the nation. “Despite the Voting Rights Act, people are still living in such economically deprived communities.

“We have not done a good job of teaching our children about the need for fundamental human rights. We can’t always expect the generation that’s suffered to talk about it all the the time. The next generation needs to talk about it,” he said. “We need to honor the reality of the marchers and advance to a higher level.”

Landau agreed.

“The real-life history tour was a life-changing, soul-feeding experience,” she said. “From sitting in the pews of the 16th Street Baptist Church to hearing directly from the people who marched and risked their lives to make the Voting Rights Act a reality.

“I made connections from the past to the present that affirmed why our work is so vitally important. While discrimination and inequality are less overt now, attempts to roll back our civil rights and voting rights continue.

“We must continue to zealously fight these efforts, to honor the struggle and sacrifices of those who came before us,” she added.

Take a virtual trip with her to Alabama and look at our civil rights history with a new lens, through the text, photos and video that follow.

Gain a perspective from Joanne Bland, who at 11 years old was one of the youngest agitators marching across the Pettus bridge — and one of the youngest to be arrested during the Civil Rights Movement.


My Brother’s Keeper Philly – next steps

Last fall, Mayor Michael A. Nutter publicly accepted President Obama’s challenge to create environments that would be more conducive for black and brown boys to be successful, given well-documented statistics that bear the sad reality of poor outcomes for too many of them, be they in Philadelphia or elsewhere in the nation.

With the launch of My Brother’s Keeper Philadelphia came a series of brainstorming sessions and conversations to assess what this city would need to strengthen in order to better guide these young men to a productive adulthood that’s starting to bear fruit. MBK Philly expects to issue its recommendations and action plan by the end of the month, unveiling it locally and presenting it to the White House. In many ways, it will further the efforts of the Mayor’s Commission on African-American Males.

“One of the unifying themes that came from these meetings was the need for a coordinated communications strategy with two ends,” said Erica Atwood, the city’s director of Black Male Engagement. “One, is to promote the positive stories of young men and boys of color by asking them to tell their stories, and two, that Philadelphia create an ‘Act or Fund’ campaign to encourage each of us to find a way to impact this work.”

At the center of that work are six areas that would allow black and brown boys — indeed all children here — to thrive better:

  • Entering school ready to learn
  • Reading at grade level by third grade
  • Graduating from high school ready for college or work
  • Finishing post-secondary education or training
  • Entering the workforce successfully
  • Reducing violence and providing a second chance

In the wake of strained police-community relations noted most recently in a report to President Obama on 21st century policing needs and increasing media reports indicating black and brown men tend to fare worse during such encounters, finding ways to stem those negative interactions earlier on is critical. It also brings greater urgency to initiatives such as MBK Philly.

Since the beginning, PCHR has been in the mix in helping how to think through and achieve these goals — lending insights on the issues and assisting some of the ensuing meetings as facilitators.

CRD representative Jonah Roll helps lead a conversation during a session at City Hall.

CRD representative Jonah Roll (c.) helps lead a conversation during a session at City Hall.

In fact, PCHR Deputy Director Randy Duque serves on the MBK Philly working committee, a group of some two dozen people who work throughout city government. The committee took the lead in convening additional listening and informational sessions with interested organizations and individuals willing to offer sound ideas on addressing the challenges outlined. And productively guiding conversations among diverse stakeholders is a tailor-made role for the Community Relations Division (CRD), a seasoned team trained in facilitation and conflict resolution skills, Duque said.

“I had proposed to the steering committee that the CRD could help keep everyone focused on the task at hand, and they did,” he added. “We got overwhelmingly positive feedback from the steering committee members and participants on how CRD brought people through the discussion topics.”

CRD representative Tierra Thompson makes sure the thoughts of the group are captured during a City Hall session.

CRD representative Tierra Thompson (c.) makes sure the thoughts of the group are captured during a City Hall session.

CRD representative Patricia Coyne clarifies a discussion point during a City Hall session.

CRD representative Patricia Coyne (r.) clarifies a discussion point during a City Hall session.

The series of targeted meetings that followed the initial kickoff ranged, from talking with leaders the School District of Philadelphia to those within Latino communities. Committee members also gleaned thoughts from young people, including those at the Juvenile Justice Services Center, those engaged in programs such as YouthBuild, PowerCorpPHL and the Youth Desk of the Liberian Ministers Association, among others.

Of course, unveiling the action plan will be another step along the journey, not the final destination. It will take more to accomplish those outlined goals, Atwood said, citing one young man’s view that applied aptly to students and adults alike.

“He said, ‘In order to make this work, we must be willing to be vulnerable. We must be honest, willing to acknowledge our shortcomings, our gaps in performance, our failures and our missed opportunities.’ And he’s right,” she added. “We all must be willing to work hard to reach a better outcome.”

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Being Our Brother’s Keeper in Philly

When President Barack Obama issued a national challenge in September for cities to become My Brother’s Keeper communities, Philadelphia seized upon it.


After all, with blacks and Latinos making up 57 percent of the city’s population, a wicked violence rate and sagging academic achievement among this large segment of our city, the president’s charge arrived like an SOS – one powered by neighbors to help save their neighbors.

It was with that sense of urgency that Mayor Michael A. Nutter convened the My Brother’s Keeper Philly summit, gathering thinkers, advocates, academics and advocates from the public and private sector together to start shaping how this initiative would look and what it would achieve. PCHR was among them.

Mayor Nutter opened the morning and set the stage for what lies ahead, describing the initiative as some of the most important work in which the city could engage, and should engage.

With dismal high school graduation and lackluster employment rates among Philadelphia’s black and brown males, failure to intervene would equate to draining the city of a valuable resource by failing to capture and convert talent.

The Center for American Progress just released a study noting that were the educational achievement gap experienced by black and brown children closed, the nation’s gross domestic product would rise by the trillions, and state and local tax receipts would increase in the billions annually. For economically struggling urban centers like Philadelphia, whose 12.2 percent poverty rate ranks it the poorest of the country’s big cities, that type of change would amount to considerable improvement.

Just the night before, he spoke about one of the deepest pains he experiences daily as mayor – the daily briefings from Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey that detail the murder and mayhem of the night before. Too often, the names of victims – and perpetrators – share commonalities: young, black, male and many times undereducated if not unemployed.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx helped put the challenge ahead in context, giving personal testimony from his own family. Hard work is half of the battle; having support along the way can carry you across the goal line.

But it begins with a mindset, Foxx said, quoting the legendary lawmaker Adam Clayton Powell Jr.:  “Freedom is an internal achievement rather than an external adjustment.”

Given the fact that there are more African-American men behind bars than were held in bondage at the height of slavery, it is clear that modern freedom requires greater inward work, Foxx said. It’s work that needs external support – from family, friends, neighbors, educators and employers, driving at the heart of this gathering and this national initiative.

“The good news is that the mayor’s office is dedicated to focusing its resources on this project,” PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau said. “We can lay the groundwork for a long-term initiative in the city.

“We are all responsible for the circumstances currently facing African-American and Latino boys and men, and we must all play a role in dismantling the current structure and creating new avenues for success. “

There were plenty invested in creating such avenues. Attendees grouped themselves thematically along the major goals of the initiative to ensure:

  • All children enter school cognitively, physically, socially and emotionally ready
  • All children read at grade level by 3rd grade
  • A 100 percent high school graduation rate
  • All young people complete post-secondary education or training
  • All young people out of school are working
  • All young people remain safe from violent crime

Inside the West Philadelphia Community Center in Mantua, the room was abuzz as education, employment, social and public safety considerations rose at every table.

The conversations around the tables were thoughtful, as well as frank, assessing what initiatives already are in place, what players need to be involved in these discussions moving forward and establishing concrete to-do’s, beginning in bite-sized chunks. From these discussions, the mayor’s team will establish a work plan, expected shortly.

The PCHR contribution will involve boosting violence prevention programs as well as enhancing employment prospects through broader education and cultural shifts such as through awareness of the city’s Ban the Box law.

“In order for My Brother’s Keeper Philly to be successful, the momentum needs to continue,” said Randy Duque, PCHR deputy director. “The leaders who attended must not only continue to collaborate, but also invigorate their respective agencies and organizations with the MBK initiative so that each can work fully in tandem at achieving the various goals generated.”

Long after the folding chairs are stacked in their closets at the community center, many will remember the words and story of Juan Jefferies.

Like many young men in this city, his life took a wrong turn, to the deep anguish of his parents who worked to steer him on a better road. But he gathered himself together with the help of programs such as PowerCORP PHL.

Now he’s an intern with the Philadelphia Water Department and a student at Community College of Philadelphia, a success like many people able to combine their desire for a second chance and initiatives such as PowerCORP PHL and Ban the Box.

“I never saw myself as a college student, and if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have never thought I would be where I am now,” he told the audience. “I’m grateful. They weren’t worried about my past. They just saw my potential.”

His is a story worth repeating – and replicating, citywide. MBK Philly can help make it happen.