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.

 

Martin Luther King Day of Service 2015

Team PCHR fanned across the city during the 2015 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at events large and small – from engaging in neighborhood service projects to celebrating the ongoing commitment of others to helping the broader community focus on and advance King’s message.

“This is a day, a time, when this city not only comes together, but shows its continued leadership when it comes to protecting civil rights and cultivating harmony,” said Rue Landau, PCHR executive director. “It’s nothing short of inspiring to see the many personal and public expressions to that end – people of every age, color, gender, religion.

“Dr. King indeed would be proud.”

Eli Landau and Eli and Uthman Jabbar Garner work side-by-side on a service project at Girard College, building a flower box for an area school.

Eli Smith-Landau and Uthman Jabbar Garner work side-by-side on a service project at Girard College, building a flower box for an area school.

Landau, along with Commissioners Regina Austin, Marshall Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner joined Mayor Michael A. Nutter and Todd Bernstein, lead organizer for the Greater Philadelphia MLK Day of Service at Girard College to open the day.

The setting was apt in that it celebrated the 50th anniversary of King’s visit to the then all-white private boarding school for boys that sits in the heart of a predominantly black North Philadelphia neighborhood. He joined an ongoing campaign waged by the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP to open up the school. Protesters marched day and night in the summer of 1965, demanding admittance for all.

Ensuing court cases — filed at the urging of then-PCHR Chair Sadie T. M. Alexander — finally led to integration, with black students entering the school in 1968 and girls enrolling in 1984.

Just as protesters marched at that time for equal access to education, people should have equal passion today to ensure that all students receive equal education, beginning with fair funding for the city’s public schools, Nutter told the crowd at Girard College. Pushing that agenda requires an engaged citizenry – a voting citizenry.

“In the birthplace of freedom and democracy, voting is the one thing that folks should be able to do in Philadelphia in a peaceful manner,” the mayor said.

To help erase some of those obstacles during this 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, volunteers constructed “Vote Here” bilingual signs in a dozen languages where data has reflected lower than average turnout. Advocates have argued that in a city where nearly 1 in 10 residents are born outside of the United States, small public accommodations such as these will help prevent inadvertent Election Day discrimination.

The signage assembly was one of several projects taking place at the campus. Students and adults alike busied themselves in activities to improve the lives of their neighbors – from building flower boxes for local schools to sorting clothing donations to area shelters to fixing computers to distribute to public housing residents to packing meals to deliver to seniors in need. The hundreds who gathered at Girard College were among a reported 135,000 volunteering at some 1,800 projects throughout the Delaware Valley.

Mayor Michael A. Nutter powers up with Team PCHR before they dive into their service projects. (l-r PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau, Mayor Nutter, PCHR Commissioners Regina Austin, Marsall Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner.)

Mayor Michael A. Nutter powers up with Team PCHR before they dive into their service projects. (l-r PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau, Mayor Nutter, PCHR Commissioners Regina Austin, Marsall Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner.)

At Girard, an on-site jobs and opportunity fair offered not only possible posts, but also strategies to land them, including for job seekers that have criminal records. PCHR’s Karen Forman and Monica Gonzalez guided dozens through the city’s “Ban the Box” law and how the agency investigates discrimination claims in employment, housing and public accommodation dealings.

“We had a steady stream of people coming through and getting information,” Gonzalez said. “They were impressed with the information and just hearing more about who we are and what we do.”

Monica Gonzalez informs job seekers how PCHR defends against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation during the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service at Girard College.

Monica Gonzalez informs job seekers how PCHR defends against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation during the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service at Girard College.

By the afternoon, commissioners and staff had gathered at the School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters, launch site for the MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment march. The event, sponsored by Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER), was one of several held nationwide calling to reclaim the more confrontational aspects of King’s push for equality.

In the light of increased nationwide attention on slayings of unarmed black men at the hands of police and urban public education funding among other social inequities, march organizers declared the moment an opportunity to reclaim King’s fuller legacy. Thousands mobilized in Philadelphia and headed to Independence Mall, where ecumenical prayers and public commitments to equality for all took place.

“The march signaled a new way of thinking about MLK Day,” said Commissioner Rebecca T. Alpert, who along with PCHR Chair Thomas Earle, Landau and Deputy Director Randy Duque were on the scene.

“As a man on the train said to me, ‘King wasn’t about cleaning up neighborhoods.’ I agree,” Alpert said. “King, to me, was about bringing us all together to work for a better society. POWER’s message of ‘justice, jobs and education’ resonates.”

Calls for equitable policing, education funding, a living wage and more were issued at the MLK Day of  Action, Resistance, and Empowerment march.

Calls for equitable policing, education funding, a living wage and more were issued at the MLK Day of Action, Resistance, and Empowerment march.

Earle echoed that sentiment, saying this event was just as legitimate and necessary as the many service projects throughout the city and region.

It was 20 years ago that Philadelphia led the nation in hosting the first MLK Day of Service, thanks in great measure to legislation dedicating the holiday co-authored by civil rights lion U.S. Rep. John Lewis and then-U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, a Philadelphia-area resident and King confidant.

Thousands gathered to participate in the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment march in  Center City

Thousands gathered to participate in the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment march in Center City

As much as King understood that building unity among neighbors was an essential part of building and maintaining peace, he recognized that convincing others of the merits of this call to action would be difficult. That case remains today amid challenging circumstances. But the rainbow coalition working shoulder-to-shoulder is affirming – and underscores the work of PCHR, Earle said.

A host of constituencies gathered to raise their voices for justice and equality at the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment.

A host of constituencies gathered to raise their voices for justice and equality at the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment.

“It was an incredible turnout and a very diverse crowd participating for many different reasons . . . and for many good causes,” he added.

Civil rights lessons: Harvesting from Philly’s “Deep Roots”

Every year the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service gets bigger and offers new features, and 2015 is no different. While much of the day and many of its related activities in Philadelphia will center on commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, History Making Productions will offer volunteers and students citywide another gift.

The "Deep Roots" poster transcends some 240 years of African-American history documenting the ongoing effort to fully achieve civil rights for all.

The “Deep Roots” poster transcends some 240 years of African-American history documenting the ongoing effort to fully achieve civil rights for all.

The team there, led by educational director Amy Cohen, will debut an educational poster that puts Philadelphia’s rich civil rights history into context. Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy: Philadelphia in the Struggle for Civil Rights charts some of the earliest moments of individuals fighting for their full rights through to continuing actions in the 21st century.

Download the poster here and the poster’s corresponding teaching materials here.

Funded primarily through a grant by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, a host of partners aided in its creation. PCHR is one such partner, an effort spearheaded by Commissioner Sarah Ricks, herself an Underground Railroad buff.

From the founding of the abolition society through to the citywide mandate to teach African-American history in public schools – an initiative now in its 10th year – the poster provides links to the ongoing commitment to securing freedom and dignity, despite the odds.  The lessons are timely.

The slayings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown Jr. and Eric Garner triggering acts of outrage nationwide through to films such as Selma are making real for students what once had been seen as dusty moments in books, said Cohen, an educator and history scholar.

“Right now, unfortunately, there are a lot of teachable moments,” she said. “Young people are fired up about getting into the streets and protesting the racial violence they’re seeing.

“But when they realize it fits into a historical pattern, the more powerful it becomes. There’s such resonance for what’s going on today with what happened even in Octavius Catto’s day. Similar things, years and years earlier.”

The hope, Cohen added, is to kindle strong thoughts among students and other — solidifying actions today are tied into those of the past, and that they can play an active role in the continuum of fighting to preserve and advance civil rights.

The poster will be distributed at Girard College on Monday and made available to every branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia and throughout the School District of Philadelphia.  For details, visit History Making Productions.