News Tag: Racial Justice

ACLU of Mississippi Responds to "No True Bill"

November 25, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; mmiller@aclu-ms.org 

JACKSON, Miss – The following is a statement from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi Executive Director, Jennifer Riley-Collins, about the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“The decision is part of a national pattern of police using excessive, and sometimes fatal, force against people of color, often during routine encounters. Understandably, many people in our community are angry and frustrated about the grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Wilson. Some will take to the streets as part of peaceful protests to express their grievances. The right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy. As an organization dedicated to protecting people’s First Amendment rights, the ACLU of Mississippi is here to serve as a resource for protestors who need to know their rights.

People should continue to peacefully protest the frequency with which police officers, and the departments they work for, are not held accountable for their actions. While many law enforcement officers carry out their jobs admirably and with great respect for the communities they serve, we cannot ignore the systematic use of excessive force employed by some police officers.

There is an erosion of the protect and serve role expected from law enforcement allowed by the total lack of police transparency and accountability; militarization of departments so they appear and operate more like an occupying military force; and the failure of police departments to eliminate racial profiling.

The ACLU of Mississippi will not let up in its tireless pursuit of defending the rights of citizens to protest and preventing future tragedies like the one in Ferguson from happening again. Through our litigation and public policy advocacy, we will remain in the forefront of working for meaningful and long-lasting systemic reforms of police departments.” 

Learn about our work to ensure police accountability.

 

ACLU of Mississippi Receives $350,000 from W.K. Kellogg Foundation

November 24, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Morgan Miller, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi Foundation (ACLU-MS) received a two-year $350,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support a school safety project. The project seeks to improve outcomes for Mississippi’s students with disabilities and students of color by restricting the use of restraints and seclusion on children in schools. 

“This generous grant will allow us to empower families and communities thereby increasing opportunities for Mississippi’s vulnerable children to have a fair chance at success in school and life,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

The project will engage of civic, community, corporate, and congregational leaders, promote public awareness, monitor use of restraint and seclusion in school districts and advocate for the implementation of positive behavior interventions and supports that are safe, effective, and evidence-based.

Mississippi is one of five states that lack a statute, regulation, or even nonbinding guidelines. The lack of regulation has resulted in the use of seclusion and restraint on disabled children becoming common place among Mississippi schools despite the potential dangers and lack of evidence of their effectiveness. Data also has revealed the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline with students with disabilities and students of color who also experience disabilities. “The lack of regulation has resulted in the use of seclusion and restraint on disabled children becoming common place among Mississippi schools despite the potential dangers and lack of evidence of their effectiveness,” stated Charles Irvin, Legal Director for the ACLU of Mississippi.

ACLU-MS has been a champion of children’s rights. ACLU-MS has produced a number of reports including Missing the Mark and Handcuffs on Success which have illuminated extreme and destructive approaches to school discipline which not only have directly harmed students and families, but also have caused teachers, law enforcement officials, and community members to have their lives and careers made more difficult by these ineffective and counter-productive school discipline policies and practices. As a result of these efforts, reforms have been implemented which have improved outcomes for children across the state.

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About the ACLU of Mississippi

The ACLU of Mississippi is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization founded in 1969 that defends and expands the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all Mississippians guaranteed under the United States and Mississippi Constitutions, through its litigation, legislative and public education programs. It is an affiliate of the national ACLU.

About the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer, Will Keith Kellogg, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life.

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Michigan, and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority places where there are high concentrations of poverty and where children face significant barriers to success. WKKF priority places in the U.S. are in Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and New Orleans; and internationally, are in Mexico and Haiti. For more information, visit www.wkkf.org.

Stand With Us Against Proposed Initiative 46

November 06, 2014

A group in Mississippi is proposing a ballot initiative that could discriminate against Mississippians with different religious beliefs as well as racial and ethnic minorities.

The proposed initiative calls for Christianity as the official religion of Mississippi, English as the official language, requires the Confederate Flag to fly over the State Capitol, and establishes a Confederate Heritage Month and Confederate Memorial Day.

In order for this initiative to make it on the ballot for the General Election in November 2016, the Magnolia Heritage State Heritage Campaign must collect over 100,000 signatures by October 2015 and we cannot let that happen.

We must draw a line in the sand and stand in defense of freedom for ALL Mississippians!

  • No one religion should be promoted by the government over another. The initiative’s promotion of Christianity undermines our rich traditions of peaceful pluralism and religious diversity.
  • Discrimination against language minorities and restrictions on communication in languages other than English implicate our most basic rights of equal protection, free speech, and due process. A declaration of English as the official language is inconsistent with the spirit of tolerance and diversity embodied in the federal Constitution, and in particular the Equal Protection Clause.
  • Ballot Initiative 46 wants to assert “heritage, culture and traditions” that are steeped in historical discrimination based on race. 

If we allow discrimination in one situation, it will be allowed in other situations where it may cause serious harm. We stand ready to defend freedom in Mississippi and will adamantly oppose Initiative 46!

We are ready to ensure that all individuals are protected from discrimination. Stand with us! 

Read more about Ballot Initiative 46 in the Clarion Ledger.

To stand with us: Become a member of the ACLU of Mississippi, sign up for action alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook

ACLU-MS to Law Enforcement: Protect Citizens' Right to Record Actions of Public Officials

September 29, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Jennifer Riley-Collins, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; jriley-collins@aclu-ms.org

JACKSON, Miss – Highlighting recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and following the model set by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in an unprecedented legal statement on citizens’ rights to record police actions, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi is contacting local law enforcement agencies throughout Mississippi, urging them to establish clear policies and training to ensure that officers conform to the Constitution they are sworn to protect. The ACLU of Mississippi hopes that by sharing information with Mississippi law enforcement officials about best practices the organization can assist police in heading off problems and protecting the rights of citizens as well as public safety.

“Taking photographs and videos of things that are plainly visible from public spaces is your constitutional right. That includes police and other government officials carrying out their duties,” said ACLU of Mississippi Legal Director, Charles Irvin. “Unfortunately, law enforcement officers often order people to stop taking photographs or video in public places, and sometimes harass, detain or even arrest people who use their cameras or cell phone recording devices in public. We urge Mississippi’s law enforcement agencies to join with us and to conduct embrace policies in line with DOJ guidance which protect this right.”

Given the conflicts over recording that continue to arise despite the enormous attention this issue is receiving across the country, the ACLU of Mississippi urges that now is the time for Mississippi police departments to review and modify their internal policies and training programs to ensure protection of the rights of citizen journalists.

The Department of Justice specifically recommends that police policies do the following:

  • Affirmatively set forth the First Amendment right to record police activity;
  • Describe the range of prohibited police responses to individuals observing or recording the police;
  • Clearly describe when an individual’s actions amount to interference with police duties;
  • Provide clear guidance on the necessity of supervisory review of any proposed action to be taken by officers against an individual who is recording police;
  • Describe the narrow circumstances under which it is permissible for officers to seize recordings and recording devices; and
  • Indicate that no higher burden be placed on individuals exercising their right to record police activity than that placed on members of the press.


Read the letter
to law enforcement agencies.

Learn more about the right to record.

Advocacy Groups Issue Joint Statement on Revisions to TANF Procedures

August 19, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408, mmiller@aclu-ms.org
Sid Scott, Mississippi Center for Justice, 769-230-2841, sscott@mscenterforjustice.org

JACKSON, Miss. — The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the Mississippi Center for Justice issued the following joint statement in light of the Mississippi Department of Human Services release of revisions to the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) rules:

“We applaud DHS for adopting a provision that protects TANF payments for children. This action comes after a July 22 public hearing that we called for and that featured heartfelt testimony calling for the change to protect payments for children, among other things. While we are generally very pleased with the new regulations, we continue to express concern about the viability of the chosen screening instrument, and reassert that TANF recipients should not be required to pay for the treatment process.”

Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A.

August 18, 2014

By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program at 5:07pm

The tragic killing of college-bound teenager Michael Brown has raised questions about the frequency with which police kill unarmed black men in America. The answer, unfortunately, is far too often.

Just three months ago, on a warm April afternoon, a white police officer shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man, in downtown Milwaukee's Red Arrow Park. According to the Milwaukee police chief, the officer was "defending himself in a violent situation." But the eyewitness report of a Starbucks barista paints a very different picture.

According to the barista, Hamilton had been sleeping on the concrete sidewalk next to Starbucks when two police officers approached him, asked him questions, and left after determining that he was doing nothing wrong. But an hour or so later, she heard yelling. Looking out the Starbucks window, she saw a different white police officer standing up against Hamilton, "who was holding the officer's own baton in a defense posture." The officer "lunged" at Hamilton in an attempt to get the baton, but failed. The barista watched in horror as the officer stood 10 feet away from Hamilton, pulled out a gun, and shot Hamilton 10 times in quick succession without issuing any verbal warnings. The barista reports that she never saw Hamilton hit the officer with the baton.

The tragic killing of Hamilton bears a striking – and deeply troubling – resemblance to the killing of Michael Brown, who was shot by an officer six times, including twice in the head, after being stopped for walking down the middle of a street. Including Hamilton and Brown, at least six black men were shot and killed by police since April in circumstances that suggest the unjustified use of excessive force and possible racial profiling.

In July, Eric Garner was killed in New York by officers who placed him in a chokehold – a banned tactic – and slammed his head into a sidewalk during an attempt to arrest him for allegedly selling illegal cigarettes.

In early August, police in Beavercreek, Ohio, fatally shot John Crawford III in a Walmart, where Crawford had been holding a BB gun that he had picked up on a store shelf.

Just days after the killing of Brown, Ezell Ford was killed by police on a Los Angeles sidewalk during an investigative stop. While police contend that officers opened fire after a "struggle," Ford's mother reports that he was lying on the ground complying with the officers' order when he was shot three times in the back.

And the very next day, pressman Dante Parker was killed in Victorville, California, after being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by police attempting to arrest him as a suspect in a nearby robbery. Apparently, police suspected him because he was riding a bicycle, and the robbery suspect was reported to have fled on a bike.

The stories of these six people make one thing painfully clear: The killing of black men in incidents that begin as investigatory police stops are anything but unusual in America. In this sense, Ferguson is Everytown, U.S.A.

There is a reason for this. More than 240 years of slavery and 90 years of legal segregation in this country have created a legacy of racialized policing. Killings and beatings lie at one end of a spectrum in which black people ­– and young black men in particular – are routinely stigmatized, humiliated, and harassed as targets for police stops, frisks, and searches, even when they are doing nothing wrong.

The numbers show the reality.

Studies of Rhode Island traffic stops and New York pedestrian stops confirm that police stop blacks at higher rates than whites. Even more troubling is that the New York study determined that a neighborhood's racial composition was the main factor for determining NYPD stop rates, above and beyond the "role of crime, social conditions, or the allocation of police resources." In other words, New York cops targeted blacks because of their race – not because they happened to live in a dangerous place or in an area flooded by police.

Data from Ferguson mirrors these racial disparities. Last year, blacks not only accounted for 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests by Ferguson police, the state attorney general's office calculated that blacks were overrepresented in these encounters in light of their population figures. Even more damning is the fact that although police were twice as likely to search blacks than whites after initiating a stop, whites were far more likely to be found with contraband.

It is not a leap to conclude that the same biases that cause those racial disparities also make it more likely that black men will die during the course of police arrests. According to the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, although black men made up only 27.8 percent of all persons arrested from 2003-2009, they made up 31.8 percent of all persons who died in the course of arrest, and the majority of these deaths were homicides.

Why does racialized policing persist despite the end of slavery and Jim Crow? While explicit racial bias may be less prominent today (albeit anything but eliminated), implicit racial biases plague all of us, including those charged with keeping our streets safe. A large body of compelling research has demonstrated how these unconscious, automatically activated, and pervasive mental processes translate into action with devastating consequences for black people.

In particular, researchers have well-documented shooter bias. One video game study simulated the nearly instantaneous decisions made by police officers to shoot armed individuals and to refrain from shooting the unarmed. The study revealed that participants were more likely to shoot black people than white people in error.

Both explicit and implicit biases lead far too often to the killing of black men in police-civilian encounters. And they undergird the daily indignity and humiliation experienced by blacks who are stopped, questioned, and searched by police when they have done nothing wrong.

Police are sworn to serve and protect everyone equally, not disproportionately stop and harass only certain communities. Rather than express surprise and shock during a summer where six black men have been killed by police in highly questionable circumstances, it is up to us to do something.

The single most important first step is to provide accountability—including through the Attorney General's issuance of a comprehensive ban on racial profiling. Accountability will advance justice for past harms and pave the way forward for a future in which we are closer to the promise of equal justice for all.

Sign our petition asking the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice to stop funneling billions into the militarization of state and local police forces.

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Reflecting on Freedom Summer Youth Congress

July 02, 2014

By Jed Oppenheim, Advocacy Coordinator

They came from all over. By bus, train, airplane and car. From June 23-28, young people from all over Mississippi and our country came to Jackson, MS to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer. Part of this contingent was a large scale Freedom Summer Youth Congress (FSYC). Although participants commemorated the civil rights victories achieved partly because of Freedom Summer ’64, such as the Civil Rights Act and, later, the Voting Rights Act, the FSYC was a deliberate call to action by youth-led organizations. These organizations are on the forefront of the current movement defining what we need to do to keep pushing social justice and civil liberties forward.

In the last decade, we have seen our public education system attacked by private interests (much like they were just before and after Brown v. Board); we have seen SCOTUS back track on the pre-clearance required by the Voting Rights Act; at the state and federal levels we have seen attack after attack on a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions (most recently, the June 30 SCOTUS decision regarding contraception); we are hearing of young people who have only ever known what life is like in America—being deported to countries they have never known due to decisions their parents made decades ago; we are seeing black and brown youth incarcerated more than ever because private corporations are looking for profit; and so much more. We will not resolve these issues without the engagement and leadership by and for our young people.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the last year, you’ve seen the youth-led Dream Defenders sit-in over the Stand Your Ground Law in Florida; you have seen the DREAMers take to Capitol Hill and push the Obama Administration on immigration reform; and, right here in Mississippi, you have seen the Mississippi Student Justice Alliance (MSJA) organize for a union at the Nissan plant in Canton for workers’ rights. These stories often get missed in the mainstream because our elders and our media are quicker to judge young people as apathetic, uninvolved and selfish. By the end of last week’s Youth Congress, it was obvious that this paternalistic rational was debunked.

At the FSYC, the youth, who came to Tougaloo College in Jackson, strategized, collaborated and shared ideas that cut across the highly-silo’d way in which we normally operate in social justice work. Youth, who normally work on access to quality education, were working with youth on access to the ballot. Youth “DREAMers,” who came together as undocumented students, collaborated with other youth on breaking down the Prison Industrial Complex. Every issue is inter-connected and nowhere was that more clear than at the FSYC.

At FSYC, political power was a main topic of how to change perception, but also how to change the power structure. On the last day of the Youth Congress, I walked into a room where representatives from the Dream Defenders, United We Dream, Freedom Side, The Young People’s Project, Advancement Project and many other groups were talking about a new political structure with more political voices. The discussion revolved around political power and how to obtain it. Amazingly, FSYC was filled with rooms of young people who have made a drastic impact on their communities, yet young people are constantly told to wait their turn. Moving forward, these young activists will be the voices of change because it is their turn.

In 2064, I hope we will not be talking about the same topics in 2014 nor the topics of 1964. Going forward from FSYC, we will use youth-driven people power to create new conversations and institutions. We will also continue the work to creatively break down systems that don’t work for black, brown, LGBT or DREAMer youth and create new one’s that actually serve the people. Most of the youth who came to FSYC are already doing the work. FSYC was an opportunity to build and expand on that foundation.

The ACLU of Mississippi applauds these courageous young people and were glad to participate in the FSYC. It is this youthful base that will forge into our future and finally allow our potential to be realized. It is this potential that will make our state and our nation great. A place where justice, fairness and equity are not just words on a paper (or in a blog) to be academized, but real acts of vision and love meant to exist in a great society.

TANF Drug Testing Law Delayed Pending Public Hearing

June 26, 2014

MDHS approves ACLU, ACLU of MS and MS Center for Justice Request for Delay of House Bill 49 Implementation

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 26, 2014

CONTACT:
Morgan Miller, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; mmiller@aclu-ms.org
Sid Scott, Mississippi Center for Justice, 769-230-2841; sscott@mscenterforjustice.org

JACKSON, Miss. – On June 24, Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) agreed to a request to delay the implementation of House Bill 49, a law that would require TANF applicants to complete a questionnaire and possibly be drug tested, until the end of a public hearing comment period. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU of MS) and the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) made the request on June 20 citing the Mississippi Administrative Procedure Law that states an agency is not permitted to adopt the law “until the period for making written submissions and oral presentations has expired.”

“We have taken the position that all provisions within this new law must be well defined. If not, the economic harm and family sanctions would be exponential and the livelihood of TANF recipients would be left to chance,” said Charles Irvin, Legal Director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “The public has the right to engage in the functions of government in order to create a more perfect union and any opportunity to ease the burden on our most at risk citizens must be advanced.”

ACLU, ACLU of MS and MCJ identified legal and practical problems with the proposed rules and regulations related to the enactment of H.B. 49. The concern arises from the uncertainty of who will shoulder the costs of the screening as well as the treatment, the effect on households and children when individual TANF recipients fail to comply with the screening requirements and the privacy worries in the non-disclosure policy, among others.

Beth Orlansky, Advocacy Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, said H.B. 49 is a prime example of what happens when we put action before due diligence.

“The bill was rushed through to approval with little thought given to how it would affect the lives of those who fall under its authority,” Orlansky said. “This puts some of the most vulnerable children in our state at even greater risk. The state simply is not ready for the realities of this bill.”

The law was initially scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2014. It will be delayed due to a scheduled public hearing on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 from 9 a.m. until 12 p.m. at the Hinds County Extension Office on 1735 Wilson Boulevard in Jackson. The hearing, which is open to the public, will include commentary from TANF recipients, legislators and representatives from multiple advocacy organizations.

Find more about the hearing.

ACLU’s Report on Police Militarization Finds Weapons and Tactics of War Used Disproportionately Against People of Color

June 24, 2014

Report Shows Injustice, Suffering, Caused by SWAT Teams Deployed for Low-Level Police Work, Not Crises

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

NEW YORK – After obtaining and analyzing thousands of documents from police departments around the country, today the American Civil Liberties Union released the report War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing. The ACLU focused on more than 800 SWAT raids conducted by law enforcement agencies in 20 states and on the agencies’ acquisition of military weaponry, vehicles, and equipment.

"We found that police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs," said Kara Dansky, Senior Counsel with the ACLU’s Center for Justice. "Carried out by ten or more officers armed with assault rifles, flashbang grenades, and battering rams, these paramilitary raids disproportionately impacted people of color, sending the clear message that the families being raided are the enemy. This unnecessary violence causes property damage, injury, and death."

The report documents multiple tragedies caused by police carrying out needless SWAT raids, including a 26-year-old mother shot with her child in her arms and a 19-month-old baby critically injured when a flashbang grenade landed in his crib.

"Our police are trampling on our civil rights and turning communities of color into war zones," Dansky continued. "We all pay for it with our tax dollars. The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice give police military weaponry and vehicles as well as grants for military equipment. The War on Drugs has failed, yet the federal government hasn’t stopped the flow of guns and money."

The report calls for the federal government to rein in the incentives for police to militarize. The ACLU also asks that local, state, and federal governments track the use of SWAT and the guns, tanks, and other military equipment that end up in police hands.

"Our findings reveal not only the dangers of militarized police, but also the difficulties in determining the extent and impact of those dangers. At every level – from the police to the state governments to the federal government – there is almost no recordkeeping about SWAT or the use of military weapons and vehicles by local law enforcement," noted Dansky.

In addition, the report recommends that state legislatures and municipalities develop criteria for SWAT raids that limit their deployment to the kinds of emergencies for which they were intended, such as an active shooter situation.

The report is available here: www.aclu.org/militarization

In the Shadow of Freedom Summer

June 04, 2014

I was born in November 1965, a little over a year after my next oldest sister, Bettye. She was born in the middle of Freedom Summer. We grew up with our older siblings in Meridian, MS. 2505 ½ Fifth Street, within walking distance of our parents’ house, was the home of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) office opened by Michael Schwerner. The COFO office was the headquarters of the Freedom Summer operation in Lauderdale County.

My oldest sibling graduated from a segregated school. Bettye started school the first year that Meridian Public Schools integrated. I went the second year. We were afforded what we thought was a decent educational experience – although I often wondered why my mother would show up at the school and just watch us after having worked all day as a maid. I remember her standing across the street and watching me on the playground sharing a swing with Brenda, my white class mate with whom I am still friends today. As a child, I was unaware of the fear she must have felt for our safety.

We grew up somewhat protected and therefore unfortunately unaware of the inequities faced by people of color. My parents were not rich by any means but they worked hard and ensured we valued education. My maternal grandmother, Mudear, had been President of the PTA and stood side by side with the white education officials for the ground breaking of Carver Middle School. I grew up admiring the picture of her holding the shovel while dressed to the nines in high heels and gloved hands. My brothers played football for Meridian High School, my sister and I both participated in extracurricular activities. It was not until my junior year when, as Class Vice President participating in the planning of the prom, the realities of the efforts of civil rights workers caught up with me. We realized that we were planning the first prom held at Meridian High since integration.

I then began to look around and see beyond the protections of my parents, older siblings, grandparents, church and neighbors who looked out for each of us. I had always known my parents to vote, or so I thought. I began to learn of the sacrifices paid by so many. I wondered as I read the accounts or reflected on overheard whispered conversations of grown folk talking (back then children were not allowed to stand around while grown folk talked) whether my parents were scared raising us under the shadow of the White Citizens Council and Sovereignty Commission and having to go to work every day. I often wondered why Mudear would insist on us walking a certain way – head held high, shoulders back, and eyes straight ahead. While our other grandmother, Queen, would snatch us off the side walk in Philadelphia, MS to allow a white person to pass by. What had they seen or experienced that made them have such different perspectives?

What I realize today as we approach the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer is that I am very thankful for the sacrifices made by heroes, the heralded and the unsung, who paved the way for us. The pavement they laid was too often mixed with blood and tears but it was a foundation on which we must continue to build.

I am grateful for the protections of my parents and the perspectives of my grandparents. I am grateful for the songs of the movement and the lessons of the struggles. They defined me and have brought me to this place and space in my life.

As we move into the summer, I encourage all young people to go back and capture the experiences of your parents and grandparents during Freedom Summer and how it defined them and you. If upon reflection, you do not see their courage reflected in the mirror of who you are today then know you are not saying thank you to those who fought and died for you. Make this summer the pivotal point in your own history where you decide the struggle for the civil rights and liberties of all Mississippians continues. Decide, like the young freedom riders of 1964, to make a difference in Mississippi, a state that continues to “[swelter] with the heat of injustice.”

The 50th Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer Conference is from June 25-29, 2014 and the Youth Congress is June 23-29, 2014.