September 29, 2014
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Jennifer Riley-Collins, ACLU of Mississippi, 601-354-3408; email@example.com
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:
Read the letter to law enforcement agencies.
Learn more about the right to record.
August 19, 2014
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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, firstname.lastname@example.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
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.
May 08, 2014
The olive branch is universally recognized as a token of peace. In Mississippi's DeSoto County however, Olive Branch's high school embodies zero tolerance at its worst.
Dontadrian Bruce, a student at Olive Branch High School, didn't know what to expect when he was summoned to the assistant principal's office on a Monday morning last February. He was surprised when Assistant Principal Todd Nichols pointed to a photo of the 15-year-old posing with his classmates in front of their biology project — a model of the DNA molecule built with Lego blocks — and said, "This is a gang sign. You're a gang banger."
In the photo, Dontadrian, intending to represent his number on the school's football team, was holding up his thumb, forefinger and middle finger. That innocent body language, according to Nichols, was sure-fire evidence of affiliation with the Vice Lords, a Chicago-based gang that has a strong presence in Memphis, Tenn., 20 miles northwest of Olive Branch.
"I said, 'I'm not in a gang,' but he said, 'Yes, you are. You're a gang banger,'" Dontadrian recalls. Over his vigorous protestations, Dontadrian was suspended for gang activity.
His mother, Janet Hightower, was shocked when she got a call telling her to pick up her son. "He'd never been in trouble at school," she says. "He's a good, respectful young man."
Three days later, Dontadrian appeared before a disciplinary hearing, where a school-delegated "gang specialist" presented a photo of a Vice Lords member making a gesture similar to Dontadrian's — proof, he said, that Dontadrian had indeed flashed a gang sign.
Hightower questioned the specialist's assertion. She had Googled images of gang signs and found only one photo of a sign resembling the one Dontadrian had made. It was the exact same photo offered by the gang specialist as irrefutable proof of gang activity. "He claimed my son was in a gang, but the only evidence he had was that one photo."
She was further dismayed by the school administration's failure to conduct a thorough inquiry before suspending Dontadrian. "They didn't look at his academic and disciplinary record before suspending him," she says. They never asked his teachers, his coach or his friends if he was in a gang. They should have investigated first, had a conversation with the people who know him."
Despite little concrete evidence beyond conjecture, the disciplinary hearing officer suspended Dontadrian for the remaining five months of the school year and recommended expulsion.
"Because I'm Black"
According to the school administration, the action was taken because Olive Branch High School is guided by a "zero-tolerance" policy regarding gang activity. But Hightower and her son take a different view.
"When he talks about what happened and why, he says, 'They think I'm in a gang because I'm Black,'" she said.
Hightower is less certain that race was the predominant factor in Dontadrian's excessive punishment, but thinks it may have played a part. "I love Olive Branch, and I love the way they teach," she says. "But I'm not going to say there aren't any prejudiced people in the schools here."
She contends that the school and district administrators are predisposed to overreaction, and that the application of zero-tolerance policies is inconsistent at best. This was underscored by the school's decision to suspend Dontadrian's older brother, Dontavis, who in an act of solidarity posed with a group of classmates for a photo in which they all held up the incriminatory hand gesture. In all, 10 students posed for the photo, yet only Dontavis was suspended.
"They suspended him for three days, but not the other kids," she says. "They all made the same sign. Why single out Dontavis?"
Olive Branch High School is just the latest DeSoto County school to expel a student for gang involvement based on little or no evidence. In 2009, the ACLU sued the district on behalf of a student at Southaven Middle School who was expelled after authorities illegally searched his cell phone and found photos that they claimed depicted "gang-related activity." In actuality, the photos depicted the student dancing in the bathroom of his own home.
Moreover, the district has a record of disproportionately disciplining students of color. In 2011 (the last year data was available), student enrollment was 60.4 percent white, 31.8 percent Black, and 6 percent Hispanic — yet Black and Hispanic students who were suspended totaled 58.8 percent.
Such disparities are hardly confined to DeSoto County, however. Nationally, according to recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Civil Rights Data Collection, "Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students."
Harsh disciplinary policies have far-reaching impact on the educational development of the students affected, often resulting in lower school achievement and a spiral that singles out and criminalizes children who would otherwise be on a different path. This spiral, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, is delineated in the DOE guiding principles for improving school climate and discipline, issued in January 2014:
"Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again, repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system."
Determined to keep her son from entering a similar cycle of suspension, expulsion, or worse, Janet Hightower shrewdly enlisted local media in the effort to reverse the school's decision. After several area news reports on the incident aired, Dontadrian was permitted to return to school 21 days after his suspension.
"I don't think the school wanted the media attention," Hightower says. "They knew I wasn't going to back out or back down until their decision was overturned."
Dontadrian's return, however, came with a caveat: Hightower would have to agree to a one-year probation for her son. She refused.
"It would have been like saying my son was guilty," she explains. "Besides, it didn't make sense with their policy. Either he was guilty and should be expelled, or he was innocent and should be allowed back. Period."
Following a series of discussions between Hightower and Olive Branch's principal, the school finally backed down and removed the conditions from Dontadrian's return.
Hightower's advice to parents whose children are in a similar position: "If you think your child is innocent, fight back. Do whatever it takes."
"It Could Happen to Anyone's Child"
Dontadrian's suspension is behind him, but not its ramifications. The A and B student has struggled to catch up with his classmates, and brought home two F's in his third-quarter report card at the end of March.
"He's having a hard time," says his mother. "This is the first time he's ever had an F. It's really taking a toll on him trying to catch up on everything."
For Dontadrian, hard work, determination, and his family's support may well keep him out of the school-to-prison pipeline. But given the reality that children of color and children with disabilities are unduly affected by school disciplinary policies, how do other students avoid becoming statistics? The DOE guiding principles offer a solution:
"[s]chools should provide professional development and training to equip educators to […] respond to student misconduct fairly, equitably, and without regard to a student's personal characteristics (e.g., race, color, national origin, religion, disability, ethnicity, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or status as an English language learner, migrant, or homeless student)."
Meanwhile, Dontadrian's expulsion has turned Hightower into a vocal opponent of zero-tolerance policies, and school-to-prison pipeline issues in general. She currently is working with the ACLU's Mississippi affiliate to bring about a change in school policy that she hopes will prevent future incidents for all children in the DeSoto County School District.
"It happened to my son," she says. "If it doesn't get fixed, it could happen to anyone's child."
April 16, 2014
As I watched Spies of Mississippi by Dawn Porter, I am struck by that odd feeling of déjà vu. While the focus of the documentary is the Sovereignty Commission, it plumbs truer to capturing the modus operandi of a powerful segment of Mississippi: when confronted with uncomfortable cultural issues of the day (any day), the Mississippi legislature comes through with legislation that puts us on the wrong side of history.
In 1956 they passed into law the Sovereignty Commission. In 2014, they bring us religious freedom.
I am sure there will be those who say, “whoa, there is no correlation between the blighted past of segregation and the issues of today.” Yet the nationwide trends of today and yesteryear prove otherwise. The hot button issue of the 1950’s was segregation and the civil rights era nationwide. The national issue of today is marriage equality, also known as same sex marriage; but negatively cast by a certain segment of Mississippian as "gay marriage."
Then, as it is now, there are varying degrees of emotion invested in opposing forces. Then it was unthinkable to share books, pools, and classrooms. Those opposed to mixing races were embedded in the State Legislature and used this to tunnel themselves out the wrong side of history. Along the way, their animus created the lasting fog of division and hatred that is so slow to recede.
Now, it is unthinkable for some that a person can choose to love and marry someone of the same sex. Those opposed to this freedom of our citizens are embedded in the State Legislature and are using their power to again tunnel out the wrong side of history. Yet they are more subtle in language, and much more strategic in implementation. As Sunnivie Brydum states on Advocate.com, “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, doesn't explicitly mention sexual orientation or gender identity, opponents contend that the law allows businesses to deny service to anyone who supposedly contradicts the business owner's sincerely held religious belief — a none-too-subtle effort to legalize discrimination against LGBT people and other minorities under the guise of ‘religious freedom’."
History again will record the outcome. However, why should we, as a state, continue to live the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome?
We should not.
Now is the time to use the guide of history and reverse the engrained perceptions and attempt progress of thought. In Spies, noted civil rights leader Lawrence Guyot quotes President Lyndon Johnson in saying “there is America, there is the South, and then there is Mississippi.” At the heart of that statement is the State Legislature passing a law that once again places us, as a state, on the wrong side of history. Their efforts to disguise or cloak this law in “religious freedom” does not hide its meaning. Nor does it release us from our miserable past. Those historical references and the pointed look at the similar histories of Senate Bill 2681 and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission should provide stark enough images to cause a change in course as a state.
Yet, here we go again.
April 01, 2014
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Dr. Martin Luther King
A year ago, I wrote an email to my pastor advising him of my decision to accept the task of directing the work of the ACLU of Mississippi. On this the anniversary of my first year as the Executive Director, I would like to share excerpts from this personal communication.
As you may know God has placed in me a passion to stand in the gap for others and to extend equality and justice to those less fortunate than some of us. I know that Isaiah 61 is the call God has on my life to minister to the neglected, the informed, and the poor. My gift includes a boldness and fearlessness to give voice to the voiceless and those others just refuse to hear. Like the Lord I love justice. This is what I am anointed to do.
God has opened the door for me to return to my passion. I have been offered and have accepted the position of Executive Director of the Mississippi affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
As I completed law school and prepared to leave MS, the Holy Spirit told me to stay for "there is still work to be done". I did that and was not only successful in my task but as a result of the work God gave me to do significant changes were made in MS's juvenile defense system. All Glory given to the Father. After many years of fighting institutions . . . I grew weary. . . . I am renewed and ready to return to the fight for freedom and justice for all. There is yet still work to be done. I solicit your prayers.
Please know my belief in and reliance on God's word have not wavered. It is God who has brought me this far and it is He who will lead me on. I believe it is God who has brought me to this hour in my life. The ACLU under my direction will tackle many issues which will prayerfully make Mississippi a more even playing ground.
I wanted to discuss this with you because many people forget that the ACLU's mission is to defend the Constitution. This mission which includes voter rights, racial justice, education rights, health care disparities, access to the courts etc. (issues important to the African American community and other disenfranchised populations) is often forgotten when issues such as women's right to make their own health care decisions are overshadowed by abortion debates.
As the ED of ACLU-MS, I will also be the spokesperson for our work. On occasion, however, the position I take may differ from yours. . . . I would ask that you respect that as I extend justice to some I may be asked to extend justice to all.”
I shared this letter not to promote my passion but the commitment shared by the team of social justice professionals that make up the staff of the ACLU of MS. My story is but one example of the conscience decision it takes to do the work we do to bring about positive change. The positions we take are not often not popular or safe but they are necessary as someone must stand in the gap.
The ACLU of MS has assembled a team of guardians who stand ready to defend the Constitution and extend civil liberties to all Mississippians. This year alone we stood in the gap with a child who had been literally left behind by the bus when his school unconstitutionally denied his right to attend school. We stood with a doctoral student when she was racially profiled. We stood with a Sikh truck driver when he was harassed not only by the highway patrol and discriminated against by judge before whom he was compelled to stand. We stood with the LGBT community when they stood at the Capitol to let policy makers know they are here and they count. We will continue to stand in defense to equal access to the voting booth. We will stand with women to ensure their right to make personal health care decision. We will continue to stand in protection of children against the funneling of the school to prison pipeline.
I start my second year knowing and more importantly wanting you to know that the ACLU of Mississippi will stand with you.