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Monday, January 16, 2017

The Truth About Dr. King and Economic Empowerment

“For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is recognized throughout the world as a civil rights champion.  However, many of us underestimate Dr. King’s increasing focus on economic rights — and more important, economic empowerment — during his final years. A closer look at Dr. King’s final five years demonstrates the point.

For example, the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, which many people remember because of the Children’s Crusade and the police force’s use of water hoses and dogs, was not only about desegregating public facilities. The campaign also was about creating equal employment opportunities for Black residents in the downtown stores, which didn’t mind taking Black money but refused to help create Black income...

 Click here to read the full article at

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What Albert Turner’s Support for Jeff Sessions Reminds Us About Black Leadership

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; meaning of course that an individual’s characteristics are often similar to those of his/her parents.

It’s a statement I’ve never been particularly fond of, partially because sayings and religious stories featuring apples and trees are usually problematic.  In regards to this specific saying, I’ve always felt that it’s accuracy was shaky, at best.  In truth, sometimes the apple falls so far from the tree that it’s not even in the same area code as the tree.  Case in point: meet Albert Turner, Jr.

Albert Turner, Jr. is the son of Albert Turner, Sr. and Evelyn Turner, two of the Alabama civil rights activists who were targeted and prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions for alleged voter fraud.   The Turners along with fellow activist Spencer Hogue became known as the Marion Three, named after the county seat of Perry County which sits in Alabama’s Black Belt region.  

Many years earlier in 1965, it was Marion, Alabama where young Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered, leading to calls for a march which eventually became Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery March.  When the marchers confronted state troopers on Bloody Sunday, Albert Turner, Sr. was in the second row, right behind Rev. Hosea Williams and John Lewis.

During my nine years living in Selma, I was blessed to work and organize with veterans of the Voting Rights Movement, including legendary civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut, who represented the Turners in 1985.  J.L. was crystal clear about Sessions’ overzealous, and in his words “racist”, prosecution of the case.  A photo of J.L. alongside the Turners is featured in a recent CNN story about the case—the same story in which Mrs. Turner explains why she has not yet forgiven, and will NEVER forget, what Sessions did.

While Mrs. Turner is convinced that Sessions has not changed his racist ways, her son, Albert, Jr., has become a Sessions supporter.  He claims that Sessions was not the driving force behind the voting fraud case and that he [Turner] has “not seen racist tendencies or biases from Sen. Sessions."

To some, Turner’s remarks are a bit confusing, as he presumes to know more about the case than his own mother who was directly involved.  Nevertheless, confusing as the remarks may be, few who are familiar with Albert Turner, Jr.’s politics will say that they are incredibly surprised by Turner’s remarks.  Turner has a reputation for pursuing whatever is in his own personal interest, regardless of any collateral damage.  In some cases, this has involved questionable political alliances, often with individuals whose interests and policies have been in stark opposition to the interests of Perry County’s predominantly Black and low-income community members.

Perhaps the most glaring and most destructive example of Turner elevating himself while taking actions that hurt his community is the example of a coal ash landfill which Turner and the rest of the county commission agreed to place in Perry County.  The landfill is meant to hold 4 million tons of toxic coal ash resulting from the TVA Fossil Plant spill in Tennessee.  As the landfill was being considered, community members raised a series of concerns.  According to Facing South, an online magazine which has done a series of wonderful reporting on the issue:

One of those concerns was about environmental injustice. Roane County, Tennessee, where the spill occurred, is over 94 percent white and less than 3 percent African-American, with about 14 percent of residents living in poverty. Perry County, Alabama, where the landfill is located, is over 68 percent African-American and is the state's poorest county, with over 35 percent of residents living in poverty. In Uniontown, 88 percent of residents are African-American and almost half live in poverty.

Nevertheless, Turner and the county commission decided to move forward with the landfill, arguing that it would provide millions of dollars in revenues.  In the process, many community members felt that resident feedback was being minimized, and some felt that conflicting community events were scheduled at the same time that an environmental impact meeting was being held.  The following documentary movie trailer provides some background on the decision-making process, or lack thereof. 

It’s worth noting that since the landfill has been in operation, residents have complained of health concerns including respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.  As of 2016, a county health database sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks Perry County as 64th out of 67 Alabama counties in regards to overall health (down from 63rd in 2011).

In a similar situation, in 2004, Turner and the Perry CountyCommission approved of a private prison facility in the county.  As is often the case with prison of any sort, there was community resistance to the idea, based on safety concerns.  Nevertheless, Turner and the commission justified the decision largely based on the potential economic impact.  Although it was estimated that the facility would cost $20 million to build, it’s unclear how much, if any, of that funding was recycled within Perry County with local businesses.  What’s more clear is that the economic boost that was promised never materialized, at least not for most of the residents of Perry County.  Any boost that took place seems to have been limited to the county commission and its commissioners.

Thus, when Albert Turner, Jr. speaks admirably of Jess Sessions, one thing should be clear: he is speaking only for himself.  He certainly isn’t speaking for his mother; nor is he speaking for the majority of Perry County or the majority of Alabama civil rights activists (See statements from another elected official and other organizations).  Just himself.  And he is speaking for himself not only in the sense that he is expressing his own viewpoint, but in the sense that he speaking out of personal self-interest.  One cannot say for sure if there was a specific quid-pro-quo associated with his remarks in support of Sessions, but if there wasn’t, it certainly wouldn’t be consistent with the character of his political career. 

And in that sense, the apple has truly fallen far, far away from the tree.  For both Albert Turner, Sr. and Evelyn Turner represent a generation of political leadership for which community service and the interest of the community was priority number one.  When Albert Turner, Sr. was first elected to the commission seat his son now holds, you did not have to wonder if his votes and actions would be aligned with the people’s agenda; he had a legacy of service that spoke for itself.  It’s a charactestic we need more of today.

But I would be remiss if I pretended that this shortcoming solely belongs to Albert Turner, Jr., just as it would be inaccurate to suggest that he has been the only Black leader to speak out in support of Sessions.  There have been Black pastors, other Black elected officials, and even Condoleeza Rice, who’s qualifications to speak out on matters related to civil rights are primarily related to her connection to the four little girls tragically murdered in the Birmingham bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church.

No, the disconnect between our current style of elected leadership and proven track records of faithfully serving our communities beyond personal self-interest extends far beyond Albert Turner, Jr.  It is a disconnect which in many ways has widened at the same rate as our deepening involvement in America’s two party system.  The more involved we’ve gotten in traditional party politics, the more we have taken on the culture of those politics.  And the more negative aspects of that culture—the overemphasis on individualism, corporate support, pedigree, hierarchy and more—have been extremely detrimental to our collective civic engagement.

Although our affiliation with party politics in recent decades has obviously been closely aligned with the Democratic Party, this is by no means a critique of one party in favor of the other.  Instead, it is a recognition that transforming our political leadership will require distinct and independent political structures, with a distinct political culture and, perhaps most importantly, with independent financing.

Failing to pursue such options almost guarantees that we will continue to build alliances with people who do not fully support our interests, or even worse, with the likes of Jeff Sessions and others who are fundamentally opposed to our interests.  It’s past time for us to demand better.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Flint Water Charges Address the Symptom, But the Disease Grows

Earlier this week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges related to the Flint water crisis.  Among those facing charges are two individuals who served as Emergency Manager over the city, Darnell Earley and Gerald Ambrose.  These individuals participated in decisions that created the crisis to begin with (by switching the source of Flint’s water supply), and then deepened the crisis by ignoring all sorts of warning signs, including the outcry from the city’s residents.

While bringing charges against those who consciously prioritized finances over the health of Flint’s residents is a decent start, we should all be clear: the battle is not over.  The people of Flint are still fighting for clean water, battling for government funding necessary to solve long-term infrastructure need, and protesting ridiculously high water bills and threats that water services will be cut off if bills are not paid.

But as grossly unjust the specific situation in Flint is, there is a larger issue which must be addressed in order to prevent catastrophes like what we’ve seen in Flint from becoming the new normal.  There is an existing disease which, with the impending presidency of He Who Shall Not Be Named, threatens to metastasize into something far more dangerous and, quite literally, deadly.  It is a disease which attacks democratic institutions in much the same way that a biological disease might attack a human organ.  This disease is the trend of state takeovers of local control, and in the case of Flint and other Michigan cities, it shows itself in the form of “emergency management”.

The State of Michigan’s ability to take control of the city’s water supply stemmed from a law which allows the state to takeover cities and school districts that are facing financial trouble.  Michigan had allowed for such takeovers for years, but when Republican Governor Snyder and the state legislature expanded the takeover powers in a 2011 version of the law, voters in the state repealed the policy via referendum.  The governor and the legislature responded with a 2013 version of the law, which basically allowed for the same things but with different wording.

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have emergency manager laws.  The map above can be found in a larger infographic provided by the Council of State Governments.  Many of these states have large cities with heavy populations of Blacks and/or Latinos.  The matter of removing local power and control from local residents is troubling enough at the theoretical level.  However, when the implementation of such policies generally involves taking power from Black and Brown communities and placing it in the hands of White lawmakers who are often Republicans, many view the policy as old school racial disenfranchisement.

Such takeovers have not been limited to financial crisis.  Several states without “fiscal emergency” laws have processes by which the state can take over a failing school district.  Georgia’s governor and legislature just attempted to pass such a law, but it was defeated in a statewide referendum. 

In addition to the potential spread of emergency management or state takeover policies, the country is now facing another potential form of coup—one spearheaded by the great state of North Carolina.  December 16, 2016 is likely to become a date that will live in infamy.  Some may remember this as the day of President Obama’s final press conference of the year, or the day that news chatter dominated by the FBI joining the rest of the intelligence community in concluding that not only did Russia interfere with the U.S. presidential election, but that it did so in an attempt to support He Who Shall Not Be Named.  Others will remember that date because of the extraordinary measures the overwhelmingly Republican North Carolina legislature used to weaken the powers of the incoming Democratic governor.

In an “emergency session” which was supposed to address disaster relief, the Republican legislature passed two bills (SB4 and HB17) which among other things:

  • Reduce the number of political appointments controlled by the governor from 1,500 to 425, and requires that the governor’s Cabinet appointments face approval by the state Senate
  • Modify the makeup of local and state boards of elections so that Republicans will control the boards in even years (i.e. years with presidential elections and/or other major offices up for election)
  • Limit access to the NC Supreme Court, which, in the recent election, became majority progressive.  So what better way to minimize the third branch of government than to limit the number and types of cases that can make it there?

These actions were taken by a legislature which is arguably illegitimate due to a court ruling which found that the legislative district lines resulting in the current legislature are illegal and which ordered new elections to take place in 2017.  Add on top of that the fact that the legislation was signed by a lame-duck governor who had just lost his re-election bid, and you essentially have what many have called a coup—not a military coup, and not a bloody coup, but a coup nonetheless.  More than 50 protesters were arrested at the North Carolina legislative building during the two days of debate and voting on the bills. 

And yet, while this was taking place—while a very much “not normal” usurpation of political power was taking place—the major news networks went about their business as if it were just another day.  As Media Matters reports:
None of these details, however, have been reported on any national broadcast news programs since Wednesday. A review of the December 14 and 15 editions of ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS’ Evening News, NBC’s Nightly News, and of the December 15 and 16 editions of ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS’ CBS This Morning, and NBC’s Today found no mentions of the attempted power grab. Local affiliates of all three networks did cover the story.

In short, the very nature of democracy is being transformed right in front of our eyes.  Acknowledging this is not to say that American democracy has ever been perfect, or even close to it.  But what we are seeing now, as changing demographics are challenging the White majority’s ability to dominate an honest majority rule system, is an attempt to change the very nature of democratic institutions in ways that go beyond voter suppression of demographic groups (which is also on the rise with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act).  Much the way the Electoral College is a structural feature built to offset the unpredictability of the popular vote, conservatives are testing the waters with other structural mechanisms to offset gains by people of color and progressives, particularly at the local level.

And if we are not vigilant and proactive in regards to these efforts, our communities throughout this country can end up just like Flint’s water—poisoned and out of our control.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Radio Interview: Sameera Khan Reporting from Standing Rock

This week I had the pleasure of speaking with Sameera Khan, Miss New Jersey 2015 and political activist, who was in Standing Rock supporting Water Protector efforts to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Our interview took place just one day after the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would NOT be granting an easement necessary for construction on the pipeline to continue, a major victory for the Standing Rock Sioux and for all who believe in justice.

In addition to the potential disasterous effects the pipeline could have on the water supply, the Standing Rock Sioux also argued that the pipeline would pass through and likely destroy Native burial sites and sacred places. It's worth noting that an original proposal for the pipeline would have taken it north of Bismark, the capital of North Dakota and a city that is 90% White.

As I mention at the start of the interview, and as I have often said in the past, we cannot fully understand race and politics in America without understanding this country's TWO original sins:

  • the "peculiar institution" of slavery, which shaped America's constitutional principles--including the Electoral College which many people are currently seeking to change--and which has influenced American politics, either explicitly or implicitly, since that time; and
  • the theft of Native American lands, genocide (both in terms of lives lost and cultural attacks) against Native American nations, and violations of Native American sovereignty via treaty violations that continue to this very day.

The battle at Standing Rock is the most recent in a string of examples of disrespect toward Native American lives, land and culture.  However, in the context of the recent presidential election and attempts to understand "Trump voters", it is also a reminder that White "economic anxiety" has always taken precedence over the rights of "others".  This country was founded on White economic anxiety.

Although the recent decision by the Army Corps of Engineers is a victory for the movement, we should be clear that the battle is not over. Sameera addressed this issue during our interview.  First, Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline, issued a statement clarifying their intentions to move forward with the project. Second, it's very clear that Trump fully supports the project and could pave the way for the project once he assumes office in January--that is, after he gets done with the other 50 things he said he would do on "day one" of his administration. So just as the Water Protectors are bracing for a protracted struggle, we who can't actually make it to Standing Rock should remain vigilant and continue to send whatever support we can (see my previous blog for some ideas).

Enjoy the interview, and please be sure to 1) share it with friends/colleagues and 2) click the follow button so you can receive updates of other upcoming shows. I'm lining up some GREAT interviews with community activists, elected officials and scholars, all of whom will share useful insights as we explore the intersection of race and politics and discuss concrete strategies for building power in communinities of color. Try to catch us live and JOIN THE CONVERSATION!

I'm Cliff, and on that note... I'm out!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rosa Parks, 61 Years Later: Trump Voters and Other Lessons

On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus.  Today, 61 years later, there are several relevant lessons we can pull from that event and the movement that followed.  The following is not an exhaustive list, but includes five lessons that are currently on my mind.

1.   Rosa Parks wasn’t just a random person who was tired on the bus.  She was an officer in the local NAACP.

Today’s Relevance: Organizations matter.  If you’re not in one, join one.  And if social media is the limit of your organizing, that’s not enough—helpful, but not enough.  Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) spent his entire life speaking about the need to “organize, organize, organize,” and he emphasized the difference between mobilizing for short-term action and, organizing for sustained change.  We need to strengthen our organizations.

2.   It does us no good to try to Whitesplain away the bus driver who called the police by exploring his economic anxiety over possibly losing his job.  He was racist and his actions were in support of a racist policy and belief system.  Period. 

Today’s Relevance: figure it out on your own.  I’m tired of even talking about it.

Actually, I think I will elaborate a little.  There are no words for how tired I am of the media, Democratic politicians, or so called allies talking about how the White working class has been ignored and how they just want to be heard.  First, such an apologist approach fails to deal with the fact that college educated, upper income White voters also supported Trump, but let’s just ignore that inconvenient truth for a minute and address the “White working class wants to be heard” narrative.

Hell, the Black working class wants to be heard, and the Brown working class wants to be heard, and the rest of the working class wants to be heard.  But it was pretty much this one, specific, White portion of the working class that decided “being heard” meant voting for the racist, sexist, religiously intolerant, gay conversion supporting pathological liar who is now filling the swamp with the richest, most blatantly anti-working class cabinet ever.

It makes little difference to me whether they voted for Trump because they agree with his racism, or whether they disagree but didn’t find it important enough to vote against him.  Either way, you are not my ally.  To me, you are the same as the bus driver who tried to kick Rosa Parks out of her seat.

3.       The male leadership in Montgomery rejected the boycott idea, but Jo Ann Robinson refused to let that stand in her way.  She and three supporters (including two students) distributed more than 50,000 copies of the boycott flyer… overnight… with no high-powered copy machines. 

Today’s Relevance: A couple of points here—one dealing with sexism within our movements, which we must continue to be conscious and intentional about addressing today.  Secondly… Brothers, we've got to step the ____ up!  Although Black voters were pretty unified in our voting preference, there was a gap between Black women and Black men (no, NOT the deciding factor in results).  But it’s not just voting, it’s community meetings, school meetings, etc.  Please don’t get me wrong—I’m not riding the “all Black men are trifling” train, and I fully understand our unique challenges.  But it’s 2016, and sisters are still making 50,000 copies with not quite enough help.

4.       Contrary to popular belief, the original boycott was not meant to last indefinitely.  It was not meant to last for a year, or 6 months or even one week.  The goal for the original boycott was for it to last one day.  Just one day!  After the success of the first day, the community decided to keep it going, and the rest is history.
Today’s Relevance: Too often, we fail to start action—or we criticize the actions that others have started—because we’re not absolutely certain of where it will end or what impact it will have.  Sometimes we just need to move.  That’s not to say that we need to just be reckless, and the people of Montgomery certainly weren’t reckless in launching a one day boycott.  But it is to say that we need to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and more importantly, stop letting fear rationalize our inaction.

Newton’s laws of motion (probably stolen from a Black grandma) state that a body at rest stays at rest until acted on by an outside force.  So, if the recent election has left you uncertain, afraid, paralyzed, etc. and you’re not yet moving, let this serve as your outside force.  MOVE!

5.       Technically speaking, bus segregation did not end because of the boycott.  The segregation actually ended because of a concurrent legal case, Browder vs. Gayle, which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court declared the segregation laws unconstitutional, and only then did the community end the boycott. Today’s Relevance: We must remember that we have always used civil disobedience and legal strategies (as well as self-reliance strategies that try to bypass legal barriers).  These tactics and strategies are not polar opposites, and when effectively used to complement one another, we can and will make change.

A final note: Some feel that there’s little to be learned from previous movements—that tactics from 60, 30 or even 10 years ago are outdated.  But I argue that many of the keys to our future success are rooted in our previous victories (and defeats).