50 Years After Kerner Report: The Crisis

This article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine, February 26, 2018. See it here

      The 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report, which famously noted: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” comes during a year filled with anxiety and consternation. After the 2016 presidential election, outrage — instead of hope and change — inspired a new resistance against inequality and discrimination. Many believed we had seen the end of White supremacy in the Obama years only to realize the intractability of racial apartheid and the persistence of White privilege.

      The Kerner Report was a search for answers after years of deadly unrest in the nation’s inner cities. In the summer of 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in response to riots sparked by police abuse. He sought to show leadership in restoring order. Rioters called their actions rebellions against a long train of police harassment and violence. Though disturbances had occurred before the 1960s, they took on new meaning in the context of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The disorders had become endemic beginning with Harlem; Jersey City, N.J.; and Philadelphia in 1964, Los Angeles’ Watts area in 1965, in 43 cities in the summer of 1966, and then the explosions in Detroit and Newark, N.J., in 1967.

      President Johnson expected the Commission, known by the name of its chairman Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and with NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins among its members, to investigate FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s claim that the riots arose from communist plots. Surprisingly, given the moderate backgrounds of the members, the Commission’s report, released on Feb. 29, 1968, reached beyond the surface. The members identified the same persistent conflict in police-community relations, and the underlying causes of poverty and discrimination that federal and local commissions had been emphasizing for years. The commissioners concluded their report by asking the nation to make the eradication of poverty, joblessness and racism an urgent priority.

      The Kerner Commission worked in what otherwise seemed auspicious times. The Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had marked major race relations change. Johnson’s War on Poverty and community action agencies included decision-making by the poor. The economy seemed sound, and the Vietnam War had not yet drained the budget. But the period also saw increasing resistance to police brutality, the rise of the Black Panthers and Black nationalist movements. The report was issued more than a month before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which set off more riots in the United States and even abroad.

     Underscoring a “system of failure and frustration that dominated the ghetto and weakened society,” the Commission recommended the development of programs in education, housing and jobs on a scale equal to the dimensions of the problems. It emphasized the need to make better quality education available to Black children and more housing available for low-income people. The panel asked for local government responses to the accumulated grievances of Blacks that had been ignored. It encouraged the recruitment of more Black police officers and strategies for improving police community relations, so that the police would not be regarded as an occupying force.
The Commission also noted a need for greater financial benefits and more flexibility in the distribution of public assistance to the poor.

      The Kerner Report lamented “fake news,” pointing out that the news media did not effectively communicate what was actually happening in Black neighborhoods. Therefore, the Commission recommended regular coverage and the recruitment of more Black journalists.

      President Johnson barely acknowledged the Kerner Report.  He thought he was not given sufficient credit for his Great Society programs and refused to endorse the demand for a large deployment of financial resources to solve the problems identified. Some historians believe he worried that the report’s emphasis on the responsibility of White racism for the inequities Blacks faced would impact the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects.

      Despite Johnson’s reluctance, the media, as one example, announced programs to become more diverse in their staffs and reporting. Progress was so hard to come by, however, that in a 1977 Window Dressing on the Set report the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights lamented the slow pace of change in the media.

      In the years since the Kerner Commission, the slight progress for some Black Americans pales in comparison with the dire conditions of the poor and working class. There have been CEOs of major corporations, several African-American governors, several U.S. senators and of course Barack Hussein Obama’s presidential election and re-election. But according to Pew research, the wealth gap between Black and White households has widened since 1983. There is a Black wealth gap, too: for every Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James and Richard Parsons, there are far more impoverished and imprisoned Black people. There is a Black reality gap. Most middle-class Blacks are disconnected from the lives of the needy. They live in areas far removed from the reality of life in poor Black neighborhoods.

      Incarceration rates because of drug addiction and offenses have devastated Black families. Congress and President Johnson started the distribution of large amounts of federal money to police departments under the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the same year of the Kerner Report. Thereafter, President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs pushed mandatory sentencing, no-knock arrests and increases in the local activities of federal enforcement agencies. Administrations since have continued the pattern often with the approval of local Black politicians. Hillary Clinton was severely criticized during the 2016 campaign for President Bill Clinton’s role in mass incarceration and calling young Blacks “super predators.”

The Kerner Commission’s famous opening description: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” remains a touchstone. Even as our society has diversified, the Black-White divide remains. The Kerner Commission correctly noted and expected poor Blacks would become increasingly concentrated in major cities. But the Commission did not anticipate the war on drugs, militarized police enforcement, mass incarceration and persistent poverty, which cleared Blacks from urban neighborhoods to make way for White gentrifiers. The failure to rebuild riot-torn neighborhoods made gentrification easier. This process, controlled by Whites and enabled by mayors and other Black elected officials, did not ensure housing and necessary programs. This pushed poor Blacks into homelessness or the inner ring of suburbs. Even well-off Blacks now reside mostly in segregated communities.

      But there is hope.

      In July 2013, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi founded Black Lives Matter after the killing of Trayvon Martin. The deaths of Michael Brown, Kayla Moore and other unarmed Black men and women may have gone unnoticed if it were not for the group’s rallying cry. Their protests and campaigns against police violence had won minimal concessions from politicians and law enforcement. Most of the group’s demands remained unmet. In August 2016 during the run-up to the election, Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist organizations formed the Movement for Black Lives (MBL) and issued a platform that challenged candidates to commit to progressive policies. The platform is one way to assess the work that must be done 50 years after the Kerner Report.

     MBL’s platform addressed issues such as education, health care, jobs and police-community relations. These were issues that the Kerner Commission addressed 48 years earlier. But the platform also sought reparations for slavery, long endorsed by the NAACP. It envisions the abolition of zero-tolerance policies and the policing of schools, which are disproportionately used to punish Black children. Black boys and girls especially are suspended from school and disciplined and ushered into the school-to-prison pipeline.

In keeping with the Movement for Black Lives’ diverse coalition, its platform called for an end to LGBTQ discrimination and, specifically, a demand to end the killings of Black and Latina transgender women. The Kerner Commission’s attention to immigration consisted of explaining why Blacks experienced more employment, education and housing discrimination than earlier White European immigrants. Sex and gender violence as community problems went unmentioned because they were not considered racial matters.

      The Kerner Commission’s two separate societies rubric failed to stimulate the change needed. It could have been used to inspire progress but was hollowed out as the will for change dissipated. Today’s activists, as reflected in the Movement for Black Lives’ platform, believe that a multi-faceted coalition of the marginalized might achieve progressive change more effectively. Yet the racism experienced by Blacks descended from those enslaved in the United States is not like the discrimination experienced by other people of color. Its causes, history and effects are different, and remedies must fit the facts.

      The Kerner Commission report’s depiction of the many persistent problems Blacks faced in 1967 remains accurate 50 years later. The Movement for Black Lives’ platform seeks to change the narrative. Two of its criminal justice demands received an almost immediate successful response. The MBL platform’s demand to stop punishing poor people with fines beyond their means to pay for minor offenses arose from the protests in response to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The practice of Ferguson and other municipalities of raising most of city operating funds through traffic fines drew wide public notice. Police targeted African American drivers for mostly minor infractions in numbers that far exceeded their population. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called this practice “revenue generation through policing.” The Obama Justice Department urged state chief judges and court administrators in states to end punishing and imprisoning poor people with fines and debts they cannot pay. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew this guidance to the states.

      The platform demand to end using criminal history in job applications had some success. The Ban the Box campaign persuaded 100 cities and counties, 18 states and federal employers to leave background checks for late in the hiring process, after an applicant has been able to show qualifications for the job opening.

      The Kerner Commission did not address police sexual abuse of Black women and girls in Detroit and other cities as a source of the anger that helped to fuel women’s participation in the riots. This was a #MeToo moment long before the #MeToo movement. Since the Kerner Report and even the recent platform of the Movement for Black Lives, sexual harassment has become a major issue — for not only the movie stars and professional women harmed, but also poor and working-class women in minimum-wage jobs. Police sexual assault of Black women under surveillance or arrest also remains a problem.

      The Kerner Commission concluded that the perpetuation of inequality and injustice —and not communists — caused racial unrest. Its conclusion has been reiterated by numerous reports and government studies since. Sadly, the most consistent policy result of riot reports has been increased funding and authority granted to local police agencies. Some of the major beneficiaries have been the real estate developers of today building in urban areas. Protests have been responsible for the miniscule positive change that has occurred. As I have often said, protest is an essential ingredient of politics. History teaches us that resistance works. But it must be targeted, persistent and strategic. Let us organize in local communities to do the work that must be done so that the Kerner Commission report becomes someday nothing more than an identification of problems long past.


Before #MeToo, There Was Mrs. Recy Taylor

Mrs Recy Taylor

Mrs. Recy Taylor, 1944

January 23, 2018, from Beacon Broadside
A Q&A with Mary Frances Berry

Long before civil rights activist Tarana Burke began the #MeToo movement, a young black woman publicly testified and identified the group of white men who, in 1944, kidnapped and gang-raped her. She was Recy Taylor, and she spoke out against the crime committed against her, even when the men threatened to kill her for doing so. None of the men were indicted. It would take the state of Alabama sixty years to offer her a formal apology. She died on December 28, 2017.

Taylor’s bravery in the hostile environment of the Jim Crow South will not be forgotten. Oprah Winfrey honored Taylor in her 2018 Golden Globes speech, saying:

“She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up….I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on.”

What can we learn from Taylor’s story in this moment where more and more women are coming forward to tell their stories of surviving sexual harassment and assault? We asked Dr. Mary Frances Berry, author of the forthcoming book History Teaches Us to Resist, to find out.

Christian Coleman: Recy Taylor testified about her rape decades before the #MeToo movement. What other examples in history are there of women speaking out against assault and harassment?

Mary Frances Berry: Black women going public about rape is not new. Harriet Jacobs, in her 1861 autobiography, denounced her rape by her master. Ida B. Wells, in 1892, denounced the rape of Black women and girls by white men in her newspaper along with the lynching of Black men for false accusations of raping white females. Other Black women, including Anna Julia Cooper and Fannie Barrier Williams, also sounded the alarm. The files of the Justice Department and the NAACP contain complaints of the rape of Black women throughout the Jim Crow Era. Recy Taylor, like Harriet Jacobs, went public and spoke out about her own rape by six white men.

CC: What can we learn from this history as the #MeToo movement continues?

MFB: As egregious as the rape of Recy Taylor and others was, perpetrators escaped punishment. Conviction for rape has always been difficult to achieve. The most often used strategy for the defense is to tarnish the reputation of any woman who complains. Even with rape kits and identification evidence prosecution is still difficult, especially when rape kits are backlogged at police agencies and sometimes inexplicably lost.

Punishing perpetrators by job loss is one corrective. But as long as sexual attraction and unwanted sex is about power, and punishment remains elusive, we are likely to see rape and other non-consensual sex continue. In a sense, these issues are like race, generally—the United States’ original sin, the world’s original sin.

Also, having victims speak out is absolutely empowering, but we have to distinguish between rape and other non-consensual touching, between coercion and verbal harassment. Feminist lawyers should seriously consider due process questions and the relationship between workplace protections generally and sexual harassment issues. Otherwise, the movement will lose traction and the opportunity to make more permanent change in the employment opportunities of women

CC: What do you think about Oprah Winfrey honoring Recy Taylor in her Golden Globes speech?

MFB: Oprah Winfrey’s acknowledgement of Recy Taylor was important, because it gives historical and racial context to the movement by a person and a forum that got real attention.

CC: Why do you think it’s important for us to pay attention to Recy Taylor’s story now, especially in our current political climate?

MFB: It also expands the discussion from celebrities and movie stars to ordinary women. Ordinary women in low-wage jobs—whether in restaurants or household work or factories—and in poor communities are most at risk from coercion and unwanted sexual attention.

A Different, Non-Partisan Voting Process Code to Restore Faith in Our Democracy

July 26, 2017 from Beacon Broadside

Our electoral process is broken. Polls, interviews with voters or prospective voters all confirm discontent with our system and a sense of unfairness, corruption or unresponsiveness. At the state and local levels, such issues as expanding Medicaid, insuring clean drinking water, addressing homelessness, figuring out how to “fix” education, repairing streets and other infrastructure, police community relations, all depend on an effectively functioning political system. The public routinely expresses a sense of uncertainty about when and how to vote, who can vote, and whose votes count, whether in state and local or national primaries or general elections. The uncertainty is exacerbated by increased population mobility. Some jurisdictions make changes in the law and are then challenged and endure expensive litigation costs because of provisions attacked as voter suppression. The cost to the justice system as well as the litigants is enormous. Also, the contestation further undermines confidence in the political system.

Texas Voters 1945 LOC

Texas voters, 1944 after “white primaries” ruled unconstitutional (Library of Congress)

Trying to pass a new Voting Rights Act to remedy the Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder is important, but does not address these general concerns. Because the Constitution gives the states the power to directly control elections, the most Congress could do, even in a less polarized environment, is to enact a best practices law and then provide for withholding funding in the absence of compliance. We need a different non-partisan approach in which the states would mandate the rules. The optimal approach under current circumstances is a uniform elections and voting process code adopted by the states which includes best practices and reflects the goal of democracy while reducing uncertainty, avoiding abuses and litigation costs, and unnecessary tension over voting. This Code, like others initiated by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and the American Law Institute, would be adopted by each legislature or by ballot referendum. Such a Code might also increase turnout of citizens who respect the system and believe the process makes accountability possible.

At a minimum, such a Code should provide for better monitoring of campaign’s using contributions for vote-buying and misuse of absentee ballots. This includes collecting signatures from vulnerable elderly or the poor for a few dollars or snow or trash removal only in certain pliant neighborhoods, or allocating public housing based on how a family voted—practices which still exist in almost every jurisdictions. Because local prosecutors and judges are elected by the same campaigns, action would require independent prosecutors and judges in state and local elections in voter manipulation cases.

The Code could also ease obtaining voter ID cards by providing for secure transmission online of a photo to the voter registration office along with the application and payment. It might also provide for voter registration offices distributed fairly based on population in geographic areas of the state to avoid deliberate efforts to make qualifying difficult.

In order to increase turnout, the Code could require mandatory voting, but only with “none of the above” as a possibility. This is to avoid making people vote for someone they don’t want. It might also consider incentives or rewards such as a lottery ticket along with the “I Voted” sticker, as the voter leaves the polling place.

Once the Code is adopted, any state legislative action that changes a provision in a way that violates the state or federal Constitution would invite litigation to prevent its implementation.

Grassroots activists will need to organize to gain approval either by the legislature or ballot referendum. Some legislators and voters will be interested in litigation costs; others in rights, fairness and morality, still others, in accuracy and inclusiveness in the name of democracy and citizen action. States that do not act could be penalized by the economic pressure of boycotts and business location decisions.

Actual as opposed to pretend democracies are based on citizen participation and the delivery of promised government benefits to constituents by elected officials. Voters may invest their hopes in a candidate who promises to change their situation, believing that this time around, elections actually do matter. But when promises are blatantly ignored with no demonstration of even intent to deliver, pessimism and anger among the population is a result. Adopting a best practices approach to the electoral process will alleviate unfairness and help to restore faith in our democracy.


Speaking Truth to Trump on Inauguration Day January 20, 2017

From Beacon Broadside

Rev. Dr. William J Barber II“Mr. Trump, pushing an agenda to repeal health care, build walls, and stoke racism and xenophobia is not only illegitimate; it’s also a violation of our deepest moral and constitutional principles. I would urge you to repent and choose a legitimate path of love, justice, and equal protection for all.”
—Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear 

“Dear President Trump:

In the breakneck, tweet-by-tweet pace of the presidential campaign, one of your comments did not get the coverage it deserved: that it was ‘outrageous’ for New York City to have reached a $41 million settlement with the five African American teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of rape in the infamous Central Park Jogger case. You continue to insist, against all evidence—including DNA found inside the victim and the confession of the actual rapist—that they are guilty. This dogged stance alarms those of us who care deeply about justice—for the accused and for the victims alike. Those young men were all innocent. So, too, are tens of thousands of other men and women currently languishing in prison, with no one to help them. It is my fervent hope that you have the ability to reexamine your beliefs. We have a crime problem in this country: we lock up the wrong people.”
—Lara Bazelon, The Last Shackle: Harm, Healing and Redemption in Wrongful Conviction Cases (forthcoming)  


Mary Frances Berry“Since you can’t count on the decreased turnout in a few blue states that gave you the presidency to insure your reelection, perhaps you should think ahead and embrace some progressive policies on health care, immigration, and other hot-button issues.”
—Mary Frances Berry, Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy 
Thomas Norman DeWolf“I have no particular advice for the incoming president, only reminders for myself that others may find useful—including the incoming president, were he to choose to listen: 1) remain committed to what lifts us all up; 2) support people who are particularly at risk in a world currently managed by those who live in, and spread, fear; 3) stick with the peacebuilders; 4) listen; 5) trust your heart; 6) know that we will make it through challenging times and will be stronger for the experience; and 7) most important: live in love—always.”
—Thomas Norman DeWolf, Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade 

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz



“Be aware: there are a lot of us nasty women out here ready to take your misogynist ass down.”
—Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States 
Steve Early

“Dear Mr.  Trump:

You’ve said the US invasion of Iraq was a mistake. Please spare the Middle East and the rest of the world any similar or worse ‘mistakes’ during your hopefully brief tour of duty as ‘commander in chief.’”
—Steve Early, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City 


Christopher Emdin“I have written about undiagnosed and very real traumas that folks of color experience in this country. I’ve highlighted undiagnosed forms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the forms of a Poor Teaching in Schools’ Disorder and a Post Trayvon (Martin) Stress Disorder. Presently, there is a President Trump Stress Disorder. A large segment of our country feels traumatized. Our Muslim brothers and sisters feel attacked. Our immigrant colleagues are fearful. Our young people are disillusioned. This is a real and ongoing trauma, and we must treat it as such by working together on it over time. The first step in this process is recognizing that what people are feeling is real. We cannot move forward with a new presidency or a new secretary of education without understanding that things have been said and done that have hurt people. Painting all Muslims as criminals or all public schools as ineffective is painful to those who fight hard to be more than a flawed and often grossly inaccurate stereotype. This pain becomes trauma when it isn’t acknowledged and people are fixed into categories they are unable to escape from because those who hold power would rather see a caricature than a real person. When Betsy DeVos talks about urban public schools without seeing any value in the institutions or the youth that attend them, she sends a message that turns youth into commodities that only have value when they leave their neighborhoods. We cannot talk about moving forward as a nation without acknowledging our past mistakes. We cannot lead schools if we view young people as inherently flawed and in need of saving. We cannot heal as a nation without acknowledging the ways that we impose trauma on the most vulnerable among us.”
—Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too


Bill Fletcher, Jr.


“I want our incoming president to appreciate that words have consequences. Speaking offhand, giving vent to prejudices and biases, rhetorically dancing around irrational propositions are all the equivalent of juggling a motorized saw.”
—Bill Fletcher Jr., “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths About Unions

Anita Hill


“America deserves a commander in chief who is committed to protecting our women and men in the armed forces from sexual assault and all crimes. Renounce statements you’ve made excusing your own sexually predatory words and behavior, and pledge to charge and prosecute all cases of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in the military.”
—Anita Hill, Reimagining Equality: Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home 



Rashod Ollison


“Trump, you’re in way over your comb-over with this position, but I hope some glimmer of your humanity shines through anyway and does not implode what’s left of American democracy.”
—Rashod Ollison, Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl 


Annelise Orleck“Though you campaigned as the candidate of working Americans, you have nominated a Labor secretary who is anti-union, anti-minimum wage, believes workers don’t deserve breaks, and has sworn to replace workers with robots if he can—and you are working with Republicans in Congress who have vowed to cut Medicare and Medicaid. So you need to show us exactly how you plan to make life better for the American worker.”
—Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty 

Stacey Patton


“Dear Donald Trump:

Unlike past presidents who cared about the legacy of the office and tried to maintain the dignity of the role, it is clear that you only care about your power and exercising it no matter the consequences, and so there isn’t much to say to you. Instead, I wish to ask this nation, especially those in power and with privilege, to stand up, be courageous, and reject Trump and all the evil he stands for!”
—Dr. Stacey Patton, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America 



Jonathan Rosenblum“You can’t fix the economy if you don’t expand the legal rights and benefits of all workers, including those doing independent contracting, gig work, part-time and temporary jobs, outsourcing, domestic and farm work, and day labor.”
—Jonathan Rosenblum, Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement


Jeanne Theoharis“Fourteen states had new voter restrictions on the books for 2016. The Electoral College, created to protect the slave states, gives disproportionate weight to smaller, whiter states. 6.1 million Americans were disfranchised due to felon disfranchisement laws on the books in many states. John Lewis questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election given the influence of Russia—but much closer to home, our democracy was hacked by these new laws and old practices.”
—Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks


Rafia Zakaria


“Muslim Americans are as true and proud as any other Americans, and the affiliation of an entire faith with the evil of terrorism is one of the cruelest injustices of our age.”
—Rafia Zakaria, The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan

Rigged?: Trump’s Claims of Voter Fraud in the 2016 Election

November 07, 2016, published in Beacon Broadside
A Q&A with Mary Frances Berry

“November 8, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.” That’s what presidential candidate Donald Trump said August 1 at a rally in Columbus, Ohio. During this campaign, Trump has alleged that the electoral system is rigged against him, that he will lose because of voter fraud. Additionally, he has claimed that undocumented immigrants will cast their votes, as well as people who died ten years ago. To prevent this act of voter fraud, Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as poll watchers. But is this kind of voter fraud really playing out at the polls as he claims? We caught up with Dr. Mary Frances Berry, historian and author of Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy, to ask her about Trump’s notion of a rigged election and what’s currently at stake for voters.

trump-electionrigged tweet

Why do you think Donald Trump is putting so much emphasis on losing to voter fraud?

Donald Trump is emphasizing the possibility of voter fraud because if he loses he may want to challenge the election. The most obvious way to do that is to charge fraud. The conventional wisdom that there is little or no voter fraud is not quite accurate. While there is little in-person fraud that can be prevented with ID laws, the more pervasive fraud involves misuse of ballots and other kinds of vote-buying. This is what I call suppression of voter choice on the cheap. Studies and news accounts usually examine only the lack of a large number of prosecutions. The problem is that in most cases of vote buying, local prosecutors refuse to prosecute mainly, I believe, because buying votes is common, and indeed, they themselves—as well as local judges—may have bought votes to get elected. In a close count of electoral votes, this type of fraud in one state could make a difference.

Cheap suppression of voter choice is done most often by campaign ground game operatives who use “street money” or “walk-around-money.” They say they want to increase turnout from the poor, the elderly, nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations, but the operators are in collusion with corrupt voting officials. They use absentee ballots and then pay them a small amount or hand-out fried chicken boxes and beverages for voting the right way. In Louisiana, such voters may get a pork chop sandwich and $5.00 and a cold drink. Before you believe that can’t happen, think about the clerk in Broward County just recently who was opening ballots and counting them in her office, or the Jefferson Parish official in Louisiana who had a private machine in his office for particular people to vote which he personally kept track of without observation.

Are Trump’s claims of a rigged election unique to this season? Have there been other presidential candidates before him who have made the same claim?

There are nineteenth-century examples of corruption claims. However, the charges that John F. Kennedy stole the election from Richard Nixon in 1960 stand out as a twentieth-century example. The most recent case is the Bush vs. Gore 2000 election and the controversy over votes in Florida that led to a Supreme Court decision electing George W. Bush president. Broward County was, during that cycle, one of the places where vote-counting problems occurred.

Early voting is underway and a Black voter like Grace Bell Hardison was nearly denied her rightto vote at the polls in North Carolina. Why is voter intimidation and voter suppression still rampant? 

Voter intimidation and suppression still occur because campaigns want to keep anyone who they think might vote against them from voting, while increasing turnout of their own voters. Candidates know turnout is a problem because many people don’t believe voting improves their lives or don’t care for either candidate. Since Grace Bell Hardison apparently was already on the rolls, there was no reason except how she might vote to prevent her from voting since North Carolina’s photo voter ID law had been struck down by the courts.

Ms. Hardison’s situation recalls that of a clergyman in Tallahassee during the 2000 presidential election  who had voted repeatedly but was denied the right to vote at the polls because he had been purged from the registration list as a convicted felon when the only time he had ever been in a courthouse was to testify in a case. He said he was embarrassed by the experience and felt he had been “sling-shotted back to slavery.”

Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as unofficial poll watchers. What can voters do to make sure their voting experience is safe?

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is leading civil rights groups in organizing lawyers and other volunteers to monitor the polls on Election Day for evidence of voter intimidation. They advise voters that if there are no monitors outside their polling place, and they are stopped and questioned by someone before they enter, they should not answer but call the Election Protection hotline: 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). They should go inside, vote, and notify poll workers of the intimidation.

North Carolina and the Evolution of Voter Suppression

Voting rights are human rights

February 1, 2016, first posted on Beacon Broadside

Since the Supreme Court in 2013 effectively lifted preclearance requirements for states and counties with a history of race discrimination, states have passed a raft of new voter ID laws and taken other steps which they claim will prevent voter fraud. The challenge to North Carolina’s voter Identification law underway in federal court may be ground zero for this issue.

North Carolina’s identification law requires voters to produce one of six accepted credentials including a driver’s license or passport. Facing immediate criticism from civil rights advocates, the legislature added language permitting the submission of a provisional ballot if the prospective voter submitted a “reasonable impediment declaration” explaining why they lacked identification.

Civil rights advocates consider the law as just another effort to suppress the black vote. One of the plaintiffs is a ninety-four year old woman who had to travel back and forth to distant government offices to get the right documentation because her driver’s license and voter registration card did not match.

The in-person fraud where someone falsely pretends to be a valid voter, cited as a rationale for the new more stringent ID laws, rarely happens. Instead, a more pernicious form of fraud consisting of vote buying and selling is prevalent.

Five Dollars and a Pork Chop SandwichCampaigns get the needy to turn out for them even when they know the candidates don’t do anything for them. As an old lady in Louisiana said, “They don’t do anything for me, they never do what they promise,” but at least they give her a little something—five dollars and a porkchop sandwich. When she and other poor people are induced to cast votes for people who they would otherwise not vote for and who don’t give them anything beyond this “chump change,” it is just another form of voter suppression. Voter fraud indeed exists across the country in state and local elections, but it is through campaigns misusing absentee ballots and buying votes, sometimes with the collusion of voting officials.

Vote buying and selling happens all over the country and is done by operatives for state and local candidates in Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia or rural counties in West Virginia or in the parishes of Louisiana and the counties in Mississippi and Texas. Walk-around money and street money is used to prey on old people in nursing homes and the poor wherever they are. All done in the effort to increase turnout of each candidate’s voters.

The outcome of the battle over voter suppression affects not just presidential elections but state and local contests where matters directly affecting daily life, such as roads and schools and clean water, are decided. Court decisions will come in due course, hopefully striking down these voter ID laws and other restrictive measures. But the election calendar will not wait. In some states a vote in the primary is more crucial than in the general election along with votes in state and local elections not just the presidential contest.

We should not place our reliance on the courts. While the litigation fight goes on, civil rights organizations, churches, fraternities and sororities, and other local groups could make sure non-registered voters, who don’t have the resources, possess whatever documentation is required and transport them to the registrar’s offices to obtain IDs. This can be done while working on ending voter suppression. After all, individuals need photo IDs not only to vote but often to even enter buildings where government or medical services or provided. The groups undertaking this work will need outside financial contributions given the intense poverty among local residents without IDs.

Combined with candidates and issues that give the unregistered something to vote for a “Let’s get ID’d, Let’s get registered” campaign may not only inspire more registration but more actual turnout on election Day without vote buying and other fraudulent tactics. More turnout just might lead to positive political change.






Rosa Parks Poll

The time when you need to do something is when no one else is willing to do it, when people are saying it can’t be done.

If Rosa Parks had taken a poll before she sat down in the bus in Montgomery, she’d still be standing.

Racial tensions are a major problem in the states in which the church burnings took place.

Stereotyped by the media, ignored by politicians, young poor black males face almost insurmountable obstacles to fulfilling the American dream.

Everywhere, African-Americans are stopped far out of their proportion in any of the communities policed.

When you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe.

Civil rights opened the windows. When you open the windows, it does not mean that everybody will get through. We must create our own opportunities


Power to the People: Why We Need Police Civilian Review Boards

Why Still Protesting en

As distasteful as it is to anticipate the next shooting of an unarmed African American by law enforcement officers, it’s also sadly inevitable. When it happens next, government officials and the media will attempt to diffuse the righteous anger on display in the community protests just they have done before in demonstrations against the killings in Ferguson, Missouri, in New York City, in Los Angeles, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and elsewhere. The mayor and the police commissioner will suggest that “justice” will be served and the murderous officer prosecuted. But justice rarely arrives despite videos and testimony.

Indictments of law enforcement are almost impossible to obtain for three very simple reasons. First, local District Attorneys are elected officials and voters (whites and even many voters of color) are ambivalent about curbing police power. Second, prosecutors do not want to antagonize the law enforcement agencies they depend on to do their jobs. Law and order protect each other.

Third and most troubling, federal civil rights law requires that to successfully prosecute a police officer for such crimes, “intent” must be proven. In such cases, the “smoking gun” and videos don’t matter, motive does. The prosecutor must show that the officer intended to kill the victim and that he fired on the victim due to racial animus. (Which is why police were so upset when “Anonymous” outed some law enforcement officers in the Ferguson area as members of the Ku Klux Klan.) Civil suits filed by family members against police departments for “wrongful death” tend to be more successful because they don’t need to prove Officer JQ Public was racially motivated.

This is one of the tough issues that organizers of #BlackLivesMatter, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice and local community groups, as well as the established national civil rights organizations must confront. For years, activists have lobbied on Capitol Hill to amend the federal statute with support from the Congressional Black Caucus, but law enforcement representatives wield greater power. With change in Congress difficult to achieve, focusing on local governments and local officials can build the necessary political pressure and develop remedies that address the needs of communities now.

Mobilizing voters and demanding candidates speak about #BlackLivesMatter is basic. In municipal and county elections, virtually no one pays attention to the candidates for District Attorney or for Sheriff. It’s time to change that. While mayors, city council members, and county supervisors are supposed to represent their constituents, there are many in our communities who have more contact with the DA’s office and the county jail.

It’s also past high time to strengthen the authority of civilian police review boards, and to create them in places where they don’t exist. A review board, composed of local citizens, doesn’t have to rely on politically compromised prosecutors, and they can contest the results of internal reviews conducted by police departments. Review boards with subpoena and investigatory powers can dig up the truth and release their results to the public; unlike grand juries, they do not conduct their investigations in secret.

The idea of civilian police review boards was first proposed in the 1920s by civil libertarians concerned about the growing power of law enforcement. After the Harlem race riot of 1935, the mayor’s task force proposed a board for New York City, but Mayor LaGuardia rejected the idea as too radical. Washington, DC, set up the first official board in 1948; Philadelphia followed ten years later. Both boards reported their findings to the city’s police commissioner, but neither had the power to force changes in police practices.

Charges of police misconduct exploded during the civil rights movement and campus student protests. Citizens complained that the police acted like an occupying force in their neighborhoods. Indeed, the Kerner Commission concluded that almost every riot in the 1960s until March 1968 had arisen because of police brutality.

Citizens and government officials realized that police oversight agencies offered a useful channel for civilian anger. The Community Relations Service in the US Department of Justice recommends them as an intervention for addressing racial tensions with law enforcement.

In the 1960s, New York City Mayor John Lindsay set-up an effective board whose majority was non-police affiliated members. The NYPD immediately attacked it, sponsoring a municipal referendum that abolished it. (The city’s current Civilian Complaint Review Board just confirmed that NYPD officers continue to use chokeholds on suspects, and though they have been banned for years, the police department has “meted out little or no punishment.”) In 1973, Berkeley established a board with limited independent investigative authority. In 1974, after the acquittals of Detroit police officers who shot and killed three African American youths, voters created a board of police commissioners outside of the department which governed with its own civilian investigators and complaint review and reporting process. By 2000, more than a hundred agencies operated had review powers of police departments.

More recently, the Board of Alderman in Saint Louis, Missouri, has agreed on a measure to create a seven-member Civilian Oversight Board, though it will lack the legal authority that community members wanted because it will not have subpoena power and can only report its findings to the police officials. The US Justice Department began investigating “systemic misconduct and a lack of accountability” in Newark, New Jersey’s police department three years ago under then-Mayor Cory Booker. The new mayor, Ras Baraka, last month agreed to a federal monitor and proposed the creation of a nine-member civilian complaint review board, the first in the city’s history. Only one seat is designated for a former police officer. Black community leaders in St. Paul, Minnesota, just forced officials to agree to an outside audit of the city’s Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission; the Mayor denied the review was related to the shooting death of 24-year-old Marcus Golden by two police officers.

Police unions and police chiefs are opposed to strong civilian review, and boards have been plagued by police departments’ blatant refusals to cooperate when asked to submit evidence, or to assist in evaluating complaints. Civilians also complain when a board proceeds timidly. Trapped between community anger and police belligerence, boards without subpoena or oversight powers have a nearly impossible mission: they must maintain access to police records yet not offend the officers and supervisors who can accept or reject their recommendations.

Boards may not prevent more police brutality and abuse. In that sense, they may be as effective or ineffective as equipping officers with body cameras. But #BlackLivesMatter should support civilian review boards but only with independent authority to investigate complaints. Better yet, boards should have the power to recommend remedies directly to the mayor and city council members and not just to the police.

That, combined with different elected officials, might even lead to the prosecution of law enforcement officers who kill unarmed civilians.

(First posted for Beacon Broadside 2/11/15)

Selma, Black Leadership and Presidential Allies

Ana DuVernay’s movie Selma tells the inspirational story of a coalition of activists, young and old, students and ministers, local and national, radicals and “respectables” who, despite their differences came together three times in the spring of 1965 to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and confront state police intent on enforcing racial segregation. Viewers and reviewers want to know more about all the people surrounding Martin Luther King: King’s right hand in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Ralph Abernathy and SNCC’s John Lewis. They want to know about the shooting death of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper as he was defending his mother from a police beating.  People want to know about women in the movement, about Selma community organizer Amelia Boynton and the young girls who also took part.

So the recent flap over the role of President Lyndon Baines Johnson during this pivotal point of the civil rights movement distracts us not only from the historical truth, but does the further disservice by (once again) trying to make white people the center of the black freedom struggle. Joseph A. Califano, Jr. goes so far as to suggest that LBJ should be remembered as the “white savior” who suggested the march, rather than as a president who tried to stop it as the film portrays. (That dubious honor goes to John F. Kennedy who tried to shut down the 1963 March on Washington.)

President Johnson was neither the hero nor the villain; to characterize him as one or the other perpetuates the racial divisions that King and other anti-racists sought to overcome. The (white) historians interviewed about Johnson’s legacy failed to understand this as well. Johnson had more than three decades of decades of political experience and knew how pressure politics worked. He also supported the movement’s goals of first class citizenship and wanted Congress to pass a voting rights act. And this is where DuVernay misses an opportunity to teach audiences about the political value of protest and the power of the Oval Office.

Selma is of course a film, not a documentary. If viewers want the documentary, Henry Hampton’s magisterial 14-hour series Eyes on the Prize (1987) remains the definitive video; episode six, Bridge to Freedom examines the Selma march. But Hollywood likes to pair its heroes with villains, and depicting LBJ as the baddie was DuVernay’s narrative choice.

Yet in a time of dysfunctional politics and a pervasive belief that government can do nothing good, there were lessons about political strategy and the usefulness of allies that would have been phenomenal. Audiences could have seen a President who is pushed by protesters to use the national mood after Kennedy’s assassination to deploy his legislative moxie and the power of the office to do the morally right thing. We would not have a distracting debate over LBJ as a white savior, but a message about the critical value of political protest in pushing a progressive agenda through Congress.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required three separate but strategically-related actions. First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that some of the practices used to deny suffrage were unconstitutional. In addition, the 24th Amendment, abolishing poll taxes, was finally ratified in 1964. Together, these created a legal framework for expanding and protecting citizens’ right to vote.

Rights on paper are not rights in practice. At the center of the struggle for voting rights were the African Americans and white supporters who fought, marched, went to jail and died. To be sure, segregationists’ brutal repression of the movement – and national television coverage of Bloody Sunday – resulted in broad public support for the protestors and their cause.

Pressure mounted on Congress to pass a federal voting rights bill. It was here that LBJ’s work as a movement ally was vital to winning bipartisan support. Johnson knew how to persuade reluctant and defiant Congressmen – many of them fellow Southern Democrats – and more critically, which members were vulnerable to White House pressure. As the long-time Senate majority leader, Johnson understood the legislative minefields he had traversed earlier when Congress passed the tepid Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first since Reconstruction. Johnson was up against die-hard segregationists, most of whom had signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956. Even so, at the signing ceremony for the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, President Johnson knew he was consigning the Democratic Party to years of defeat from white Southern voters.

History is complicated when told in full. With its many leaders and varied activists, Selma tells a magnificent story and the stories of African Americans’ struggle aren’t told often enough. The tale of LBJ and Congress is an inside-the-beltway anecdote and probably would have confused the movie’s narrative. But it would have given us an example of a President who was made to do the right thing.

One in Twelve

When I read in the New Orleans Times Picayune that about 12 percent of Louisiana residents who identify themselves as white have at least 1 percent African ancestry, or one African ancestor within the last 11 generations, I thought of Louis Antoine Snaer and his family. Louis Antoine was one of many New Orleans free men of color who joined the Union army in the Louisiana Native Guards, but the only one to remain an officer after the Union capture of New Orleans in 1862. The others were ejected when Union commanders decided African Americans as a race were “naturally” unfit for leadership, and could not expect white officers to respect them. But Snaer did not identify himself. He passed as “white” in silence and stayed in the service. He became a Union military hero who led troops at the Battle of Port Hudson, and retired as a decorated officer.

Snaer was later elected to political office as a “Negro” and then like other Colored Creoles moved his family to northern California after Plessy v Ferguson (1896) leaving behind their identities and their histories as Colored Creoles, and becoming white for all intents and purposes.

When the California grandchildren of Louis Antoine Snaer asked him about their roots, he told them “We’re just Americans.” Of course, the story was not that simple. Snaer’s family can be traced to a European immigrant who traveled to Saint Domingue in the 18th century, where he married a woman with African and white ancestry before the Haitian Revolution, to Cuba and then to New Orleans. Some Snaers held slaves while embracing equality of human rights ideology; others fought for abolition. Some supported the Confederacy; others fought for the Union like Louis Antoine. One of his brothers was a successful lawyer who faced down a mob intent on lynching the murderer of another brother, and another was one of the first African American classical musicians. Some held political office during Reconstruction, elected by votes from newly enfranchised freedmen. Some served in the military during the World Wars, insisting on being classified as “Negro” though they appeared white, while others enrolled as white. Some stayed, in New Orleans; others left. Some became “Filipinos “or “Pacific Islanders” along the way some became white Mississippians. Some returned coming home to struggle against racial repression. Some participated in the post-1945 civil rights revolution. They reflect a range of the experiences of African Americans in the United States. Those who lived white masked their real and marginalized selves, to be sure, but their descendants did not live their lives. They may have lost their boundaries but in fact they created new ones.

Their story provides an angle of vision for considering anew how race though socially constructed is real. It shapes and places and defines and constrains identity and permits or excludes the use of power. The Snaers, whether passing or not, represented the heterogeneous collectivity of people of African descent.

Their story is told in We Are Who We say We Are, just published by Oxford University Press.