Archive for February, 2023

Elizabeth Eckford, the Little Rock Nine and Desegregation – posted 2/26/2023

February 26, 2023 1 comment

Before going south on a civil rights trip organized by the Nation Magazine, I had never been to Little Rock, Arkansas. I was only vaguely familiar with the struggle to integrate schools there in the 1950’s. There was an iconic photograph I knew about. It showed a young African-American girl with an angry mob behind her.

On the trip, we got to meet Elizabeth Eckford, who was that girl and who was one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. It was an epic confrontation that is little talked about today.

In the first part of the 1950’s, schools were not integrated in Arkansas. Then Brown v Board of Education happened and there was Brown II in 1955 where the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation with “all deliberate speed”. Still, blacks who took action against segregation could be arrested, beaten or killed, especially if they entered whites-only areas.

Although 200 students volunteered, Little Rock school officials picked nine teenagers to become Central High’s first African-American students. On the first day of school on September 3, 1957, a mob formed and the nine did not go to school. They planned to go the next day. Because her family did not have a phone, Eckford missed the coordinating call and she made her way to school separately. She did not see the other eight students.

When she got to school, she was all alone except for the mob of several hundred white people screaming things like “Go back to where you came from” and “Go home! Whites have rights too!”. As Eckford approached the school’s entrance, she saw soldiers with rifles. She believed the soldiers were there to protect her but instead of helping, they blocked her way. They were members of the Arkansas National Guard sent by Gov. Orville Faubus who opposed desegregation.

Turned away and spat upon, Eckford walked away followed by a harassing and threatening crowd. A white teenager behind her screamed “Go home n—er!”. One person in the crowd suggested to drag her to a tree and hang her. A group of reporters formed a protective ring around her while Eckford waited at a bus stop to go home.

A white woman, Grace Lorch, who was a supporter of civil rights, came to Eckford’s aid. She scolded the crowd saying “She’s just a little girl”. She helped a terrified Eckford get on the bus and protected her against the mob.

When the other eight students got to the high school, the soldiers also blocked them. For more than two weeks, the black students stayed home until a federal court judge ruled against use of National Guard troops to block them. When the students returned, a riot ensued after the black students entered the school. The students had to flee for safety reasons. Photo images of Little Rock went the equivalent of viral, internationally.

At that point, President Eisenhower sent 101st Airborne Division troops into Little Rock. He also federalized the Arkansas National Guard. The students were then able to enter the high school escorted by soldiers. Gov. Faubus continued to oppose desegregation saying, “We are now an occupied territory”. Faubus argued that the Supreme Court had overstepped its constitutional authority in Brown.

For the next year, the nine black students endured an almost unbelievable amount of physical and verbal abuse. Eckford described the treatment. A group of white students made it their business to torment the black students. Although troops were there for protection, the tormenters attacked when the troops were out of eyesight. They physically attacked and shoved the black students, spat on them, tripped them and threw sharp pencils at them.

The tormenters scalded them in the locker room showers after gym class. They threw food at them. The school received bomb threats. One of the nine, Minnijean Brown-Trickey, got expelled in February 1958 for dropping chili on two boys who had attacked and harassed her. In May 1958, Ernest Green became the first black students to graduate from Central High School.

Eckford experiences PTSD still as a result of her school-related trauma. She remains very sensitive to any loud noises or light flashes.

That summer in 1958, Gov. Faubus made a decision to close all the schools in Little Rock. Little Rock residents voted 19,470- 7,561 to oppose integration. The school board tried to fire 44 teachers who favored integration. During the year the high school was closed, 97% of white students found an educational alternative. Only 50% of black students did.

In June 1959, a court found the school closing unconstitutional. Public schools re-opened in August 1959. Many white students left public school permanently to attend all-white segregation academies. Only two of the nine black students went back to Central. It took until 1972 for Little Rock to be fully integrated. I would note that President Eisenhower was the first president since Reconstruction to use federal troops to enforce civil rights.

In a podcast with Chris Hayes, I heard Minnijean Brown-Trickey explain that she went to Central because people did not want her to be there. She described herself as “irrepressible”. She wanted to disprove the myth that white kids were smarter than black kids.

The Little Rock struggle is now 66 years ago. While student bodies in America are more diverse than ever before, public schools remain highly segregated along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Black children are still relegated to separate and unequal schools. They are five times as likely as white students to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity.

Ignoring the Brown court decision, school re-segregation has been America’s de facto agenda. Reasons for the backsliding include lifting of court desegregation orders, discriminatory housing practices that foster racially segregated neighborhoods and a failure of will to follow through on desegregation. The retrenchment is rooted in a vast complacency and a massive unwillingness to acknowledge the problem.

The Little Rock Nine provide a compelling counter-narrative that shows desegregation can be done. We all owe a debt to Elizabeth Eckford and the eight other brave students who had the courage to face down a monster.

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Unsung heroes of the Mississippi movement – posted 2/21/2023

February 22, 2023 5 comments

We have all heard the expression “living history”. When I was in college, I had several professors who could make learning come alive but as an adult, it seems rare to have that “on fire” type experience. So I feel very lucky that I just came back from a week long trip south that embodied that extra passionate learning dimension.

The trip was a civil rights tour organized by the Nation Magazine that started in Jackson and moved to Little Rock, Memphis, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. A group of over 20 got a chance to meet with activists who were in the thick of the struggle.

When considering how social, racial and political change has successfully advanced in America, there is no better crucible to look at than the civil rights movement of the 1950’s-1960’s. While there is so much more that needs to be done, that movement is a case study in success, even if won at a terrible cost.

There would have been no Great Society programs or voting and civil rights legislation without the pressure from below. Racism lost ground and both black and white people gained because of the civil rights movement. One thing that has struck me are the number of heroes, some known and most little known, who made the change possible. To this day, that heroism remains under-appreciated and insufficiently acknowledged.

While there were heroes in all the Southern states, the Mississippi movement deserves special mention. Mississippi was the heart of darkness. Back then, it was a hellhole of segregation. There was a reason Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddamn”.

Slavery’s legacy was brutal. In 1823, Mississippi passed its own legal code restricting slave movements and activities. Slaves could not buy or sell goods. They could not own or possess firearms. They were forbidden to learn to read or write. After Reconstruction and after federal troops left the South, white supremacists went on to impose a fascist type regime characterized by lynching, terrorism and voter intimidation.

Still, before the worst happened, Mississippi had two Black U.S..Senators, Hiram Revels who served from 1870-1871 and Blanche K. Bruce who served from 1875-1881. Revels was picked to fill and finish a Senate term and Bruce was elected by the Mississippi legislature to serve a full term. Mississippi had had no senators since it withdrew from the Union in 1861. Revels and Bruce were the first two African Americans to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Shortly after, the law totally abandoned black people. Although black people made up a sizable part of the Mississippi population, the system of segregation and white supremacy never changed fundamentally until the civil rights movement came along. Civil rights workers walked into the lion’s den and death was frequently right around the corner. I wanted to highlight five activists who personified the bravery of the Mississippi movement:

Medgar Evers gave his life for the civil rights struggle. Before he was shot in the back and assassinated in 1963, he had traveled the state of Mississippi for years as field secretary of the NAACP. He spoke at mass meetings, documented acts of brutality, encouraged voter registration and coordinated protests. His family’s home was firebombed in 1962. Evers said. “I am looking to be shot any time I step out of my car…If I die, it will be in a good cause. I’ve been fighting for America just as much as the soldiers in Vietnam”.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar’s wife, was also an ardent activist and she worked with him on voter registration drives and on organizing civil rights demonstrations. They were both targeted for death by white supremacists. After her husband was murdered, Ms. Evers-Williams fought hard to see his killer brought to justice. It took three trials and 30 years before the assassin was convicted. After Medgar’s death, she continued her activist life, including becoming chairperson of the NAACP in 1995.

James Meredith met with our group. He is now 89 years old. He had served eight years in the Air Force. In September 1962, when Meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi, the university sent him a telegram denying admission. Meredith sued and after a long court battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that he had to be admitted. When he attempted to register, racists provoked a bloody riot. President Kennedy had to ultimately call in national guard and army troops. 23,000 soldiers stood guard over the Ole Miss campus. Federal marshals suffered 180 injuries including 28 gunshot wounds. Two people died. Protected by armed soldiers, Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss. Federal marshals escorted him during his entire year on campus.

Hezekiah Watkins, now 75, was the youngest Freedom Rider in Mississippi. He was 13 when arrested at the Greyhound Bus Depot in downtown Jackson. Watkins also met with our tour group and generously told us all his story. Accidentally pushed into the Greyhound building where blacks were not allowed, he was immediately arrested and taken to Parchman Penitentiary where he was put on death row for five days. In his book Pushing Forward, he says he asked an inmate at Parchman what it meant to be on Death Row, The inmate replied, “Your ass is gonna be fried”. As a 13 year old Watkins describes his initial incomprehension and how the experience changed him.

Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, a Toronto native, moved to Jackson in 1954 to lead Jackson’s Beth Israel Congregation. In his sermons he spoke out against segregation. Moved by the sacrifice of the Freedom Riders, he tried to organize the state’s rabbis to visit them at Parchman since about a third of the Freedom Riders were Jewish. None of the rabbis agreed so Nussbaum did it alone. Every week he drove to the prison in Sunflower County to deliver personal items and to lead a short worship service. In 1964, Rabbi Nussbaum organized a Committee of Concern which raised money to rebuild black churches. Due to his efforts, Rabbi Nussbaum’s temple and home were bombed.

When people talk about the civil rights movement so much focus is on Dr King and his outstanding contribution. Without taking anything away from Dr King, learning about the Mississippi movement requires way more appreciation of the lesser known foot soldiers who sacrificed and sometimes died.

Since February has been Black history month, remembering and honoring the Mississippi movement is very appropriate. I would suggest that all the talk about critical race theory and being woke is a diversion. It is a way to shift focus away from Black history. Teaching American history honestly means, in part, learning about Mississippi history. I cannot help but think about words I saw on the wall at the Legacy Museum:

“For the hanged and beaten.
For the shot, drowned and burned.
For the tortured, tormented and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the rule of law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.”

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Backtracking on guns and domestic violence – posted 2/15/2023

February 15, 2023 2 comments

Domestic violence often disappears from the headlines. Usually only stories like an intimate partner homicide or another mass shooting break through public inattention.

Court decisions about domestic violence mostly do not register but on February 2, there was a decision that I found jolting. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, issued a shocker decision in the case of United States v Rahimi. The Court ruled a federal law prohibiting individuals from owning or possessing a firearm while under a domestic violence restraining order is unconstitutional.

At present that ruling only applies in those three states but it is very likely that the case will ultimately land at the U.S. Supreme Court. The government is likely to appeal the Court’s ruling.

The Fifth Circuit decision on Rahimi follows from another 2022 decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v Bruen. That case, an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, offered the most expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment yet. Offering a novel legal test, Justice Thomas opined that the government has the burden of proving that a gun regulation “is inconsistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation”.

Without getting too deep into the legal weeds, what that means is that the Court will look to early American history to determine if there was a deeply rooted tradition of disarming individuals under a restraining order for domestic violence. The Court found that the historical record showed domestic violence abusers were not routinely disarmed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The result is a court decision that found that people with a history of violent abuse of their intimate partners do, in fact, have a Second Amendment right to own and possess guns even if a court had determined they are a credible threat to the physical safety of their intimate partner.

It is hard to overstate how dangerous and wrong-headed the Fifth Circuit’s opinion is. Using a cherry-picked version of history and originalism, the Court embraced a far right ideology that is steeped in sexism and disregard for women. Domestic violence was not considered a crime for most of U.S. history. It is a 20th century notion that men should not be allowed to abuse women.

The writer Ian Millhiser says that early on in American history wife-beating was considered “a familial affair” beyond the province of courts. It was seen as a natural part of private family life. Domestic violence regulation did not exist in the 1790’s. Back then, women were not allowed to vote or serve in office. Married women couldn’t own property or enter into contracts. Women were essentially the property of their husbands.

The Fifth Circuit evinced no awareness of this history. They also downplayed the serious danger to public safety embodied in their analysis. About Mr. Rahimi they wrote in their opinion:

“ Between December 2020 and January 2021, Rahimi was involved in five shootings in and around Arlington, Texas. On December 1, after selling narcotics to an individual, he fired multiple shots into that individual’s residence. The following day, Rahimi was involved in a car accident. He exited the vehicle, shot at the other driver, and fled the scene. He returned to the scene in a different vehicle and shot at the other driver’s car. On December 22, Rahimi shot at a constable’s vehicle. On January 7, Rahimi fired multiple shots in the air after his friend’s credit card was declined at a Whataburger restaurant.”

Rahimi was seriously out-of-control. He was subject to a restraining order for assault on his ex-girlfreind. When the police executed a search warrant of his residence because of these later events they found a rifle and a pistol. Prosecutors charged and convicted him for unlawful possession of his guns in violation of the restraining order.

You do not have to be a legal scholar to realize how badly the Fifth Circuit has stumbled here. It make no sense to look to the 18th century for a rationale to address a problem only fully recognized in the 21st century.. The decision will have lethal consequences for many, many women. It is an egregious misinterpretation of the Second Amendment. The quality of legal reasoning reflected in the decision is embarrassing.

There are compelling reasons why government must disarm domestic violence abusers. An American woman is shot and killed by an intimate partner every 14 hours. More than one half of intimate partner homicides are committed with guns. Research has shown that abusers’ access to guns makes domestic violence victims risk of death five times higher.

In 2021, the last year figures are available, 7,454 offenders were convicted in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi under the gun/domestic violence statute the Fifth Circuit invalidated. If the decision stands after all appeals are exhausted, it is a safe bet that women will needlessly die because of this court decision. Firearms have been established as the weapon of choice for domestic violence homicide. Female intimate partners are more likely to be murdered by a gun than by all other methods combined.

In protecting abusers’ rights to own guns, the Court misses the whole dynamic about how they are used to intimidate and cow victims into submission. Showing off guns and threats displaying them are part of the process of subjugation. There is no mention or appreciation of this dark side in the Rahimi court opinion.

The three judge panel who ruled unanimously in Rahimi demonstrated an out-of-touch quality that can ultimately only breed disrespect for the rule of law. I wish I had faith that the U.S. Supreme Court will rectify the situation.. We have been witnessing the triumph of right wing ideology over public safety, women’s health and common sense.

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The irrationality of conspiracy theories and disinformation – posted 2/5/2023

February 5, 2023 1 comment

We have reached a point where conspiracy theories have proliferated so much that they have lost the ability to surprise. The entire right wing ecosphere has been polluted. False information that is intended to mislead has wide range and is everyday fare.

Take the profoundly disturbing example of the attack on Paul Pelosi, the former House Speaker’s husband. When the assault happened last October, the response was telling. Donald Trump Jr. posted an image of a hammer and a pair of underwear with the words “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready”. Elon Musk linked to an article claiming that at the time of the assault, an inebriated Pelosi was arguing with a male prostitute. He fed the story of a gay tryst gone wrong.

Many high profile conservatives got in on the act and made fun of the attack on Pelosi including Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and FOX host Tucker Carlson. Apparently attacking an 82 year old man with a hammer is supposed to be funny. Isn’t it unambiguously clear that whatever someone’s politics, such assaults are absolutely unacceptable and beyond the pale?

The recent release of video about the October event confirms the seriousness of the assault. The attacker David DePape violently broke into the Pelosi residence and viciously fractured Pelosi’s skull with a hammer after the police told him to drop it. Pelosi is lucky to still be alive.

DePape has a history as a far right blogger and Trump supporter who embraced QAnon and the Big Lie about the 2020 election being stolen. Contrary to the facts, Sen. Cruz tweeted that DePape was “a hippie nudist from Berkeley”.

This is similar to the Trump effort to blame the January 6 insurrection on Antifa. The right wing ecosphere is often claiming false flag where they attempt to link a perpetrator to their opponents. The classic example is Alex Jones claiming Sandy Hook was staged by gun control advocates to create a pretext to restrict gun ownership.

It is evident now how vulnerable millions are to disinformation no matter how absurd. Repetition of Big Lies can turn listeners into Big Believers. It is a pattern we have seen demonstrated most conspicuously with QAnon. Abner Hauge, the chief editor of Left Coast Right Watch writes:

“Conspiracy theories don’t rely on facts, they weaponize them. The idea of a conspiracy theory is you have an end point you want to get to and you construct reality around that.”

Nowhere is this more true than in the rhetoric around COVID-19 and Dr. Anthony Fauci. The far right wing has swallowed and digested anti-scientific poison. Over-the-top messaging from the far right claims Dr. Fauci has committed very serious crimes and that he should be jailed.

Just to give a few examples (and there are many), I would mention unsuccessful Washington state candidate Joe Kent who called for Dr. Fauci to be charged with murder for “the scam that is COVID”. Kari Lake, failed Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate, said “that liar” Fauci should be locked up and “I think it is extremely wrong for government, business, and schools to mandate this vaccine”.

Tucker Carlson also has said Fauci “committed very serious crimes” and that he is a “dangerous fraud” who “engineered the single most devastating event in modern American history”. Science Magazine fact-checked Carlson. They wrote:

“The analysis shows Carlson took facts out of context and cited long-debunked studies or reports to attack Fauci. He also repeatedly blamed Fauci and other scientists for changing their minds based on new evidence – the bedrock of scientific progress. In Carlson’s calculus, such reversals equal lying.”

There is no evidence Dr. Fauci has committed any crime. Nor did he engineer the COVID-19 pandemic or lie about it but many want to believe he is corrupt or falsifying data. Dr. Fauci has had a long honorable career as a public health doctor, serving under seven presidents. He won the Medal of Freedom under Republican President George W. Bush. Of course, he has made mistakes and said things that he later regretted. Everyone has.

In the latest incident of COVID wackiness, many far right influencers, like podcaster Stew Peters, have insisted Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin died from COVID-19 vaccine shots after he collapsed in a game millions watched on TV. Far right influencers said Hamlin has been replaced by a body double. Tucker Carlson has lent support to the false claim that cardiac arrests have increased among athletes because of the vaccine.

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis positions himself for a 2024 presidential run, his COVID “expert”, Dr. Jon Ward, a dermatologist, has said “Fauci should face a firing squad” because of his work. Last August at a campaign rally DeSantis said about Fauci “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac”.

DeSantis must be thinking it is good politics to run against the medical establishment and any mandate for COVID vaccines. He has falsely claimed people are more likely to get infected with the bivalent booster. He and Trump are competing for who sounds most opposed to COVID vaccines. DeSantis now wants the Florida Supreme Court to empanel a grand jury to investigate potential wrongdoing by the medical community regarding how it informed Floridians about COVID vaccines and their efficacy.

Maybe next to Trump, no one did more to downplay the gravity of the pandemic than DeSantis. Since March 2020, more than a million Americans died from COVID-19 and more than 83,000 Floridians. That is a frightening record. The coronavirus killed more people aged 65 and over in Florida than any other state in the nation. No wonder DeSantis wants to retreat from the actual facts.

It is no exaggeration to recognize that the Republican Party, including its leaders, has been captured by voices of irrationality and science-denial. This helps to explain the Party’s intellectual degeneration. Instead of offering any ideas to improve the actual lives of Americans, the Party is lost in a circus of attention-grabbling performative stunts like flying immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard or arresting Florida black voters who thought they could vote.

Bad thinking inevitably leads to bad endings. We are watching a major party rot on the vine.

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