This Juneteenth

By Lydia Holt 

You can’t talk about Juneteenth without first talking about the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln was primarily looking to “stick it” to the South by signing this document. It proclaimed all slaves in the rebelling states free. Read more...

Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Government's Response

By Sheryl Wright

Bradley Manning, the army private accused of releasing government documents to WikiLeaks, is facing 22 additional charges, including "aiding the enemy...through indirect means.” I agree with those quoted in the article who believe that this particular charge is setting up a dangerous precedent.

Read more...

Roundtable: America—Sweden’s Sweatshop

Sheryl: In a bit of irony, the U.S. is developing an unexpected reputation within the corporate world. Recent stories about an Ikea plant in Virginia indicate the United States—much like Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, and Honduras—is now seen as a preferred destination for corporations in search of lower production costs. Read more...

National

 

 

Sunday
Jul032011

Freedpeople Rising: Models of Engaged Citizenship

By Sheryl Wright

On Independence Day, we commemorate the nation’s declaration of independence from British rule. In our celebration of the nation’s birth and the personal freedoms and liberties we have as American citizens, we give very little consideration to the former slaves who played an important role in ensuring the bestowal of these freedoms and liberties upon all Americans.

Margarita "Peggy" Best (October 10, 1841 - April 13, 1922)My great-great grandmother, Margarita “Peggy” Best, lived through Reconstruction. Born into slavery, she acquired 150 acres of land that was once part of the plantation in South Carolina that she had lived and worked on as a slave for most of her 22 years of life before she was emancipated. The land proved to be a source of sustenance for Peggy as she worked to provide for her eight children, seven of whom were fathered by her former master. Her desire to obtain an education for her children was so great that she purchased a mule and buggy so that they would be able to attend a school 29 miles away. She is but one example of the many former slaves who, through their determination to make a better life for themselves and their families, helped to establish what historian Eric Foner referred to as “…the social and political agenda of Reconstruction.”

Despite lifetimes spent under the hateful glare of the often brutal masters and their overseers, the freedmen and women enthusiastically embraced freedom, providing models for what it can mean to be engaged citizens; as Foner explains, they exercised their right to vote, ran for elected office, fought to strengthen their families, and labored to uplift their communities. The former slaves created many of the religious, educational, and political institutions that helped to pave the way for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s all while facing tremendous hostility from the Ku Klux Klan and the other terrorist organizations, which ran rampant during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.

As a result of the Reconstruction amendments which includes the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote), and the freedmen’s struggle to gain civil and political rights, all people born in this country today are entitled to all of the rights and privileges associated with being a citizen simply by virtue of being born on American soil. There are no other requirements at the time of birth, and there is nothing more required in the future, with the exception of obeying the law and paying taxes.

My life experiences have led me to believe that being a proactive citizen is a personal responsibility and obligation. As a child, I was captivated by stories of black people’s struggle for equality in this country. I loved learning about the extraordinary efforts of my lesser known relatives as well as people like Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In college, I was an active member of our Black Students’ Union. I participated in the protests in support of divestment from South Africa and in meetings and smaller protests related to other issues of concern to students on our campus and on other college campuses in the area. I believed my voice could make a difference.

After graduating from college, I settled into life as a disengaged citizen for more years than I care to admit. I didn’t vote for seven years. Looking back on that time, I realize that I disconnected from the power I have as a citizen to make a difference—power that we all have as citizens. The power exemplified in the stories that inspired me as a child. I whined about how my vote wouldn’t make a difference. In some way, I was right. By itself, voting wasn’t enough. I don’t recall what the seminal moment was for me, but I somehow realized I had no right to continue to sit on the sidelines and complain. I knew I had to put up or shut up. Committed citizenship involves taking action in our everyday lives to improve our communities and our nation. Voting is an integral part of being active, but showing up to vote once every two or four years is the very least that any citizen can do.

The founding principles of this country are awe-inspiring. Several months ago, I visited the National Constitution Center. The museum had been on my list of places to visit since its opening in 2003. During “Freedom Rising,” the theatrical performance which is a part of the museum’s core exhibit, my eyes filled with tears as the actor recounted the role the Constitution played in black people’s struggle for equality. I literally get chills when I think about the promise of this country. When I remember the efforts of the freedmen and women, I am reminded of our capacity as citizens to make right the country’s wrongs; the responsibility and obligation of engaged citizenship becomes an even more precious gift.

We the People

Read more on ways to be engaged. 

Saturday
Jun182011

This Juneteenth

By Lydia Holt


My great-grandfather, Isaiah P. Baker (standing), his father James Baker, and step mother, who were born slaves in Texas.You can’t talk about Juneteenth without first talking about the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln was primarily looking to “stick it” to the South by signing this document. It proclaimed all slaves in the rebelling states free. However, if you were a slave in Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware (Union states) and Tennessee or any of a number of exempt counties and cities, you were sure out of luck until the abolishment of slavery with the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution on December 18, 1865. Of course most of the slaves in Texas didn’t know any of this had been going on until good old Union General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas, and read out loud General Order Number 3 on June 19, 1865, informing the slaves of Texas that they were free. And so Juneteenth was born.

There’s a scene from the film version of The Color Purple (no, not the “You told Harpo to beat me!” scene, but another) that I think of every Juneteenth. Shug Avery is visiting Celie and Mister and sees her father’s carriage coming down the road. She runs out to the fence separating the yard from the dirt road, holding up her left hand now resplendent with a wedding band, and yells, “I’s married now! I say I’s married now!” Her father whips the horses into a gallop, rushing past his daughter, a scowl of disapproval on his face. Being a Texan, I like to call my family on Juneteenth, and when I call my big sister, I cheerfully say, “I say we’s free now!”

Just as Shug imagined she would be legitimized, in her father’s eyes, by becoming a married woman, my ancestors believed emancipation would lead to their recognition as full-fledged citizens. It did not. We, as black Americans, have certainly been disheartened by the disapproving scowl of white supremacy embodied by the planters, the overseers and Jim Crow, but we carry on. The way to full-fledged citizenship has been paved for me by Freedom Riders, marchers on Washington, and my great-grandmother refusing to leave the ventilated, whites-only waiting room of a train station on a sweltering hot Texas day. (Luckily, the train arrived before the police did.) It is because of them that I can call my sister and half-jokingly say, “I say we’s free now!” and it be a truer statement than ever before.

Growing up, we never did anything special on Juneteenth. No red soda water, no purple drink, no barbecue in the park, no parade. My mother told me that when her father was working at the cottonseed oil refinery, back in the early 20th century, the workers didn’t get the Fourth of July off. Since most of the workers were black, the refinery owner decided to give the workers Juneteenth off instead. The Fourth of July is a celebration of a free and independent country. Juneteenth is the celebration of this free and independent country allowing black people on the freedom train. Yes, we were confined to the back, but at least we were on the train, instead of running on the human-sized hamster wheels that power the train. Sure, it took 89 years (from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation), but “We’s free now!”

Now we’re legitimate members of American society, free to openly participate in its democracy and yet many of us are reluctant to do so. We think it doesn’t really matter or our voices won’t be heard. I must admit that I too feel this way sometimes. The only time that I ever felt like my vote was really making a difference was during the 2008 presidential election. I stood in line with hundreds of people just before 6 o’clock in the morning, anxious to cast my vote for Barack Obama. I thought I was getting to the polls early, but when I neared the middle school that was my polling station, I found the line already winding out of the building and onto the sidewalk. Once I was in line, it began to grow down the sidewalk and snake its way around the corner. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. People whipped out their phones, chatting and texting excitedly. When a middle-aged black woman strode out of the building and announced she had been the first to cast her vote, a cheer went up from the line of eager voters.

The next election day was not nearly as exciting. I wasn’t helping make history; I was just voting for the same old people who were part of the same old political machine. It’s on those kinds of election days that I have to remember Juneteenth and the struggle of  the civil rights movement. I have the luxury of grumbling about getting up early to get to the polls and am thankful for it.

I still have yet to go to a Juneteenth parade or picnic or any other formal celebration, but I’ve often pondered purchasing a copy of “Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives” (HBO/Library of Congress) as well as some documentaries on the civil rights movement. I’ll show them to my two sons when they’re old enough to understand and when they’re being moody, obnoxious teenagers. I will sit them down and make them watch, listen, and see what their lives could have been like. I will remind them and I will remind myself that we have much to be grateful for.

“I say we’s free now!” So what shall we do with this freedom? I say, all that we can to preserve freedom and continue to fight for equality for all.

Friday
Apr152011

Roundtable: America—Sweden’s Sweatshop

Sheryl: In a bit of irony, the U.S. is developing an unexpected reputation within the corporate world. Recent stories about an Ikea plant in Virginia indicate the United States—much like Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, and Honduras—is now seen as a preferred destination for corporations in search of lower production costs. Workers in a Swedish plant which manufactures products similar to those produced in Virginia earn a minimum wage of $19 per hour while Virginia workers start at $8 an hour. The Virginia workers have accused Ikea of engaging in a host of unfair work practices, including: instituting mandatory overtime: rescinding raises, engaging in racial discrimination; and resorting to intimidation tactics to discourage union-organizing.  

The events in Virginia are evidence of a new direction in the outsourcing phenomenon; who would have imagined a day would come when foreign companies would view the U.S. as U.S.-based companies view countries like Mexico. I worry about what this type of trend will mean for future American workers—people like my father and others in my family and the neighborhood where I grew up who parlayed their manufacturing jobs into decent, financially stable lives for themselves and their families. 

Lydia: How timely this is, given the upsurge in union-busting in America. Looks like Ikea is trying to get in on the ground floor on this one. It is equally surprising since they seem to treat their workers in Sweden with respect. I wonder if this is also a problem of Americanization? Are Americans primarily running the plant and making workforce decisions? From what I've read, Swedwood is a manufacturing subsidiary of Ikea and their spokesperson, Ingrid Steen, is based in Sweden and doesn't seem to really know details of what's going on Stateside yet Swedwood hired the law firm known for union-busting. The Danville plant is Ikea's dirty little secret no more. The Swedes back home are appalled and yet no one in the U.S. is talking about it. This is indeed worrying. 

Sheryl: Lydia, you’re right; Americans are the ones primarily responsible for the day-to-day running of the plant, and it is a problem of Americanization in that U.S.-based companies are trying to squeeze as much as they can out of American workers and workers all over the world. Come to think of it, is there any longer any such thing as an American company? With globalization, any companies that might still be classified as U.S.-based have multinational interests. These companies no longer have an allegiance to the U.S and American workers. They also do not have any loyalty to any other country and its workers. As you mention, what’s happening at the Danville plant is probably something the Ikea-corporate would rather not have the Swedish general public know about because they—the Swedish workers—have a higher expectation with regard to their treatment at the hands of their corporate employers than American workers and there is a possibility of some backlash toward the company.

The expectations Swedish workers have is a function of a government in Sweden that enacts regulations to control corporate activity and treatment of Swedish working people. Unfortunately, the exact opposite took hold in this country during the Reagan administration and continues to this day—with government at both the state (as we have seen over the past few months) and federal level intent on dismantling worker protections. I bet there are many workers in the Danville plant who voted for the elected officials who opened the door to their mistreatment by Ikea.

The world has been Americanized to a large extent. For corporations—Swedish, American, whatever—it’s all about access to cheap labor. Is it a stretch to say corporations are trying to revive slavery? Instead of snatching people up and transporting them across the ocean, corporations appear to be doing all they can to turn people into slaves in their own countries.

Monday
Apr042011

On Speech: Hateful, Leftist, and Otherwise

By Nichole Rustin-Paschal

Here’s the thing about free speech, inevitably, it’s going to hurt your feelings. The appropriate response is not to legislate the content of the speech, but to ensure the viability of more speech. This is precisely what the Supreme Court did in its recent opinion in Snyder v. Phelps, a case involving the right to protest in a public square.  

The Phelps lead the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which espouses the view that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance and legal protection of the rights of gays and lesbians by killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. To disseminate this view, the church identifies when a fallen soldier will be buried and then plans a protest near the burial site. As in the Snyder case, the church abides by local laws regarding the holding of protests. In fact, because of the persistence of the church in appearing at military funerals, many states have passed laws that create time, place, and manner restrictions on the picketing of these funerals.  

This particular case concerned a father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa., who became distraught because the Westboro group picketed the funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq in March 2006.  The church uses quite abhorrent speech, including signs proclaiming "You're Going to Hell" to make its point. Often, if not always, the speech damns the fallen soldier in defamatory ways. But since you can’t defame a dead person, plaintiffs need other ways to make a claim against the church. The Snyders used the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, a claim that rests on the callous disregard by the speaker of the effect of his speech on the target, and intrusion upon seclusion, the claim that a defendant's intrusion into a plaintiff's personal matters is so offensive that a reasonable person would be as offended as the plaintiff.

The district court ruled in Snyder’s favor; the jury awarded him $11 million in damages, but the judge cut the amount to $5 million. The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, however, ruled in favor of the church, primarily on First Amendment grounds. The Supreme Court, in an 8-to-1 decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, affirmed the 4th Circuit’s judgment.  

Listen, the facts of the Snyder case are hard to swallow, I’m willing to admit. But that doesn’t mean that we ought not to protect the rights of the defendants, the Phelps, to exercise their right to speak freely. As the wife of a soldier, I can appreciate the distress Mr. Snyder and his family experienced at such a vulnerable moment in their grieving process. The deeply homophobic speech seems like a personal, visceral attack aimed at denying the sacrifice of these men and women. But, I can promise you, the Phelps could care less about any of the actual individuals whose funerals they’ve protested. They’re concerned with using political and religious speech to express a perspective on contemporary social policies and politics.

What we want is more speech, not less. Our democracy rests on the contest of ideas—if people have the courage of their convictions, they will not be deterred in expressing them by outliers articulating extreme views. Nor would they use intimidation tactics to staunch criticism as a conservative group has done recently.

I’m talking about the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan which is attempting to use state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws to gather “evidence” that academics at state universities are using state resources for political activities. FOIA laws are meant to ensure open, transparent, and accountable government, not to police what professors teach and research. Seriously, people are trying, under FOIA statutes, to get the emails of all professors who teach in labor studies program for teaching about contemporary labor issues. This, if nothing else, embodies the use of state action to chill speech.

Let’s applaud public universities and colleges that are willing, as was the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to stand by the principles of academic freedom, even as they fulfill their statutory obligations. Scholars, like William Cronon, should not be harassed as they go about the work of teaching, researching, and writing about the world that we live in. Critical perspectives on pressing issues benefit us all as they contribute to our individual ability to make informed choices for ourselves.  

Here’s what I tell my son when he asks me if something is a bad word—“Would that hurt your feelings if someone called you that? If so, then yes, it probably is a bad word.” But that is a lesson about civility and empathy, not a lesson about free speech and democracy. Civility is a building block, not the end result of democracy. We ought to engage with one another on civil terms, but we must be willing to fight for the ideals we value by exercising our right to free speech and protecting the rights of others, with whom we may be virulently opposed, to freely express their ideas. Let us who value social justice speak louder and be more insistent than those who would silence and ridicule us. Let ours be the voice and vision of a transformative politics in the public square. Let us speak and be free.

Monday
Mar142011

Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and the Government's Response

Bradley Manning, the army private accused of releasing government documents to WikiLeaks, is facing 22 additional charges, including "aiding the enemy...through indirect means.” I agree with those quoted in the article who believe that this particular charge is setting up a dangerous precedent. Rather than a specific individual, organization or government, “the enemy” is an amorphous characterization which can be applied indiscriminately. In Bradley Manning’s case,” the enemy” is most likely the insurgents fighting American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the future, unions or anti-war protestors could be classified as “the enemy”. 

Prior to the announcement of these new charges, I have been ambivalent about this story and although my ambivalence about the value of organizations such as WikiLeaks remains, I am no longer uncertain about the path our government has chosen to take in response to these leaks. I think this new charge against Bradley Manning is a step too far.

What role should organizatons such as WikiLeaks play in society? What role, if any, does the scattered nature of our media or our global interconnectedness play in the emergence of these types of organizations? We want transparency and accountability from our government. Is there a line that can be drawn such that we have transparency and accountability while the government maintains its ability to protect the nation's security interests? Is the release of information for information's sake a value we should adhere to across the board or should consideration be given to the possible consequences of releasing information to the general public that would clearly endanger the nation's security?

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