Race & Ethnicity

Nikki Giovanni Remembers 1963 with a New Poem

AP Photo/Jim Wells
AP Photo/Steve Helber Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most famous poets. She is a New York Times bestseller, a one-time Woman of the Year winner from Mademoiselle and Ebony magazines, a recipient of the first Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, and a holder of a Langston Hughes Medal. She wrote that “writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.” Below is a poem she penned for the Prospect , reflecting on the March on Washington 50 years later. We, too I was home In Lincoln Heights Named for Abraham As many other small black Communities are Only 20 years old Not cowardly I had picketed Rich’s Department Store in Knoxville I sat in with Fisk University In Nashville But not all that Brave Mommy didn’t want Me to go Neither did my father and I wondered Would it matter 50 years later I know It did We watched We prayed We, too, were inspired I didn’t go I stayed home And reminded myself: We also serve Who sit And Wait Jenny Warburg Nikki Giovanni, currently an English professor...

The Six Months That Made the Sixties

The March on Washington marked the beginning of a tumultuous half-year whose events would shape the decade's legacy. 

AP Images/Anonymous
AP Images/Anonymous U nless you’re tyrannized by the laws of calendars and clocks, the “Sixties” (as opposed to the 1960s) were born not on a day or at a given hour. Rather they emerged from the six months between August 28, 1963, and February 23, 1964, the midway locus falling on November 22—three dates marking episodes as irrevocable as they were momentous. The March on Washington (“for Jobs and Freedom,” to give the event its precise title) on August 28 was at once the start of something and the culmination of what unfolded the preceding decade. This included a Supreme Court ruling on racial segregation, a woman who refused to change seats on a bus, federal troops enforcing the integration of Southern schools, a minister imprisoned during a close presidential campaign, the savage murders of black and white civil rights workers, and the proposal of landmark legislation only two months before by the president of the United States. The march was most notable for the appearance by the...

Freedom Fighters—the Next Generation

AP Images/Phil Sears
AP Images/Phil Sears The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is synonymous with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As a leader of mass movements, King was surpassed by few, and in high school textbooks he is treated as the personification of the civil-rights movement. King and other movement leaders, however, made up only one strand of the 1960s civil-rights struggle. Grassroots organizers—many now forgotten—helping African Americans in the South register to vote even as King spoke in front of the Lincoln Memorial, made up the other. The spirit of those people and the groups they belonged to, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), can be found today in the dozens of grassroots groups across the country, that work to protect voting rights or expand access to a quality public education. Phillip Agnew, the 28-year-old executive director of the Florida civil-rights group the Dream Defenders, is, at the moment, probably...

Prison Reform: No Longer Politically Toxic?

AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli
AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli I n the two weeks since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences—and would consider releasing some elderly, nonviolent prisoners early—something remarkable has happened. There’s been no major outcry from the right. While the attorney general certainly has no shortage of outspoken detractors in the Republican ranks, the initiative hasn’t prompted any major voices to decry him as “soft on crime.” In fact, in plenty of conservative circles, he’s earned praise —or something close to it. “Eric Holder gets something marginally right,” wrote the Daily Caller . Not long ago, the lack of a right-wing furor would have been unthinkable. So would Holder’s initiative; criminal-justice reform has long been politically toxic for Democrats as well as Republicans. But in 2013, even with an administration whose policy proposals almost always prompt pushback...

One Way to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Since the Great Recession began in 2007, no one’s had more trouble finding work than low-income Asian, black, and Hispanic male teenagers. That’s the main idea in two recent articles in The Wall Street Journal (available here and here ) that rely on research from Andrew Sum, a professor who produces a remarkable number of papers for Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies (CLMS). As Ben Casselman, author of The Wall Street Journal articles, notes, working during the summer is not only a way for high schoolers to earn money. People who held jobs in their teens are more likely to graduate from high school, and to be employed and have higher earnings in their early 20s than people who didn’t find paid work during the summer, according to a CLMS paper titled “The Continued Crisis in Teen Employment in the U.S. and Massachusetts.” Also worth noting, in that and other CLMS papers, are connections between jobless teenagers and high-school graduation rates that should catch...

Dangerous Deportations

AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini
AP Photo/Guillermo Arias The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which sits across the border from Texas, can be a scary place. With one of the largest ports of entry to the United States, Tamaulipas is a coveted drug-trafficking corridor disputed by the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, and an outside gang called Sinaloa. The spiral into violence began in 2006, when the Mexican government started an all-out war against these criminal organizations. At the height of conflict, newsrooms got attacked, battles often involved grenades, and gruesome mass killings were common, even as the military patrolled the streets. Drug-trafficking organizations are not only into smuggling these days; they engage in theft, piracy, extortion, and, more recently, kidnapping. A U.S. Department of State travel warning in July 2013 advises U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to the area: “The kidnapping rate for Tamaulipas, the highest for all states in Mexico, more than doubled in the past year.” Mexico’s National...

The Socialists Who Made the March on Washington

AP Photo/Eddie Adams
AP Photo, File The Team Assembles “I n 1956, when I was a student at Brooklyn College, Mike Harrington told Tom [Kahn, another Brooklyn College student] and me to go up to this office in Manhattan, on 57 th Street, to work with Bayard Rustin,” Rachelle Horowitz remembers. Harrington (who was to author The Other America , which sparked the War on Poverty), Horowitz, and Kahn were all members of the Young People’s Socialist League, a democratic socialist organization of no more than several hundred members nationally. Rustin, their elder, boasted a longer left pedigree: a brief sojourn in the Communist Party in the ’30s, then—repudiating the Communists and affiliating himself with the Socialist Party—working for socialist A.J. Muste’s Fellowship of Reconciliation; founding the Congress of Racial Equality with fellow socialist James Farmer in 1942; doing time in Leavenworth during World War II for protesting the segregation of the armed forces; traveling to India to study nonviolent...

Ed Davis's Minority Report

AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye
AP Photo/Matt Rourke W hen two homemade bombs derailed the Boston Marathon on April 15, longtime Mayor Thomas Menino was laid up in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recovering from his latest setback in a string of recent ailments. The mayor of two decades immediately checked out of critical care to attend police and media briefings; but in a wheelchair with his medical bracelet still snug around his wrist, Menino couldn't deliver the sort of reassuring rhetoric that Rudy Giuliani did for New Yorkers after September 11, when he stood with rage and pride atop a mountain of World Trade Center wreckage. With Hizzoner on the sidelines, Americans sought answers from a number of surrogate authority figures, none of whom calmed the public quite like Boston Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Ed Davis. Tall and awkward but confident, with an endearing New England brogue, Davis reached through the news cameras, wrapped his meaty arms around America, and promised a swift response. In the time...

The Ex-Con Factor

AP Photo/Toby Talbot M ercedies Harris was 27 in 1990, when he was arrested for drug possession and distribution in Fairfax, Virginia. Harris had served in the Marines, but the death of his brother in 1986—killed by a hit-and-run driver—sent him down a familiar path. “I was angry and I couldn’t find the guy who did it,” Harris says. “I got into drugs to find a way to medicate myself.” Upon his release in 2003, Harris, who had earned his GED in prison, found a job and began to rebuild his life. He faced the usual practical challenges: “I couldn’t get on a lease, I had no insurance, I had no medical coverage, my driver’s license was expired.” But he found one obstacle that was especially difficult to overcome: He couldn’t vote. Virginia is one of four states—along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky—that strip voting rights from felons for life. The U.S. is the world’s only democracy that permits permanent disenfranchisement. While most states have some restrictions on felons voting, it...

Our Failure to Stop You from Voting Means We Weren't Trying to Stop You from Voting

North Carolinians wait to vote in 2008 (Flickr/James Willamor)
North Carolina recently passed what can only be described as an omnibus voter suppression law, including a whole range of provisions from demanding photo IDs to cutting back early voting to restricting registration drives, every single one of which is likely to make it harder for minorities, poor people, and/or young people to register and vote. It's not just the Tar Heel state—across the South, states that have been freed by the Supreme Court from their prior obligation under the Voting Rights Act to get permission from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws are moving with all deliberate speed to make voting as difficult as possible. Since these are Republican states, these laws are going to pass (some have already), and I think it's worth addressing what is fast becoming the main argument Republicans use to defend them. They've always said that their only intent was to ensure the "integrity" of elections and protect against voter impersonation, a virtually...

Six Charts that Explain Why Our Prison System Is So Insane

flickr/wwarby
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population. And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details. In 1992, there were 1.3 million inmates in America's prisons and jails; by two decades later, a million more had been added (the data in this article are taken from the Bureau of Justice...

Bloomberg's Stop-And-Frisk Program Is Unconstitutional

AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari
AP Photo/Seth Wenig I n a major victory for civil rights and civil liberties, a United States District Court Judge has held that the New York City Police Department's (NYPD) stop-and-frisk policies are unconstitutional. Judge Shira Scheindlin's opinion justifying the ruling is a tour de force. Carefully assessing both systematic evidence and the cases of individual litigants, Judge Scheindlin leaves no serious doubt that the NYPD's policies are inconsistent with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Under current Fourth Amendment law, not all warrantless searches of people in public violate the Constitution. In the landmark 1968 case Terry v. Ohio , Chief Justice Earl Warren affirmed that "stop-and-frisk" searches are indeed "searches" covered by the Fourth Amendment. As he noted in one passage in his ruling—part of which was used as an epigram by Judge Scheindlin—"it is simply fantastic to urge that such a procedure performed in public by a policeman while the...

L.A. Story

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy: a new model for American liberalism?

flickr/AlphaProject
AP Photo/E.J. Flynn T ake a left as you exit the Long Beach Airport, and you’ll pass three acres of greenery named “Rosie the Riveter Park.” The park stands at the southeast corner of what had once been the mammoth Douglas Aircraft factory, where DC-3s, -4s, -5s, all the way up to -10s, were once manufactured, and where, during World War II, 43,000 workers, half of them women, built the B-17 bombers and C-47 transports that flew missions over Europe and the Pacific. World War II and then the Cold War remade Long Beach. Federal dollars funded the Douglas factory, a new naval shipyard, and numerous defense firms. An entire city—the working-class community of Lakewood, which borders Long Beach on the north—was built to house the sudden influx of defense workers. Long Beach became and remains the second-largest city in Los Angeles County. The new jobs paid well; powerful unions represented the workers in the factories and on the docks. Military spending, though, began to decline after the...

Will the Department of Justice Find Zimmerman Guilty?

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
AP Photo/Alex Menendez S ince the end of the George Zimmerman trial, many of those dismayed by the not guilty verdict have pushed for the Department of Justice to press federal civil-rights charges against Trayvon Martin’s killer. Given the strong possibility that race played a role both in Zimmerman's decision to follow the unarmed teenager and in the jury’s verdict, it seems plausible that federal intervention might be warranted. Indeed, soon after the verdict was read in mid-July, Attorney General Eric Holder launched an inquiry into whether civil-rights charges should be filed against Zimmerman. But unless the investigation uncovers evidence that was not publicly available at the time of the trial, it is almost certain that the federal government will decline to prosecute Zimmerman. The first barrier to bringing civil-rights charges against Zimmerman is that he is not a state actor. Since Reconstruction, the Supreme Court has generally interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as...

Have We No Shame?

From Weiner to Filner to Zimmerman and beyond, public embarrassment for wrongs done seems to no longer exist.

AP Images/Frank Franklin II
AP Images/Frank Franklin II S hame peaked when Nathaniel Hawthorne slapped Hester Prynne with that scarlet A a couple hundred years ago, and it’s been going out of fashion ever since. To a certain extent, good riddance; for most of the last few thousand years of Judeo-Christian morality, public shame has been more oppressive than moral, the judgment of a tyranny of collectively held values rather than an expression of values worth being held. In an age, however, when privacy becomes more obsolete, due not only to the state monitoring our lives as in the recent NSA scandal but also to our communal acquiescence of privacy, shame becomes obsolete: A jury’s verdict notwithstanding, there’s no indication whatsoever that George Zimmerman feels the slightest twinge of remorse let alone shame over shooting to death an unarmed teenager; and what Paula Deen fights for isn’t redemption from the shame of exposing herself as a racist but rather the resurrection of her career, and maybe some...

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