Sunday, July 2, 2017

On this Independence Day, a Call to Action in the Struggle for Fair Courts

Our Struggle for a Fair Justice System is Deeply Rooted in the American Struggle. Will You Join Us?

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

            - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Throughout our nation’s history, progressive change has come about in large part because activists have worked outside of official channels to create a climate that is more conducive to that change. 

Frederick Douglas once observed that “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. "

This is a principle as old as the American Republic.

For example, it was in the Treaty of Paris that King George III of Great Britain formally acknowledged the existence of the United States as free, sovereign and independent, but few today would attribute this accomplishment solely to the efforts of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and the other diplomats who directly negotiated the Treaty. Rather, it generally accepted that Britain would never have even come to the negotiating table without  the “agitation” of people like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine (which some of their contemporaries viewed as outrageous), together with the valor of those who risked their lives at Lexington, Concord, Saratoga and Yorktown (which some of their contemporaries viewed as extreme).

From another era, we have the story of Sidney Hillman, who served for a time as head of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union.  After helping Franklin Roosevelt get elected in the Presidential campaign of 1932, Hillman is said to have gone to the White House and presented an ambitious agenda of progressive reforms for the new President to adopt.  President Roosevelt supposedly replied: “Sidney, I agree with everything in your proposal. It is all exactly right.  Now you just go back home and make me do it.”  Following the President’s admonition, Hillman proceeded to “make” the President embrace many of his recommendations through a campaign of what Frederick Douglas would have described as “agitation.”

Years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. is said to have had a similar conversation with President Lyndon Johnson.  In response to Dr. King’s call for voting rights legislation and for the appointment of more African American officials, President Johnson is said to have challenged Dr. King to essentially “make me do it”. It is doubtful that many of the progressive initiatives sponsored by President Johnson could have been achieved without “agitation” on the part of advocates such as Dr. King and others.

In more recent times, the Plaintiffs in Brooks v. State Board of Elections played a role similar to that of Sidney Hillman and Martin Luther King.  They saw that those who were charged with administering justice in the State of Georgia in the 1990s were not representative of the communities that they served, and not representative of the populations whose lives they influenced. With little thought for their own personal needs, they “agitated” through the courts to make Georgia’s justice system more representative, with some measure of success.

More than 30 years after the Brooks litigation, the goal of a representative judiciary remains an elusive one, and progress toward that goal appears to have stalled.  There are numerous communities throughout the State of Georgia where persons of color constitute a majority of the population, but in which there have never been any judges of color.  Meanwhile, appointing authorities too often appear to have embraced a single-minded focus on filling judicial vacancies only with people who look like they look and think like they think. We are headed toward a closed, stagnant and inbred system in which the quality of justice will inevitably decline.

How are we to reverse this disastrous trend? Only by concerted action on the part of those of us who truly care about the quality of justice.

But concerted action begins with individual resolve. It only takes one person at a time. One person can decide that, sometimes, there are some things in life that are bigger than himself/herself or his/her career.  One person can resolve not to give in to apathy, discouragement, distrust, or disappointment. One person can decide that “I’m too busy to fight for this cause” is not an acceptable answer. Each person who stands stand silent, because others are uncomfortable, risks condemning future generations to a judiciary that is not representative of their communities or responsive to their interests.

We are on the precipice of change in our country and in our State. Our populations are becoming more and more diverse and, consequently, more and more open to the reality that they can use their votes to counteract the damage that some of our politicians are doing through the appointment process. In order to take advantage of these developments, it will be necessary for each of us to be that one person,  working with others of like mind, fighting for justice, willing to commit himself or herself to speaking up and speaking out about why our courts need to be representative and accountable to the communities they serve.  This is, after all, a major element of the “more perfect union” that we all profess to seek.

This is a moral issue, for which we must all stand up in unison.

Can we count on you?

For more information, click here.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Supreme Court Strikes Down North Carolina's Brazen Racial Gerrymander

Cooper v. Harris[1]

On May 22, 2017, the Supreme Court held that North Carolina legislators redrew two legislative districts in ways that intentionally discriminated against African American voters. Using the pretext of complying with the Voting Rights Act (VRA), North Carolina’s General Assembly redrew the boundaries of two legislative districts to dilute the voting strength of African Americans.

The events leading to this case began when the 2010 census showed that North Carolina’s District 1 was significantly underpopulated. To comply with the one-person-one-vote principle, the State needed to place almost 100,000 new people in the district. The other District, (District 12), did not need any changes as it was only overpopulated by 3,000 people out of over 730,000 residents. Despite the lack of any significant population changes boundary lines were redrawn in ways that significantly altered the district’s racial composition. It gained approximately 35,000 African-Americans of voting age and lost 50,000 whites. The black voting age population increased from 43.8% to 50.7%.

To prevail on a claim of racial gerrymandering the plaintiff must prove that race was the motivating factor in the decision to place a significant number of voters in or outside of a particular district. This requires a showing that the legislature subordinated traditional districting considerations to racial considerations. If racial considerations predominate, the burden shifts to the State to prove that its race-based voter distributions serve a “compelling interest” and are “narrowly tailored” to achieving that goal. The Supreme Court has held that compliance with the VRA can be a compelling justification.

In this case legislators decided African-Americans should constitute majority of the voting-age population in District 1. They argued that the district needed a majority-minority voting population to comply with the VRA. In Thornburg v. Gingles the Supreme Court identified three conditions for proving vote dilution under Section 2 of the VRA. First, a minority group must be sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a legislative district. Second, the minority group must be politically cohesive. Finally, the district’s white majority must vote sufficiently as a bloc to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.

In this case North Carolina’s evidence did not satisfy the third Gingles prerequisite; white bloc-voting. The evidence showed that year after year, District 1 was a “cross-over” district, in which white voters helped African Americans to elect the candidates of their choice.

In the case of District 12, North Carolina claimed that legislators redrew lines to “pack” the district with Democrats, not African Americans. Rejecting this argument the Supreme Court concluded that the evidence presented at trial adequately supported the conclusion that race, not partisan considerations, was the predominate factor in the district’s configuration.

The Court also rejected the State’s claim that a plaintiff in a racial-gerrymandering case had to prove that an alternative districting plan would have the same partisan impact without the same racial demographics.

As one commentator explained, “the equal protection clause does not have a partisanship exception.” Republican-dominated state legislatures have created brazen racial gerrymanders, pushing black voters out of GOP districts and herding them into Democratic ones. States attempting to use packing to dilute the voting strength of black or Latino voters cannot hide behind the Voting Rights Act to justify doing so. Republican efforts to manipulate and corrupt the electoral process undermine the foundations of our democracy.

[1] Leland Ware, Louis L. Redding Chair and Professor of Law, University of Delaware

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Latest Print Edition of Southern Changes is Now Available

Summer, 2017

In this Issue:
  • Supreme Court Clarifies Standard for Racial Gerrymandering
  • Two Courts Reject Texas Voter I-D Law
  • Supreme Court to Consider Limits on Partisan Gerrymandering
  • Andrew McDowd "Mac" Secrest, Heroic Southern Journalist (Part Four)
  • Lillian Smith Book Awards: Previous Recipients and 2017 Nominees
  • Cheryl Knott on Segregated Libraries
To obtain your copy, contact the Southern Regional Council at or click here.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Pauli Murray, Mary Hood, Thomas L. Johnson and Phillip C. Dunn Receive Lillian Smith Book Awards for 1987

By Thadious Davis
From Southern Changes
Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 33-34, 36

When Georgia author Lillian Smith died in 1966, the Southern Regional Council established an award not only to honor her work and her memory, but also to foster in others the spirit of her courageous struggle for human rights in the South. Smith's first novel, Strange Fruit (1944), explored the human tragedy resulting from racial segregation. That novel catapulted her to fame as a white Southerner with a social consciousness who spoke out against a major problem in her native region. With the publication of Killers of the Dream (1949), she provided both an intensive psychological analysis of the effects of segregation on whites and blacks and an uncompromising call for an end to a debilitating system. Her visionary writing was accompanied by social and political activism. Whether functioning with national organizations, local groups, or personal friends, Smith committed her energy to persuading others to work for social justice and racial equality under the law.

The Lillian Smith Book Awards have been presented since 1967 in recognition of outstanding writing concerned with the Southern region. Recipients have not been restricted to Southerners, but they have been expected to contribute understanding of social issues and human problems affecting Southerners and the South. In sponsoring the awards, the Southern Regional Council recognizes those writers who have translated Smith's "struggle into terms appropriate to our own lives" today, as SRC President Paul M. Gaston puts it. Gaston points out that the intent is "honor the authors not so much for their own sakes. . . but so that others will, because of the award, learn about and read their books."

This year the Lillian Smith Book Awards have been jointly awarded in the non-fiction category to Thomas L. Johnson and Phillip C. Dunn for A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts, 1920-1936 and to Pauli Murray, posthumously, for Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage. The 1987 Smith Award in the fiction category is to Mary Hood for the collection of short stories And Venus Is Blue.

A True Likeness is a collection of the photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts, a black Floridian who in 1920 moved to Columbia, S. C., where he operated a photography business in the black commercial district until his death in 1936. Selected from some three thousand extant glass plates, Roberts's photographs document the lives of blacks in Columbia and the surrounding area. They make a unique contribution to the historical record of black communities in the urban South during the period between the world wars. Roberts provided a rare glimpse into the activities and culture of emergent middle-class towns people in the early decades of the modern South. He photographed people and the artifacts of their material culture: studio backdrops, city streets, public buildings and private homes; weddings, christenings and wakes; family groups, school children and individual portraits; prominent citizens, day laborers and community leaders.

Anthony Paul Dunbar, a member of the awards committee, observed that "Not only are the pictures artistically and technically excellent but they record a life that very few people knew existed. If you read the captions to the photographs you will see the civil rights movement emerging."

Published by two regional houses, Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Bruccoli Clark of Columbia, S.C., A True Likeness is the result of a collaboration between Roberts's surviving children (Wilhelmina Roberts Wynn, Gerald E., Beverly N. and Cornelius C. Roberts) and Phillip C. Dunn, an art professor at the University of South Carolina specializing in photography.

With the support and assistance of the South Caroliniana Library's field archival program, Dunn cleaned and restored the glass negative plates, developed contact prints from which he selected "the most powerful and significant," and made exhibit-quality prints. Dunn and his co-editor Thomas L. Johnson state that the true value of Roberts's work lies not merely in its "intrinsic aesthetic appeal as a photography collection of undeniable technical finesse and formal beauty," but in "it's revelation--its true representation--of a lost world of a people whose identity was lost not only upon the white world but also upon itself." Essentially, the recovered photographs of Richard Samuel Roberts attest to the vitality of a Southern black community and deposit a cultural legacy for the descendants of that community as well as for those of a white community that never knew of its existence. His pictures recapture for all an aspect of Southern life rarely seen by outsiders and nearly forgotten by insiders; in the process, they further an understanding of the multicultural South.

PAULI MURRAY'S Song in a Weary Throat, published by Harper and Row, is memoir of self and society by a woman who insisted on her full humanity as a person of color and as a female. It recounts with unusual clarity, passion, and compassion Murray's journey toward achievement in the face of racial and sexual discrimination. Murray chose her title from a verse in her book of poetry, Dark Testament and Other Poems: "Hope is a song in a weary throat." Hope is the keynote that sustained her through long years of commitment to civil rights and moral justice. Robert J. Norrell, chairman of the awards committee, termed it a "powerful statement of one person's challenge to a world that put a lot of obstacles before her but that she would not let daunt her."

Murray chronicles her life as "An American Pilgrimage" which took her from early childhood in Baltimore to formative years in the black South of Durham, N.C. She presents her youthful ambitions and dreams along with the nearly devastating effects of discriminatory practices upon them. She recounts her efforts to become a lawyer during a period when both her race and sex limited her opportunities for professional education. The University of North Carolina would not admit her because of her race; Harvard University would not admit her because of her sex.

Murray not only became a civil rights attorney and legal scholar, but she also was a founding member of the National Organization for Women. From the 1930s through the 1980s, she remained a tireless teacher-activist for the advancement of blacks and women, a cause that she understood as necessary for the advancement of all Americans. In 1973, she entered the seminary and in 1977 became the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. She ends her pilgrimage with an account of the celebration of her first Holy Eucharist, a communion service at the Episcopal Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, N.C., where her white and black ancestors had worshipped for generations and where she herself felt all the strands of her life as a poet, lawyer, teacher, friend, and minister come together in "the spirit of love and reconcilation [sic] drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness." Murray died in 1985 while completing Song in a Weary Throat; the book is a fitting tribute to her quest for wholeness--for herself and all Americans.

MARY HOOD'S And Venus is Blue is a collection of seven stories and title novella. Published by Ticknor and Fields, the work is about white Southerners in the contemporary world of change and transition. In these accomplished stories of physical and psychological survival, Hood shatters stereotypical views of the South. Though incorporating details of cultural reality not restricted to the South (Harlequin books, Datsun cars, etc.), she treats rural people with the expansive perception of one who recognizes the quiet valor of their determination to remain fully human in dehumanizing times. One female character envisions the world as "untrammeling. . . widening in ripples about her," and sees herself as "the stone at the center that sets things moving."

Without condescension or caricature, Hood captures the often hidden meaning of ordinary life, distills it with compassion, and renders it for others to share. Her special gift is for articulating the often unspoken conflicts of the heart among the working-class poor. A rural family man, for instance, struggles against the limits of his existence:

There was a little air stirring. The pines on tomorrow's cutting were tall against the first stars. Up toward Hammermill the sky was lighter. Cheney could see, after his eyes got sharper, the glint of the mayonnaise jar he had brought his tea in for lunch....He picked it up. the lid was missing. Cheney tossed it--it hit on something and smashed I'm so goddamn tired of being poor, he said.
His voice may not be eloquent, but the scene encompasses with accuracy and authority the contrast between the potential of the natural world and the reality of the unending human effort to create an inhabitable space within that world.

Hood lives in Georgia, whose northern foothills and mountain areas provide settings for her stories. Her fiction has evoked, for some readers, comparisons with Flannery O'Connor, another Georgian and master of the short story form. However, according to awards committee member Mary Frances Deriner, Hood's people and landscapes are neither O'Connoresque nor grotesque, but are instead the "essence of the modern South."

As of this writing in 1987, Thadious Davis was teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a member of the committee which selected this year's Lillian Smith prize winners. Other committee members were Robert J. Norrell, Center for the Study of Southern History and Culture, University of Alabama; Mary Frances Derfner, Charleston, S.C.; and Anthony P. Dunbar, New Orleans, La. In making its selections, the committee reviewed approximately forty strong entries in fiction, history, and autobiography/memoir published between July 1, 1986, and June 30, 1987.