Friday, July 17, 2015

The Latest Print Edition of Southern Changes is Now Available!

Summer, 2015. In this issue:

The Voting Rights Act at 50: A Retrospective
The Roberts Court's Assault on Civil Rights
Lillian Smith Book Award Nominees for 2015

To order your copy, click here or send a request to

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"This Bright Light of Ours" is Nominated for 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award

This Bright Light of Ours
Stories from the Voting Rights Fight

by Maria Gitin

This Bright Light of Ours offers a tightly focused insider’s view of the community-based activism that was the heart of the civil rights movement. A celebration of grassroots heroes, this book details through first-person accounts the contributions of ordinary people who formed  the nonviolent army that won the fight for voting rights.

Combining memoir and oral history, Maria Gitin fills a vital gap in civil rights history by focusing on the neglected Freedom Summer of 1965 when hundreds of college students joined forces with local black leaders to register thousands of new black voters in the rural South. Gitin was an idealistic nineteen-year-old college freshman from a small farming community north of San Francisco who felt called to action when she saw televised images of brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrators during Bloody Sunday, in Selma, Alabama.

Atypical among white civil rights volunteers, Gitin came from a rural low-income family. She raised funds to attend an intensive orientation in Atlanta featuring now-legendary civil rights leaders. Her detailed letters include the first narrative account of this orientation and the only in-depth field report from a teenage Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project participant.

Gitin details the dangerous life of civil rights activists in Wilcox County, Alabama, where she was assigned. She tells of threats and arrests, but also of forming deep friendships and of falling in love. More than four decades later, Gitin returned to Wilcox County to revisit the people and places that she could never forget and to discover their views of the “outside agitators” who had come to their community. Through conversational interviews with more than fifty Wilcox County residents and former civil rights workers, she has created a channel for the voices of these unheralded heroes who formed the backbone of the civil rights movement.
Maria Gitin was a national fundraising and diversity trainer for twenty-eight years. She has served as Executive Director of a YWCA, founded a shelter for survivors of domestic violence, and continues to register voters in communities of color. Currently, Gitin is a frequent presenter on cultural competency and voting rights. She lives in Northern California with her photographer husband, Samuel Torres Jr.
"This book offers an honest expression of the ongoing cost paid by black and white civil rights volunteers alike. Gitin’s description of the depression, rejection, medical issues, and PTSD suffered by her and other SCOPE volunteers (many of whom were white) is only matched by the economic intimidation, loss of jobs, loss of liberty, and death suffered by the black residents of Wilcox County who stayed to continue the fight. This is an important piece of the civil rights story that has not been told." —Southern Register
“In addition to its important historiographical interventions, this book has many strengths. It provides a day-to-day look at a grassroots, local movement, an extremely rare perspective that is nearly impossible to accomplish without the kind of personal sources (letters home) and recollections that Gitin is able to draw on. It reveals SCLC’s operational culture. It explicates the role of outside organizers and the symbiotic relationship they had with local activists and movement supporters. This Bright Light of Ours shows how gender, race, class, and birthplace shaped people’s actions and activism. It makes painfully clear the daunting task that organizers faced because of racial terror and the paralyzing fear that it created. Gitin demonstrates the depth and breadth of white supremacy, which informed white opposition to the movement. And she shows how transformative movement participation was, and how difficult ‘reentering’ society was for activists after they left the southern struggle.”—Hasan Kwame Jeffries, author ofBloody Lowndes:Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt

"The wide and diverse array of voices leaps from the pages [of This Bright Light of Ours] with stunning force. They are authentic voices, and the stories they share are dramatic, gripping, poignant, uplifting and empowering. "—Lewis V Baldwin, King Scholar and author In a Single Garment of Destiny, professor Vanderbilt University

"Maria Gitin's book is a unique blend of her own story and those of the local community with whom she worked in Wilcox County in the exceptionally challenging struggle of the 1960s civil rights movement. Very, very few books offer this kind of retrospective and prospective. Gitin's love for the people of Wilcox County shines through. The work reinforces an understanding of the courage of those times, the penalties exacted in real human lives and ways, the strength of the Black community, their openness and caring, and a brilliant documentation of how completely segregated the South - at least this corner of the South - remains. These are powerful stories profoundly relevant for our own times." —Bettina Aptheker, Professor, Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

"This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight is a first-hand, from-the-front-lines report of the '60s Southern voting rights movement in one of the most resistant counties in one of the most resistant states. This is a must-read account of a less publicized aspect of the Southern civil rights movement -- white volunteers risking life and limb to challenge white supremacy at its most brutal." —Julian Bond, Chairman Emeritus, NAACP

“Maria Gitin tells her own story on her own terms, giving readers an honest rendering of one woman’s experience on the front lines of struggle against a deeply entrenched system of racial oppression.  Her book is a worthy companion piece to Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippiand Ned Cobb’s superb Alabama narrative All God’s Dangers.”
—Clarence Mohr, author of On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia

This Bright Light of Ours is everything a book about civil rights should be. Gitin’s memoir is more honest than most, as she details the many sacrifices that had to be made to navigate hostile family issues. In having read a number of books about the civil rights movement, Gitin is the first to addresses and detail SCOPE—and for that she has made an important contribution to the field.” —John A. Obee, civil rights veteran, Simpson County Civic League, Mississippi, 1967
"This is an important work about a neglected period of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Movement. Gitin clearly communicates her commitment to civil rights and social justice by presenting us with the fresh voices of unheralded community leaders in Wilcox County, AL. It adds wonderful new insight and texture to the story of how courageous Americans transformed their community and the country." —Robert Michael Franklin, Ph.D., President-Emeritus of Morehouse College
"As someone who spent time in Wilcox County working on anti-poverty work, I can say with authority, this book rings absolutely true. It is important and must be published."—Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Chancellor's Professor of Anthropology, Head, Doctoral Program in Medical Anthropology, University of California Berkeley

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Student Challenge to Affirmative Action Returns to High Court

Fisher v. University of Texas[1]

In 2013 the Supreme Court issued a decision in Fisher v. University of Texas which affirmed the constitutionality of affirmative action admissions programs. However, the case was remanded to the Court of Appeals for a determination of whether University of Texas’ (UT) admission process is “narrowly tailored” under the majority’s new interpretation of that requirement.

The Fifth Circuit reconsidered the question and held UT’s policy was constitutionally permissible stating “It is equally settled that universities may use race as part of a holistic admissions program where it cannot otherwise achieve diversity,” Fisher appealed to the Supreme Court again. On June 29, 2015, the Court agreed to re-hear her case.
Many observers fear that the decision to reconsider the Fisher means UT's admissions policy could be in danger. An adverse result could jeopardize race-conscious admissions at universities across the nation.

Under the Fourteenth Amendment governmental policies that classify on the basis of race must have a "compelling justification" and the means chosen must be "narrowly tailored" to achieving a legitimate governmental interest. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court applied this standard and affirmed the constitutionality of University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions program.
The challenger in Fisher is a Texas resident who was denied admission to UT’s entering class in 2008. She contended that UT’s race-conscious admissions policies are unconstitutional because they reached beyond promoting the educational benefits of diversity and sought to achieve a quota that reflected Texas' racial composition. Fisher also argued that Texas had not given adequate consideration to race-neutral alternatives. Her alternate argument was minorities had already achieved a "critical mass" under Texas' "Top Ten Percent" law, making additional efforts to promote diversity unnecessary.

Under Texas' Top Ten Percent law, students with grades in the top tenth percentile of their high schools' graduating classes are automatically admitted. Applicants who are not in the top ten percent compete for admission based on their academic and personal achievement indices. Race is considered as one element of the personal achievement score but it is only one component of the total personal academic index.
In Fisher the Court affirmed Grutter’s ruling that student body diversity is a compelling state interest. The case focused instead on the “narrow tailoring” requirement. The majority held that the lower courts applied the wrong analysis when they deferred to UT's judgment regarding the need to consider race in its admissions process. The Court found that this misallocated the burden of proof. Universities, rather than plaintiffs, must show that race-neutral alternatives would not suffice to produce the educational benefits of diversity. The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit which ruled in UT’s favor. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case again.

The decades-long campaign against affirmative action has been relentless. Four of the Supreme Court Justices, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts are adamantly opposed to any form of affirmative action. Anthony Kennedy has never voted in favor of affirmative action but has thus far been unwilling to outlaw affirmative action altogether.
It is not certain that the court will issue a broad ban on any consideration of race. The justices could issue a narrower ruling. However, if the Court were satisfied with Fisher’s outcome at the appellate level there would have been no reason to hear the case for a second and unprecedented time. This raises a number of suspicions regarding the Justices’ motives. In affirmative action, voting rights, and employment discrimination, a conservative majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has amassed a record of rulings that are hostile to the interests of African Americans. It is unlikely that this trend will change. Fisher may turn out to be major setback for affirmative action.

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