Tag Archives: Segregation

Celebrating the Fair Housing Act

11 Apr
LBJ expands his powerful legacy

LBJ expands his powerful legacy

On this date 46 years ago, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This important piece of legislation is better known as the Fair Housing Act. Its core purpose is to prohibit discrimination in housing — whether for lease or for sale. The law makes it a federal crime to “by force or by threat of force, injure, intimidate, or interfere with anyone … by reason of their race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Sadly, even with the landmark civil rights legislation already passed, housing discrimination was rampant in the United States, particularly in urban areas. This blatant discrimination — including redlining, social steering, and other heinous practices — was not restricted to the South. Even though there was 100-year-old legislation (the Civil Rights Act of 1866) that implied the rights of property, the lack of a strong enforcement mechanism allowed many nasty practices to grow over time.

As the civil rights movement grew and the first major laws were passed — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act — activists began focusing on housing. The Chicago Open Housing Movement was a trailblazing effort and federal legislation was drafted based on the successful aspects of that movement. Unfortunately, Congress had lost some momentum and many members felt that civil rights had been sufficiently covered — a view afforded to those with white privilege. The draft law languished.

Then tragedy struck. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots broke out and racial tensions rose again across the nation. Never one to miss an opportunity to take bold action, LBJ decided the time was right to re-energize the Fair Housing Act. He wrote personal letters to Congressional leaders demanding immediate action. As was often the case, he was sufficiently persuasive. One week after King’s death, he signed the Act into law.

LBJ has a complicated legacy, but he was a powerful, convincing leader whose passion for civil rights and equality cannot be questioned. No president before or since has done more to create legal protections for oppressed and targeted people. The Fair Housing Act created strict guidelines and penalties. It also established an enforcement agency, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The NAACP and ACLU have successfully pressed cases that have expanded the protections to include urban renewal planning. People with disabilities and families with children were added to the protection umbrella as subsequent legislation was passed over the years.

While this law was critical and made a real difference, housing discrimination is still a significant problem. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates approximately two million cases of discrimination every single year. Imagine what the problem would be like without a law in place! As with most federal protections, Fair Housing still does not carry protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Several states and localities have created protections, but without cohesive federal standards this piecemeal approach is not enough.

Call to Action: We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Given the current Supreme Court’s fondness for gutting rights laws and the blatant violations that still exist, we must be vigilant to ensure that the enforcement, protection, and punishment mechanisms that are in place remain strong. We must also work to include all people in this protection, demanding strong federal protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Black History Month 2014: Barbara Jordan

21 Feb

01t/25/arve/G2064/056Today we honor and celebrate a civil rights activist and pioneering politician. Today would have been Barbara Jordan’s 78th birthday; she was born on this date in 1936 in Houston, TX. She was an honors student, inspired by the model of Edith Sampson to pursue a career in law. Unable to attend UT Austin because of segregation, she majored in Political Science at Texas Southern. She received her law degree from Boston University in 1959.

After a year teaching at Tuskegee Institute, she returned to Texas and started her own law practice. After two failed runs at the Texas House, she was appointed to the state Senate, the first African-American woman to serve in that body. She ran for the seat and won it, leaving in 1972 after her election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Jordan was the first woman elected to represent Texas in the House and the first Southern African American in the House. With the support of former President Lyndon B. Johnson (a great civil rights pioneer), she secured an important post on the House Judiciary Committee. She became a leader in Democratic politics, delivering the keynote at the 1976 Democratic National Convention — the first African-American woman to do so. While in office she helped pass the Community Reinvestment Act, requiring banks to make services available to minority and underserved communities.

Jordan retired from politics in 1979 (although she delivered another DNC keynote in 1992), teaching at UT Austin, the very school that had barred her attendance decades before. Throughout her life she suffered from multiple sclerosis, requiring a cane for most of her adult life and eventually needing a wheelchair. President Clinton intended to nominate her for the Supreme Court, but her health forced her to withdraw before the initial vetting process.

Barbara Jordan spent the last 30 years of her life with her partner, Nancy Earl. Although she never publicly described herself as a lesbian, she attended many public functions with Earl and made it clear that they were a couple. For a black, southern woman of her generation, this is fairly remarkable, especially given her very public career. The Jordan/Rustin coalition was created in her name and the name of Bayard Rustin to mobilize LGBT African Americans and encourage their active participation in the political process.

She was a frequent public speaker, known for her vibrant support of progressive causes. Jordan died of leukemia in 1996 at the age of 59, leaving behind a legacy of public service and activism.  Happy Birthday, Barbara Jordan.

Celebrating Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues

26 Apr

On this date in 1886 a pioneer in American music was born in Columbus, GA. Gertrude Pridgett was a precocious singer, joining a local revue at the age of 14 and joining the touring Rabbit Foot Minstrels within a couple of years. She met William “Pa” Rainey in 1904 and they were soon married. They travelled and performed together and she was billed Madame Gertrude Rainey, eventually shortening it to Ma Rainey to match her song and dance partner’s stage name. They soon began their own travelling show, Rainey and Rainey — Assassinators of the Blues.

Rainey had a powerful voice and a deep instinct for the sound of the blues. She blended the styles she encountered (including country blues and gospel) and created a unique blend that has influenced successive generations. She took the road tradition of the bluesman, with music and lyrics steeped in a history of slavery, and adapted it for the stage, creating a new art form. Known as the Mother of the Blues, she was an early influence on blues and jazz great Bessie Smith; poet Langston Hughes also considered her an influence, pointing to the cadence of her performance. Rainey also wrote original songs, somewhat unusual for her generation of interpretive singers.

As the blues gained national attention, Rainey was one of the first African-Americans ever to record their singing. (The first known was Mamie Smith in 1920.) In 1923, she signed a contract with Paramount. In the space of six years she made over 100 records for the label, working with rising stars like Louis Armstrong. While recording, she continued to tour with Pa Rainey as well as the Wildcats Jazz Band led by black music pioneer Thomas Dorsey. Travelling throughout the South and Midwest, she performed for both black and white audiences.

By the end of the 20s, the blues was falling out of national fashion, so Paramount dropped her. She continued to tour, modifying her show to acknowledge the declining interest in vaudeville and minstrel shows. Her shrewd business sense kept her earnings largely intact, and she bought her own tour bus. When she tired of the road, she returned to Georgia in 1935. Retiring from performing, she bought and operated two theaters in Columbus, living well off the proceeds until her death from a heart attack in 1939.

Rainey’s amazing musical sense, great interpretation of blues standards (including the classic formulation of the song See See Rider), songwriting, and fostering of younger talent make her one of the most important singers of the 20th Century. She has been honored with induction into the Blues Hall of Fame (in 1983) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1990 as an “early influence,” quite apt given the debt acknowledged by Janis Joplin, Eric Burdon, Mama Cass, and many others.) For more information on Ma Rainey and her contemporaries in shaping this uniquely American sound, try the aptly titled documentary, Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.

Celebrating Irene Morgan Kirkaldy

19 Apr

Before Rosa Parks there was Irene Morgan. Born in Baltimore in 1917, this bold woman helped strike an early blow against segregation. Her defiance of Jim Crow came in 1944, eleven years before the more famous act of civil disobedience by Parks. Kirkaldy, then 27, was recovering from a miscarriage and taking a long bus trip from the doctor’s office back to her home in Baltimore. She sat in the area designated for black passengers but was told by the driver to move further back to make way for a white couple. She refused and told the woman sitting next to her to do the same.

She was firm in her refusal, tearing up an arrest warrant when the sheriff was summoned and actively resisting her removal from the bus. In an interview with the Washington Post in 2000, she recounted,

I can’t see how anybody in the same circumstance could do otherwise,” Mrs. Kirkaldy told Washington Post reporter Carol Morello in 2000. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’d paid for my seat. I was sitting where I was supposed to… [The sheriff’s deputy]  grabbed me. That’s when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. He was trying to put his hands on me to get me off. I was going to bite him, but he was dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he’d use his nightstick. I said, ‘We’ll whip each other.’

After being dragged off the bus, she was thrown in jail. Mrs. Kirkaldy pleaded guilty to the charge of resisting arrest and was fined $100, but refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia’s segregation law. Her attorney argued that the law violated the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. She was adamant in her appeals, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

If something happens to you which is wrong, the best thing to do is have it corrected in the best way you can. The best thing for me to do was to go to the Supreme Court.

At this final appeal, she was successful, with a 6-to-1 decision declaring her innocence and striking down the segregation law. One of her attorneys at the final appeal was the wonderful Thurgood Marshall (another personal hero of mine), who went on to join the Court as its first African-American justice.

She said she didn’t mind the relatively little notice her achievements brought. At age 68 she received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University, and five years later she obtained a master’s degree in urban studies at Queens College. “If there’s a job to be done, you do it and get it over with and go on to the next thing,” she told the Washington Post. Feisty in the moment and quiet in her success, this pioneer for civil rights lived out most of her life in New York until her death in 2007.  I just wanted to celebrate Irene and hope many others will also fall in love with her.

Celebrating Black History Month: February 13

13 Feb

Honoring Dr. Charles Drew

Today I would like to honor and pay tribute to Dr. Charles Drew.  Dr. Drew was the first black surgeon selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. In WWII, it was Dr. Drew that designed large scale blood banks to hold blood for transfusions. It was Dr. Drew that realized that blood could be preserved and reconstituted at a later date. Sadly, because Dr. Drew protested against the practice of  racial segregation in the donation of blood, as it lacked scientific foundation, he was dismissed from his job. Dr. Drew also established the American Red Cross blood bank, of which he was the first director.  Thank you to Dr. Charles Drew for your contributions to civil rights and to the health and well being of us all.

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