Civil Rights

U.S. rights for Puerto Ricans

In the movie “The Rum Diary,” a young American journalist played by Johnny Depp discovers that Puerto Rico in the late 1950s is a sunny and vibrant island that happens to be an American territory, with seemingly limitless economic potential. As I watched the closing credits in a theater 1500 miles away from San Juan, I felt nostalgic and saddened by what the intervening half-century has brought to my native island. Long gone are those heady days in the late ‘50s, when Congress granted Puerto Ricans a measure of self-government and transformed a poor and agrarian economy into an important manufacturing base for U.S. corporations. They have been replaced by skepticism and pessimism among a population facing alarming crime rates and drug related violence, a mass exodus of manufacturing jobs in an economy mired in a recession for more than 5 years, and an unclear picture of where and how Puerto Rico fits politically with the rest of the United States.

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A question for candidates: Is Alabama your America?

In recent days, school children in Alabama have been confronted with questions about who they are based on the color of their skin. At one school, a fourth grader was asked if she is a U.S. citizen. When she replied, “Yes,” she was asked about her parents’ status. Teachers report that children are afraid of being separated from their families.

The terror of immigration enforcement is now in the classrooms in Alabama and is traumatizing the most vulnerable members of our society, our children. Alabama, scarred by a long history of civil rights struggles, has become the first state to legalize racial profiling.

Career politicians, especially Republican presidential candidates, should think about the pervavise fear in Alabama and then answer this question: “Is Alabama Your America?”

They should ask themselves if they would want their children separated from others based on the color of their skin. Do they want their children questioned about their private information? If the child was not born in the U.S. but is here legally, how would you suggest he or she answer? How would they feel if their child left for school in tears, worried that you would not be home at the end of the day because you did not carry your papers with you when you went to buy groceries?

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A day to celebrate

Today we will finally put an end to a discriminatory military policy that was crafted almost two decades ago during a time when we weren't at war with another country, but rather we were bitterly divided – politically and socially – against ourselves.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell began as an inadequate and deeply flawed compromise that attempted to resolve a debate that raged at all levels of our society – in families, communities, and among military and political leaders.  It was a Catch-22.  It allowed gay troops to serve, but only by forcing them to compromise one of the core values they're trained to uphold as members of the military: integrity.

By requiring service members to lie about who they are, DADT became a tool for bigots rather than making it possible for gay troops to serve quietly as intended.  And over the last decade of conflict, it has forced 14,000 service members to leave the military just when we need them most.

I opposed Don't Ask, Don't Tell from the beginning, and I've been proud to fight for its repeal.  But what really brought the policy to an end is the fact that America itself has changed. 

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Opinion: Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to Dr. King’s work and legacy

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his most famous speech on the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, I was in Charleston, South Carolina preparing for my second year as a history teacher at segregated C. A. Brown high school. I first met the civil rights icon during the weekend of October 14-16, 1960 while serving as a founding member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  The last time I saw Dr. King was July 31, 1967, when we had lunch in the home of Septima Poinsett Clark who ran the Freedom School on Johns Island and taught Rosa Parks at Highlander School in Tennessee. The civil rights movement was truly a church-centered movement, and having grown up in a parsonage as the eldest son of a minister, the leaders of the movement were men and women who were like family to me. 

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Remembering August 28, 1963: A hot summer’s day, a defining moment

It was the summer of 1963. Despite the heat and humidity in my home community in eastern North Carolina, life was as it had been for generations. Poor and totally segregated. There were very few job opportunities (except for domestic work and tobacco processing) and so within twenty-four hours after high school graduation, most black kids headed “north.”

I was the product of a middle-class family that enjoyed advantages compared to our neighbors. Mother was a teacher whose salary in the early years was about one-third less than her white counterpart. She was the granddaughter of a black slave woman and a white slave master. My father was a World War I veteran and a dentist. His humble beginnings were in Bermuda.

My parents’ experiences commanded community service. The segregated schools and public accommodations, the unwillingness of the white power structure to recognize African Americans as first class citizens, placed my community at the whim of the white establishment that was outraged when black people questioned the status quo.

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The King memorial is finished, his life's work is not

We honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because he was the conscience of our nation. He believed we could be a better place and a better people. I share that belief. My life’s work, in politics and as a pastor, are inspired by what Dr. King accomplished.

At the time of his death Dr. King had moved, intellectually and spiritually, from Civil Rights to Human Rights. I believe that movement symbolized his growing concern about the limitations of legalized civil rights. He was prescient in that way and  already knew what the rest of us would take longer to understand. Dr. King  had come to realize that changing the law would not automatically change the land. He realized that hearts and minds would take generations to alter.

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"Bounced checks" and "insufficient funds"

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, State of the Union Address, January 11, 1944.

"It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure. This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

"As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

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Dr. King, the architect of a new America

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into a middle class family. He could have chosen a life’s path of comfort and safety. Instead, he decided he was going to make a difference – even at the risk and ultimately the sacrifice of his own life.

The National Memorial in his honor, just a few steps from the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King articulated his Dream for America 48 years ago, is far more than a tribute to an individual. It is a monument to the millions of heroes, famous and unsung, of all races, backgrounds and faiths, who have participated in our great—and in many respects unfinished – civil rights movement. This is a monument to all these Americans, guided by and benefiting from the extraordinary leadership of Dr. King, who have been unwilling to accept the status quo.

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A monument to hope, a call to action

Every monument in our nation's capital symbolizes something meaningful about our national character. Lincoln, presiding over the Reflecting Pool, reminds us of our commitment to overcoming division and guaranteeing equal protection under law. Jefferson, set against the Tidal Basin, symbolizes our steadfast belief in inalienable individual rights. The WWII memorial, sitting in the center of the Mall, depicts our triumph against fascism and our readiness to stand watch against tyranny and injustice.

Martin Luther King was neither a president nor a war hero. The namesake of our newest monument was, for most of his life, a humble preacher forced to live as an outsider in his own community. Yet, with his charismatic voice, visionary leadership, and indefatigable spirit, he symbolized what I believe is most central to our national character: hope.

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Celebrating and remembering Dr. King's dream

My active entry into the civil rights movement came far later than I would have liked.

Ensconced in a Catholic University for women in the Midwest, the opportunity to march, to go to jail, to stand up for what was right and to risk harm was so very far away from my reality--if not from my yearnings at the time. Today, after joining demonstrations against the Vietnam War and going on at least four civil rights pilgrimages to Alabama, I wonder if I would have had the courage, determination and faith that young and old displayed during those historic times. I have the most profound respect and gratitude for all of them.

Apart from my prayers and identification with those who were there, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, his persona, his words, his teachings, his courage, his conviction and his commitment were more than an inspiration, they were a Call to Action for me, as for so many others.

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