Civil Rights

Hillary Clinton’s commitment to civil rights

On a subfreezing morning in January 2003, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) walked to the pulpit of Trinity Baptist Church’s Martin Luther King Day celebration in the Bronx to make a startlingly rousing speech to their predominantly African-American congregation. Typically, such speeches are principally aspirational — they acknowledge that society has largely rebuked racial discrimination’s ugly past but urge steadfastness in tackling challenges that lay ahead. But it was Clinton’s stirring repudiation of Trent Lott, then the Republican Senate Majority Leader from Mississippi who a month earlier praised Strom Thurman’s 1948 pro-segregation presidential campaign, that enthused the audience. Her remarks suggested changes in leadership alone will not eradicate racism and discrimination but the rigidity of the pathways to political and economic enfranchisement must acquiesce to the strength inherent in this country’s diversity.

{mosads}She echoed these themes in two important appearances this week at the Legal Aid Corporation’s 40th anniversary and a panel on women’s economic security at the Center for American Progress. By delving into Clinton’s understanding of both the egalitarian principals of the civil rights movement and the need to confront the challenges of systemic inequality, we should be able to forestall skepticism about her social justice agenda.

Back at Trinity Baptist Church, Clinton focused attention on the pernicious behavior of those looking to reduce the rights of individuals seeking to participate in the electoral process. Such concerns have not been completely eradicated and comments during another round of these tactics several years ago seemed to heighten her resolve: “We know that there are still those who do not want every American to vote, and want to make it very difficult for every American to vote. … The more things change, the more things stay the same. … There are many insidious efforts under way to intimidate voters, to make it difficult for voters to actually appear at the ballot box and vote.”

While in the Senate, she introduced the Count Every Vote Act of 2007 to combat a “history of intimidation.” Fighting against voter ID laws, Clinton said that “By trying to require not just photo identification but proof of citizenship — proof that thousands of American citizens can’t produce through no fault of their own — cynical Republican lawmakers are trying to build new walls between hundreds of thousands of eligible senior, minority, and low-income Americans and their civil right to choose their own leaders. Republicans claim that these requirements are needed to prevent fraud, but the reality is that they do little more than disenfranchise eligible voters.”

In an interesting juxtaposition with Trent Lott’s incendiary comments, Clinton, a few months earlier, stood with the widow of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at a podium alongside former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who was being sworn in as the first African-American President of the American Bar Association in its 124-year history – 60 years after they lifted a ban on black members. Her appearance this week at the Legal Services Corporation and her board chairmanship of that organization in the early 1970s reaffirmed a longstanding commitment to support low-income communities and people of color in the courtroom and at the highest levels of legal advocacy.

Back in 2007, speaking of the Jena 6 in Louisiana, Clinton said, “I am deeply concerned about reports of potentially disparate treatment of white youths and African-American youths in the criminal justice system. … And I have long been troubled by a history of disparate treatment of African Americans in our criminal justice system.” And regarding the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., her remarks to a mostly white audience were considered some of the most substantive: “Imagine what we would feel, what we would do if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers.”

While those statements are often in response to highly publicized events, other advocacy work may have been less known but correspondingly transformative. Considering the importance of pathways to opportunity for young people and the deleterious effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, Clinton worked with community leaders in New York affiliated with the organization 100 Black Men to open an all-boys single sex school in the South Bronx. Teaching predominantly black and Latino young men, David Banks, the founding principal, sees his mission as “empowering at risk inner-city young men to become academic achievers, engaged citizens and responsible men.” Eagle, now with six high schools in New York City and Newark, N.J., has graduation rate of over 95 percent.

Whether pushing for race to be considered in higher education admissions policies or fighting against the use of race-neutral “percentage plans” in federal affirmative action proposals, there are aspects to Hillary Clinton’s activism that exist across multiple policy and political venues as well as at the community level. Experience and broad relationships help dilate corridors to equal opportunity and social justice, which should allay the fears of understandably restive voters concerned about the impact of 2014’s elections and beyond.

Smikle is a political analyst and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies

Tags civil rights Dennis Archer Hillary Clinton Strom Thurmond Trent Lott Trinity Baptist Church Voter ID laws

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