150 Years Ago Today, America Got a Second Independence Day

By Tejpaul Bainiwal, a Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 – 150 years ago today – that all slaves were finally free.

On that day, Major General Gordon Granger led Union soldiers into Galveston, Texas, at the end of the war to read General Order Number 3, which began:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

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A common misconception is that the Emancipation Proclamation single-handedly ended slavery throughout the United States, but it had little immediate impact on Texas because there were very few Union troops there to enforce the new Executive Order. For many slaves, freedom didn’t come until two and a half years after President Lincoln’s speech – now celebrated as Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery.

Many different reasons for the delay have been suggested. One such story is that the messenger bearing news of emancipation was murdered on his way to Texas. Other theories include that the news of emancipation was intentionally withheld by slave owners, and that federal troops were waiting for slave owners to secure one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce it. Any combination of these explanations, or none of them, could be true.

Today, most states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or state holiday observance through a bill, house resolution, senate resolution, or joint resolution. Washington, D.C., recognizes it through a special city council resolution. See the full list of observances here.

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NAACP Launches America’s Journey for Justice

By Rowan Conybeare, a Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

At the Lincoln Memorial yesterday in Washington, D.C., the NAACP launched America’s Journey for Justice, an 860-mile march that will begin on August 1 in Selma, Ala., and end in D.C. on September 12.

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The overall theme of the march, according to Cornell Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, is “our lives, our votes, our jobs, our schools matter.” That theme – one that focuses on the value of our lives and the importance of critical civil rights issues like voting, good jobs, and education – is particularly relevant this summer as the civil rights community pushes for legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act (which celebrates its 50th anniversary several days into the march), reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (or ESEA, also in its 50th year), and raise the federal minimum wage and ensure equal pay – among other issues related to good jobs and economic security.

More details will be available soon through the NAACP. You can also follow along on Twitter with #JusticeSummer.

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Why Black Working Women Matter

By Reniya Dinkins, a Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

One week ago, five powerful Black women led a special briefing in Washington, D.C., on how working Black women are combatting workplace discrimination and unfair pay practices. The briefing, “Black Working Women Matter,” highlighted the success stories of these women and centered on strategies to promote economic stability among Black working women and their families.

Among the speakers was Valerie Ervin, who at 16 years old became a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union while bagging groceries at her local supermarket. In her junior year at the University of New Mexico, she became pregnant and dropped out of school to work full time. After many years of diligent organizing in several leadership positions, she is now the executive director of the National Participatory Democracy Project under the Working Families Organization, as well as a former council member and president of the Montgomery County Council. She told the audience at last week’s briefing that she would not have been able to accomplish this as a mother of two without the support of her union, which helped her send her sons to college and access health care and affordable childcare.

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Rep. Donna Edwards, D. Md., joined Ervin as a speaker at the briefing.

Ervin’s story was just one of many. Each panelist had her own story to prove just how crucial unions and fair pay practices are to working Black women. But these stories, as Ervin pointed out, don’t belong solely to Black women. They’re also the stories of Black families, as Black women are often the heads of their families. Despite this, Ervin explained that Black women are often excluded from economic policy discussions. “Too often, Black women are asked to be the face of a movement but not to be at the table making decisions,” she said. Black women have different perspectives on labor policy, especially since they are three times more likely than White women to serve as both caretakers and breadwinners for their families.

The inclusion of Black women in this decision-making process was only one of several strategies proposed at the briefing. Another was the organization of more Black women into unions.

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“Black Working Women Matter” also highlighted findings from And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices | Power | Promise, a report by the Institute for Policy Studies. According to the report, Black women were only second to Black men in having the highest union representation rate compared with other groups in 2014. Additionally, the union advantages for Black women are exceptional. The report revealed that Black women in unions earn an average of $21.90 an hour while non-union women earn $17.04, and more than 72 percent of women in unions have health insurance, while less than 50 percent of non-union Black women do. In the foreword of the report, Rep. Donna Edwards, D. Md., who also spoke at the briefing, notes that “For Black women who are low-wage earners, union membership was a greater factor than education in determining increased wages and benefits.”

The panelists at the briefing stressed these points to encourage Black women to organize and rise together. Their empowering words, combined with those of the late Maya Angelou – which echoed throughout the briefing on several occasions – created an atmosphere of excitement and hope for a better economic future for Black women.

The words of Angelou’s Still I Rise are particularly relevant:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise

–Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
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“They robbed me, and they had badges”

By Rowan Conybeare and Hunter Davis, Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Interns

On April 15, 22-year-old Joseph Rivers of Romulus, Michigan, boarded an Amtrak train to Los Angeles with the hope of pursuing a career in the music industry. What Joseph didn’t know was that his dream of starting a new life would be stifled before he even arrived in California.

At the Albuquerque Amtrak station, Joseph’s train was boarded by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials who began asking passengers where they were headed and why. Joseph was the only African-American passenger in his car, and when the DEA officials got to him, the officers strayed from simple questioning and asked to search his bag. Joseph complied and answered all questions honestly – he had nothing to hide. Inside his bag, the officers found no drugs or contraband. Instead, they found $16,000 in cash, still in the bank envelope. Joseph withdrew the money from a bank before he left Michigan to start a new life in Los Angeles, but the DEA officers didn’t believe him and said they suspected that the money was tied to narcotics. Although Rivers’ mother corroborated his story, his money was seized. Joseph was forced to return to Michigan, having found himself a victim of civil asset forfeiture – a controversial legal tool used by law enforcement officials and one that Rivers, like many, did not even know existed.

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Joseph Rivers told his story at a recent briefing on civil asset forfeiture in Washington, D.C. Rivers (left) with his mother, Mary Jackson, and Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference.

Though the practice of civil asset forfeiture has deep roots that stem back to the Navigation Acts of the 17th century, the modern practice is grounded in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to seize assets from individuals suspected of engaging in illicit (particularly drug-related) activity. This practice is based on the archaic notion that property is guilty of a crime by association, and thus allows federal, state, and local officers to seize assets in the form of cash, homes, cars, and more. The mere suspicion that assets were accumulated through the drug trade allows law enforcement officials to seize someone’s property in the absence of a warrant or indictment. Police suspicion rises exponentially if you are a person of color and, indeed, the vast majority of victims of this practice are people of color, like Joseph Rivers.

As Rivers’ case highlights, the justification for civil asset forfeiture can be as thin as one’s train was headed to a “known drug hot spot” – Los Angeles, California. With justifications this ambiguous, it’s important to mention that police have a monetary incentive to abuse this practice. In civil asset forfeiture cases, law enforcement agents are often motivated by profit. According to a Washington Post investigation, $2.5 billion in assets were seized between 2001 and 2014, and $1.7 billion, or nearly 70 percent, of these assets were pocketed by police. According to Brad Cates, former Head of the DEA Asset Forfeiture Branch, this has perpetuated a “give me a man and I’ll find him a crime” style of policing. Rivers’ testimony only solidifies this claim. According to him, after the officers found his money, they looked for a justification to take it. The DEA officers assumed that a call to his mother would be the key that they needed, however, even when she corroborated his story, they did not relent. Any explanation, however stretched, would suffice.

Law enforcement officers are all too aware that once they seize someone’s assets, it is exceptionally difficult to get them back. In cases of forfeitures of relatively small cash amounts, the money seized is often far less than the legal fees it would take to win the money back. And in cases where an individual has a significant portion of their assets seized, they often lack the resources necessary to seek justice. Since 2001, some 62,000 Americans have fallen victim to this unjust and undemocratic practice. Legal changes are long overdue.

Last January, Sen. Rand Paul, R. Ky., proposed an updated FAIR Act  in the Senate to address the abuses of civil asset forfeiture. Currently, the FAIR Act is being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are four key components to the bill:

  • All people are promised legal representation if they are subjected to civil asset forfeiture;
  • Government officials must have “clear and convincing evidence” upon seizing assets;
  • Government officials must have compelling evidence that the person was aware of the illegal activities;
  • And ensure that courts are not “constitutionally excessive” when determining a civil asset forfeiture case.

While this bill has not yet passed, Cates – a panelist at a recent Congressional briefing – stated that a 2015 study found that 80 percent of Americans are in favor of civil asset forfeiture reform. Reform efforts are not only supported by the American people, but they have also attained clear, bipartisan support. The House equivalent of Paul’s bill has been co-sponsored by 17 Democrats and 29 Republicans.

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Modernizing Lifeline: Why Broadband Support is so Critical

By Matthew Meyer, a Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

In 1985, Congress established the Lifeline program to provide low-income individuals with a monthly subsidy for accessing telephone service. The policymakers who backed the program understood the significance of phone service in the lives of low-income Americans: those without phone service were left less able to interview for jobs, interact with government services, or even call 911 in case of emergency. For these Americans, Lifeline opens up a host of opportunities for socioeconomic advancement, helping to break the intergenerational trend of poverty.

Low-income individuals in 2015 face a new problem: access to broadband. It’s particularly an issue for low-income Black and Hispanic Americans, who have rates of broadband access significantly lower than the national average – making the issue a concern for the civil and human rights community. And that unequal access to broadband services impacts low-income Americans significantly in the areas of employment and education.

Those without access to broadband are left increasingly unable to fully participate in the modern job market. At a Senate hearing on Lifeline last week, Jessica Gonzalez of the National Hispanic Media Coalition emphasized “how critical home broadband access is to nearly every facet of modern American life.” She also noted that “more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, including huge employers like Walmart and Target, only accept job applications online.” Those without broadband are largely excluded from these job opportunities and are marginalized from the job market – just as those without phone access were in 1985 – making the modernization an important step toward fulfilling the program’s goals.

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Just as worrying is the effect this has on education for students from low-income families – a phenomenon known as the “homework gap.” According to a recent Pew Research Center study, school-age children lack access to broadband, leaving them unable to complete the online homework many teachers assign and making them unable to fully engage in their studies. Gonzalez put it best when she said of Lifeline’s modernization to include broadband, “To balk at this task, to delay, isn’t just to throw aside the core American value of educational equality; it is giving up on our country’s future. Tomorrow is too late – we must act boldly and we must act now.”

Momentum for this change is building. Just last month, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed a modernization effort, which was followed shortly by the introduction of a bill – the Broadband Adoption Act – on June 1 that would mandate updating Lifeline to broadband.

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Congressional Hearings Examine Policing Strategies and Body Camera Use

As mobile cameras come into wider use by law enforcement across the country, Congress is considering the potential of body-worn cameras as a tool for accountability and transparency.

On May 19, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing on body-worn cameras to discuss how they can be best used to protect both law enforcement and the communities they serve. While body-worn cameras hold great promise for building relationships of trust and transparency between police and the public, their use also raises unique privacy concerns.

The hearing featured two panels of witnesses who testified on the feasibility and effectiveness of body-worn cameras. Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, testified during the hearing’s second panel, and said “thoughtful policies, developed in public with the input of civil rights advocates and the local community, are essential to ensuring that police-operated cameras enhance, rather than threaten, civil rights.”

On May 15, The Leadership Conference joined 33 other civil rights, privacy, and media rights organizations in releasing shared civil rights principles for the use of body-worn cameras. Henderson included these principles in his testimony, and urged governments and police departments to consider the principles as they develop their own policies.

On the same day as the Senate’s hearing, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on policing strategies for the 21st century. The hearing’s witnesses testified on strategies to both protect – and build trust between – police officers and the public. During his opening remarks, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., said that the situations in Ferguson and New York made it “clear that we must find a better way for our police and citizens to interact both in everyday situations, and when more difficult circumstances arise.”

You can watch Chairman Goodlatte’s opening remarks and the first part of the House hearing here:

Part two is here.

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Bringing an Equity Perspective to Infrastructure Week

The Transportation Equity Caucus is excited to announce its involvement in the third annual Infrastructure Week, which will bring together thousands of stakeholders to discuss the critical importance of investing in and modernizing America’s infrastructure systems. Infrastructure Week, taking place this May 11-15, provides a bipartisan and national platform to elevate issues related transportation access and investment. The Transportation Equity Caucus, co-chaired by PolicyLink and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, has signed on as a partner to help raise awareness of strategies for advancing transportation investments that benefit low-income people, communities of color, and people with disabilities.

During Infrastructure Week, many events will be taking place in D.C. and around the country. Several of the events allow for participation via online streaming; see the Infrastructure Week website to sign up. Advocates are encouraged to participate in these events and share an equity perspective. Also, participate in Infrastructure Week on social media using the hashtags #TransportationEquity and #RebuildRenew.

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