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- H.R. 1: Our environment and the new age civil rights movement
H.R. 1: Our environment and the new age civil rights movement
by La'Meshia Whittington-Kaminski, North Carolina campaigner
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Years ago, the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act paved the way for fair representation for all people. The battle for this legislation was fought — and won — on the ground, by people and activists who paid the ultimate price for the hope and dream of democracy for the people. Grassroots organizing and personal sacrifices moved the country to federal. We now find ourselves once again fighting for the dream of democracy for all people. One current opportunity is H.R. 1: “For the People Act 2019.” This bill will serve as an answer to such a need — one which helps get to the core of democracy and equity for communities of color and this nation. H.R. 1 is a revolutionary bill for the people and is just what we need in this crucial time of our democracy. It is time to reclaim our civil rights in 2019 and beyond.
It’s the summer of 1964. Two young men, one White and the other Jewish, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, traveled down to the South to organize for civil rights. While in Mississippi, they teamed up with a young African-American man by the name of James Chaney.
The three young men led a successful Black boycott of a variety store. They then began to hold voter registrations for Black Americans. These grassroots, community-led actions were so successful, they got the attention of Sam Bowers, the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Sam Bowers ordered a hit specifically on Michael Schwerner, or as the clan called him, “Jew-boy.”
On the evening of June 16, two dozen armed Klansmen descended on Mt. Zion Methodist Church, an African-American church that had been designated a “freedom school” by Michael Schwerner. When the Klan arrived, Schwerner and his two comrades were not present. The Klan then beat African-American members of Mt. Zion Methodist and burned the church down.
Several days later, the civil rights team of Andrew, Michael and James, went to the church to investigate the burning. While driving back they were pulled over by the sheriff of the town. Sheriff Cecil Price was in fact a member of the KKK and had been given the task of looking out for the trio. He locked the three men away for seven hours, biding time for the Klan to make their move.
Upon release, Sheriff Price placed Andrew, Michael and James in the back of his car, took them deep into the woods and delivered them into the hands of the Klan. On the hot day of June 22, the Klan shot all three men and placed them in a dam only a few miles from Mt. Zion — the same church burned by the Klan just a few days before.
It is apparent: that the action of disenfranchisement was not just an attack on politics but an attack on morality, on life itself. The tragic loss of lives, the violent beatings and the horror of burning a church served as a call-to-action, a moment in time to fight for the people. This tragedy was the impetus the Civil Rights Act needed to push through Congress. It was passed less than a month later. The following year, the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Through enduring violence, African-Americans and their allies fought for the freedom of their voices to be recognized, for their vote to carry the weight of fair representation. Through this fight, there was another reality: African-Americans who sought public office were met with resistance. It was long established that White voters did not vote for Black candidates, no matter how qualified the candidate was.
It is apparent: that the action of disenfranchisement was not just an attack on politics but an attack on morality, on life itself.
The Voting Rights Act was established to not only give Black candidates a fair race, but to design districts so Black Americans could exercise their vote in a way that was representative of their needs. Hence, majority-minority districts. To quote Rep. Melvin Watt, he stated in 1995 that without racially gerrymandered districts designed to ensure black office-holding. You’re not going to have minority representation in Congress. It’s just that simple.”
These districts were designed to define predominantly Black populated areas. The census helped to define Black communities or communities of color. Redistricting under the guise of majority-minority districts helped define Black communities that needed Black representation. The VRA was wielded as a powerful tool to bring about voting justice. We saw Southern states in the ’80s and ’90s, such as Mississippi, win fair representation, where the numbers of the Black Caucus doubled.
Robeson County, North Carolina, the most diverse county in the state, holds the largest Indigenous tribe this side of the Mississippi River. In the 1990s, with the help of the VRA, experts brought numerous lawsuits on the state and federal level at the same time that community organizers mobilized residents to place pressure on their elected representatives. Through the Voting Rights Act, Robeson County won fair representation on the school board, county commissioner and state level. This was groundbreaking.
But soon after these victories were won using the Voting Rights Act, there was a shift in how the VRA was used to define minority communities in a crippling way.
Let’s acknowledge the loss of lives. Let’s acknowledge the catalyst for change that brought about the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Let’s acknowledge that the grassroots fight for democracy led to change in federal courts. These actions did indeed protect communities of color in their time. But they have now changed. They changed when the Republican state legislature used majority-minority districts against us. In 2011, the Republican North Carolina state legislature redrew districts to pack more Black voters into the two districts already represented by Black Democrats. They changed when the Voting Rights Act was gutted only two years later.
Upon seeing the VRA used for nefarious purposes, Rep. Watt stated that it was a “sinister Republican effort to use African Americans as pawns in their effort to gain partisan political gains” and that the goal of the Voting Rights Act was “to level the playing field for African American candidates and voters. It was not designed to create racial ghettos.”
The Voting Rights Act was used by the legislature to redefine communities of color in a detrimental way. The Voting Rights Act was gutted two years later in 2013, leaving communities of color open for attack. Racial gerrymanders have run rampant, especially here in North Carolina.
The time has come to modernize our fight against the attack on our democracy and keep consistent the heart of grassroots organizing in our communities. We are faced with the daunting and tedious task of redefining communities of color away from the notion that they are packed and crackedracial ghettos. Research shows there is a direct link to gerrymanders, voter suppression and environmental impacts on communities of color. For the people, we are urged to create new ways in which we can fight against these attacks on our democracy and our environment.
The time has come to modernize our fight against the attack on our democracy and keep consistent the heart of grassroots organizing in our communities.
It is of dire urgency that we redefine our communities from racial ghettos to thriving communities with healthy environments. Every person deserves a thriving community without voter suppression, without unfair representation, without voter intimidation, without infrastructures that serve to poison our communities with pollution, waste, coal ash and fossil fuels.
In terms of redistricting, we can begin defining communities of color as communities of interest. Communities of color are not one-dimensional; racial justice holds intersectionality. In this vein, we should move away from the practice of emphasizing solely race when considering protection for communities of color. Communities of color have interests, issues, needs, traditions and culture that bind them together. One such issue is the intersectionality of racial justice and environmental racism.
We recognize that communities of color are also environmental communities of interest that should be protected. These communities are bound by natural resources, natural disasters and fossil fuel infrastructures that contaminate their homes. These communities are not just bound solely by race, but are linked by the fact that corporations often choose predominantly minority-majority areas as their dumping ground — as seen by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the proposed liquefied natural gas plants, the coal ash plants, the hog waste cesspools and numerous other industrial corporations. They are bound together through the devastation wreaked by climate disasters such as Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence that touched several eastern North Carolina counties. These same communities of color experienced gentrification through disaster and aid that was promised through our legislature but was withheld through two storms. These communities suffered the brunt of climate change deniers.
These communities of color must be included in redistricting reform. They deserve the chance at fair representation: the freedom to exercise their right to vote for whom they believe will make a change in their area. These are environmental communities of interest. Not only Black and Brown Communities, but communities with teachers, firefighters, small business owners, farmers, climate refugees, construction workers, children, parents and grandparents.
To be inclusive is to recognize that Black and Brown communities are not one-dimensional. To think about communities of color as protecting a race is short-sighted. Inclusivity must be designed to protect disenfranchised citizens who have historically been targets; to protect environmental communities who are fighting coal ash plants in Northampton, or pipelines in Nash and Robeson County; to protect those who are fighting the local school board for fair school redistricting for their children.These in addition to protecting Indigenous peoples who hold water sacred and Black farmers and residents who are fighting for the right to breathe without adult-onset asthma due to hog waste in the air.
It is our duty as neighbors to protect communities that were promised fund assistance after climate disasters but still live in mold-infested homes or are still homeless due to the storm. We must fight for families by standing against pipelines, such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline — the pipeline that is set to go through the lands of farmers who have held the land for generations.
These are minority-majority areas, but they are communities of interest with collective needs that should be met. Redistricting decides who our representatives are at the local, state and national level, but the way Republicans are drawing lines in North Carolina continually disenfranchises the already disenfranchised. This has a deep environmental impact at the local level for all of us. This has a deep impact on our discussion of inclusivity. It behooves us to step up in 2019 and redefine ourselves — to redefine what is racial equity in redistricting.
Congress has begun to take notice in a big way of grassroots organizing of communities and states across our nation. H.R. 1, a bill titled “For the People Act of 2019.” This congressional action is being driven by the political demand of the people at the grassroots level. Just as we have witnessed in history, the federal legislation of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act only passed at the political urging of the people, when three young men of varying races and the African American congregation of Mt. Zion Methodist Church fought and endured the brunt of violence for democracy’s sake. Only when the people demanded change did our elected leaders listen.
We have another opportunity at making history: by re-defining our communities; establishing independent redistricting commissions for the people to draw their own maps; and creating early voting, automatic voter registration and same-day registration. We have the opportunity to see death to voter suppression in our lifetime and to vote in elected officials who are not swayed by big money in politics or who vote in favor of environmentally disastrous corporations — despite the report of having only 12 years to save our world. One such opportunity is in the form of H.R. 1. It is urgent for us to support this transformative and bold voting rights package that has the makings to lead us forward into a new age of civil rights litigation.
We the people deserve a bill for the people. H.R. 1 “For the People Act” is that bill.