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I was honored once again to be invited to offer the “communi8ty update” at Southern New Hampshire Outreach for Black Unity’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast.  Here’s what I said on January 19 at the Alpine Grove in Hollis:

Honor and pleasure to be invited back. Thanks to Irving, Linda, Ray, and Governor Hassan. And congratulations to OBU for the 31st annual breakfast.

I want to begin by saying a few words about inequality, and I’ve learned that a trick to effective public speaking is to tell people stuff that they already know.

We know that for most families, most workers, most ordinary people, take home pay has been stagnant since the 1970s, two generations.

At the same time we know that the rich are getting richer.

The ultra rich are getting ultra richer.

The mega rich are getting mega richer.

And the giga rich are getting giga richer.

This has caused economic inequality to rise to record levels.

And we know that when race is added to the equation the situation is even more unequal. Net worth of white families is five times that of black families.

I think we know what Dr. King would say about that. He would say,

“The misuse of capitalism can lead to tragic exploitation.”

We know what Martin Luther King would do because we know what he did. We know what he was doing at the time he was killed. He was supporting working people in a strike for dignity in the workplace and calling on the federal government to take sides with the locked out, the cast out and the left out.

What else do we know?

We know that fifty years ago at this time Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were engaged in a dramatic campaign in Selma Alabama to win the right to vote for Black people who had been denied their rights.

We know that after marches, arrests, beatings, and several murders of voting rights activists that the Congress approved the Voting Rights Act. At last it became possible for African Americans to use the ballot to elect people who would respond to their interests.

What’s the state of voting rights now? It’s not good.

We know that in state after state – including New Hampshire – legislatures have adopted laws like photo ID requirements and other restrictions that make it harder for people to vote when we ought to be making it easier.

We know that the US Supreme Court struck down an essential element of the Voting Rights Act.

And we know that five years ago this Wednesday, the Supreme Court declared that since corporations are people (really) and money is speech (yup), that restricting the ability of corporations to invest their money in the electoral system violates the first amendment protection of free speech. This widened the gates for floods of corporate cash into our electoral system. Instead of one person one vote we are getting a one dollar one vote democracy.

We know what Dr. King would say, something like, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are going to be a truly great nation you must solve this problem.”

I want to suggest a couple ways we can help solve this problem.

First, at the State House this year there will be a mighty fight over the state budget. The question our lawmakers will face is whether they will protect the interests of the well off or take the side of the locked out, the left out, the least of these. They will also consider a range of bills dealing with voting rights, some to make it harder to vote, some to make it easier, and some to reduce the influence of money in our elections.

You may have heard about a group in North Carolina, headed by Rev. Dr. Barber of the North Carolina NAACP, that brings a prayerful presence into their state capitol every week. They call it “Moral Mondays.

We’ve got a group like that here. We call ourselves “New Hampshire Voices of Faith.” Mondays are pretty quiet up in Concord, so we’re more likely to show up for “Witnessing Wednesdays,” bringing a multi-faith, prayerful presence for justice into the State House. We’ll be calling on our lawmakers to let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Look for us on Facebook at NH Voices of Faith. And if you are not receiving my weekly “State House Watch” newsletter by email, let me know and I’ll add you to our mailing list.

But we’ve got another big opportunity, one that comes around every four years.

New Hampshire has the eyes of the world on us because of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. The candidates are already among us. You might need to set some extra tables for next year’s breakfast. That means we’ve got the opportunity – and with that the responsibility – to let them know what’s on our minds. As Governor Hassan said, “democracy is not an every other year sport.”

At the American Friends Service Committee, we’ve got a new project we call “Governing Under the Influence.” It’s about the excessive power in the hands of big corporations – corporations that profit from violence, corporations that profit from prisons, corporations that profit from war. It’s about demanding that the democracy believe in is rooted in the one person, one vote principle, not in rule by those with the most money. We’ll be keeping track of the candidates’ whereabouts. Get in touch if you want to get involved.

But by all means use every opportunity to tell the presidential wannabes what is on your mind.

We who lift up the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. know that the struggle can be hard. We know the struggle can be long, but that ultimately we have faith that the power of the people can be stronger than the power of money, that justice can prevail over injustice, that love can prevail over hate.

Will we let anybody turn us around?

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This article was first published in the Concord Monitor, January 15, 2015

When President Lyndon Johnson reached Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by phone on January 15, 1965, it wasn’t to offer birthday greetings. The president wanted to strategize about voting rights.

The two leaders were at the peak of their popularity. King had recently returned from Oslo with the Nobel Peace Prize and was gearing up a voting rights campaign centered in Selma, Alabama. Johnson, elected by a landslide two months earlier, had boldly called for “enforcement of the civil rights law and elimination of barriers to the right to vote” for African Americans in his January 7 “State of the Union” speech.

“We take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro or whether it’s a Mexican or who it is,” the president told Dr. King. “That’s right,” King responded.

But between the two leaders and realization of voting rights stood the power of southern politicians and the often violent enforcement of white supremacy that blocked blacks from the voting rolls in southern states. In Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma was the major city, only 335 blacks were registered to vote by fall, 1964, despite repeated efforts. Outside Selma, black majority rural counties had no black voters at all. Attempts to register could provoke beatings, firings, or worse.

Before the Selma-based campaign led to passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of people would be arrested for peaceful protests, dozens would be beaten, and at least three – Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo– would be murdered by white supremacists. In Jackson’s case, the killer was a state trooper. (Jonathan Daniels, a seminary student from Keene, would be murdered three weeks after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.)

One Person, One Vote Principle is Under Attack

Fifty years later the principle of one person, one vote is again under attack, though the forces arrayed against democracy are less bloody.

For starters, federal election law been tilting toward the power of dollars and away from votes – just look at the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts. In a 2013 case, Shelby vs. Holder, the Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School calls “a critical tool to combat racial discrimination in voting.” Congress has power to rewrite the provision and restore this power to the Justice Department but has taken no action to date.

In its 2010 Citizens United decision, the Court famously affirmed the principles that corporations are people and money is speech, thus opening the gates for floods of corporate cash to pour into the election system. In 2014’s McCutcheon decision, the Court enabled donors to invest as much as $2.4 million in congressional candidates every two years. Then Congress piled on at year’s end with a last-minute amendment to the budget bill that raised the limits on contributions to political parties from $97,200 a year to $776,000.

Meanwhile the states have again become major battlegrounds for voting rights. According to the Brennan Center, 21 states, including New Hampshire, have approved measures to restrict voting since 2010. These include Voter ID requirements, laws making it harder to register, reduced voting hours, and measures making it harder for people with criminal records to regain their voting rights.

Race Still Drives Attacks on Voting Rights

“Race was also a significant factor,” the Brennan Center reports. “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote. And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrimination in voting have new restrictions since the 2010 election.”

New Hampshire is likely to see further efforts to erode voting rights in 2015. Bills to restrict same-day registration and suppress student voting are on the legislature’s agenda.

It’s not like the country has a problem of too many people voting. Nationwide, only 35.9% of eligible voters cast ballots in 2014. In New Hampshire, 47.6% of eligible voters went to the polls – hardly a figure to be proud of if we really believe in government of the people by the people and for the people.

Fortunately, lawmakers and voting rights advocates are taking action. In New Hampshire, bills are being proposed to make it easier to cast absentee ballots and to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 before the General Election.

A bi-partisan bill to put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act is likely to return to Congress. At the grassroots level, a growing nationwide movement is calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would establish clearly that the rights enumerated in the Constitution are intended for actual persons, not corporations, and that government regulation of campaign finance can be accomplished without infringing on political speech. In New Hampshire, more than 50 communities already have adopted resolutions backing such a measure.

The January 19 holiday marking Dr. King’s birthday and the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United decision on January 21 can be occasions for us to re-assert our commitment to democracy. Shall we overcome?

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Bus segregation was not the first issue that grabbed the attention of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when the young pastor moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. His first campaign in his new home focused on a sentence of death for Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old black boy convicted of raping a white woman, which512px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_6-wikicommons became his first civil rights campaign in his new home. Reeves had confessed under duress, but later recanted, a claim widely believed in the black community. King joined the NAACP’s efforts to save Reeves’ life.

So did Claudette Colvin, like Reeves a student at Booker T. Washington High School. Colvin, who the next year would be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing, recalled, “Jeremiah Reeves’s arrest was the turning point of my life. That was when I and a lot of other students really started thinking about prejudice and racism. I was furious when I found out what had happened.” [1]

“In the years that [Reeves] sat in jail,” Dr. King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, his book about the Montgomery movement, “several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the Grand Jury; none was ever brought to trial.” [2]

Reeves was found guilty by an all-white jury and put to death on March 28, 1958.

A week later King addressed a “Prayer Pilgrimage” rally in front of the State Capitol building. “The issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves,” King told a crowd of two thousand. “Even if he were guilty, it is the severity ad inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence.”[3]

Such gerrymandered justice was a well established fact of life in the South, going back to the days of slavery when blacks were commonly executed or lynched for crimes that drew less harsh punishment — or none — when committed by whites. This discriminatory pattern continued after emancipation, as Stuart Banner documents in his book, The Death Penalty: An American History. “In the first half of the [twentieth] century,” he writes, “the southern states punished many crimes by death only if they were committed by blacks, in the second half of LR&Mark11-14-12 019the century they accomplished the same result by delegating to all-white juries the discretion to choose capital or noncapital punishment.”

“The death penalty was a means of racial control,” observes Banner, a UCLA law professor.

Sadly, the role played by race in decisions about the death penalty persists. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, recent studies “add to an overwhelming body of evidence that race plays a decisive role in the question of who lives and dies by execution in this country. Race influences which cases are chosen for capital prosecution and which prosecutors are allowed to make those decisions. Likewise, race affects the makeup of the juries which determine the sentence. Racial effects have been shown not just in isolated instances, but in virtually every state for which disparities have been estimated and over an extensive period of time.”

New Hampshire is a case in point.

Michael Addison was charged with capital murder for killing Michael Briggs, a police officer, in 2006.

John Brooks was charged with capital murder for hiring three men to assist him in killing Jack Reid, a handyman, in 2005.

The trials took place in adjacent counties in 2008.

Addison, a poor black man with a prior criminal record, was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Brooks, a white millionaire businessman, was found guilty but spared the death penalty.

Monica Foster, Brooks’ attorney, said of her client after the sentence was announced, “He’s not the kind of people juries routinely kill,”

Racial disparities in the use of the death penalty have been a focus of scholarly research for decades. According to Justin Levinson, Robert Smith, and Danielle Young, authors of a 2013 study, “The most consistent and robust finding in this literature is that even after controlling for dozens and sometimes hundreds of case-related variables, Americans who murder Whites are more likely to receive a death sentence than those who murder Blacks.” They note as well that “Black defendants are sentenced to death more frequently than White defendants, especially when the universe of studied cases is narrowed to include only those cases that result in aexecutejustice11-14-12 capital trial.”

What Levinson, Smith, and Young found ought to be a wake-up call for anyone interested in the fairness of our judicial system. After studying 445 jury-eligible citizens in six states where the death penalty is most actively used, they concluded that “implicit racial bias does have an impact on the administration of the death penalty in America.”

“We found that death-qualified jurors implicitly valued White lives over Black lives by more rapidly associating White subjects with the concepts of ‘worth’ or ‘value’ and Black subjects with the concepts of ‘worthless’ or ‘expendable.’ This finding could potentially help to explain why real capital juries impose death sentences more regularly for White victims: at least at an implicit level we value White lives more than Black lives, and thus, perhaps, we seek to punish those individuals who have destroyed those whom we value most.”

The implications of this finding go far beyond the death penalty.

As for Dr. King, it is worth noting that his comments on the prosecution, conviction, and execution of Jeremiah Reeves did not directly reject capital punishment, just “the unequal justice of Southern courts.” As King matured into the leader we honor today, his critique of injustice deepened and blended with a prescription for change.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” he famously said.

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence,” King told the world on the day he received the Nobel Peace Prize. “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

The realization of King’s vision is far off. Abolition of the death penalty would be an excellent step in the right direction.

To get involved, join the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

 


[1] Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009, p. 23-24

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves,” April 6, 1958

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Kevin Powell:  “Practice something ancient called ‘love’”

“Can you say ‘action steps?’” Kevin Powell asked the crowd at the beginning of his speech at the Manchester NAACP’s annual Freedom Fund dinner.

The popular writer, speaker, and activist held the attention of about 100 people at the Puritan Conference Center in Manchester, where he touched on his own family background, the need to “pass the baton” to a new generation of leaders, and the urgent need to end violence against women, which he called “the number one human rights issue” of our time. 

Powell delivered six action steps.

Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., he called for “a revolution of values,” based on the practice of “something ancient called ‘love.’”

Second, the elders deserve respect but need to get out of the way of a new generation of leaders.

Third, he stressed the importance of financial literacy.

Fourth, demand higher quality than what the culture industry is now peddling.

Next, we need to “take care of ourselves” through attention to diet and exercise.  Movement leaders need to set good examples, he said.

Finally, we need to pay attention to mental health, too.  “We’re no good to anybody if we’re not healthy and whole,” Powell emphasized.

Branch president Ernesto Pinder presented Excellence in Service Awards to Sandra Hicks, Rashida Mohammed, Caludette Williams, Bill Gillett, and the Rev. Bill Exner. 

The Manchester chapter of the nation’s oldest social justice organization will turn 50 years old next year.  For more information and to sign up as a member, visit their web page.

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Talesha Caynon and Marsha Murdaugh make last minute preparations for the 29th annual MLK Day Breakfast.

MLK Day Celebrated in Hollis and Manchester

“Celebrate, Remember, and Act” was the theme of the Rev. Renee Rouse’s message to the Martin Luther King Day Breakfast held in Hollis, New Hampshire jan 21 2013 004 this morning.  Yes, today is a day to celebrate freedom.  But what we each do with it is the challenge, the minister from the Brookline Community Church said to a full hall at the Alpine Grove, where Southern New Hampshire Outreach for Black Unity held its 29th annual MLK Day event.

Likewise, Nashua Mayor Donalee Lozeau talked about memory, calling the holiday a day for “thoughtful reflection” on lessons we can learn from history, including what she called “intentional mistakes.”

Surely among those we can count New Hampshire’s stubborn resistance to honoring Dr. King, resistance that was finally overcome in 1999 after a 20-year struggle.  One thing we might learn, I suppose, is the importance of persistence.  Another worthy of reflection is the importance of the holiday itself as a day to not only ponder history but to ponder our own roles as makers of history.  In those roles, Dr. King remains a powerful model.

Every year I  have the privilege of speaking at the MLK Breakfast, giving jan 21 2013 010 what OBU calls “the update.”  Back in the day it was an update on the campaign to prevail at the State House for the King holiday.  Now, I get to speak about what is going on at the State House related to the prophetic vision we associate with Dr. King.

Today I began my comments at the beginning of King’s career, before Rosa Parks (and Claudette Colvin) refused to give up seats on Montgomery buses.  The issue mobilizing the Montgomery “Negro” community was the wrongful conviction and death sentence of Jeremiah Reeves, a Black musician accused of raping a white woman.  In his Montgomery memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, King said “the Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts,” where Black men could be executed based on false accusations yet white men who raped “Negro girls” were jan 21 2013 018 rarely arrested and never brought to trial.

The fact that King’s activism began with a campaign to stop an execution is little known, but might carry some weight in the only New England state where the death penalty remains on the books.  We are also a state in which the outcome of two recent capital trials demonstrates that the “unequal justice” King described is not limited to the South or confined to history.  Remember and act.

King’s career ended in Memphis during a strike of city workers aiming for recognition of their union, and that was where I took my comments.  While our own legislature finally rejected last year’s poisonous right-to-work-for-less bills, attacks on public sector collective bargaining are back.  Senate President Peter Bragdon has just come out with SB 37, a bill that would eviscerate the power of public sector workers at the bargaining table.  We need the spirit of Dr. King and the Memphis workers atjan 21 2013 028 the State House this year.  Remember and act.

But we can’t forget to celebrate, and this year we celebrate the dedication of the  NH Sisters of Mercy, who were awarded the Martin Luther King Award in Manchester at an event aptly called the Martin Luther King Day Community Celebration.  The “Mercies” have been at the forefront of umpteen struggles for social justice longer than I’ve been in New Hampshire.  While the MLK Day Award has almost always gone to individuals in previous years, it felt great for the Sisters to be recognized as the community they are.  

Selina Taylor, an organizer with the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty andjan 21 2013 041 a member of the leadership of the Manchester NAACP was also recognized with an award. 

Richard Haynes delivered the keynote at the afternoon celebration, where he stressed the importance of education to a full house at St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s community hall.  I’m sure he would have agreed with Rev. Rouse, who said we make a difference every day by “leaving footprints behind” for those coming up behind us.

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linda & program book Linda Gathright, a long-time community activist from Nashua, received the annual Martin Luther King Award at the annual Martin Luther King Day Community Celebration in Manchester.  Linda is among the founders of Outreach for Black Unity, and currently serves as its Chairperson, and has also served on the Board of the NH Minority Health Coalition and the NH Commission on the Status of Women.   Her award was presented by Dr. Marie Metoyer on behalf of the Martin Luther King Coalition, which sponsors the annual event.  

valerie mlk day 2011 Guest speaker Valerie Cunningham, who has devoted decades to research into New Hampshire’s Black history, recalled the young Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to People’s Baptist Church in Portsmouth in 1952, when he was studying at Boston University.  

The Celebration, held at St. George Greek OrthodDG & Traci 1ox Cathedral’s Hellenic Community Center, was deftly emceed by Russell and Jackie Weatherspoon, and also featured a performance by the West High School Jazz Band.

The thoughts of everyone involved in the Celebration were on Vanessa Johnson, a dedicated worker for the Coalition, who is ill.

The Martin Luther King Coalition is made up of twenty organizations.  This was its 29th annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. 

russell jackie  Woullard & LR mariebill signs up we shall overcome

 

 

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The New Hampshire House of Representatives convened on Tuesday, Jan. 4.  Its first act: adopting a rule enabling people to carry guns at the State House, but not including the House chamber itself.  The next day they droppted that restriction , too.   The Senate chamber may remain a gun-free zone, but otherwise, we might as well assume that legislators, visitors, and staff are packing heat.

Will the gun-love of our political culture be affected by yesterday’s political mass murder in Tucson?  It’s too early to guess.  But with the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. coming up Friday, my thoughts turned to his example.

King’s example came from  faith, but it was faith tested by experience that included death threats, political murder, and racist terror. 

In his  Nobel Prize Acceptance speech in 1964, King said:

“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.”

I hope those words continue to ring true.

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