Monthly Archive for November, 2011

Repealing the Racial Justice Act

Two years ago, North Carolina did what just one other state in the country (Kentucky!) has done: it passed legislation intended to make sure that death sentences were handed down untainted by racial bias. The Racial Justice Act allows current death row inmates to appeal their death sentences on the basis of statistical claims of racial bias in the state. If they can demonstrate a pattern of bias, they stand to have their sentence reduced to life imprisonment.

At the heart of the act is the concept that the death penalty is a system, comprised of a network of influences, that remains potentially responsive to racial bias. Overt racial bias in law has been illegal for a while. What is at issue now, in regard to the death penalty as in regard to so many social, political, and economic issues, is whether race continues to exert an influence despite being de jure excluded from the process. The answer is an obvious yes. This study found that death sentences were handed down much more often when the victim was white. This one, too. This study demonstrates a long history of bias in North Carolina.

How can race worm its way into a legal system intended to be colorblind? Well, first, the death penalty in North Carolina is deeply rooted in slavery and it may be the only significant socio-political institution that remains relatively untouched by the vast changes that have taken place since then. When North Carolina was a slaveholding state, it kept two sets of laws on the books, one for blacks and one for whites. (Freed slaves were basically treated the same as enslaved blacks under capital law.) Blacks were not believed to be victims of crime in any real sense of the word, and thus crimes involving black “victims” were rarely considered crimes at all; if a black slave was killed, for instance, the victim was considered to be his or her master.

A lot has changed since then, obviously. But the numbers have remained chillingly steady–for most of the twentieth century, African Americans were sentenced to death in numbers vastly out of proportion to their population for crimes against whites by juries that were virtually all white. In the first half of the 20th Century, African Americans comprised nearly 80% of those executed in North Carolina. This troubling number was moderated by the new laws enacted in the 1970s, but more than half of those sent to death row in North Carolina since the mid-1970s have been African American. North Carolina’s black population hovers around 20%.

But even if we pretend that the history doesn’t matter here, race remains a presence in the courtroom. The victims of crimes that result in death sentences are overwhelmingly white. When the victims are not white, it is most often African Americans who receive death sentences for their crimes. In other words, whites are sentenced to death for killing other whites, but blacks are sentenced to death for killing both blacks and whites. The juries that hand down these death sentences are always majority white and sometimes all-white. Circumstances like these often result from apparently innocuous factors. For example, a member of a minority community may be more likely to know other members of their minority community than they would members of the majority community. And jurors can’t sit in judgment of someone they know. Thus, an effort at basic fairness in jury selection tips the scales toward potential racial bias, which is often unconscious. (For more on this issue and others, see the articles cited above.)

Oddly (or not-so-oddly), race scarcely enters into the discussion of why the act is being repealed. The lawmakers in the state’s first majority-Republican Congress since the 19th Century have complained (and their complaints are echoed by prosecutors) that the act clogs up the judicial system and inspires frivolous claims, including from white inmates unlikely to have experienced racial discrimination. That’s not the point, of course–the point is that whoever the defendant, North Carolina should not be making use of a system that operates under the influence of racial bias. Years ago, civil rights lawyers argued that segregated schools harmed both black and white students. There doesn’t seem to be much difference there, except the Civil Rights Act was not repealed in 1966.

Republican leader Paul Stam did nod at the issue, though, saying, “Justice is personal; it’s not collective.” Setting aside how deeply wrong that claim is, Stam meant (it seems) that each case should be evaluated on its merits, without regard to larger trends and, um, biases. Right on.

Occupy Chapel Hill

Yesterday we posted a video of the Council of Elders, a newly-formed independent group of activists from rights and justice movements of the past 50 years, who have come together in support of Occupy movements across the country.

Peace and Justice Plaza in front of the post office and court building here in Chapel Hill (right across the street from the UNC campus) has served as home base to the town’s own Occupy movement for the past month. Here are some photographs taken on Sunday.

The encampment includes roughly a dozen tents, with open pathways to allow pedestrians to pass through.

A large blackboard at the edge of the campsite lists upcoming discussions about justice, equality, and economic issues.

Several people were present at the campsite on Sunday afternoon.

Organizers have provided supplies with which protesters can make their own signs.

Civil Rights and Justice Movement Veterans Support the Occupy Movement

For the past couple of months, people across the country have been unable to turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without seeing or hearing something about the “Occupy” movements spreading across the country—offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street movement which began in New York City more than two months ago.

These groups, composed mainly of young people, recall images of civil rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s, of anti-War protests in the 1970s—and now leaders of those same movements have come together in support of the Occupy movement.

The Council of Elders, a new independent group of leaders from various rights and justice movements of the past 50 years, joined protesters yesterday to discuss past movements and to share the torch with a new generation of social justice activists.

Citing widespread problems such as inadequate healthcare and high unemployment rates, the Council seeks non-violent public outcry as a means toward achieving a more just society. Activists include Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Marian Wright Edelman, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and many others. Take a look at their video here, posted on November 17th.

For a thoughtful perspective on the Occupy Movement in light of past movements, check out this blog post by SOHP staffer Seth Kotch.

Remembering the Montgomery Bus Boycott

On this day 55 years ago, leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were at long last able to celebrate victory after the Supreme Court ruled Alabama’s bus segregation laws unconstitutional. The Court upheld a U.S. district court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle, in which bus segregation laws were found to be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The ruling came nearly a year after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., was formed to supervise the boycott that emerged and gained momentum over the next year.

Although the Supreme Court decision involved only Alabama laws, the ruling would have far-reaching effects. At the time, seven other states had laws similar to those found unconstitutional in Alabama. As the New York Times stated,

“The ruling was interpreted as outlawing state or municipal enactments anywhere that require separation of the races on public vehicles. It was thought to have placed a headstone at the grave of Plessy v. Ferguson.”

The ruling did not immediately end the discrimination and violence African Americans faced on public transportation in the South: two African American women were attacked in Montgomery the next month. However, the decision represented a decisive victory and heralded future progress.

For more information about the Montgomery bus boycott, check out Stewart Burns’ Daybreak of Freedom (UNC Press, 1997).

For a video clip from PBS, click here.

Presenting an Enhanced E-book: Give My Poor Heart Ease, by William Ferris

As increasing numbers of readers are choosing to purchase books in digital formats accessible on e-readers such as the Kindle, iPad, or Nook, publishers are working on new ways to present enhanced materials to readers. Enhancements generally comprise multimedia embedded within the digital file, adding to the user’s experience, understanding, and interaction with the book.

Here at UNC Press, we recently released our first enhanced e-book: William Ferris’s Give My Poor Heart Ease—an exciting collection of interviews, pictures, and stories of African American musical traditions in Mississippi. The original book is illustrated with Ferris’s photographs of the musicians and their communities, as well as an attached CD of original music and a DVD of original film. The enhanced e-book adds to this collection numerous video clips, interviews, and original music embedded throughout the text.

To see a demonstration and learn about this enhanced e-book’s exciting features, check out this video:

Author William Ferris, professor of history and UNC Chapel Hill and associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, spent countless hours in the 1960s and 1970s travelling the back roads of Mississippi and documenting the voices of African American musicians.

Mentoring a Movement

At the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 50th anniversary conference in 2009, the activists who as a group formed the tip of the spear in the segregated South, transforming the region with a rare combination of courage, organization, intellect, and creativity, gathered to reflect on their part of the civil rights movement. Civil rights luminaries like Bob Moses rubbed elbows with scholars like Taylor Branch. The event was, like SNCC itself, rich with emotion and intelligence. But as Sue Thrasher wrote after the conference, what was missing was a prescription for the future. “I didn’t sense much connection to work that is being done,” she wrote (read her full piece on the conference here).

Having built a movement in the 1960s and sustained it through the 1970s and beyond, it may be too much to ask that an aging generation continue to stoke the fire that burned in their youth, let alone light a fire for a new generation. The responsibility for sustaining the movement or building a new one lies with the generation that will experience the largest gap ever in wealth between old and young, and who are coming of age in a nation deeply divided by questions of faith and family, and far adrift on questions of education, the environment, and, of course, rights. This is a nation made great by wealth, made fat by wealth, made sick by wealth–and perhaps made great again by wealth if that wealth and its symptoms can be dragged into the light to inspire (or force) the legal, political, and economic reforms we so desperately need. If that happens, it will have to be accomplished by the new generation of anonymous young people who are gathering around the country as part of the movement now known as Occupy Wall Street.

But that doesn’t mean it should happen without input and support from the veterans among us. It was inspiring, therefore, to learn that Occupy Atlanta is consulting with activists like the Reverend Joseph Lowery and others as they seek their voice. At the same time, it is oddly troubling to see Jesse Jackson joining protestors in Atlanta. Jackson’s celebrity brings attention, certainly, but as we have quickly learned this is a movement capable of getting headlines without celebrity involvement, or even of generating its own celebrities–Jesse LaGreca has become the voice of the movement after smacking down Fox News in footage that went viral despite Fox’s choice not to broadcast it. (For the record, LaGreca is a longtime activist and writer, not just some guy in a funny hat who wandered into Zucotti Park.)

LaGreca’s deftness with language is invaluable because the media expects this sprawling protest to articulate their message on par with the machines they’re used to covering and can understand: the very political parties and corporations whose behavior, including their so-called messaging, has hollowed out America’s public life. For weeks, even journalists at the allegedly liberal NPR have set a high bar for protestors attempting to explain their demands, as if the repeated refrain of “economic justice” isn’t clear enough. Imagine if the media today was covering the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “What is it these people want? Is it desegregation or voting rights? Economic justice or women’s rights? It’s just a bunch of jerks with signs!”

With capable hands like LaGreca’s ready to take it, the civil rights movement generation should seize this opportunity to pass the torch; after all, it was the young people in the 1960s who learned from the radicals of the 1950s, and they from the radicals of the 1930s. (Not that civil rights heroes like Pete Seeger should stay home.) The most important way they can help? Messaging and media. Here’s hoping that Jackson, Lowery, and others will impart hard-earned lessons about message discipline. After all, the demands of the movement are certainly clearer than a credit default swap (I defy you to read this Wikipedia entry once, then explain it to a friend.) It’s certainly clearer than the labyrinth of non-regulations that will pour anonymous corporate money into our political process next year. I’ll take a dirty hippy over a SuperPAC any day.