By Millie Kahn*
Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), delivered a thought-provoking address at the well-attended February 28 WDC luncheon celebrating Black History Month, held at the Pooks Hill Marriott.
Ms. Clarke has devoted her career to protecting the very rights that are now under attack in our country. Her background includes fighting against voter suppression, police brutality, hate crimes, and human trafficking, as well as working to strengthen our democracy by combating discrimination faced by African Americans and other groups. Before leading the Lawyers’ Committee (https://lawyerscommittee.org ), she worked on civil rights and voting rights for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and for New York State and the US Department of Justice.
Ms. Clarke’s talk was lively and inspiring. She began by informing the audience that 2018 was the 55th anniversary of the Lawyers’ Committee, founded in 1963 at the behest of President John F. Kennedy, and that these types of organizations help make our country truly great. In addition to its advocacy work, the Lawyers’ Committee has a multitude of lawyers around the country helping victims of discrimination. She also stressed the importance of local activism, as well as the recruitment of young people to become involved in crucial civil rights issues, especially in a time when our country is facing a constitutional crisis with current executive power abuses and political obstruction.
Vigilance is also of extreme importance. Many of us are easily distracted by the big political stories of the day—some important, others petty--while throughout the country laws that were originally passed specifically to protect people’s rights are under attack. Many of these rights are being weakened or abolished.
Decades of progress are being reversed. Some examples:
Judicial vacancies are being filled at an alarmingly rapid rate, without the time-honored custom of “blue slips.” (In the Senate, a blue slip is an opinion written by a Senator from the state where a federal judicial nominee resides. Both senators from a nominee's state are sent blue slips on which they may submit a favorable or unfavorable opinion of a nominee.) The individuals filling these vacancies tend to be white males of a conservative political ideology.
The current administration is also rolling back many criminal justice reforms. Both parties had begun addressing mass incarceration policies, which affect mostly minorities and result in all kinds of barriers, including the ability to find work and access higher education. No more—these policies are now part of the current administration’s push for “law and order.” Ms. Clarke touched upon the federal reinvigoration of public-private prisons and renewed access by municipal police to military surplus equipment. She spoke about the criminalization of poverty, adding that debtors’ prisons are a reversal of justice.
The current administration fails to honor the growing diversity of our country. In some areas, for example, transgender people are not even considered “people.”
Voting problems abound. In the last election, numerous states had trouble with citizens voting, whether through new restriction laws, confusion, or even voter intimidation. In the 2016 presidential election, Texas, under a law created in 2011, required most citizens to show one of a handful of types of identification before their ballots could be counted: a state driver's license or ID card, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo. A college ID was not considered a valid form of identification, but a “concealed carry” handgun license was acceptable. The law was later found to have violated the Voting Rights Act. Many other states have attempted to disenfranchise minorities. For instance, North Carolina has no same-day registration. Difficulties in voting also occurred in Virginia and Ohio. Ms. Clarke recommended remedies to mitigate voter suppression such as early voting and pre-registration, especially for 17-year-olds who may be eligible to vote by the next election day.
Although some of our current problems in civil rights violations must be litigated, it is necessary that we, as citizens, educate ourselves about the issues involved and pressure our governments, national and local, to advance civil rights issues. One way is to write or call our members of Congress, whose information can be found easily in the “Congressional Record” ( https://goo.gl/hpKYGL ).
Ms. Clarke’s informative, rousing talk was met with great enthusiasm, sparking a reinvigoration of hope and a desire to continue the fight for a better United States. Her talk was followed a question-and-answer session covering a variety of issues, including the Lawyers’ Committee’s lawsuit to remedy historic disparities at Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
To learn more about the Lawyers’ Committee advocacy efforts, click here: https://lawyerscommittee.org/#get-involved .
To make a donation in support of their work, click here: https://lawyerscommittee.org/make-a-donation/
View more Images from this event here.
*Carole Leahy contributed to this article.