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No Rosa Park Moment for Keystone Opponents

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(NNPA) Fifty years ago on this August 28, hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in our nation’s capital to fight for racial equality. The March on Washington proved to be a turning point in one of the most profound moral crises our country has ever faced. But in the half century since, the rhetoric of racial justice has become a tool for scoring cheap political points.

This tactic is quite apparent in the shameless moralizing deployed by opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline. A disturbing number of critics have sought to silence informed debate by comparing the issue to the struggle against racism. Besides being deeply offensive to anyone who has ever suffered the effects of institutional prejudice, such tactics do a disservice to those who risked their lives to defend the dignity of Black Americans.

If completed, the Keystone XL pipeline would deliver oil from Western Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. Whether this infrastructure project is a worthwhile investment is a complex issue on which reasonable people can disagree.

According to some environmentalists, however, opposing the pipeline is a moral cause on par with fighting for racial equality.

In a column imploring President Obama to block the final phases of Keystone XL construction, Minnesota-based journalist James P. Lenfestey called the decision “a Rosa Parks moment” for the president. “A small, seemingly inconsequential decision,” he went one, “can influence how the entire world views the oil industry, the way a small, stubborn action on a Montgomery bus changed the nation’s tolerance toward Jim Crow.”

Lenfestey was following the lead of popular author and environmental activist Bill McKibben. He regularly shames individuals into divesting from energy companies by comparing his cause to the anti-apartheid movement. “Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes,” McKibben wrote last year in Rolling Stone. “That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa.”

Not to be outdone, writer Ted Glick has referred to the president’s foot-dragging on the pipeline as “Obama’s Lincoln Moment.” Glick thinks that “there’s a potential analogy between Obama and the 3 ½ years he has left as president and Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War broke out.” He goes on to explain how Lincoln evolved from trying to preserve the union to seeing emancipation as the greater moral cause. “The world needs to see a similar evolution with Barack Obama when it comes to the climate crisis,” he wrote.

When, exactly, did it become acceptable to equate one’s contentious opinions about energy infrastructure to the fearless acts of Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln? Parks made a stand against barbaric Jim-Crow-era discrimination at a time when lynchings and cross-burnings were real threats. Nelson Mandela spent nearly three decades in jail at the hands of an unjust government to further the cause of human dignity. And Abraham Lincoln freed America’s slaves, and for that, he paid with his life.

If Lenfestey, McKibben, Glick and the like had any appreciation for the plight of minority groups throughout our country’s history, they wouldn’t be so quick to exploit the legacy of these remarkable figures.

What’s even more disgraceful is that they are evoking these heroes in a way that betrays the ideals of reason and free expression that remain central to the struggle against racism. The point of their comparisons is to avoid a frank exchange about important issues by smearing their opponents as immoral oppressors.

Jim Crow laws, apartheid, and slavery were indefensible evils. The Keystone XL pipeline, on the other hand, is a strategy for becoming less dependent on oil from foreign governments that are genuinely oppressive, and in some cases, still tacitly condone slavery. The project could support over 500,000 new American jobs by 2035 (according to api.org). And according to an eight-volume State Department study, the pipeline would increase America’s annual carbon emissions by only one third of one percent.

I remember a very tense moment when my family was driving through Birmingham on our way to a segregated Washington, D.C. (1964). We pulled into a gas station and my brother decided to use the rest room. He was shouted out of the front office for asking for the door key. My aunt exclaimed “We just passed the Civil Rights Act” and marched up grab the key off the wall and escorted my brother to the door. The employee started towards my aunt. My father jumped out of the car, popped open the trunk where his shot gun was waiting for times like this. The employee backed off and we all sighed with relief. Now, that is a Rosa Parks moment.

When Americans marched on Washington in the summer of 1963, they were raising issues that had been ignored for far too long. To use the legacy of that movement to stymie honest, necessary debate is an insult to the cause of racial justice, its ideals and its heroes.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org, email: halford@nationalbcc.org.

Agent Orange and the Continuing Vietnam War

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(NNPA) In a 2009 visit to Vietnam I asked a retired colonel in the Vietnam People’s Army about the notorious toxin “Agent Orange.” The colonel, who was also a former leader in a Vietnamese advocacy group for Agent Orange’s victims, spoke fluent English and was a veteran of the war with the United States. I asked him when had the Vietnamese realized the long-term dangers associated with the Agent Orange herbicide used by the U.S.A. His answer was as simple as it was heart-wrenching: ”When the children were born,” was his response.

In an effort to defeat the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army (the Vietnam People’s Army), the U.S. concocted the idea that if it destroyed the forests and jungles that there would be nowhere for the guerrillas to hide. They, thus, unleashed a massive defoliation campaign, the results of which exist with us to this day. Approximately 19 million gallons of herbicides were used during the war, affecting between 2 million and 4.8 million Vietnamese, along with thousands of US military personnel. Additionally, Laos and Cambodia were exposed to Agent Orange by the USA in the larger Indochina War.

Despite the original public relations associated with the use of Agent Orange aimed at making it appear safe and humane, it was chemical warfare and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that it was genocidal. The cancers promoted by Agent Orange (affecting the Vietnamese colonel I interviewed, as a matter of fact) along with the catastrophic rise in birth defects, have not only haunted the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, but also the United States. Those in the US military involved in the dispersal of Agent Orange, and those who were simply exposed to it, brought the curse home.

The United States government has refused to take responsibility for the war of aggression it waged against the Vietnamese. This includes a failure to acknowledge the extent of the devastation wrought by Agent Orange. Ironically, it has also failed to assume responsibility for the totality of the horror as it affected U.S. veterans, thus leaving the veterans and their families to too often fight this demon alone.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee recently introduced House Resolution 2519, “To direct the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide assistance for individuals affected by exposure to Agent Orange, and for other purposes.” In many respects, this bill is about settling some of the accounts associated with the war against Vietnam. The U.S.] reneged on reparations that it promised to Vietnam and to this day there remain those in the media and government who wish to whitewash this horrendous war of aggression as if it were some sort of misconstrued moral crusade.

HR 2519 takes us one step towards accepting responsibility for a war crime that was perpetrated against the Vietnamese and that, literally and figuratively, blew back in our faces as our government desperately tried to crush an opponent it should never have first been fighting. For that reason, we need Congress to pass and fund HR 2519. HR 2519 should be understood as a down payment on a much larger bill owed to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and to the US veterans sent into hell.

[For more information on HR 2519 and the issue of Agent Orange, contact the "Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign" at www.vn-agentorange.org.]

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and national board member of the “Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign.” Follow him on Facebook and www.billfletcherjr.com.

King's Unfinished Symphony of Freedom

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(NNPA) This weekend, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, best known for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream.”

Fifty years later, the dream challenges us yet. It is alive because it is not static. The dream of equal rights and equal opportunity, of being judged for character, not color, has transformed this nation. Much progress has been forged; much remains to be done.

One way to think about the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s dream is as a symphony of freedom. The first movement was the movement to end slavery, which required the bloodiest war in American history. Then came the drive to end segregation, the disfiguring legal apartheid of the South. In that victory, the movement freed not only African-Americans but also the South to grow, and opened access to libraries and hotels, trains and restaurants, pools and parks. Rosa Parks could sit wherever she wanted to on that bus.

The third movement was the movement for empowerment, for the right to vote. That movement culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, challenging the various taxes and tests and intimidation used to deprive African-Americans of the power of the ballot box. This year, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court weakened the act. Conservative governors and legislators are pushing to constrict rather than expand the vote. We still have no constitutional right to vote. Surely, that is the next step toward the dream.

The fourth movement of the freedom symphony features the trumpet call for equal opportunity, and the clash over extreme and growing inequality. Here, Lyndon Johnson’s promise to fulfill the movement’s pledge that “we shall overcome” has been frustrated. African-Americans continue to suffer twice the unemployment as Whites. Poor people of color, often isolated in ghettos and barrios, have less access to healthful food, good schools, public parks and safe streets. Inequality is the new de facto segregation, with the affluent withdrawing to gated communities and private schools, and the poor huddled in impoverished neighborhoods.

Dr. King knew this final movement was the most difficult. He saw Johnson’s war on poverty being lost in the costly folly of Vietnam. He worried that we might be “integrating into a burning house.” He was murdered while standing with sanitation workers organizing for dignity and a decent wage. When he died, he was organizing a new march on Washington — a Poor People’s Campaign that would bring the impoverished of all races and regions to a Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., to demand a renewal of the war on poverty.

The fourth movement — the movement for real equality of opportunity — remains unfinished. Its agenda speaks to poor and working people of all races: full employment, a living wage, child nutrition, a good public education from pre-K to affordable college, high-quality health care, affordable housing in vibrant communities, workers empowered to share in the profits and productivity they help to produce.

We have gained freedom without equality. Globalized capital and communications have been used to push workers down rather than lift them up. We continue to squander scarce resources policing the globe. Inequality has grown worse, and the middle class is sinking.

The symphony of freedom is unfinished, but its powerful themes still resound and stir its listeners. Dr. King called on each of us to march for justice. He understood the power of people of conscience when they decide to act. As we remember his dream, we are called to action, for there is more work to be done.

Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. You can keep up with his work at www.rainbowpush.org.

More UFO Sightings than Voter Fraud Cases

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(NNPA) Prior to the 2012 elections, I found myself in a discussion with a colleague concerning Republican efforts at what has come to be known as “voter suppression.” I was informing this person, who is well educated, that voter fraud is not a problem of any significance in the U.S.A. This individual rejected my contention, arguing that he was aware of countless examples of alleged fraud and that the efforts to make voting more difficult were justified.

A fascinating article in Mother Jones from July 2012, which I only just discovered , contains the sorts of ammunition that is needed in this debate, ammunition that really can not only end the argument but open up the real question: Why are the Republicans trying to make it more difficult to vote?

The article, by Hamed Aleaziz, Dave Gilson and Jaeah Lee ["UFO Sightings are more common than voter fraud," www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/voter-id-laws-charts-maps] contains this little factoid at the end: Between 2000 and 2010 there were 649 million votes cast in general elections; 47,000 UFO sightings; 441 Americans killed by lightning; and 13 credible cases of in-person voter impersonation.

How is it possible that with no evidence of massive voter fraud that legislators around the nation have moved to narrow voting? The answer, to a great extent, has to do with race. First, the people making the allegations tend to be White and rich. They are playing into the growing fears among many average Whites that the U.S. is becoming a Black and Brown nation, and, to be honest, they are scared. Many of them still cannot understand how it was that a Black man became president of the United States.

Second, the criminalization of Black America and the assumption that we are up to no good – as demonstrated most recently in the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin – opens up the door to the belief that African Americans are somehow involved in trickery and voter fraud. We do not have to have ever done anything. It is more about what many Whites believe that we are capable of doing that matters.

Yet voter suppression, which is not going away, is about more than the antipathy of many rich Whites for Black people. The voter suppression laws are not aimed solely at African Americans. They remain part of the larger scheme to neutralize the growing majority in this country, a majority of people of color, youth, women and working people, that threatens the privileges of the rich and (in-)famous. Thus, we not only have voter suppression but we have gerrymandering of electoral districts to ensure that certain districts remain in the hands of Republicans and that cross-racial political coalitions are less likely to be built.

The issue of voter suppression not only remains critical, but will especially be so in the 2014 elections. Being mid-term elections, turnout tis always lower than in presidential years under the best of circumstances. If you add to that the great difficulties that the average voter can anticipate in voting, the situation goes from bad to worse. This means that voting rights activists will have important challenges that include:

  • Voter registration
  • Ensuring that the voters have the proper documents
  • Constructing monitoring and protection mechanism to guarantee our rights and
  • Helping to bring forward compelling candidates who speak to the issues of the grassroots and, thereby, encourage greater turnout.

To this we should add one more task. Each time that you encounter an elected official who suggests that greater efforts need to be taken to stop alleged voter fraud, please ask them to provide you with documented evidence of a pattern of abuse. Please ask them to provide you with documented numbers. Please ask them to provide you with proof of convictions.

And, if they cannot provide any of this, please ask them to shut their trap.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author or “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.

The GOP's Whites-Only Gambit

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By Lee A. Daniels
NNPA Columnist

The Republican Party, which has lost the last two presidential elections by appealing to the worst racial attitudes of White conservative voters, has come up with what it declares is a winning strategy for 2016: Appeal to the worst racial attitudes of White conservative and White Democratic-leaning voters.

The conservative echo chamber of political operatives and pundits has even produced a, to coin a phrase, white paper explaining how doubling down on its failed national strategy of 2008 and 2012 will work in 2016. More about that later.

One might consider that notion a modern version of the 1956 Southern Manifesto, the Congressional segregationists’ call for “massive resistance” by White Southerners to the 1954 Supreme Court Brown school desegregation decision. Or an updating of GOP standard-bearer Richard Nixon’s adoption in the late 1960s of a “Southern Strategy” of appealing to Whites made anxious by Blacks’ civil rights victories.

Or, one could say it’s just a continuation of the stance against Democratic presidents the GOP adopted during the Clinton presidency in the 1990s – in the words of former Republican congressman, Vin Weber: a maximum ideological polarization. That attitude is a far distance from the claims GOP leaders made in the weeks between President Obama’s re-election victory last November and his re-inauguration in January.

Then, they promised they had learned the benefits of “outreach” to the groups that made up the winning Democratic coalition – particularly women, Blacks, Latinos and gays and lesbians. Why, the Republican National Committee (RNC) even produced in March a much ballyhooed report that called for the party to leave its “ideological cul-de-sac,” confessing that the party had “lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

And how was that critique received by the GOP party faithful? Well, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk-show maven whose tail still wags the Republican dog, immediately announced it showed the RNC had been “totally bamboozled,” and GOP Congressional leaders comments’ about it were tepid at best.

In fact, the GOP’s actions and words beyond the RNC exercise underscored again that the party continues to be driven by a callous ideology that has prompted Republican legislators to double down on all the things which contributed to the failure of the Republican ticket in 2012: to enact more legislation restricting women’s right to an abortion; to pass more so-called voter identification measures to suppress the Black vote; and to bellow their opposition to efforts to enact sensible immigration-reform measures.

Nothing exemplifies the GOP posture more dramatically and more crudely that Steve King, the Iowa Republican Congressman. King, whose specialty is making vicious jibes about women and people of color, last month denigrated the DREAM Act legislation that would establish an arduous, long path to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. “Some of them are valedictorians – and their parents brought them in. It wasn’t their fault,” King said, then added, “… But for every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds – and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’ve been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

Realizing they had a public relations disaster in the making, the GOP leadership disavowed King’s comment. But the fact is King’s anti-immigration stance and that of the GTOP itself are one and the same: Both are designed to appeal to Whites anxious by the growing population and electoral clout of Black Americans and Hispanic Americans.

The solution essentially proposed by Sean Trende, a conservative pundit, and seconded by several of his fellow conservatives, is to minimize trying to broaden the party’s appeal to Blacks and Hispanics and concentrate on building the White conservative voter turnout.

Trende’s argument, laid out in four lengthy articles from June 21 to July 6 on the blog, realclearpolitics.com, is well worth reading because it clearly reflects the political decisions the GOP leadership has already made to continue its past practice of just pretending to be interested in “outreach.”

Black Americans would do well to pay special attention to Trende’s June 25 article, which predicts a decline in both Black voter turnout and the actual number of Black votes going Democratic. The piece contains many assumptions about how Blacks will vote when Barack Obama is no longer at the head of the ticket that are wishful thinking – but that, nevertheless, progressive Blacks and Whites need to consider.

But there is an even more urgent question Trende’s predictions about the Black vote raises but which he ignores: How much are his expectations of a decline in the Black vote in 2016 election dependent on the success of the voter suppression laws Republican-dominated state legislatures have put in place?

Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.

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