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HBCU 'Equality' Lawsuit: Black Notables, Former HBCU Presidents and Students Pack Courtroom

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By Alexis Taylor, Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper –

Dr. Samuel Myers said it “hurt his heart” as he listened to testimony at the ongoing HBCU Equality trial, Jan. 31. The president emeritus of Bowie State College, one of Maryland’s four HBCUs, said he’s spent his life working in higher education. “And I’ve seen the disparities that exist between funding for Blacks in higher education and those generally,” he said. “And I know that the courts have long since ruled that the disparity be eliminated.”

He had no problem declaring, “But it still exists.”

Which is most likely the reason he was joined in the Garmatz Courtroom by other former educators and administrators including Dr. Andrew Billingsley, former president of Morgan State University; Dr. Arthur Thomas, former president Central State University; Dr. Wilma J. Roscoe, retired vice president of National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) and Raymond Pierce, dean, North Carolina Central State Law School and who also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton Administration.

Pierce was angered by the visible absence of anyone from the Obama Administration. “It is a shame that the Office for Civil Rights has had no presence in this trial,” Pierce said. “I find it very troubling.”

The absence, he said, raised serious questions about the Obama Administration’s commitment to civil rights and educational equality. Myers was incensed that anyone could say HBCUs need to become more competitive with other schools.

“I know each institution needs to and wants to survive in its own right, but this inequitable funding hurts the entire nation. When you have a high unemployment rate among young Black males, education is needed to get them into the workforce,” he said, indicating that his work with national and international organizations gives him a broader perspective.

“It’s not a matter of largesse, not charity, not goodwill to provide equitable treatment for Blacks.”

Claiming that Maryland has perpetuated a system of segregation by underfunding and allowing program duplication by nearby traditionally white schools (TWIs) the presidents were also joined this week by the very students they’re fighting for.

Following the precedent set by Black clergy members who gathered in the courtroom last week to maintain support, students could be seen lining the front row in their business attire, silently making their voices and their presence known. The case, which was filed by The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education in October 2006, drew a crowd of more than 40, made up of university presidents, faculty, students, and concerned citizens.

As students return to classes at Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the case continues to unfold in courtroom 7D of the Garmatz Federal Courthouse building. Testimony from Joseph Vivona, chief operating officer and vice chancellor for administration and finance for the University System of Maryland (USM) could be heard along with that of former Towson University president, Dr. Robert Caret.

“When the investment made by the state in white institutions is compared to the state’s investment in historically Black colleges, there is little comparison,” said Dr. Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State University from 1984 to 2010. “If one were to look at the investments made in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and then at Morgan- one can see that there is a stark difference,” said Dr. Richardson in response to Vivona’s testimony, which gave the impression that the state of Maryland has gone out of its way to fund historical Black institutions (HBIs).

“The whole idea of the lawsuit by the Coalition is now to ensure that there is equity in the investment made by the state in Black institutions versus white institutions.”

National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) president and CEO, Lezli Baskerville, said “This case will directly impact the shape of the higher education debate in 2012 and beyond in the 25 states that have HBCUs and TWIs, as well as the work of NAFEO.” The organization, which was founded in 1969, is the sole association that represents the chancellors and presidents of HBCUs. “What this court decides will determine whether public higher education in America remains separate and unequal, or whether the nation moves toward a more excellence, equitable and just higher education system…” said Baskerville.

Giving students special incentive to make their way down to the courtroom, some classes are even giving students extra time and credit for sitting on the proceedings. “I would definitely come down and support even if it wasn’t for class credit because I am pursuing my master’s degree in higher education administration and this is an issue in higher education,” said Bera Cotten, of Morgan State University. Encouraging students who are might be sleeping in or hanging out during their spare time before and after class, Cotton says the case allows you to “get an understanding of what’s going on” and “provides you with information dealing with your historical Black institution.”

An alumnus of Coppin University, Marvin “Doc” Cheatham said he was “elated to see the students” who came out and “hoping that more will come.” A staple in the Baltimore community and beyond through his civil rights work with the National Action Network and the NAACP, Cheatham says the case is not only important to Maryland’s historical Black institutions but to those across the country as well who are dealing with issues of underfunding and program duplication.

Eddie Long Apologizes to Jewish Leaders for Torah Use in 'Crowning' Ceremony

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Special to the NNPA from the St. Louis American –

Eddie Long has apologized for a church service in which he was wrapped in a Torah scroll and called a king.

Last week during a service at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., Ralph Messer, a Messianic Jew and self-described rabbi, ordered congregants to wrap Long in a Torah scroll and then lift him up on a chair bar mitzvah-style while he held the Torah scroll, which was identified as being rescued from Auschwitz.

“The ceremony was not my suggestion, nor was it my intent, to participate in any ritual that is offensive in any manner to the Jewish community,” Long wrote in a letter sent Saturday to Bill Nigut, Southeast Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Nigut released the letter on Sunday.

In an article in the newspaper last week, Nigut was critical of the ceremony, saying it “in no way represents any Jewish ritual that I’m familiar with. We do not proclaim individuals to be kings.”

In the letter sent to the ADL, Long also said “I sincerely denounce any action that depicts me as a King, for I am merely just a servant of the Lord.”

Nigut told CNN that he thought the apology was “very heartfelt, sincere.”

“I was very gratified by Bishop Long apparently recognizing what our concern was,” Nigut also said.

Information from CNN.com and JTA contributed to this report.

The Fight Against HIV/AIDS…Why Sitting at the Table Matters

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By Michael Hinson and Lisa Fager Bediako
Special to the NNPA from the Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative –

After 30 years of the HIV pandemic, one might think that terms such as “community collaboration” and “community participation” would be commonplace among those fighting the disease. But in many communities across the country, this is not the case. In fact, the clock seems to be rolling back to the early days, when the opinions and actions of a small minority marginalized the voices of those who were most impacted by the global pandemic.

Make no mistake: many people are indeed living longer with HIV disease as a result of improved treatments. But with all of the dynamic shifts in HIV treatment, prevention, and policy, it is especially disheartening – and, we would say, dangerous – that women, Black gay men, people of color, heterosexual men, transgender individuals and, most notably, Black organizations still must fight to be heard by the decision makers who develop, implement, and allocate funding for HIV-related policies and programs.

We all know the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Blacks represent approximately 14% of the US population, but accounted for an estimated 44% of new HIV infections in 2009. Over the same period, the rate of new HIV infections among Black women was 15 times that of White women, and over 3 times the rate of Hispanic/Latina women. At some point in their lives, approximately 1 in 16 Black men will be diagnosed with HIV infection, many of whom will be Black gay men, as will 1 in 32 Black women.

Furthermore, Latinos represented 16% of the population but accounted for 20% of new HIV infections in 2009. In 2009, the estimated rate of new HIV infections among Latinos was 2.5 times that for White men; for Latinas, the rate was 4.5 times that for white women.

Black transgender women are more likely to become newly infected with HIV and studies have shown that infection rates for transgender women of all races range from 11.8% to 27.7%.

Given these statistics, why are there not more Blacks, Latino/as, or transgender individuals involved in decision-making processes about HIV-related policies and programs? Does it even matter? We contend that the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

When the Philadelphia Health Department recently decided to cut much of its HIV/AIDS prevention programs, organizations serving people of color were hardest hit. As a letter to the Philadelphia Health Commissioner sent by the Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council indicated, the decision failed to appreciate the cultural capital that community-based organizations bring to the health milieu in order to create change. Had people from those communities been at the table, perhaps a different decision might have been reached – especially one without negative repercussions for those most affected.

There are, perhaps, many reasons why this marginalization occurs, but the primary question remains “where are our voices?” If we, decision makers, communities members, elected/appointed officials, organizations, individuals and communities are ever going to end this disease we must revisit the issues of representation, inclusion and parity among decision makers. We must answer the question, “who is not at the table, and if they are at the table are their voices being heard and experiences being honored.”

However, we can’t arrive at the table empty-handed. The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA), a partnership of more than 25 national and local organizations, recommends the following as part of a comprehensive strategy for reducing the transmission of HIV/AIDS: expanding the availability of HIV testing; implementing a national media outreach campaign focusing on people of color; directing HIV prevention and testing activities to those at highest risk; providing adequate funding, technical assistance, capacity building, and infrastructure development to Black and other minority-led organizations; prioritizing effective and evidence-based programs and interventions; and combining prevention approaches.

As we commemorate National Black HIV/AIDS Day on February 7th, we should remember that any significant, long-lasting progress that will be made towards stemming the impact of this disease is intricately tied to our ability to have seats at the decision-making table.

Michael Hinson is the Director of Policy and Programs for the International Federation of Black Prides in Washington, DC and directs its Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative Project.

Lisa Fager Bediako is Project Director, Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc.

The Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative, is a $16 million, six-year partnership between CDC and 19 of nation’s leading civil rights and social justice organizations formed to conduct a wide range of communication, mobilization, action and educational activities among communities hardest hit by HIV/AIDS.

NAACP and Others File Court Brief Supporting Health Care Reform

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By Stephon Johnson, Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News –

Last Friday, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), the American Civil Liberties Union and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court expressing their support for the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s health care reform.

According to the brief, the organizations argue that the minimum coverage provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is constitutional and advances equal opportunity for many of America’s disadvantaged.

In the Department of Health & Human Services v. Florida brief, the groups state, “In our modern, integrated and dynamic health care system, personal choices have consequences that extend far beyond the individual. The economic decision to forego health insurance, therefore, is not neutral; rather, such a decision, when aggregated across our national population, both limits the personal liberty of others to choose health insurance and has the effect of reinforcing harsh economic and social disparities that threaten our country’s democratic foundation and the cohesion of our society.”

LDF President and Director-Counsel John Payton agreed with Washington taking mandating citizen inclusion in the system. “Congress not only was well within its power to enact this important law, it was right to do so,” Payton said in a statement. “The severe racial inequality in our health care system threatens the ability of African-Americans to participate fully in the life of our nation and also undermines the health of our country’s democracy.”

In the brief, the groups mention that they believe that the inability to obtain access to health care limits the personal liberty of people to simply live healthy lives and that it is imperative that the government work to make the lives of the people they serve better.

The organizations also hope to remind the courts and the American people that the poor aren’t to blame for their situation and the results in the dice roll of life could have easily gone against their favor.

“Across our country, uninsured persons experience significant hardship that has a profound cumulative impact on our nation,” the brief states. “Because they are less likely to obtain adequate, stable health care, the uninsured suffer many lost opportunities, which depresses both the quality and the longevity of their lives. These burdens are disproportionately borne by racial and ethnic minorities, lower-income persons and other disadvantaged persons.

“For many individuals, being uninsured is not a choice but rather is a consequence that is imposed on them due to circumstances largely beyond their control.”

California Initiative Would Reform Three Strikes Law

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By Charlene Muhammad, National Correspondent
Special to the NNPA from the Final Call –

LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) – Loved ones of inmates serving life sentences are gathering petition signatures for an initiative they believe will finally reform California’s draconian Three Strikes law, which means a life sentence once someone is convicted of three felony crimes.

Voters passed Three Strikes in 1994, aiming to imprison very violent felons like murderers, rapists and child molesters for life. Today, more than 4,000 people are incarcerated under Three Strikes, and more than half of them have committed non-violent, non-serious crimes, according to the Stanford Three Strikes Project.

Stanford Law School professors drafted the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 to amend the law and require a third strike be a violent, serious crime in order to garner a sentence of 25 years to life. Currently, anyone convicted of any felony, even minor nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting or drug possession, can be sentenced to life if they have two prior felony convictions.

“The majority of our loved ones will likely be able to come out and it will also ensure in the future that nobody will get a life sentence for a minor offense,” said Geri Silva, executive director of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes Law. She is collecting signatures to get the initiative on the ballot later this year. She feels the change is a good step forward but warns there’s work to be done.

Supporters need 500,000 signatures by April to put the measure before voters in November. Passage would mean new convictions would receive double the ordinary sentence instead of a life sentence. It wouldn’t mean automatic release from prison, rather inmates serving life sentences for minor crimes would apply for re-sentencing under a judge’s review.

However, anyone ever convicted of an extremely violent crime, such as rape, murder, or child molestation, would receive life sentences, no matter how minor their third strike crime, explained Dan Newman of the Stanford Three Strikes Project.

Dorothy Erskine, a member of Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes Law, is thankful that the Stanford Three Strikes Project has taken the issue on. She is a little disappointed that the measure excludes unoccupied house burglary from its list of non-violent crimes.

Her nephew, Brian Smith, has been in prison since 1994, serving a life sentence for aiding and abetting shoplifting.

“He may or may not have been guilty of aiding and abetting but I just feel like the time should fit the crime,” she said.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 54 percent of Three Strikes inmates were sentenced to life for non-violent crimes and Blacks represent 45 percent of Three Strikes inmates.

Opponents of Three Strikes sought reform through Proposition 66 in 2004. It would have amended the law to apply only to violent felonies and permit re-sentencing. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, California’s non-partisan fiscal and policy advisor, voters overwhelmingly supported the proposition, which would have saved several hundred million dollars annually, primarily in the prison system.

A poll placed Proposition 66 ahead by 68 percent a month before November 2004 elections. In a last-ditch campaign blitz, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger invoked voters’ fears through TV ads claiming 26,000 hardened criminals, like murderers and rapists, would be freed from prison, if the referendum passed.

Proposition 66 was defeated. The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 is another opportunity to turn things around through the political system, Ms. Erskine said warily. During the fight for Proposition 66, many state representatives felt the law was unjust but also felt it was political suicide to try to change it, she said.

Three Strikes’ opponents are prepared for the uphill battle, Ms. Erskine said.

“Even with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m sure that people realized many, many, many years before how unjust it was because of your color, you’ve got to sit at the back of the bus but look how long it took to really materialize,” Ms. Erskine said.

According to The Field Poll, an independent, non-partisan survey by Field Research Corporation, 74 percent of likely voters support reforming the Three Strikes law in light of California’s prison overcrowding crisis.

“I think the people of California can see through what is happening and realize that the prisons are overcrowded to begin with. They’re spending $50,000 per person a year to keep people incarcerated and as they grow older, that amount escalates to sometimes at least $80,000. Something needs to be done,” Ms. Erskine said.

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BVN National News Wire