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President Obama Presents Nation's Highest Civilian Honor to Three Blacks

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By Dorinda White, NNPA Contributor –

(NNPA) Washington, D.C.-President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to a diverse group of recipients, including three African Americans prominently known for their civil rights activism. The president and First Lady Michelle Obama honored the winners at a White House ceremony this week.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is presented to individuals recognized for "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

Among the 15 recipients of the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom were Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, celebrated author and poet, Dr. Maya Angelou and former basketball great Bill Russell. These well-known African Americans received their medals along with former President George H.W. Bush, businessman Warren Buffett, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, amongst others. It was especially befitting that the African American Medal of Freedom recipients were honored for their achievements during Black History Month.

One of the African American awardees, Civil Rights hero Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helped to organize the first lunch counter sit-in in 1959 at the age of 19, and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. "John Lewis is not only an American hero and a giant of the Civil Rights Movement but time and time again, John Lewis has faced down death and today is the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” said President Obama. “He is an American who knew that change could not wait for another place or time. Since 1987, John Lewis has continued his service to the nation as the U.S. Representative for Georgia's 5th District, which encompasses all of Atlanta. From his activism in the civil rights movement to serving 25 years in U.S. House of Representatives, he rose with fortitude and purpose to organize during the civil rights movement.” Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his pursuit of equality and justice for all.

Basketball great Bill Russell was voted the National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player five times. He was the first African-American coach in national sports. He is known to be a staunch advocate for civil rights. "When Bill Russell was in junior high school he got cut from his basketball team. He learned from that. He was the first African American to coach a major league sports team of any sort,” said Obama. “More than any athlete of his time, he is defined as a winner. When asked if he was a basketball player, he'd reply, "That's what I do, not who I am. I am a man who plays basketball." He endured insults and vandalism as a professional Black basketball player and coach. However, through it all he focused on making his teammates better players.” Bill Russell marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and has been a consistent advocate of equality. Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his efforts which helped to change the culture of a sport and the course of a nation.

Dr. Angelou’s words and actions continue to stir our souls, energize our bodies, liberate our minds, and heal our hearts. Angelou, a prominent and celebrated author, poet, educator, producer, actress, filmmaker, and civil rights activist, is currently the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Dr. Angelou served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008.

“Dr. Maya Angelou, out of youth marked by pain and injustice, rose to fight for civil rights. Through soaring poetry and prose she has spoken to the conscience of our nation," said President Obama. The President bent down to kiss Dr. Angelou on the cheek after putting the Medal of Freedom around her neck. During the President's speech, he said Dr. Angelou had such an impression on his mother, she named her daughter Maya. Dr. Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her poetry and activism.

The complete list of the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom award recipients is as follows: former President George H. W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Congressman John Lewis, Natural Resources Defense Council co-founder John Adams, poet and activist Maya Angelou (Winston-Salem NC native), Industrialist and Philanthropist Warren Buffet, Artist Jasper Johns, Civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, VSA founder and former Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, Holocaust survivor and activist Gerda Weissmann Klein, Dr. Tom Little (posthumous) who was killed in Afghanistan, Musician/cellist Yo-Yo Ma, former Boston Celtic basketball player Bill Russell, Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial, and former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.


NAACP Legal Defense Fund Joins Abu-Jamal Defense Team

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American Newspapers –

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund has joined Mumia Abu-Jamal’s defense team to represent him in his ongoing appeal of his capital murder conviction.

“Mumia Abu-Jamal’s conviction and death sentence are relics of a time and place that was notorious for police abuse and racial discrimination,” said John Payton, director-counsel of the LDF in a statement. “Unless and until courts acknowledge and correct these historic injustices, death sentences like Mr. Abu-Jamal’s will invite continued skepticism of the criminal justice system by the African American community.”

Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1981 for the killing of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. He was sentenced to death. He and his defense team have been fighting to initially, get him off of death row, but now to get him out of prison.

His sentence was vacated in 2001 when a federal court found error in the jury instructions and verdict form used in his initial trial.

In 2008, a formal petition from Abu-Jamal seeking reconsideration of the conviction was denied by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, while the United States Supreme Court also denied his appeal.

However, on Jan. 19, 2010, the Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to reconsider its decision.

LDF will serve as co-counsel with Judy Ritter of Widener Law School.

South Carolina Historic Treasure to Receive Rehabilitation

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Special to the NNPA from the South Carolina Black News –

Columbia, SC – One of the Columbia, South Carolina’s significant historical treasures will receive much-needed rehabilitation this spring. Historic Columbia Foundation recently received a $150,000 matching grant for the dependency building of the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House, located at 2025 Marion Street. This exciting project will be funded through a Save America’s Treasures grant, administered through the National Park Service, as well as support from the City of Columbia and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of South Carolina.

Owned by the City of Columbia and managed by Historic Columbia Foundation, the Modjeska Monteith Simkins House and Dependency are significant for their association with the life and work of Modjeska Monteith Simkins (1899-1992), a leader in African-American public health reform, the Civil Rights movement, and subsequent social justice movements in South Carolina. Throughout her career as a social reformer and civil rights activist, Simkins used the main house and dependency as a residence, lodging for guests, an office and a meeting space. Local and national civil rights leaders met in the house, prepared lawsuits and stayed in the dependency building while working in Columbia.

The dependency’s rehabilitation will be comprehensive with work being performed on exterior and interior carpentry, electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems. While adapting the building for use as a work/live space for a scholar-in-residence, Historic Columbia Foundation will ensure that the property’s historic integrity is maintained by adhering to the Department of the Interior’s standards for historic structures.

Republican Led House Blocks D.C. Delegate from Testifying

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By Richette L. Haywood, NNPA Contributor –

(NNPA) WASHINGTON, DC – Congressional Black Caucus Chair, Emanuel Cleaver, II, (D-MO), was outraged over the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives refusal to hear testimony from Washington, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton on spending local taxpayer-raised funds to provide abortions for low-income residents.

“I am extremely concerned that Congresswoman Norton was shut out of a very important hearing that affects the community in which she represents. Not only is it unfair, it’s disrespectful and I plan on speaking with Chairman Franks about this matter,” said Cleaver.

Congresswoman Norton also released a statement strongly objecting to being denied the opportunity to testify during the House Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing on a Bill targeting Washington, D.C. Norton was denied the opportunity to testify by Chairman Trent Franks (R-AZ), although Ranking Democratic Member Jerrold Nadler, of New York, submitted Norton’s request to give testimony in advance, and although members of Congress are routinely given the courtesy to testify at any hearing of their choosing.

“Not only do Republicans seek to trample on D.C.’s rights as a self-governing jurisdiction, they apparently seek to trample on my right as a Member of Congress to participate in the legislative process by giving testimony on a bill that directly affects the District,” Norton said. “We will not give up on our efforts to use every legitimate means to stop all anti-home rule attempts to roll back the progress the District has made over the past four years, including today’s attempt to prevent D.C. from funding abortions for low-income residents.”

A 20-year veteran of the legislative body, Norton said, she has never seen a Member of Congress turned away from testifying, particularly when the bill under consideration directly impacts the representative’s district.

“I strongly oppose the harsh anti-choice H.R. 3, the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, in its entirety, but I am specifically compelled to discuss an unprecedented provision of the bill, Section 310, “Application to District of Columbia,” said Norton, in a prepared statement. “This provision is entirely unrelated to the purposes of the bill, which seeks not only to write the Hyde amendment into federal law and extend it permanently, but to go much further, threatening the health of millions of women.”

Last month, one of the first acts of the Republican-controlled House was to strip the floor voting rights of six delegates representing areas such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa. Five of those delegates are Democrats, while one, from the Northern Marianas Islands, is an independent.

The Republican-led decision to rescind the delegates’ ability to vote on amendments on the House floor was no surprise considering Democrats extended the voting rights in 1993 when they controlled the House, Republicans took it away when they regained control of the House in 1995 and Democrats restored it in 2007.

When stripped of the voting rights, Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen, told the Associated Press, "This is a very undemocratic way to start the 112th Congress.” In January, Norton’s offer to establish a special committee to study the delegate voting rights issue was defeated along party lines.

Last week, after being denied the opportunity to testify before the committee, Norton said, “The District of Columbia is not a colony of the Congress. We refuse to submit the funds we alone raise and decisions about how to spend our own local funds to Members of the House. We will not let the Majority get away with supporting democracy everywhere on earth except its own nation’s capital. The House [Republican] Majority goes many steps too far when they introduce a bill with such potential harm to all women and then try to make it worse for the women of the District of Columbia by taking down part of the local government’s authority in the process with such potential harm to all women and then try to make it worse for the women of the District of Columbia by taking down part of the local government’s authority in the process. The new House [Republican] majority says it supports limiting the federal government’s power and devolving that power to the states and localities. This bill does the opposite by using federal power to snatch local authority from the District of Columbia and its people. The time has come to practice what the House Majority preaches.”

Investigating Houston Police Department Police Brutality

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By ReShonda Tate Billingsley, Special to the NNPA from the Houston Defender –

The investigation into alleged police brutality by the Houston Police Department is heating up as community and political leaders call for swift justice, and one congressional leader is going so far as seeking federal intervention. The issue has even garnered the attention of national civil rights leaders.

The Houston Chapter of the NAACP is among those civic and community leaders asking for stiffer penalties for the accused officers, more transparency in the justice system, and a civilian review board to investigate claims of police brutality.

“There is a problem with police brutality and use of excessive force that will no longer be tolerated,” said Rev. D.Z. Cofield, president of the Houston chapter of the NAACP.

Cofield hosted a townhall meeting at his church, Good Hope Baptist, where hundreds of people attended to protest against the videotaped beating of 16-year-old burglary suspect Chad Holley.

Caught on Tape

Authorities said police suspected several young men of breaking and entering, and then fleeing the scene in a pickup truck. After a short chase, police caught Holley, then an Elsik High School sophomore, near a self-storage facility on Cook Road and allegedly handcuffed him on the ground and began hitting and kicking him.

The controversial tape shows several Houston Police Department officers punching and kicking Holley, who was later convicted. The video showed one officer delivering at least seven kicks to Holley while another officer punched Holley five times. Holley is not seen on tape struggling with the officers or resisting arrest.

Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represents one of four officers indicted, said the release of the tape has him considering whether to request a change of venue for the trial. Seven police officers were terminated in connection with the incident. Four officers were also charged in connection with the incident

Former officers Andrew T. Blomberg and Drew Ryser were indicted on official oppression. Former officer Phillip Bryan and Raad M. Hassan were indicted on official oppression and violation of the civil rights of a prisoner.

For months, rumors swirled as to exactly what was on that video, which had been recorded on a surveillance camera at a nearby storage facility. An employee of that facility, Cindy Paxton, gave the video to activist Quanell X. Paxton was later fired.

“You had a right to see that tape,” Quanell X said. Quanell X decided to release the tape after he obtained a copy as part of a defamation lawsuit filed against him by one of the officers.

Initially, Mayor Parker didn’t want the tape released. She, District Attorney Pat Lykos, and Police Chief Charles McClelland said they wanted to keep the tape from airing before the trials of the charged officers to ensure fair trails. A federal judge also banned the tape from being released to the public.

Mayor Parker has since apologized for her initial reaction. “There is no explanation for what in fact, is criminal behavior,” she said.

A community enraged

Since the release of the tape, community leaders have taken their complaints about police brutality to Houston City Hall.

“After the event, not one single officer filed a report of excessive force upon any other officer,” said Randal Kallinen with the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice.

Many of those protesting want the officers involved to face charges of aggravated assault instead of the official oppression charge some have received.

Seeking Justice

The issue is garnering national attention, with both Rev. Al Sharpton, of the National Action Network, and Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, pledging their support. Locally, political leaders say it is an issue they will definitely address.

U.S. Rep. Al Green has already requested that the U.S. Department of Justice review the incident to ensure fairness and transparency.

“We are shocked and we are dismayed,” Green said. “We are outraged at what occurred. That video speaks for itself, and because it speaks for itself, we want the Justice Department to review it and make a determination as to whether or not charges should be brought. There may be civil rights violations.

Parker said, while she apologized for trying to keep the video from being made public, she does think the city is properly investigating.

“The city acted swiftly and appropriately throughout. We notified the appropriate investigative agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nine months ago. The FBI is the entity responsible for gathering information related to possible civil rights violations and forwarding that information to the U.S. Department of Justice.”

The FBI is monitoring the state prosecution of the case, but said if they were to launch their own investigation, they wouldn’t do so until the officers were tried in state court. That is standard procedure. District Attorney Lykos says her hands are tied.

“The Police Integrity Division of the Harris County District Attorney's Office conducted an independent and thorough investigation into the allegations. The investigation included trips to the crime scene, interviews with witnesses (including Chad Holley, his mother and another relative), and careful examination and reviews of surveillance videos and medical records. As part of the investigation, medical records were subpoenaed and obtained from West Houston Medical Center, the Juvenile Justice Center and Ben Taub Hospital,” she said in a statement.

Lykos stated that the investigators and prosecutors conducted a meticulous investigation, including a frame-by-frame analysis of the surveillance video. That evidence was presented to a Harris County Grand Jury to determine which charges, if any, should be filed against the officers. Grand jury proceedings are secret by their very nature, and the law does not allow public discussion of them. However, in order to indict the officers for a felony offense, there would have to be a finding that a deadly weapon was used in the commission of the offense, or that the assault caused serious bodily injury.

It’s that discrepancy that Rep. Reynolds hopes to change. “I strongly believe that the actions of the police officers should be subjected to a review that is equal to what would be expected of every citizen within the state of Texas. I truly believe that this has brought attention to a legislative loop hole that I am committed to change,” said State Rep. Ron Reynolds. “That discrepancy holds our police officers to a lesser standard when it pertains to police brutality. It is a standard that allows police officers to use excessive force and only face misdemeanor charges, but if a civilian strikes an officer it is a felony. The District Attorney's Office has brought (via indictment) misdemeanor charges against four of the officers shown in the video. The explanation for this is that in order for felony assault charges to be filed, a deadly weapon must be used during the assault and/or the victim must have suffered serious bodily injury,” he said.

On June 23, 2010, the Grand Jury indicted the four officers for Official Oppression. Two of them were also indicted for Violating the Civil Rights of a Prisoner. On each charge, the officers face up to one year in the Harris County Jail and up to a $4,000 fine. Trial is pending in each case.

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