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NNPA Exclusive: Rev. Bernice King Says Conflict is 'Suffocating' SCLC

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By Hazel Trice Edney, NNPA Editor-in-Chief –

NEW YORK (NNPA) - The Rev. Bernice King, elected nine months ago as the first woman president to serve at the helm of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has yet to be sworn in due to circumstances that she has described as “a sad state of affairs”.

Speaking publicly for the first time about the debilitating strife and conflict that has erupted in the 53-year-old civil rights organization and landed in court, King was pointed and clear. The second daughter and youngest child of Dr. Martin Luther King and Corretta Scott King, she told the attentive audience of more than 200 members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the Black Press of America, that the infighting has been heart-rending.

“Up until now, I have not spoken publicly about the conflict and turmoil currently suffocating, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of such significant historic importance to the Black community, America and global progress. What a timely and wonderful occasion for me to express some of my thoughts and feelings about the great organization my father co-founded. God certainly has a way of orchestrating the proper audience, at the proper time.,” King said June 17, opening a luncheon speech during NNPA’s 70th Anniversary Convention. “As SCLC’s president-elect and daughter of its founder, I am, of course, deeply troubled and saddened by the strife and conflict the organization is experiencing. It is, indeed, a sad state of affairs. I was elected to serve as SCLC’s first female president in October 2009 and as soon as I was elected -- turmoil erupted. Amidst the conflict, chaos and confusion, there are some who declare the Southern Christian Leadership Conference dead; an organization of a bygone era.”

Although the organization is no stranger to conflict, the current fight started last fall over the removal of two former board members, ex-chairman Raleigh Trammell and ex-treasurer Spiver Gordon, after allegations that the two mismanaged SCLC funds. Since then, the crux of the infighting has been over who are the true board members. The two men have refused to step aside despite federal and local investigations. The split has essentially become like two SCLCs.

The feud between two factions came to a head over an alleged break-in at the group’s Atlanta headquarters.

According to reports, the Rev. Markel Hutchins, who claims he was recently named interim president, CEO and CFO of the group, welded shut the back doors of the headquarters and padlocked three gates May 17.

His rivals, including SCLC Chairwoman Sylvia Tucker, contend his claims to the presidency and other positions are bogus and, in a statement, called his actions “criminal and deplorable.” Hutchins said there was no theft, but admits he made the decision to secure the building.

"I am not responsible for the mess the SCLC is in, but I will be responsible for helping to right some of the wrongs and get the organization back on course to fulfill its mission," he was quoted by the Associated Press. The padlocks and chains were removed from the building on May 19.

The factional breech is obviously deep. The battle was scheduled to continue in court on Monday, June 28. In a nutshell the question over who controls the organization was to be decided by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey, who began hearing the case, June 2.

In its long history, the SCLC has been no stranger to controversy. Nearly seven years ago, concluded a convention in Jacksonville, Fla. that was so contentious that police was called to keep the peace. Her brother, Martin Luther King III ended his seven-year tenure of leading the organization in 2004.

King exuded the passion and vision of her father and the poise and resolve of her mother as she expressed both hope and disdain in the midst of the latest crisis.

“Once the court hearing is resolved, it is my hope and prayer that SCLC will see the absolute necessity of immediately turning its attention to rebuilding the entire organization from the inside out; with proper governance, internal controls, fiscal accountability and sound management practices, so that it can effectively be about the business of social progress; predicated upon an unwavering love for God, responsibility to community, and a commitment to advancing human dignity and respect,” she said. “God called me to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and as long as He calls, I will answer. I look forward to beginning my tenure in God’s time so that SCLC can once again forge strategic alliances to continue the movement of nonviolent social change, based on Biblical principles, into the next generation. I ask for your prayers that SCLC will be a phoenix rising out of the ashes. I hope that you will join me in looking past the regrettable conflict, toward a bright and promising future.”

King appealed to NNPA, under the leadership of Los Angeles Sentinel Publisher Danny Bakewell, Sr., NNPA chair, to escalate the historic mission of the Black Press in its quest for justice alongside the SCLC and other civil rights organizations. This level of unity has been in the works as prominent civil rights leaders, Marc Morial of the National Urban League, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action network were all keynote speakers at the convention as part of Bakewell’s vision.

“I believe that the power of the Black Church and Black uplift organizations - partnered with the power of the African-American press - can be a catalyst for the next generation of social change. We have certainly accumulated enough power to enforce change,” King said. “Together we can make events happen. Our ‘nettlesome task’ now is to organize our power, focus our efforts and utilize our collective strength in strategic ways not yet employed in the work of social progress for the Black community. We must now take the major step of “examining the levers of power” which Black America “must grasp to influence the course of events” adversely affecting the progress of our people.”

Without knowing it, she echoed sentiments expressed by Sharpton on the morning of the same day as she focused on the historic and strategic relationship between the Black church and the Black press.

“I surmise that the Black Church and Black Press are two of the most powerful levers to influence social change that we have at our disposal. A recipe for a powerful alliance is the church with its weekly gathering of congregants and the press with its ongoing circulation of news. Just imagine a unified agenda harnessing the power of community; with cohesion in informing and educating the masses. Building bridges between the press and the pulpit is critical to our success. We must exercise our collective power strategically.”

This racial progress that has been forged by this historic partnership is, in part, the reason that the SCLC must remain powerful and thrive, she concludes:

“To suggest that the SCLC is obsolete and a relic of a bygone era is to ignore the great social and economic ills stalling the progress of our nation. At a time when monies are at deficit to save our schools, but at a surplus to grow and build more prisons, now is not the time to pull the plug on SCLC.”

Louisiana's Black Communities Fear Never Recovering From Oil Spill

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By Jordan Flaherty, Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly –

NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) - As BP's deepwater well continues to discharge oil into the Gulf, the economic and public health effects are already being felt across coastal communities. But it's likely this is only the beginning. From the bayous of southern Louisiana to the city of New Orleans, many fear this disaster represents not only environmental devastation, but also cultural extinction for peoples who have made their lives here for generations, especially African-Americans.

This is not the first time that Louisianans have lost their communities or their lives from the actions of corporations. The land loss caused by oil companies has already displaced many who lived by the coast, and the pollution from treatment plants has poisoned communities across the state - especially in "cancer alley," the corridor of industrial facilities along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.

"The cultural losses as a consequence of the BP disaster are going to be astronomical," says Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) co-director Nathalie Walker. "There is no other culture like Louisiana's coastal culture and we can only hope they wont be entirely erased."

Walker and co-director Monique Harden have made it their mission to fight the environmental consequences of Louisiana's corporate polluters. They say this disaster represents an unparalleled catastrophe for the lives of people across the region, but they also see in it a continuation of an old pattern of oil and chemical corporations displacing people of color from their homes. Harden and Walker point out that at least five Louisiana towns - all majority-African-American - have been eradicated due to corporate pollution in recent decades.

The most recent is the Southwest Louisiana town of Mossville, founded by African-Americans in the 1790s. Located near Lake Charles, Mossville is only five square miles and holds 375 households. Beginning in the 1930s, the state of Louisiana began authorizing industrial facilities to manufacture, process, store, and discharge toxic and hazardous substances within Mossville. Fourteen facilities are now located in the small town, and 91 percent of residents have reported at least one health problem related to exposure to chemicals produced by the local industry.

The southern Louisiana towns of Diamond, Morrisonville, Sunrise, and Revilletown - all founded by former enslaved Africans - met similar fates. After years of chemical-related poisoning, the remaining residents have been relocated, and the corporations that drove them out now own their land. In most cases, only a cemetery remains, and former residents must pass through plant security to visit their relatives' graves.

The town of Diamond, founded by the descendents of the participants of the 1811 Rebellion to End Slavery, the largest slave uprising in U.S. history, was relocated by Shell in 2002, after residents had faced decades of toxic exposure. Morrisonville, established by free Africans in 1790, was bought out by Dow in 1989. Residents of Sunrise, inaugurated near Baton Rouge by former enslaved Africans in 1874, were paid to move as the result of a lawsuit against the Placid Refining Company. In the mid-1990s, chemical producer Georgia Gulf Corporation poisoned and then acquired Revilletown, a town free Africans had started in the years after the Civil War.

"We make the mistake of thinking this is something new," says Harden. She adds that the historic treatment of these communities, as well as the lack of recovery that New Orleanians have seen since Katrina, makes her doubt the federal government will do what is necessary for Gulf recovery. "Since Obama got into office," she says, "I have yet to see any action that reverses what Bush did after Katrina."

Harden says Louisiana and the U.S. must fundamentally transform the government's relationships with corporations. "We've got to change the way we allow businesses to be in charge of our health and safety in this country," she adds. As an example, Harden points to more stringent regulations in other countries, such as Norway, which requires companies to drill relief wells at the same time as any deepwater well.

Report: More Blacks Than Whites Dropping out of High School

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By Gregory Dale, Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspapers –

(NNPA) - New data from the U.S. Department of Education reveals that Black students continue to drop out of high school at a much higher rate than Whites and nearly 40 percent fail to earn a high school diploma on time.

According to the report, 234,121 White students in the United States dropped out of high school in 2008, the most recent year for which data was available, comprising 2.8 percent of all White students enrolled in public high schools. That same year, there were 159,407 Black students who dropped out of high school, totaling 6.7 percent of all Black public high school students.

The report also found that, nationwide, just fewer than 75 percent of all students received high school diplomas within four years. That number ranged from 91 percent for Asian and Pacific Islander students and 81 percent for White students, to 63.5 percent for Hispanic students and 61.5 percent for Black students.

“Today’s report confirms that our nation faces a dropout crisis. When 25 percent of our students—and almost 40 percent of our Black and Hispanic students—fail to graduate [from] school on time, we know that too many of our schools are failing to offer their students a world-class education," Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education said in a statement.

American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest dropout rate at 7.3 percent, while Asian and Pacific Islanders had the lowest at 2.4 percent. The dropout rate for Hispanics was 6 percent.

Louisiana had the highest reported dropout rate at nearly 7.5 percent, while Indiana and New Jersey were tied for the lowest at 1.7 percent.

In Maryland, statewide aggregate data for the class of 2006 showed there were 10,000 more first graders than graduating students; 19,000 more 9th graders than graduating seniors and 3,000 more 12th graders than graduating seniors.

The dropout crisis has been an ongoing issue in the United States. A study released by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston and the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago on May 5, 2009 stated that, “America is currently in the throes of a persistent high school dropout crisis that has been a long time in the making, with substantial disparities in dropout rates across race, ethnic and income groups and geographic areas.”

That report found that in 2007, 16 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 24 are high school dropouts, with a wide majority being men and more than 18 percent of them Black.

"I believe that improving our nation’s graduation rate is absolutely essential to the future of our economy and the future of our nation,” Duncan said in a statement. “I look forward to working with educators across America to raise graduation rates and improve the lives of millions of high school students.”

Trillion Dollar Dreams: What Military Spending Could Buy

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By Nisa Islam Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from the Final Call –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - The United States reached the $1 trillion mark in the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time that the country recently surpassed one thousand deaths of American soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

Many believe that with all the money spent, America is not any safer. Some also argue that war is a bad investment. In 2008 the U.S. approved $696.3 billion in defense budget spending. That amount includes funding for the Pentagon base budget, Department of Energy-administered nuclear weapons activities and supplemental appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. spends eight times more than Russia, 15 times more than Japan, 47 times more than Israel, and nearly 73 times more than Iran on national defense.

“When $1 trillion are spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is very telling of our national priorities. Those trillion dollars could pay for a year of health care for 300 million Americans, Pell grants for 188 million students, or 8 million units of affordable housing; the list goes on and on. The trade offs are especially difficult to digest given the current economic recession the country is facing,” said Jo Comerford, executive director of the National Priorities Project.

In California alone, taxpayers will shell out $132.6 billion for total Iraq and Afghanistan war spending since 2001. The state is facing a major decifit, job cuts, education cuts and service cuts.

“The amount of money that we've spent on these wars is tragic. With people losing their jobs and homes, our inability to provide basic health care to everyone, and a struggling economy, it is unfathomable that we have instead spent $1 trillion on these two wars that are not making us any more secure. We need to get our priorities straight,” Robert Greenwald, director of Rethink Afghanistan.

National Priorities has a Facebook.com app that lets users decide how to spend $1 trillion. You could buy Dell, Inc., for $33.7 billion, help fund the Gulf spill clean up with $930 million or buy American Airlines for $25.2 billion.

Ex-Offenders Want Job Applications Revised

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By Ben Koconis, Special to the NNPA from the Washington Informer –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Individuals with criminal records insist they get short shrift when it comes to job opportunities, and now they’re trying to change hiring practices by mounting a campaign to promote new legislation.

A movement -- “Ban the Box”— seeks to pressure politicians and employers to remove criminal history questions from job applications. To date, it has proven effective in several states and appears to be gaining momentum in the District. However, controversy persists on both sides of the hot button issue.

Advocates want a bill that will include both public and private sector employers, but organizations that include the D.C Chamber of Commerce, are uncertain as to whether legislation is the silver bullet that will solve the offender employment issue.

“We have tried to get a bill [that includes both the public and private sectors] passed for four years,” said Philip Fornaci, 51, director of the D.C. Prisoners Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Fornaci said that the D.C version of “Ban the Box” [that he is currently drafting] would initially stop employers from asking about a person’s criminal history until after they have been through the initial interview. If the applicant is qualified and offered a job, an employer could indicate that the position is contingent based on a background check. Employers would then be legally required to inform applicants who were denied employment, in writing, if their decision was based on the applicant’s criminal history.

The bill, if passed, would also mandate that employers consider how long ago an applicant committed an offense, how old they were at the time the offense was committed, and if the offense is in direct conflict with the position. The bill would stop employers from screening applicants based on one question, Fornaci said.

Several advocates of “Ban the Box” have said off the record that both the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Washington Board of Trade are attempting to block passage of the bill.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade refused to comment and referred the matter to the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Janene Jackson, vice president of Government Affairs for the D.C. Chamber of Commerce said, that she could not comment on “Ban the Box” until after the Executive Committee of the Board votes, but added, she does not think the claims of “Ban the Box” advocates are accurate.

“The D.C Chamber of Commerce supports the employment of all D.C residents regardless of their criminal record as long as they are qualified for the position…We know if you have a criminal record that it may be difficult to find a job—we do not dispute that.”

Jackson further said she is not sure that a legislative solution will be beneficial to the offender employment issue.

“We need to figure out what kind of challenges these people face—is it substance abuse, are there child care issues?" Jackson said substance abuse remains a primary concern of the D.C Chamber of Commerce.

“Sixty-seven percent of people who enter the system, with a substance abuse problem, come out with one. Just because someone is away from drugs [in prison] doesn’t mean they won’t go back to it when they get out. Ban the Box is not going to guarantee jobs,” she said.

Leonard A. Sipes, 59, a senior public affairs specialist for the Court Services and Offender Agency for the District of Columbia, which oversees parole and probation said, his agency is legally forbidden to comment on specific legislation that is being introduced, but said that the offender employment issue is “crucial” to his agency’s agenda.

“One in 45 people nationwide are on criminal supervision whether it is Rockville, Md., the District of Columbia, or Manassas, Va. Criminology statistics estimate that 1 out of 20 people have a criminal record. The question we need to ask is, if you are going to see hundreds of people a day with criminal records, do you want those people employed?”

Sipes said, "It is unusual to see a probation and parole agency take on an employment issue, but we feel this is a public safety issue. The evidence is abundantly clear that people who are working commit fewer crimes."

Debra Rowe, 51, acting executive director of Returning Citizens United, Inc., an organization that is pushing for all encompassing “Ban the Box” legislation, and the rights of ex-offenders, has firsthand experience with difficulties obtaining employment. She said that she thinks it’s directly related to a criminal offense she committed 21 years ago.

“I applied for a government job last night [June 7],” said Rowe who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md. “The problem is that they ask you in the first five or six questions if you have a criminal history. Some [applications] ask if you have been convicted of a criminal offense in the last 10 years, some ask have you ever been convicted.”

Rowe, who earned a M.A. in Human Services, from Lincoln University, in Lincoln, Pa., said she is a certified grant management specialist and a certified correctional health care professional. She hasn’t had any brush-ins with the law in more than 20 years, but her record continues to prevent her from being hired for positions that she feels qualified to fill. Rowe said she’s not alone. There are countless others who are qualified for jobs but who are denied based on their criminal records, she said.

But the bottom line remains -- any version of “Ban the Box” legislation must first be presented to the D.C Council. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said that the bill he plans to submit to the Council will only apply to District government positions until it has been determined that “Ban the Box” legislation is beneficial.

“The bill, as it stands now, will cover only D.C government positions. If we feel that this process is working we will add additional legislation [that would cover the private sector] in phases. We feel that this is the best approach to this issue,” Thomas said.

“What you have here, [are] people who are on two extreme ends of the spectrum,” he added, referring to the D.C. Chamber and “Ban the Box” advocates.

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