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Texas Minority Voting Power Threatened

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By Aswad Walker, Special to the NNPA from the Houston Defender –

The case of Texas redistricting took another dramatic turn recently as the U.S. Supreme Court granted state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s request to temporarily block interim redistricting maps.

Some view the fallout from the decision merely as an inconvenience to Texas voters and aspiring candidates. Others, however, view the stay as a direct attempt to weaken Black and Latino voting power by dismantling critical provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court’s emergency stay means candidates now have until Dec. 19 to file for office. The stay could delay legislative and congressional primaries currently scheduled for March 6 until May. The groups involved in the redistricting battle are scheduled to make oral arguments before the court on Jan. 9.

The interim maps in question were drawn by a San Antonio court’s three-judge panel after complaints were raised that the redistricting maps produced during the last Texas Legislative session bolstered the political power of Tea Party and Republican lawmakers while seriously damaging the voting power of minorities.

Abbott contended that the lower court’s interim maps undermined the “will of the people” and asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

The Supreme Court decision further complicated the redistricting issue. Prior to the high court’s ruling, five Black Texas legislators publicly expressed concern that the lower court-produced maps negatively impacted voting power in historically Black districts.

“From the perspective of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus we support the interim plans for the Congressional seats and the State Senate maps,” said Houston State Rep. Sylvester Turner, one of the five initially voicing reservations.

He was joined by Houston lawmakers Alma Allen, Harold Dutton, Borris Miles and Senfronia Thompson.

“We voiced our concerns but we never asked for a stay,” Turner said. “We would have preferred the Supreme Court to stay out of this matter entirely, because you never know what’s going on in the minds of Supreme Court justices.

“I hope they don’t do anything to weaken or eliminate the Voting Rights Acts, specifically Sections 2 and 5.”

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act contains a general prohibition on voting discrimination. Section 5 deals with the process of “preclearance.”

“Preclearance is what protects Black and Latino districts around the country,” said Coleman. “Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wants to get rid of preclearance.

“Preclearance means when a map is drawn the U.S. Justice Department has to give its opinion on whether or not it harms minorities and their voting power. Because you have to wait for preclearance before you can have an election, if you remove preclearance, elections can be run on new maps even if they take away voting power from Blacks and Latinos,” Coleman explained.

“This stay is the worst thing that could have ever happened because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is now in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, where there is no appeal of the rulings of the highest court in the land,” said Coleman.

Coleman says he cannot predict how the current saga will play out, but believes there is ill intent behind Abbott’s actions.

“The goal of conservatives is to get rid of the entire Voting Rights Act; that’s been their stated goal for the last five to 10 years,” Coleman said. “But they can’t get rid of it in Congress, so they go to the courts where they have the ability to win a case because the courts have conservative judges who agree with their point of view.

“A removal of preclearance doesn’t just affect Texas, but every state. What the Supreme Court tells Texas to do becomes the law of the land. This stay is the most dangerous thing that ever happened with regard to the Voting Rights Act,” added Coleman.

The San Antonio court’s interim maps were produced to allow Texas elections to take place as originally scheduled while lawmakers worked to achieve a final redistricting map resolution.

“I can’t say right now whether the Supreme Court’s stay is good, bad or indifferent,” said Thompson. “Everything’s up in the air right now. People don’t know when the elections are; they don’t even know what the districts are.”

FAMU Students Confront Florida Gov. Rick Scott at Governor's Mansion

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Special to the NNPA from the Florida Courier –

A crowd estimated at approximately 2,000 people, mostly students of Florida A&M University, Florida's largest historically Black university, staged a nonviolent, spontaneous nighttime protest march on the home of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, demanding that he rescind his decision requesting that FAMU's Board of Trustees immediately suspend FAMU president Dr. James Ammons.

The FAMU board scheduled a meeting for Monday, following a request by Scott that the school suspend Ammons amid an investigation into alleged hazing and questions about the finances of the school's band.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced Wednesday that its investigation into the death of Robert Champion, a 26-year-old band leader who died after what police say appears to have been a hazing, was widening to include the finances of the school's famous "Marching 100" band. Champion died after the annual Florida Classic football game between FAMU and Bethune Cookman on Nov. 19.

"I called President Ammons and I suggested that at this time, that he step aside during the investigation, make sure that everybody is comfortable that the right things are happening there, that there's complete cooperation," Scott told reporters Thursday evening. "I hope the president wasn't involved in anything, but I think it's the right thing at this time."

The governor also confirmed that he spoke with FAMU Board Chairman Solomon Badger to request the board suspend Ammons. Until Thursday, Scott had largely refrained from passing any judgment on Ammons, saying his fate should be decided after FDLE concluded its investigation.

Scott's change of mind upset thousands of FAMU students. Even though thousands of students had already left Tallahassee for Christmas break, thousands still remain who are taking finals, are set to attend Friday's fall commencement ceremony, or both. Many of them converged on the governor's mansion late Thursday night.

Scott, accompanied by former FAMU Board Member Rev. R.B. Holmes and former state Sen. Al Lawson, among others, spoke directly to the students from the front yard of the governor's mansion which was ringed by uniformed police and, according to one student who relayed the event via Twitter, the Tallahassee Police Department's SWAT team.

Scott waded into the middle of the crowd and began answering questions about the decision to suspend Ammons (the decision stands) whether FAMU would be merged with Florida State University ("I've heard nothing about that," Scott replied) and increasing educational funding (Scott's focus is on jobs).

A Florida Courier reporter who heard live cell phone audio reports that the crowd was generally inpatient with Scott's answers. For example, when a student asked Scott a question about educational funding, Scott began responding with, “I come from public housing,” to which one student responded, "Not all of us are poor!” The crowd did not give Scott a chance to finish his response to the question.

At the end of his five to seven-minute appearance, Scott retreated back to the governor's mansion as one student yelled, “We will stay here until you change your mind!” As of this writing, students are reportedly still assembled on the front yard of the governor's mansion, and are prepared for an overnight stay.

The Florida Courier will update the story as events occur.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

HBCU 'Equality' Lawsuit

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The Battle to Correct the Inequities Against Maryland’s Black Colleges

By Todd Beamon, Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper –

The road has been an arduous one, but a lawsuit filed more than five years ago seeking $2.1 billion to remedy what it contends are disparities between Maryland’s historically Black colleges and universities and its traditionally White institutions is nearing trial in Baltimore.

Its outcome could affect higher education for decades to come.

“The best thing is that we are cleared for trial,” John C. Brittain, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, said Tuesday after a pre-trial hearing in United States District Court in Baltimore. The lawsuit, for which Brittan serves as co-counsel, asserts that inequities between Maryland’s Black colleges and its White institutions have long existed. “All the preliminary issues have been settled. We are cleared for trial.”

The lawsuit, filed in October 2006 by a group of students and alumni of historically Black colleges known as the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education Inc., contends that Maryland has operated a higher education system of “de jure segregation” – racial segregation imposed by law – in violation of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and of Title VI of the U. S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The disparities in operational funding and programs asserted in the lawsuit have been most apparent over the years to many students at historically Black colleges and universities.

For instance, Eugene Smith recalls the day he first spotted mold on the ceiling of the Jenkins Behavioral Science Building at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“There was a lot of mold and residue build-up,” said Smith, 23, who graduated last year and is now pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration, also at Morgan. “There were cracks in the ceiling – and when it rained, there was mildew, and it grew over time.”

Meanwhile, Zenia Wilson, a Morgan graduate two years earlier who now is studying civil rights and public-interest law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, had to pay out of pocket to spend a summer studying in Mexico.

“I became very intrigued with the idea of studying abroad and didn't understand why there wasn't a program at Morgan that helped students with this endeavor,” said Wilson, also 23. “Friends at traditionally White institutions had centers and programs that encouraged study abroad, but we didn't. I was not able to receive classroom credits for the summer that I spent in Mexico.”

And, nearly a dozen years after graduating from Coppin State University, Keith Reed, now a Senior Editor at ESPN The Magazine, still remembers when the computers broke down while trying to put out the student newspaper. He had to use Morgan’s operations to get the job done.

“What I did was get on the bus and rode over to the East Side – and got off the bus and went over to Morgan and used their facility to put out our proofs for the student newspaper,” said Reed, now 34, who edited The Courier his senior year. “Our computers would regularly break down. It was very difficult.”

“The equipment was outdated,” Reed said. “We were working on PCs instead of Macs like we should’ve been. The computers rarely worked.”

During his years at Morgan, Smith found the conditions so deplorable that he became involved in the school’s Student Government Association, ultimately running for president his senior year on a platform that included seeking improved resources for the university.

Smith was elected. “Someone had to fight for the rights of the university,” he said.

As SGA president, Smith went to Annapolis four times to help university officials lobby for more state funding. “This wasn’t right and it needed to change,” he said.

And while supporters were met with enthusiasm from legislators, oftentimes, they left frustrated and disillusioned. “The actions behind them weren’t what they seemed,” Smith said.

The lawsuit brought by the coalition seeks the estimated $2.1 billion to make Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – which also include Bowie State University and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore – “comparable and competitive” with the state’s traditionally White institutions (TWIs).

Among them are the University of Maryland-College Park, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Salisbury University and Towson University.

The leading state entity in the case is the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), established in 1988 to oversee the state’s higher education system. For its part, Maryland has admitted that it has operated a de jure segregation system, but that it ended with the 1954 Brown decision – and that no such policies or practices exist today.

The state further contends that Maryland’s colleges and universities are open to students of all races, noting that in 2009, 59 percent of Black students within Maryland’s public university system attended White institutions.

“Maryland has achieved a system in which all students have a choice as to where to attend college,” state officials say in court documents – though the coalition argues that student “choice” has been influenced by such issues as quality of campus facilities, programs and staff.

“This is the kind of case you want to go to trial with,” said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington-based support organization for HBCUs. NAFEO has been involved in nearly every higher education desegregation case since its founding in 1969, she said.

“You have strong witnesses, strong facts, clear records of discrimination and the pattern of inequality and inequitable funding – and you have clear examples of the de jure system of segregation,” Baskerville said. “It’s a winnable case.”

Earl S. Richardson, who served as Morgan’s president from 1985 until last year, said, “We are asking for parity.” He now is Distinguished Professor of Education and Research Associate at the Robert M. Bell Center for Civil Rights in Education at the university. “That’s what this is all about.”

“I call it ‘the great hoax,’” Richardson added. “People believe we’ve dismantled the system, but it’s very much in place. It just has a different form.”

The enormity of the case is staggering: More than 1,000 exhibits and as many as 82 witnesses are expected to be presented during the trial – beginning Jan. 3 and scheduled for six weeks – before federal Judge Catherine C. Blake.

During the pre-trial hearing on Tuesday, Judge Blake denied a state motion to exclude reports from as early as 1937 showing that the state had operated a segregated university system. She further ruled against state objections to having the current president of Morgan State, David Wilson, and Eastern Shore’s interim president, Mortimer H. Neufville, testify at trial.

“It’s important that the judge hears what they have to say,” Michael D. Jones, chief counsel for the coalition, said after Tuesday’s hearing. He is a partner in the Washington law firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP. The firm is handling the case pro bono.

In addition to Brittain of UDC, others representing the coalition are Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Aderson B. Francois of the Civil Rights Clinic of the Howard University School of Law.

MHEC is being represented by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

The ramifications of the case are even more significant, as its outcome is being watched throughout the nation, particularly by those leading the 105 HBCUs in 25 states.

“The plaintiffs are just fed up – and they’ve gone to court,” said John W. Garland, president of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. “The case provides leadership in how Maryland’s plaintiffs have organized the case, and it‘s significant because it will show how the courts handle this litigation.”

Mary Evans Sias, president of Kentucky State University in Frankfort, said that while many HBCUs were parties to negotiated federal desegregation agreements over the years, not all have fared well in them.

“Many of us were not given appropriate resources,” Sias said. “We were locked out of getting more of the resources we needed, and the Maryland lawsuit brings these issues back to the forefront.”

“It’s like being left out in quicksand,” she added. “You’re not drowning, but you can’t pull yourself out. Nobody’s trying to help pull you out. You’re just left there.”

“While money doesn’t solve everything, it helps,” Sias said. “It does – and it still does.”

According to the lawsuit, the coalition contends that Maryland has failed to eliminate its vestiges of segregation in funding for operations and program duplication. It also alleges that, even as Maryland negotiated with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education to dismantle its segregated system, MHEC and other state education officials instituted policies and programs that further separated its Black and White schools.

With duplication, the coalition’s most prominent example is MHEC’s 2005 approval of a joint Master’s of Business Administration (MBA) Program at Towson and the University of Baltimore (UB) that replicated similar programs at Bowie State University and, primarily, at Morgan State, whose MBA program began in 1969.

“We opposed it vehemently, vigorously,” Richardson said in an interview.

In 2004, Maryland Secretary of Higher Education Calvin W. Burnett rejected a proposal for the Towson-UB program, saying it would unnecessarily duplicate those at Bowie and Morgan. Towson also had not provided “a compelling sound educational justification” for the program, according to Burnett. Burnett, however, shortly thereafter reversed his initial decision and approved the proposal.

After deliberating Burnett’s subsequent approval, MHEC in 2005 approved the program – which took effect the following year.

When coupled with prior duplications of Morgan’s MBA program – some of which occurred at TWIs as early as 1975, “the impact [of the Towson-UB program] on Morgan was dramatic,” Richardson said.

UB established its MBA program in 1971 when it was a private institution. Baltimore entered the University of Maryland system with the program in 1976. In 1999, the University of Maryland-University College and the Johns Hopkins University – a private institution, nonetheless – started programs. And Loyola University, a Jesuit institution, stepped up efforts to increase enrollment in the MBA program it created in 1967.

As for Morgan, it had 263 students in its MBA program in the fall of 1975 – 176 Black students, 54 White students and 33 foreign students, according to state enrollment figures. By the fall of 2004, Morgan’s program had 28 students, with 20 being African American and the remainder foreign students.

For the first time, Morgan had no White students in its MBA program. It had become, in effect, segregated.

That segregation, the coalition contends, resulted from MBA programs and related track courses becoming available at the TWIs. Morgan lost White students to those programs quickly – and Black students soon followed because the TWIs were better financed and had better facilities, stronger teachers and higher-quality programs.

“That’s what duplication did for us,” Richardson said. “It destroyed Morgan’s MBA program.” In court documents, Maryland contends the Towson-UB program was approved because it did not cause “unreasonable program duplication,” which would “cause demonstrable harm” to a program at any nearby institution. This standard, the state says, is “more broadly protective” of all the state’s schools.

Moreover, Maryland contends that MHEC’s approval process allows institutions to object to proposed programs at other universities and notes that the Towson-UB program is the only one the agency has approved over the objections of an HBCU since 2000.

In terms of operational funding, the coalition says HBCUs need more aid because they educate many students who require more financial aid and are in greater need of academic remediation and development. This is the “dual mission” of Maryland’s historically Black institutions, the coalition says.

HBCUs, therefore, must expend additional resources to educate such students. One state-sponsored study the coalition cites estimates that this “extra mission-related cost [has] amounted to $1,400 per student” – or as much as $644 million – since 1990.

“This is really the unfinished business of desegregation,” Richardson said. “The unfinished business of dismantling the dual system of higher education in Maryland.”

EPA Administrator: Aimed at Cleaning up Toxic Pollutants in Black Communities

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Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper –

Lisa Jackson, the nation’s first Black EPA administrator, has been traveling around America calling attention to the dirtiest part of her job: cleaning up toxic pollutants in Black communities across the country.

Jackson, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, is aggressively leading a government effort to rid thousands of abandoned properties of lethal contaminants that have been dumped in Black and minority neighborhoods over the years.

"We're working to lay the groundwork for new policies and new initiatives that will make environmental justice part of everyday environmental action in this nation," Jackson said.

As the administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson has made promoting environmental justice and expanding the conversation on environmentalism one of the seven key priorities of her tenure at EPA.

So why is Jackson’s environmental crusade important? Because in Black communities across the country, children are breathing toxic fumes from deserted gas stations and old industrial sites that could lead to asthma and other serious respiratory diseases. Jackson also wants to provide black communities with more green space and public parks so black children will have a brighter -- and safer -- outlook on life.

The EPA announced that it has already awarded $80 million to communities in 40 states that will be used for cleanup and redevelopment of toxic properties that include abandoned gas stations, old textile mills, closed smelters, former dry cleaners, factories, warehouses, parking lots, former railroad switching yards, air strips, and bus facilities.

The EPA program is encouraging redevelopment of America’s estimated 450,000 abandoned and contaminated waste sites. These initiatives and jobs are designed for under-served Black and minority neighborhoods – places where environmental cleanups and new jobs are most needed. Jackson wants to make sure Black families are breathing clean air and drinking clean water.

The EPA’s efforts are making a difference.

In West Oakland, California, for example, city workers discovered that an abandoned one-acre scrap yard contained high concentrations of lead in the soil. Using $500,000 in EPA funds, the City of Oakland cleaned up the space and re-opened “Willow Park” in 2007 which featured a circus, face painting, basketball, and refreshments.

Today, the formerly abandoned park has been transformed into green space with game tables, a plaza for community gatherings and live performances, a basketball court, a picnic area with barbeque pits, open space, a children’s play area, landscaping, and a walking/jogging path -- a place that serves a predominantly black community.

A healthy environment, Jackson said, can improve the quality of life for Black families today – and for generations to come.

Nobel Peace Prize Winners Take Their Bows in Oslo

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

(GIN) – Three female activists – two from Liberia and one from Yemen – accepted the prestigious Nobel Prize for Peace at a special Nobel ceremony Saturday in Oslo, Norway’s capital city.

The first to accept the peace prize was Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf -- the first woman to be freely elected as a head of state in Africa and widely acknowledged for her work rebuilding her country.

Sirleaf paid tribute to all the Nobel Peace winners from Africa and those of African descent.

"I am particularly honored to be a successor to the several sons and one daughter of Africa who have stood on this stage -- Chief Albert John Lutuli, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk, Kofi Annan, Anwar Sadat, Wangari Maathai, Mohammed El Baradei as well as Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche -- Americans of African descent," Sirleaf said.

Fellow-Liberian Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious divides to help end the war in Liberia in 2003, dedicated her prize to the women in her country.

Her advice to women: "Don't wait for a Gandhi, don't wait for a King, and don’t wait for a Mandela. You are your own Mandela, you are your own Gandhi, and you are your own King." And finally “Liberian women, thank you for making our country proud. Thank you for sitting in the rain and in the sun. .. The world used to remember Liberia for child soldiers, but they now they remember our country for the white T-shirt women," Gbowee said to a standing ovation.

The third woman, Tawakul Karman, an Islamist journalist who has been a key figure in protests in Yemen, said she accepted the prize on behalf of Arab youth leading uprisings in their countries.

The laureates, receiving the prize on the 115th anniversary of the death of benefactor Alfred Nobel, will share a total award worth $1.5 million.

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