Thursday, February 28, 2013

The ACLU's Long Battle for Racial Justice

by ACLU-PA Executive Director Reggie Shuford

Last Sunday, I attended a 50th anniversary celebration of the landmark Supreme Court case, Abington v. Schempp, which established that students cannot be required to read the Bible in public schools. Schempp was brought by the Philadelphia Chapter of the ACLU, what would eventually become the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The ACLU is well known for its work to protect First Amendment rights like the religious liberty principles at issue in Schempp. It’s likewise known for protecting the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Last week, for example, the ACLU-PA was in court arguing on behalf of middle school students’ right to wear a bracelet supporting breast cancer awareness, which reads:  “I [Heart] Boobies. Keep A Breast.”

Back in the mid-1990s, when I announced that I had accepted a job with the national ACLU and was moving from North Carolina to New York City, a few good friends jokingly said: “Don't get up there and start defending the Ku Klux Klan!” Their reaction is not unique. People are quite familiar with the ACLU’s history of taking controversial First Amendment cases.

Perhaps less well known is that, since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has been engaged in the fight for civil rights and racial equality. In 1931, it took up the case of the Scottsboro Boys – nine African-American teenagers wrongly accused of raping two white women.  That same year, the ACLU published “Black Justice,” a comprehensive survey outlining institutionalized racism in America. In 1942, Roger Baldwin, a founder of the ACLU, established the national Committee Against Racial Discrimination.

Over the course of the next few decades, the ACLU became involved in some of the most important racial justices cases ever to reach the Supreme Court, including cases that: invalidated white-only primaries (1944); outlawed racially restrictive covenants requiring white homeowners to sell their homes to other whites (1947); established the “one person, one vote” rule (1964); found it unconstitutional to exclude women and African-Americans from juries (1966, 1967); and declared illegal racial segregation in state prisons and jails (1968). The ACLU also was involved in Brown v. Board Education, the 1954 case that famously struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine, and Loving v. Virginia, which ended bans on interracial marriage in 1967.

In 1964, the ACLU established a Southern Regional Office, which launched a number of lawsuits challenging racial discrimination and institutionalized segregation in the South. The Southern Regional Office eventually became the ACLU Voting Rights Project, which played an integral role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since then, the ACLU has been involved in every effort to reauthorize and protect the gains resulting from the Voting Rights Act. Just yesterday, the ACLU and allies from the Legal Defense Fund were back before the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, in an effort to preserve Section 5 of the VRA. Roger Baldwin was right when he said, “No fight for civil liberties ever stays won.” 

In recent years, the ACLU has led the fight against racial profiling, to preserve affirmative action, and to end the school-to-prison pipeline. In Pennsylvania, we recently sued the Pittsburgh Police Department for its racially discriminatory hiring practices.  A few years ago, we sued the Philadelphia Police Department for targeting African-Americans and Latinos with its stop-and-frisk practices and continue to monitor those activities.

A current priority of the ACLU is criminal justice reform. The criminal justice system disproportionately targets and imprisons African-Americans. One in every nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated, and one in three black men will spend some part of his life in prison. Today, there are more African-Americans under correctional control (3.5 million) than were enslaved (3.2 million) in 1850. Mass incarceration, also known as the New Jim Crow, is largely the result of the War on Drugs and the growth of the prison industrial complex. It’s had a devastating impact on the lives of those convicted of crime, their families and communities. 

Last fall, in Adkins et al. v. Morgan Stanley, the ACLU, on behalf of black homeowners, sued Morgan Stanley for its predatory lending practices. While many families lost their homes in the recent foreclosure crisis, black and Latino families were especially hard hit. The case, the first of its kind, has been called perhaps the most important civil rights case in a generation.
Every year, during Black History Month, I am especially proud of the recognition of African-Americans, both famous and nameless, who dedicated or gave their lives to ensure that America live up to its founding ideals. I am also proud to be a part of an organization that continues to be engaged in the ongoing struggle for racial equality.

In America, black history is American history, and the ACLU is an important part of that history.

This post is part of a series honoring Black History Month.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Invincible Youth, Invisible Epidemic

Unsafe Sex Puts Black Youth at Risk

by Khalia Walters, Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Intern 

In Philadelphia, there are not many teenagers who are well-educated on reproductive health. Things like pregnancy rates, STD rates or just STD’s period are a non-factor to a great number of Philadelphia teens. I know this because I am a teen living in Philadelphia, and from the things I’ve seen and heard from my peers, people don’t know that sexual intercourse can be really risky.
I came across a website suggested by one of my coworkers here at ACLU that gave the most straightforward yet very informational facts about STD’s. The website is called and it gives you all facts on every STD. It tells you the symptoms, whether they’re curable or not, and how you can catch them. It also says what you should do when you catch a curable STD and what you’re restricted from doing if you have an STD that isn’t curable. Some STD’s spread simply by the male privates and female privates touching each other, not only by full sexual intercourse. And pregnancy can happen before intercourse, too. But so many teens don’t know that.

At our age, we teens think we’re  invincible and that things like STD’s are  facts broadcast to us to make us refrain  from sexual activity. With some STD’s, you won’t really able to tell if you have it or not. With HIV, most times you won’t even look or feel differently. Other times people get flu-like symptoms which can just be mistaken for the common flu. And so some infected people are running around freely thinking they’re STD-free when they’re actually infecting others.  In 2010, of all the youth in Philadelphia diagnosed with HIV, 84% of them were African-American.  Also, 70% of the adolescents diagnosed with HIV each year are African-American.

So what exactly do we do about these frightening facts? I say that the Philadelphia School District should place more health classes in middle schools and in all high schools. This can be a touchy subject with some parents and to officials this may seem unnecessary, but with the rate of HIV in African-American youth in Philadelphia as high as it is, something big needs to happen. Teens need to know the great risk they’re taking when they go out and “hook up” with someone. Anyone who thinks he’s too cool to use a condom is fooling himself. Using a condom is a way of looking out for yourself and your partner.

When I was in middle school, we had health classes that taught us about some of the STD’s out there and we were told to read these really old health books with scenarios that were so unrealistic that was it hard to believe that something called AIDS could bring so much destruction to one’s life. Running with this, I think that the Philadelphia School District has an obligation to its students. They should establish health classes at every Philadelphia high school with an updated, effective, and relevant curriculum. Teachers should teach about current statistics and make lessons more interesting. Websites like are far more appealing to the eye than a normal website with blank facts typed all over. Their graphic designs and accurate information intrigues the reader and pulls them in, making them want to learn more about the risk of sex. Sex ed classes should be at least this interesting.

As we raise awareness during Black History Month of issues facing our community, teens in Philadelphia need to know the facts about reproductive health. They need to know that unsafe sex is a risk no one should take. STD’s are lurking around the city affecting the lives of many teens who may not even be aware of the danger. Health classes in Philadelphia high schools and middle schools could really benefit Philadelphia youth, especially African-Americans who are by far at the greatest risk.

Khalia Walters is a high school sophomore at the Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus. She is interning at the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project this semester. 

This post is part of a series honoring Black History Month.


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Monday, February 25, 2013

Death race

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the office of a state representative, and the topic of capital punishment came up in conversation. This particular representative, who is young and white, said that he turned into an abolitionist when he realized the impact of race on death sentencing, particularly the race of the victim. 
As he said that, his office suitemate, another young state representative who is black, walked into the office. The first representative asked, “Do you know that if someone kills me they are more likely to get the death penalty than if they kill you?” His colleague replied, “Yeah, because you’re white. No one cares if a black guy gets shot.”
The statistics bear them out. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, after a four year national moratorium, 77 percent of the victims in cases that led to executions were white. But white people are the victims in 50 percent of homicides. (See the website of the Death Penalty Information Center. ) 
Juries’ penchant for using the death penalty disproportionately in response to the murder of white victims is an expression of America’s shadow side that has plagued us since the first settlers arrived on these shores. Too many Americans value the lives of the majority population far more than the lives of people of color.
When I got involved in anti-death penalty activism 13 years ago, I did it simply because I thought the idea of the government murdering people was wrong. But my opposition gained depth when I learned how dysfunctional the capital punishment system is.
Despite the attempts of supporters to explain away the problems, the death penalty is poor public policy. Since 2007, five states have repealed the death penalty, and Maryland may follow suit this year. It’s well past time for Pennsylvania to do the same.
---Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of PA

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Founders’ Intent

by Ngani Ndimbie, ACLU-PA community organizer 

I’m just going to come out and say it: As a young activist in my late teens, it was very hard for me to get behind any friend or representative of the American Civil Liberties Union who used  “founders’ intent” jargon when discussing the rights of all. Or talking about the morality and wisdom of the men who wrote the Bill of Rights.

My thought as a black American always was, “Um. It was also the founders’ intent to keep black Americans enslaved forever. Or at least that’s what they wrote into the Constitution and failed to correct in the first 12 Amendments. So let’s not pretend that these men were infallible geniuses...”

My relationship with the Constitution and the early history of this country is fraught with mixed emotions. I wish I could imagine time-traveling back to 1790 to chat with Ben Franklin about the Patriot Act, PA’s Wiretap Act, and pre-conviction DNA testing, knowing that he would be pissed as hell and commiserate. I wish I could imagine having a long and rewarding discussion.

But as a black person I know that I’d barely be given enough time to get out of the Back-to-the Future-Delorean before being whisked away into slavery with the other black Americans.

Today I work for the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a community organizer defending the Constitution every day. And I love it. I have come to terms with the fact that the founders did not have the whole picture--but they understood an important part of it. The founders also included freedom and justice in the Constitution. And that cannot be overlooked.

When talking to people who dislike the ACLU, our legal director, Vic Walczak, often references the “liberty and justice for all” part of the Pledge of Allegiance, saying that the ACLU exists to secure that promise. Vic then questions the ACLU detractor, asking, “Do you have a problem with liberty?” “No,” they say. “Justice?” is Vic’s follow up. “No. I don’t have a problem with justice...”

It’s the “for all” part. A portion of our country’s leaders and citizens have always had trouble with the “for all” part. It’s our fellow Pennsylvanians who have commented on the articles announcing our Davila lawsuit  with terrible, ugly, and misguided thoughts. They aren’t bad people. In fact, I’d like to think that they are much like the founders.I trust that they really do believe in liberty and justice, but they’re still wrestling over that “for all” business (and are now thankfully required to by the 14th Amendment).

So while they work that out for themselves, the ACLU of Pennsylvania will continue to remind them of what America’s values really are.

We’ll nudge them with a lawsuit here, a petition there. We’ll block bills written by lawmakers who have chosen to ignore the Constitution. We’ll educate communities about their rights and mobilize people to take action.  

So in the end, the founders’ shortcomings have given me purpose. I consider myself lucky be part of such a wonderful team of staff, board members, community members, volunteers, and supporters gladly, tirelessly working for all.

This post is part of a series honoring Black History Month.

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