Government / Politics

COMMENTARY: 21st Century Civil Rights Challenges Feel the Bern

Bernie Sanders wakes up America to 21st Century civil rights issues, won't quit fighting to advance his message of economic inequality

Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign is all but lost. Yet, he promises to take his fight of economic inequality and modern day allegations of civil rights abuses all the way to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia next month. That prospect is more than a little troubling to the Democratic party establishment, and I don't think Sanders would have it any other way. 

This commentary is intended to condense history and encourage younger readers to explore the ongoing struggle for civil rights in the United States, and perhaps serve as a reminder to older readers that Sanders continues a battle from more than 50 years ago of a civil rights war that many states refuse to believe was lost. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the result of years of hard fought social and cultural blood shed and political lobbying across multiple presidential administrations. It is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation in the United States that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is another landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the Civil Rights Movement on Aug. 6, 1965, and Congress later amended the act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, the act secured voting rights for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the act is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-to-4 vote that a section of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional because the coverage formula is based on data over 40 years old, making it no longer responsive to current needs and therefore an impermissible burden on the constitutional principles of federalism and equal sovereignty of the states. Since the ruling, several states once covered under pre-clearance have passed voter ID laws that removed provisions such as online voting registration, early voting, “Souls to the Polls” Sunday voting, same-day registration, and pre-registration for teens about to turn 18, which had expanded means of voter registration. Such actions are viewed as discriminatory to discourage certain classes and races of voters from participating in America's democratic process to vote. 

The ruling has also resulted in some states implementing voter identification laws and becoming more aggressive in expunging ineligible voters from registration rolls. States that have changed their voting policies post-Shelby include both jurisdictions that were previously required to undergo federal pre-clearance, as well as some that were not covered, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Texas.

As an American society, we continue to struggle with civil rights issues in the 21st Century that deny equal rights under the law to everyone. There is no worse example than Donald Trump who has made demeaning anti-Mexican statements a platform for his Republican party presidential campaign. 

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in America continues to struggle for equal rights as certain American state governors promote overt discrimination laws passed by certain states that target homosexuals and persons that identify themselves as transgender.

In North Carolina, the governor signed a law banning cities from passing LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances and barring transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity.Tennessee also has a “bathroom bill,” plus a bill that lets mental health professionals refuse to treat LGBT patients.

There are more than 100 active bills like this right now, across 22 states. They fall into a handful of categories — some are bathroom bills, some let judges refuse to marry same-sex couples, some let businesses deny services to LGBT people — but they all have the same goal: legalizing discrimination against LGBT people.

While it might seem like this onslaught of legislation came out of nowhere, religious conservatives have been working toward this kind of full-blown assault for years. They’ve been test-driving various anti-LGBT bills at local levels, anticipating the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision on marriage equality and preparing ways to weaken it.

“Specific laws like this that seek to target and marginalize one small segment of the population is nothing less than mean-spirited,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday. “President Obama has talked on a number of occasions about the important progress our country has made with regard to civil rights. This is a good illustration that the fight for civil rights is not over.”

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is a Latino civil rights organization. It was established on Feb. 17, 1929. LULAC was created at a time in our country’s history when Hispanics were denied basic civil and human rights, despite contributions to American society. The founders of LULAC created an organization that empowers its members to create and develop opportunities where they are needed most.

The United States of North America annexed a third of Mexico’s territory following the Mexican War, nearly 77,000 Mexicans became U.S. citizens. For generations, these citizens were to be plagued by prejudice that would result in overt acts of discrimination and segregation. This prejudice led to the curtailment of many civil rights. The sign, “No Mexicans Allowed” was found everywhere. 

Less than 100 years ago, women didn't have the right to vote in America. The legal right of women to vote in this country, was established over the course of several decades, first in various states and localities, sometimes on a limited basis, and then nationally in 1920. Women's right to privacy is also under attack in several states that ban Planned Parenthood and other health clinics as they seek to stop Roe v. Wade and limit a woman's reproductive choices from contraception to safe and legal abortions. 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told MSNBC that if abortion becomes illegal women should face "some sort of punishment." 

In an address broadcast on all three networks on the evening of June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced he was finally ready to introduce comprehensive civil rights legislation. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” president Kennedy said. “It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” A week later, he submitted the strongest civil rights bill in history to Congress.

While the history of the Civil Rights Act is often told through a parade of bold-faced-names—starring figures like Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey—its passage was due just as much to the work of foot soldiers like Rauh, Aronson, and Caplan. All three were Jewish, and all three were crucial to the eventual enactment, nearly a year later, of the landmark bill.

It is still tragic that in certain segments of the United States in the 21st century, some people still actively work diligently to subvert Civil Rights laws and openly legislate discriminatory state laws against other people in violation of The Equal Protection Clause which is part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The clause, which took effect in 1868, provides that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws".

The meaning of the Equal Protection Clause has been the subject of much debate, and inspired the well-known phrase "Equal Justice Under Law". This clause was the basis for Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court decision that helped to dismantle racial segregation, and also the basis for many other decisions rejecting discrimination against people belonging to various groups.

The Equal Protection Clause itself applies only to state and local governments. However, the Supreme Court held in Bolling v. Sharpe (1954) that equal protection requirements apply to the federal government through the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

It is obvious that American society has a long way to go in its struggle against Civil Rights Issues. For better or for worse, Bernie Sanders refuses to stand down as a champion for the majority of American people nor take a cue from his adopted party to simply and quietly return to his state of Vermont. 

"Next Tuesday we continue the fight," he said on June 7 in Santa Barbara. "We are going to fight hard to win the primary in Washington, D.C., and then we take our fight for social, economic, racial and environmental justice to Philadelphia.. "The struggle continues," he added.

References: Wikipedia online.

Michael Smith

Pro-economic growth, pro-music, pro-science, pro-retirement.