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Now Let’s Move Beyond Civil Rights Symbolism

Don Rose 30 June 2015 No Comment

Last week was amazing for civil and human rights–Obamacare was upheld, same-sex marriage became law, the Supreme Court put teeth in the weak 1968 fair housing act and ruled states did not have to put the Confederate battle flag on license plates if requested. Then came South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s call to remove that flag from state grounds–followed by other states taking similar action and major retailers announcing they would no longer sell paraphernalia displaying it.

A mere hundred and fifty years too late, southern officials finally got the message that the “stars and bars” are as much of a hate symbol to African Americans as the swastika is to Jews and most Americans. It symbolizes an insurrection against the United States aimed at preserving slavery. It began to proliferate in South Carolina and other states in the early ’60s as a symbol of resistance to the civil rights movement.

The only tragedy is that it took the racist murder of nine African Americans at bible service in their church to finally bring change.

Let’s get real: banning it is only a symbolic gesture, though symbols are important. The Christian cross, Star of David, Crescent, ¬†American and other national flags–including the LGBT rainbow flag–all generate powerful emotions and actions. But deeds count more.

Even as speeches and symbolic gestures pay homage to people of color, the Supreme Court and many states have acted to hinder their right to vote–the precious right for which many people, black and white, gave their lives.


Two years ago, in one of this Court’s two most regressive decisions, it gutted the 1964 Voting Rights Act, erasing the requirement that nine former confederate states seek Justice Department approval of any changes in their election laws to prevent potential suppression of voting rights. (The other dreadful decision was the Citizens United case, which lifted all limits on political contributions and permitted anonymous donations–opening the way to the buying of elections by oligarchs.)

In states North and South, onerous voter identification laws are admittedly–even boastfully–passed to create barriers to blacks, poor and young people voting. Early voting, same-day registration and similar opportunities to encourage voter turnout are being curtailed, mainly because these are Democratic constituencies. The excuse for draconian registration rules is to prevent fraud–which is a fraud in itself. The number of vote-fraud cases based on false ID is minuscule and has never affected any election in modern times.

The voting rights act should be restored and expanded to any state with a significant minority population. Better yet, introduce universal, automatic registration for any citizen over 18 and a 20-day window for voting, as Hillary Clinton and others propose. Oregon now automatically registers anyone with a driver’s license.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice and Fair Vote, both offer detailed plans to bring about universal registration. This coming weekend we celebrate the birth of our nation–a great time to start moving from symbolism to action on civil rights.

Happy Independence Day.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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