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"I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising
as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak,
or write with moderation
. I am in earnest -- I will not
equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single
inch -- and I WILL BE HEARD"
William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator (1831)
As many of you know, February
was Black History Month. As the first African-American President
of the Minnesota State Bar Association, I am struck by how fitting
it is for us, as lawyers, to recognize the significance of this
commemoration by taking an introspective look at the civil rights
movement, a movement that we played a prominent role in advancing.
During the month of February, I watched with fascination and
at times disbelief as I listened to radio and TV commentators
and their guests discuss this country's progress in the area
of civil rights for African Americans. Whether the speaker was
white or African American, the discussion focused consistently
on whether the proverbial water glass was half-empty or half-full.
I must confess that I have always found the half-full/half-empty
argument to be misguided and myopic. It has always struck me
that both sides of the water glass argument are correct when
you view the evolution of American society as a continuum.
Instead of focusing our attention and energy on the extremists'
half-full/half-empty arguments, we could achieve more productive
discourse by discussing "How do we as a society go about
constructively filling an otherwise unfilled water glass for
all disenfranchised members of our society?" Unfortunately,
the civil rights issues and tactics utilized during the historical
periods that I arbitrarily label "Civil Rights I & II"
will not provide much assistance to us in answering this question
today during Civil Rights III.
During Civil Rights I, from the early 1600s to late 1863 (the
Emancipation Proclamation), abolitionists such as William Lloyd
Garrison and Sojourner Truth focused on eradicating the ills
of slavery: its physical cruelty, its failure to give legal recognition
to slave marriages, the separation of children from their parents,
etc. During this period of time, abolitionists' tactics primarily
consisted of moral persuasion, i.e., arguing that slavery
was a sin requiring repentance and denied the "unalienable
rights" with which all men are endowed under the Declaration
During Civil Rights II, from 1863 to 1964, (The Civil Rights
Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965), civil right leaders
focused their attention and tactics more on eradicating the Jim
Crow laws of the South. These laws mandated separate arrangements
for whites and African Americans in areas of travel, work, eating,
shopping, sleeping, and education and also denied African Americans
the fundamental right to register and vote without being subjected
to bodily harm. Most of us are very familiar with the tools
used by civil rights leaders and others involved in protesting
these ills of society. This was an era when people of all hues
took to the streets in large numbers and engaged in mass protest
including civil suits, sit-ins, boycotts, peaceful marches, rioting,
militancy, civil disobedience, etc.
What about today? What should our focus and tactics be during
Civil Rights III? Or, better yet, have we as a society reached
some type of utopia or zenith where issues of violations of civil
rights no longer confront us? While the civil rights movement
historically focused primarily on eliminating societally sanctioned
legal, social, and political barriers, Civil Rights III is more
about providing all individuals with the "equal opportunity"
to achieve social, economic and political parity. In order for
us to accomplish this as a society, we must be willing to look
at civil rights in a much broader societal context than during
Civil Rights I & II.
During Civil Rights III, we must be willing and prepared as a
society to recognize and address the finding of the National
Research Council that, "If all racial discrimination were
abolished today, the life prospects facing many poor blacks would
still constitute major challenges for public policy." Nor
can we ignore the finding that "many blacks who have not
succeeded live in environments in which social conditions and
individual behavioral patterns are often detrimental to self-improvement."
(National Research Council. "A Common Destiny: Blacks and
American Society" 1989.)
The next civil rights frontier will be about us as a people,
as Americans, jointly finding "common ground" on which
to address non-societally sanctioned barriers to equal
opportunity in the areas of income and living standards, health
and life expectancy, educational opportunities, occupational
opportunities, and political and social participation. In addition,
we may need to acknowledge and address the mental scars and legacy
of Civil Rights I & II that still haunt and afflict some
of our poorer minority communities across the country. And yes,
during Civil Rights III we must still confront overt racism and
discrimination wherever it rears its ugly head.
I am quite aware that there are some individuals and groups who
have the "luxury of believing" that we live in a color-blind
utopia and that, today, everyone is provided with an "equal
opportunity" regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual
preference. The late Robert F. Kennedy summed up quite well
my thoughts on this argument:
"If anyone claims the Negro should be content
let him say he would willingly change the color of his skin and
go to live in the Negro section of a large city. Then and only
then has he a right to such a claim." (1966)
JARVIS C. JONES is president
of the Minnesota State Bar Association.