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Summit for Civil Rights: working to create 'a new, modern political alliance'

Summit for Civil Rights
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
From left to right: author William Jones, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and former Vice President Walter Mondale speaking at the Summit for Civil Rights.

At the same time Islamophobia and a new strain of white racism has exposed itself in America, at the same time travel bans and all sorts of civil rights violations are being regularly proffered by the White House, a gathering of attorneys, activists, and scholars at the University of Minnesota took the pulse of the state of civil rights last week, and provided an intellectual pep rally for the work going forward.

Inspired by William Jones’ 2014 book “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights” and held Thursday and Friday at Mondale Hall in the University of Minnesota Law School, the first Summit for Civil Rights sought to “take the first steps of transforming the historic coalition for civil rights into a new, modern political alliance.” 

Via speakers (including former Vice President Walter Mondale, Rep. Keith Ellison, Catherine Lhamon, Lisa Rice, Myron Orfield) and panels ("The Scourge of Segregation," "History of Segregation, Learning from the Past to Create a Just Future," "The Opportunity Today — Why There is Reason For Hope"), the two-day conference was a reminder of how real change around equality and justice-for-all is enacted.

On Friday morning, U of M President Eric Kaler suggested that all attendees take a trip to the university’s scholar’s walk, where a monument to Mondale sits: “[Mondale’s] quote on scholar’s walk rings as true today in our nation and in this room with the work you’re about to begin: ‘Justice and accountability always make us better able to face our enemies. Justice strengthens us.’ I believe those are words to live by.” 

Friday morning, Mondale was part of the panel “Forgotten History and Learning from the Past.” In front of about 60 law students, activists, professors and lawyers, the former vice president of the United States brought a sobering viewpoint to the proceedings — beyond marches, speeches, and conferences.

“I’ve been doing this for over 50 years — fighting for education, fighting for jobs, but it doesn’t work in the ghetto,” said Mondale, author of the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968.  “Kids in the ghetto feel that they’re inferior, they’ve got to go to schools that support that idea, there must be something wrong with them that they can’t get out of there, their parents have experienced it. And regardless of what we do for kids in the ghetto, it doesn’t work. We’ve tried, all these years.”

“But in the areas of the country where we have healthy, integrated neighborhoods — and we’ve got some in the Minnesota suburbs — black kids are doing a lot better,” continued Mondale. “They’re doing better in school; they can plan on going on to careers, just like other Americans. But the [main] civil rights issue today [is] will fair housing be enforced or won’t it? Will we direct the American government to deliver placement of housing? Fair housing is real, and I’m not going to give my speech, but we have to push people who are sitting on their duffs.”

The conference as a whole was a call to arms toward everyone getting off said duffs. Panelists provided deep dives into the systemic and historic barriers that face minorities in America face around housing, employment, and creating community itself.  

“I just think that a lot of us would do well to, as we go through our responsibilities, to remember one little thing more than anything else,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina. “I think it was George Santayana who wrote, ‘If we fail to learn the lessons of our history, we’re bound to repeat them.’ It didn’t say if we fail to learn history. A lot of us have learned history, but I’m not sure that all of us have learned the lessons of that history, and I think that’s why we are today, in this administration, repeating history.”

“You certainly wouldn’t want to ask the president to help with any of this, or Congress, but we have the law,” said Mondale.

That much was reflected in the next panel, "Building the Civil Rights Movement."

“Labor and education,” stressed labor leader and president of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten. “Civil rights and labor rights — the Koch brothers and the DeVos family understand the connection better than we do.

“So think about what they’re doing. They have in their sights on three things: Voting rights, labor rights, and public education. And if you look at what they’ve done throughout the states, as well as not just simply being the donor class that wants this tax bill, but what they’ve done in terms of fighting for voter suppression, fighting against the labor movement, fighting against public education, there’s all sorts of evidence of that.

“So when you ask me the question, ‘What have we learned?’ we’ve actually learned, and in some ways, given who’s in the White House right now, we have to take the lessons from before we had collective bargaining contracts. We have to take the lessons of how people organized and mobilized, because the [current] assault is so great in so many ways.”

While Trump’s White House continues that assault, the Summit for Civil Rights panelists found encouragement in the fact that civil rights protectors have the law on their side — but only to a point.

“Nelson Mandela worked for the movement against apartheid as a lawyer,” said University of North Carolina law professor and Center for Civil Rights Director Theodore Shaw

“Mahatma Gandhi led the fight against British colonialism in his role as a lawyer. Law is inherently conservative. It’s slow-moving. But if we don’t have activists, if they sit back and think lawyers are going to [lead the charge], activists can be turned into bystanders. 

“Progressive lawyering without activists are like ships without water. They’re not going anywhere. I don’t want to be misunderstood about this. It’s not that lawyers can’t lead movements. They can, but not in their role as lawyers.” 

So where does he find hope?

“I think about, for example, [former NAACP president and longtime leader of North Carolina’s Moral Monday protests Rev.] William Barber in North Carolina. 

In my view, we needed — and we continue to need — William Barber. Not only in North Carolina, but on the national stage. Charismatic, charismatic,” said Shaw. 

“I am thinking all the time now about where we are in the country, with all the existential threats that we’re facing collectively, and I think it’s important for individuals, like everybody in this room, who are certainly leaders one way or another, to step up and speak against this day, as we say. 

“The Montgomery bus boycott was a wonderful, effective movement, and the lawyers ended that boycott by going to the Supreme Court. They didn’t lead that movement, but they played a crucial supporting role in working with the activists and the people who walked and marched and broke the back of segregation in the public transportation system. What a wonderful example for lawyers and activists in terms of how to work together, and I think it’s a model that we should think about and recall today in the work that lies before us.”

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