In 2013, Birmingham will mark the 50th anniversaries of some of the major events of the Civil Rights era that occurred here, including the deaths of four black girls in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963.
It seems that U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance is determined to get a jump on those commemorations.
In August, Vance announced the formation of a civil-rights enforcement unit to serve the 31-county Northern District of Alabama.
And on Thursday, September 13, Vance and her staff hosted a civil rights and hate crimes symposium at the Harbert Center downtown to highlight the broad range of rights that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) seeks to protect.
Noting the upcoming 50th anniversary in her opening remarks, Vance called 2013 “a very important year… that makes me want to very firmly restate our commitment to civil rights, but also to help people in law enforcement… and people in the community to know that there is so much more that we can do.”
The symposium, attended by numerous law enforcement personnel, included discussions of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act, anti-bullying laws, and the rights of gays and lesbians.
“We will learn about some things today that I think ya’ll may be surprised to see as civil rights issues,” Vance told the audience. “For instance, the rights of returning service members coming back from active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq to make sure that their re-employment rights are assured – that’s a civil rights issue. And a diabetic schoolchild who needs to make sure that she can participate in school activities – that’s a civil rights issue.”
The keynote speaker was Wayne Flynt, an author and former Auburn Universityhistory professor, who provided some historical context regarding civil rights issues and hate crimes. “What I want to help you understand is the pathology of hate, why people hate,” he said.
Flynt used a big chunk of his address to examine the psychological aspects of the hot-button issue of immigration. He offered a brief history of immigration to America and described the prejudice faced by such groups as the Irish and Chinese. “Immigration is not a new problem,” he said. “It has the same pattern of discrimination and hate in the modern period.”
Flynt described the hate mail he received after publishing an op-ed defending immigrants, including the Hispanics who do much of the farm work in Alabama.
In discussing the pathology of hate in Alabama, Flynt traced some of it to the understandable anger of generations of working-class whites who, along with many blacks, have never received a decent education or real economic opportunities in the state.
Flynt also noted that Alabamians “don’t much like outsiders,” and that it is easy to blame “the people who aren’t like us.” He cited such examples as gays, liberals and federal judges. “You fill in the blank,” he said.
David O’Malley, the sheriff of AlbanyCounty, Wy., described his investigation of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was beaten to death in Laramie, Wy, in 1998.
O’Malley, who was with the Laramie police force at the time, said that the motives of the two young men who beat Shepard to death were not complicated. “Bottom line – it was a hate crime, plain and simple,” he said. “It was based on Matt’s sexuality.”
His investigation of the murder, and the relationships he developed with Shepard’s family and friends, would change O’Malley. “I was homophobic, mean-spirited,” he said. “‘Faggot’ rolled off my tongue as easily as ‘I love you’ to my kids.”
But when O’Malley went to Shepard’s hospital room – where the University of Wyoming student clung to life for days, hooked up to so many machines that O’Malley could barely enter the room – the tough cop began a personal transformation. “That was the day that Dave O’Malley begin to lose his ignorance,” he said.
O’Malley urges police to take the rights of gays and lesbians seriously and doesn’t tolerate jokes about gays in his department. “I don’t tell those jokes anymore, and I don’t want my people telling them,” he said.
Erin Reiney of the federal Health Resources and Services Administration discussed bullying prevention and response, using information available at www.stopbullying.gov. She noted that schools receiving federal funding have a responsibility to address bullying and harassment. “I absolutely believe that bullying should be viewed as a civil rights issue,” she said.
Ashley Craig, a 16-year-old high-school student fromNew Jersey, discussed the anti-bullying group she founded, Students Against Being Bullied, or S.A.B.B. (http://studentsagainstbeingbullied.webstarts.com).
Other speakers included James Felte, Deputy Chief of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, who gave an overview of federal civil rights enforcement and the prosecution of hate crimes.
Elizabeth Savage and Delora L. Kennebrew, also with the Civil Rights Division, discussed the ADA and the enforcement of the rights of service members, respectively.
Jesse Chambers is the editor of Weld Local. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org