In Birmingham, a Hearing on Human Rights

By Anne Braden

Vol. 16, No. 3, 1994, p. 19

Charlotte Keys, who leads a fight against poisoning from an abandoned industrial site in Columbia, Mississippi, said the "American dream has become a toxic nightmare."

Rose Sanders, who mentors a new generation of African-American youth in Alabama, said "separate and unequal education is active and alive."

Tamika Elmore, of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Birmingham, said African-American youth have been "thrown away ... we don't matter; the society blames us instead of changing conditions that created us."

The occasion was a hearing at the Carver Theater in Birmingham on October 15. Three international religious leaders took testimony on violations of human rights in the U.S. It was part of a campaign of "education, investigation, and action" sponsored by the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches exploring the possibility that U.S. racism violates international human rights law.

The Birmingham hearing, one of seven held in cities across the country in October, lasted all day. Community activists from seven Southeastern states testified.

For anyone looking for a ray of hope on today's horizon, it was a bleak day. Witnesses gave accounts of sickness and death from pollution in Ft. Valley, Georgia; Pensacola, Florida; Sumter County, Alabama; and Warren County, North Carolina; of African-American youth destroyed by academic tracking and "mis-education" in Alabama cities and rural North Carolina; of African-American college students "never taken seriously"; of Native Americans in North Carolina and African Americans in Mississippi caught in a criminal-justice system defined by racism; of African-American workers being "the first to go" in massive industrial "down-sizing" in Birmingham, and African-American women working under killing conditions in poultry plants across the South.

The international leaders in Birmingham came from Zimbabwe, Tonga, and South Africa. They were part of a nine-member team; other sub-groups held hearings in New York, Chicago, Washington, Oakland, El Paso, and Okmulgee, Oklahoma. At an October 19 press conference in Washington, the team issued a preliminary report saying there is "widespread evidence of gross and consistent patterns of racism throughout the fabric of U.S. society."

The team will submit a report to the National Council of Churches, the U.S. government, and the United National Human Rights Commission at a February 1995 meeting.

"We are not putting America on trial," said one team member. "Our hope is that America will be able to resolve these issues." The team stressed special responsibility of churches, including white ones.

But will white church members hear? Although they received extensive advance information, no mass media covered the Birmingham hearing. White Birmingham church members in attendance could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The team's preliminary report said; "We found that in many areas, with some notable exceptions, concerns about racism were limited largely to black churches." It seems painfully evident that, with a few honorable exceptions, white church people have not yet begun to respond adequately to Martin Luther King's 1963 "Letter from the Birmingham Jail."

Anne Braden is co-chair of the Southern Organizing Committee for Social and Economic Justice (SOC) and a member of the National Council of Churches Racial Justice Working Group.