Democracy at Home

Charles S. Johnson, III

Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 2001 p. 3

Following the tragic loss of thousands of lives in two of our most diverse cities, our nation is struggling with feelings of suspicion, insecurity, and fear. And many have responded by looking for scapegoats.

In Dallas, Texas, a Pakistani Muslim storeowner was recently shot and killed. An arrow was shot through the front window of a Muslim-owned laundromat in Green Cove, Florida. Four men in the Atlanta area attempted to stab a Sudanese man, saying, "You killed our people in New York. We want to kill you tonight."

But racial or ethnically-based attacks such as we are currently experiencing are far from new in the South. We have seen such times before. One such time was in the period immediately following the First World War, when soldiers returned from saving the world for democracy only to be confronted with an outrageous failure of democracy at home. In the Red Summer of 1919, there were more than twenty-five race riots and seventy-six lynchings in the United States. Two hundred African Americans were killed in a single riot in Elaine, Arkansas.

It was against this background that an interracial group of Southerners came together in 1919, determined to transform what we used to call race relations. After working for more than two decades to end lynchings and alleviate property, this group by the end of the Second World War had embraced the strategy of pursuing equal opportunity through research and action, and what emerged was the early Southern Regional Council.

The Council has always linked work for racial fairness with the struggle for democratic rights. As we continue to share our concern for the victims of the recent tragedies, commend courageous relief workers, and express our convictions about U.S. actions abroad, we must also continue working to strengthen democracy at home. In light of the nation's sudden discovery last year that our election system simply doesn't work in the way that we thought it did, we must support the strongest possible election reform legislation moving through Congress. Election fairness is a civil right linked to national policy on every domestic and international concern.

We also cannot abandon our efforts to improve race relations at home. It is critical to expand and intensify that work, giving greater recognition to the increasing diversity of our nation. In light of recent events, we must work to deter acts of hate against innocent Arabs and Muslims as well as other immigrants. But the recent grotesque Halloween activities on the part of fraternity members at Auburn University and similar incidents at the University of Louisville and the University of Mississippi remind us that we cannot step back from efforts to heal longstanding racial divides and end inequalities.

The U.N. World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa may have dropped out of consciousness since September 11th, but as long as inequalities remain, we cannot sideline the struggle against racism.

Civil liberties are fundamentally linked with civil rights. We should be able to strengthen the government's ability to respond to terrorism without denying the right to dissent. However, some of our national leaders do not appear to share this belief. Under intense pressure to respond to the horrific attacks, U. S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and a number of members of Congress have taken a short-sighted view in lifting protections for civil liberties, initiating changes that directly affect immigrants and endanger the privacy rights of all Americans. The "U.S.A. PATRIOT Act" (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), limits the role of the courts in checking law enforcement authority, eases safeguards against the misuse of surveillance and searches, permits incarceration of non-citizens on suspicion, allows deportation and exclusion of non-citizens for beliefs and associations, and interferes with the attorney-client privilege. Unilateral executive orders which diminish the role of the courts using military tribunals undermine democracy in the process.

Fear, suspicion, and distrust still live with us. The kinds of recriminations that we've seen in the past months remind us that, although we think we've come a long way since 1919, we still have a long way to go. If we are to avoid another Red Summer, we may wish to consider a little dose of interracial- and interethnic-cooperation. Intergroup cooperation is the key to broadening civic participation and preserving democratic rights.

Justice, above all, is what we as a nation must pursue. This has been recognized since the days that the Republic was founded. Before the Constitution's signers wrote of domestic tranquility, before they wrote of promoting the general welfare, and even before they wrote of providing for the common defense, the authors of the Preamble wrote of a goal to establish justice.

The work of today's Southern Regional Council is in the tradition of our nation's historic pursuit of justice. The new realities which confront us as a result of recent events cannot and will not deter us in our quest.

Charles S. Johnson, III, is president of the Southern Regional Council and an attorney in the law firm of Holland and Knight.