Making America greater

— April 4, 1968. This was the day that changed the life of a little girl growing up in the segregated South.

Coming home that day from school, we learned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. “Why would anyone shoot Dr. King?” we asked. We were baffled, saddened, and in shock.

He was a kind man. At least that’s what my grandmother told us. He wanted to help the poor and make a difference for others. My dad said he didn’t carry weapons, but those who disagreed with him, often did.

This was the night that turned my life over to the movement. The civil rights movement.

Had an assassin’s bullet not silenced him, King would be at work. He would be striving still for world peace, for a better world for kids, for justice for those lingering in the criminal justice system. He would continue the fight for fair economic policies — ones that do not favor a single class over almost everyone else.

King would be working for the full restoration of the Voting Rights Act. He would not sit in silence as millions today stand on the threshold of losing their right to vote. He would have condemned the tactics that forced thousands to stand in long lines last month in Maricopa County, Arizona, and the officials who decided to reduce the number of polling sites.

And King would be appalled at the tone and tenor of today’s presidential campaign. Campaigns have never been noted for their lofty words. But they have generally lifted debate, raised visions and defined who we are and where we will go.

This campaign so far will be noted for having coarsened and vulgarized our debate. This campaign, so far, will be infamous for letting fear grip our hearts, choke our compassion and drive us to repress others. This campaign, if we choose unwisely, could be known as the campaign that that began the unwinding of America.

I have never seen a campaign in which so many sophistic arguments were made — arguments that sound plausible but are illogical. For instance, almost every candidate on the GOP side has attacked “political correctness.”

Now, political correctness is defined as avoiding language that could offend others when referencing them, usually disadvantaged people. So, today we say “little people,” instead of other terms that were viewed as derogatory, and that change seems reasonable.

But now, candidates have expanded the notion of “political correctness” to allow them to use language that offends everyone — even language that violates fundamental American values. Candidates dismiss arguments as being “politically correct” to cover their introduction of ethnic and racial stereotypes, their advocacy of inequality and their justification of police surveillance.

The only clear-cut political correctness I see going on is by candidates who insist a person can’t call the public’s attention to their appeals of bigotry and repression. We truly cannot afford that kind of political correctness.

King would clearly say that creating special police patrols in minority neighborhoods, based solely on the religion of most of those living there, violates freedom of religion and our every moral impulse.

King would plainly say if we provide bigger tax breaks for the wealthy, they must provide wages better than $7.25 an hour. No person should have to work two jobs in this country and still struggle to make ends meet or have to apply for food stamps to eat.

No person should have to pay to vote, which is what Voter ID laws effectively require. We have the odd contrast of people urging online voting registration, while some state laws require spending time and money to obtain, in person, costly birth certificates with which, in turn, to pay for a driver’s license to be presented when voting.

Voting ID laws are a little more complex than the examples just mentioned. There are alternative proofs allowed to get the required picture ID. But they all boil down to making it expensive and difficult for certain classes of people to vote.

We are in need of leaders who will appeal to our better selves, who will give us a vision of making America greater, of building on the values that have made us a great and powerful nation.

The dominant vision being offered so far is to take counsel of our fears, to shun the refugee family who is escaping terrorism, to expel the immigrant family who seek better lives, to oppose all citizens who think differently from this as delusional, and to posit all differences of politics as coming from bad people.

Among King’s last words were these: “… Let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

We will never make it better by retreating from the values that we hold dearest — the values that millions of American soldiers gave their lives for … and that King gave his life for.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for civic engagement and voter participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

MLK Day turns 30: Why we observe it

— This Monday, we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the federal holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s a holiday that thankfully has been gaining in recognition since Congress passed a bill and President Ronald Reagan signed it in 1983, designating the third Monday in January, starting in 1986, to honor the civil rights leader. For years, some states declined to participate in the holiday, and Arizona lost the opportunity to host a Super Bowl over it. In 2000, South Carolina became the last state to recognize the holiday.

Still, a Bloomberg BNA survey found last year that fewer than 40% of American workers are given the day off — about the same as Presidents Day and far behind the nearly universal observance of such holidays as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day.

Whether or not you have the day off, it’s worth reflecting on the life and philosophy of the man we honor Monday.

Had an assassin’s bullet not taken his life at the age of 39, King would have turned 87 on Friday.

Had he lived, I believe King would have continued to inspire hope and would challenge us to fulfill his dream of a more inclusive society — where everyone would have an equal opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

No doubt King, who was passionate about justice and equality for all, would have been proud of all the milestones we have achieved as a nation, including the election of our first black president of the United States. Nevertheless, King would have urged us to move beyond our internal divisions of political partisanship and to find common ground.

King believed that “hate is too great a burden to bear” and that we should not “seek to satisfy our thirst of freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Where we are

So, where are we on race relations? Is it OK to even talk about it? Some say “color blindness” means that even mentioning race is wrong — even when pointing out an injustice.

As we have seen over the last few years, the country has stumbled backward.

Not only are we reopening old wounds with regard to confrontation with law enforcement, we are also relitigating everything from voting rights to affirmative action. And now we confront, for the second year in a row, Hollywood — which somehow ignores the talent of people of color when it comes to the Oscars. (#Oscars so white)

With the headlines screaming about everything from black young men being gunned down by police in Chicago to mass incarceration, and with officials ignoring calls for reconciliation — or worse, blaming poor people for their own predicament — it’s easy to become depressed, apathetic or simply give up.

But that is not King’s legacy. He saw defeats as temporary. He saw opposition as a challenge. He believed that most people want truth and justice, that most people would lend their voices to promote the freedom and dignity of all.

It was his faith, determination and hope, as much as his words, that sustained and inspired a generation to be actively engaged in the political process as voters — and thus working to transform our nation by electing men and women of valor who sought to remove barriers and open once-closed doors to all. That was part of King’s vision — as he stated back in 1957 when he called on the country to “give us the ballot.”

King once said, “If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

We can thank King’s generation and their children for the fact that open racism, based on hatred, is no longer acceptable in America. Malicious racism is largely behind us. Yet, for many blacks and other people of color, our journey is not over as we strive to get to King’s “promised land.”

Little girls attending Sunday school are no longer being bombed, with the perpetrators going unpunished for decades. But we still have too many instances like Sandra Bland being found dead in her jail cell or young men being fatally shot as they walked, unarmed, peacefully away from law enforcement. Justice seems elusive.

The struggle goes on

So how do we honor King when there are those in our society who continue to exploit racial fears and to demonize those from different religious backgrounds or traditions?

No one knew better than King of disappointment, yet he remained determined not to be discouraged. He saw in his own lifetime that racism was shifting from malicious, violent discrimination to softer means such as excluding people from voting, or from access to promotions in the workplace, or from access to certain careers, or from ever being able to rise above hand-to-mouth wages and salaries.

The good news is, despite an onslaught of politicians who have a vested interest in excusing and fostering bias based on racial fears, Pew Research finds that the majority of Americans believe the country needs to continue to take measures to give equal rights to blacks and everyone.

We remain in a struggle to fight racism, a struggle all the tougher because racism has gone underground or hides its true intentions. Some studies refer to it as unconscious bias.

Twenty-first century racism wears many disguises, including stereotyping immigrants as criminals — with only some being “good people.” The new racism holds that those who do the discriminating are actually the victims of discrimination, if a policy seeks to give people of color more access to their “area.”

We must continue to find ways to achieve racial reconciliation through dialogue and by working together to tear down institutional racism that prevents some folks with names like Janae or Jamil from being called in for an interview, though they meet the qualifications.

Finally, King believed in diversity. Diversity, the chorus of different voices, should be a song of harmony. As Americans, we cannot deny our heritage, our individual cultures, but rather we must continue to bring all that is good and just to the civic enterprise. King’s legacy is action in the service of others. For he believed that “not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service.”

So, whether on the job or off, let’s use this day to commit ourselves to service through acts of goodness and kindness. Let’s continue his work in the vineyards of justice and equality for all. And let us begin to live in what King called “the fierce urgency of now.”

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for civic engagement and voter participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Black History Month: Bridge racial divides

— Last month, we mourned the passing of Edward Brooke. Nearly 50 years ago, in 1966, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by the people of Massachusetts, making history as the first African-American elected to the chamber since Reconstruction. He was a Republican, which seems unusual now, but in light of the Emancipation and Reconstruction of a century ago it reflects the complexities of black history in America.

Brooke dedicated his life to serving his country. After graduating from Dunbar High School and Howard University in his native Washington, D.C., he shipped off to Italy, where he earned a Bronze Star for his service with the segregated 366th Infantry Regiment in World War II.

Before he passed away, Brooke said he was “thankful to God” he lived to see the election of our nation’s first black president. In 2009, when Brooke was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, President Obama honored the contributions of Brooke as “a man who’s spent his life breaking barriers and bridging divides across this country.”

Five years earlier, Brooke had been honored by President George W. Bush with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his work that bridged racial and political divides.

It’s poignant that Americans were introduced to Barack Obama during his campaign for the Senate, following the footsteps that Edward Brooke had walked decades earlier. In fact, Barack Obama in 2004 was only the second African-American elected to the Senate after Brooke’s historic 1966 victory. (The first after Brooke was Carol Moseley Braun, also of Illinois, in 1992.)

Addressing the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, Massachusetts, the state which Brooke had once represented as a Republican, candidate Obama sought to break barriers and bridge divides.

Obama reminded us, “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the immeasurable contributions the African-American community has made to the United States of America. From Edward Brooke to Barack Obama, we need to take this opportunity to recognize those who have broken down barriers and helped lead us to form a more perfect union.

Later this month, the film “Selma” will be among those recognized at the Academy Awards for depicting the struggle and sacrifices made to secure the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is a battle we are still fighting, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to strike down key components of the legislation.

Fifty years after “Bloody Sunday,” when some 600 civil rights activists were beaten by local police as they tried to march from Selma to Montgomery for full voting rights, we’re witnessing new restrictions as state legislatures jump at newfound opportunities to curtail voting rights across the country.

The Selma campaign of 1965 sought to lift thousands out of the crippling grip of poverty. And much like guaranteeing the franchise, the issue of expanded economic opportunity has remained relevant to the African-American community over the years. Drawing on his own experiences, Brooke looked to the areas that would serve as the building blocks for families to reach the middle class.

After returning from World War II, Brooke attended Boston University School of Law on the GI Bill. Senator Brooke fought to assure even more young people had access to a quality education from the cradle through college. He championed the fight to protect Title IX, ensuring equal opportunities for girls and women in education.

Brooke also devoted his life to the issue of housing. His amendment to the federal housing act made public housing more affordable for low-income families and helped bring the American Dream within reach for more families. Today, President Obama would call those efforts middle-class economics — helping families afford the cornerstones of economic security.

In the modern workplace, a good K-12 education often isn’t enough.

While Republicans in Congress offer little in the way of real solutions, President Obama has called for expanded early-education opportunities, bolstered job training programs and proposed two years of tuition-free community college for responsible students.

Helping middle-class families get ahead also means providing them the peace of mind that they can afford child care, have access to quality, affordable health care, and be able to save for retirement.

Making the American Dream accessible to everyone helps to bridge the divide between Democrat and Republican, and between black and white.

Leaders of the African-American community, like Edward Brooke and Barack Obama, have helped us break down barriers that divide America both politically and economically, whether it’s in the halls of power or the streets of the middle class. This Black History Month, we draw on the example of the people who made our history to help us shape our future.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Speaking to hate group more than a mistake

— I grew up near the same tree-moss-draped area of Louisiana where U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise met with followers of David Duke, the Klu Klux Klan leader who in the ’90s ran for governor and senator in my beloved state.

All my values were forged in Louisiana. Values like family, faith, community and the desire to help others.

I understand the so-called conservative values that Congressman Scalise championed, including a deep animosity to taxes. Still, his decision to seek the support of voters aligned with a white supremacist shows extremely poor judgment.

He already knew where he was on the political spectrum. As Stephanie Grace, a columnist and reporter for the New Orleans’ Times Picyaune and now for the Advocate, says, he once told her he was “like David Duke without the baggage” — that is, without the neo-Nazi views.

Scalise was 36 at the time of the controversial meeting he is now trying to explain. He says he didn’t know anything about the group he was speaking to. But Kenny Knight, the man who invited Scalise to speak, was known to Scalise as Duke’s campaign manager. Knight says he told Scalise they wouldn’t talk about race or the Jews. That should have been a tip-off.

Knight says he didn’t invite Scalise to address the convention of white supremacists. Instead, he asked Scalise to talk to a neighborhood group, the Jefferson Heights Civic Association, composed mostly of elderly citizens.

But Scalise admitted last week that he talked before the European-American Unity Rights Organization, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group. It advocates white supremacy and wants everybody who isn’t like its members to leave the country.

Scalise said in an interview last week with NOLA.com that at that stage of his political career, he spoke before any group who asked him. He added he even addressed the League of Women Voters which “is a pretty liberal group.” That’s the group composed of Republicans and Democrats who provide identical questions to each candidate and publish their answers without edits so voters can be informed in a nonpartisan manner.

A number of Republican Party leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, came to Scalise’s defense. Boehner said Scalise “made an error in judgment, and he was right to acknowledge it was wrong.” There’s a tacit acknowledgment in these defenses that Scalise knew who he was addressing.

It seems there’s a concerted effort to make this a non-scandal. Rep. Cedric Richmond, the lone Louisiana Democrat, defended Scalise as “not having a racist bone in his body.”

I believe that. But it makes Scalise’s appearance much, much worse.

So many politicians are so eager to push their particular ideology — or simply score points — that they don’t consider the larger context. Was Scalise’s anti-tax message so important that it blinded him to the larger value of dignity and equality?

Did Scalise consider who he was representing? It’s a delicate line for politicians. An appearance is an implicit endorsement of acceptable politics. (You don’t have to talk about race or Jews). Our politicians must be held accountable. Our universal values, such as “All men are created equal,” should not be violated in the name of seeking votes.

Millions of fallen soldiers who lie in graveyards here and overseas gave their lives defending the principle that every person is individually endowed by God with human rights, and that it’s the duty of the government to secure these rights. Is it alright to dismiss an appearance before a hate group as simply an error in judgment?

Peter Wehner is a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, and was an adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “The party of Lincoln shouldn’t have as its #3 a keynoter at a white supremacist convention,” he said on Twitter.

There is a broader issue here than Scalise and his appearance before a hate group. How much better if our politicians took account of themselves first, rather than acting from a perspective of privilege that they can seek votes where they wish without consequences.

We still have a ways to travel in the 21st century.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

COMMENTARY: Divert, deny, distract

— In beating a hasty retreat from Cliven Bundy, their onetime Lonesome Cowboy icon, Republicans have resorted to a familiar tactic: divert, deny, distract.

Divert attention by claiming the “media” made a story out of Cliven Bundy. The “media” plucked him out of obscurity, baited him with questions about race, and then blew the story out of proportion.

Deny having defended, supported and promoted Bundy — despite the recorded evidence — with faux outrage and feigned offense.

Divert by talking about how much the only racism left in America is the talk about racism. That’s one of the points Tara Wall makes in her op-ed attacking CNN for its coverage of Bundy and his self-declared “Range War.”

But sticking our fingers in our ears and saying “I can’t hear you” didn’t make problems go away when we were 5-year-olds on a playground. And saying that if we just stop talking about race, there won’t be any racial bias, doesn’t make it so.

Look, I get it. Talking about the racial reality in America makes some powerful people uncomfortable. It shows in Chief Justice John Roberts’ argument that a nonexistent colorblindness justifies the Supreme Court’s gutting of affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act.

Most Americans aren’t hateful, and many who are, like Cliven Bundy, don’t see themselves in the mirror. But there’s still a racial bias in this country that holds back talented Americans who aren’t white.

What Justice Sonia Sotomayor said about the judiciary applies to all of us. If we believe in the guarantee of equal protection, then “we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.”

“Wishing away” leads to a denial, and denial of history is, unfortunately, part of Tara Wall’s appeal to history. Yes, President Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, but a hundred years later the Republican Party wasn’t Lincoln’s.

Richard Nixon became president by courting Americans upset by integration, intentionally fueling the racial divide.

In his first speech after winning the Republican nomination in 1980, Ronald Reagan, said he believed “in states’ rights.” This at the Neshoba County Fair, just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered.

In 2005, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologized for this “Southern Strategy.” This would have been great, if only they’d stopped using it. But they haven’t.

Here’s the proof. Or more proof. Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” said pretty much the same thing Cliven Bundy did. Republicans didn’t chastise him. They celebrated him. In fact, some Republicans invited “Duck Dynasty” cast members to this year’s State of the Union address to show their support.

The Republican Party and its allies supported Bundy’s cause célèbre with their actions and rhetoric from the beginning.

Before he wondered if “Blacks might not be better off as slaves,” Bundy received support and encouragement from three Republican senators, two of them (Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) with presidential ambitions. Nevada’s Republican senator, Dean Heller, referred to Bundy and his supporters as patriots before retracting.

And then there’s the list of state and local Republicans around the country who supported Bundy, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another presidential aspirant.

Bundy felt comfortable lecturing a reporter about race and slavery because for weeks he’d been puffed up by right-leaning media outlets, potential Republican presidential candidates, and current GOP officeholders. That’s why he was even on the media’s radar.

And speaking of the media, here’s another dot to connect.

In April, before this most recent controversy sparked, Fox News mentioned Cliven Bundy 458 times. Sean Hannity — who said Bundy was a “friend and frequent guest” — interviewed Bundy at length, more than a half-dozen times, about his confrontation with the federal government.

It was all part of a concerted effort to turn a racist welfare rancher into a folk hero.

Why?

MediaMatters.org and others report that “Hannity receives major funding and large ad buys from Koch-affiliated Heritage and Tea Party Patriots.”

That’s significant because the Koch Brothers and their affiliates want to “transfer control of federal lands to states” so that they can “use the land in whichever way is most profitable to them such as mining, drilling, and other resource extraction.”

It’s a shame a little racism gets in the way of profits and power grabs.

That Republicans eventually got around to denouncing Bundy’s racist, pro-slavery statement, after conspicuous silence, doesn’t change the fact they have a history of promoting people like Robertson and Bundy. It doesn’t change the fact that they’re still advocating an agenda fueled by hatred and fear.

It’s time for Republicans to stop posing and look in the mirror. They can’t light a fire under a pot and then feign outrage when it boils over.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in America.” She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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