Leslie Dunbar, John Lewis, and Heeding the Call of the Civil Rights Movement


Leslie W. Dunbar speaking to the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi Convention in 1968. Credit Tony Dunbar

New Orleans   Thus far President-elect Trump and his office have said nothing formally in commemoration of Martin Luther King Day. His Twitter-attack on civil rights warrior and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis capsulizes his own special oblivion to the struggles and aspirations of tens of millions who don’t live in Manhattan and winter in Florida.

I was struck by the contrast as I recently read the obituary of Leslie Dunbar in my local newspaper when he passed away at nearly 96 years old. I didn’t know Leslie well, but I knew him from his time as executive director of the Field Foundation when I tried to raise money from him in the 1970s. During the time that Field operated the foundation was famous, especially under Dunbar’s direction as a funder of voting rights and civil rights efforts, particularly in the South.

Several years after founding ACORN in 1970, as we made our first ventures to New York in 1974 to try and raise foundation money, Leslie and Field were on the short list as “naturals” to support a growing community organization with roots in Arkansas. My first visit didn’t go well and in a follow-up letter when I described ACORN’s mission as trying to build an AFL-CIO of membership-based community organizations of low and moderate income families, he dismissed the whole effort somewhat brusquely with a hand scribbled note saying that, “the last thing we need in this country is another AFL-CIO.” That stung, even though decades later, I can concede the point as the AFL-CIO becomes more and more sclerotic, and eventually Field became one of our consistent funders until it closed its doors. After Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, it was great to talk with Leslie and his son, Tony, when he visited New Orleans before moving to the city in the last years of his life.

His obituary spoke to the transformational power of the civil rights movement though and the clarity of its call to men and women who cared about people and equal rights and justice for all. It turned out Leslie had a PhD in political philosophy and constitutional law from Cornell and had bounced around on the track between academia and government service until ending up running the political science department at Mount Holyoke when in 1958 he jumped into the fray. Remember that the Montgomery Bus Boycott which propelled Martin Luther King, Jr. into national prominence ran from early December 1955 until about the same time 1956. The power of this emerging civil rights movement was life changing for millions, and Leslie Dunbar was clearly one of the many who ached for a way to align their convictions with their actions or move in Trump’s sense from all talk to as close to all action as they might get. In Dunbar’s case he moved to the Southern Regional Council, which was a mainstay of research and advocacy around race and voting rights at the time and for many years thereafter. When I’m in Little Rock I still take note on most visits of the plaque that remains in our building’s meeting room when ACORN was named by the SRC as the outstanding organization in the South in 1973.

Leslie’s obit notes with some pride his role at the SRC along with King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins in establishing the Voter Education Project, and the 2 million people it helped register. In these early years of ACORN we were proud to work with VEP during the years that John Lewis ran the project from 1970 to 1977. As organizations ran from voter registration and the modern attacks on voting rights that have accelerated in the 21st Century, there is no organization that began in the South as ACORN did in Arkansas in 1970 that didn’t understand that every peoples’ organization had a commitment forever to expand and protect voting rights, regardless of the consequences, if was to be accountable to his membership and their aspirations.

In the sense that John Lewis today is a headline example of such lifetime commitments, Leslie Dunbar and tens of thousands like him, playing roles large and small, uprooted their lives and sometimes gave their lives, as King did, at the call and in service to doing whatever they could and whatever they were able in order to build a movement to change America.

We watch the first African-America president leave office in the legacy of that movement at the same time we watch a new president move to office while trying to ignore and perhaps destroy that movement. He has to be taught once again that we shall not be moved.

Civil Rights activists lead the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 including John Lewis (far left) and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (middle). (Photo by Robert w. Kelley/Getty Images)

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A Personal Remembrance of Martin Luther King’s Pivot to Poverty

New Orleans    Every once in a while something falls into your hands that begs to be shared. In this case S.M. “Mike” Miller, one of my infrequent, but invaluable correspondents and a faithful subscriber and sometime contributor to our journal, Social Policy, sent me, and others, a remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr, which seems timely. Including Mike’s piece, which I’ve lightly edited below, seems especially timely on the eve of the national holiday and a week before President Obama leaves office, as President-elect Trump tweets abuse at civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis.

VINDICATED

By S. M. Miller

I was heartened by a comment by Henry Louis Gates [in a three-part PBS series on race] that Martin Luther King Jr. had moved in the last period of his young life to emphasizing economics in dealing with racial issues in the United States.

I had been trying to influence King in that direction for a couple of years. I met him at the annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Council in Natchez, Mississippi in 1965 when he was in bed, suffering from a cold. I was there as a speaker invited by his educator advisor who liked what I had written about school dropouts and pushouts. The advisor, a professor at Michigan State, had taken a leave from the university to work fulltime for King and earlier on a plane with King had begun to read the speech that he had asked me to write for Ted Kennedy for the convention but when King looked at the speech, he said, “don’t give it to Kennedy, I’ll use it.”

In the following seven years, I was an advisor and then a staff member at the Ford Foundation as well as a professor at New York University. One of my three self-appointed missions at the Foundation was to widen the Foundation’s support of black organizations beyond the National Urban League. That effort led to my spending time with King and building a successful case for broader funding.

In my discussions with King I raised the issue for not only overcoming racial barriers but to more directly improve the economic situation of African Americans by affecting the shaping of the American economy. He did not see why he should talk about national economic policies. After the second or third time I raised this issues, Martin said I still don’t understand why you want me to talk about national economic policies but since “I owe you, I’ll do it.” I replied, no, you are too busy to do something that you don’t feel strongly about.

Sometime later, I received a call at home on a Saturday morning—Martin wants to have a chapter on economics in his new book and wants you to write it. Will you? I agreed, only to learn that it was needed by Monday morning. My wife, psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller, consented to take over my weekend family and household responsibilities, and I dashed off the chapter. The publisher did not want to use it. Martin insisted, and it appeared as the appendix to “Where Do We Go From Here.”

Earlier, when I was still at Syracuse University, a senior aide in Senator Rubicoff’s office called me, saying that the Senator is planning a series of hearings on urban issues. We are looking for topics and issues. Would you please look me up when you are next in Washington? We met. I was really “on” that day and reeled off 10 terrific ideas. No, no, the aide said. I asked the aide, “What’s up? You are tossing off this good stuff?” The aide said, “I’ll level with you. My senator is addicted to golf, so I have to offer something compelling to get him off the course. He is lazy so it can’t be a topic that requires him to spend time studying the issue. Third, he is vain; he wants his name in the media.” I replied that I could not meet those requirements and left.

Sometime later, Martin decided to testify before the Rubicoff hearings on urban issues and I was asked to collaborate with Stanley Levison, a chief aide to King, on preparing the testimony. I organized a meeting at my home in New York City of leading New York urban thinkers. Stanley and I wrote Martin’s presentation which dealt with racial economic issues in housing situations. Martin testified. The next day the front page of the New York Times had a front page picture of Martin and the senator. So I helped deliver for the senator.

Much more importantly, I contributed to that emerging stage of attention to economics in the King legacy. Gates’ view vindicated my pressures on King.

All I can add is that the arc of history is long and leans toward justice, and like Miller, that’s worth remembering as we gird ourselves for the future. Thanks for sharing, Mike!

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Fort Lauderdale Airport Shooting Linked to Inadequacies of Alaska Mental Health System

The building where Esteban Santiago lived in the Fairview neighborhood of Anchorage. He is charged with killing five people and wounding six more at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6. Credit Joshua Corbett for The New York Times

New Orleans   Having been in the small capitol city of Juneau, Alaska within recent months, I have been wondering if some of the powers that be in state government have been holding their breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop after the terrible tragedy of a shooter flew in from Alaska, suddenly producing a gun in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport and killing five people and injuring six before lying down and waiting for the police hardly a week ago. The shoe has now dropped in The New York Times.

This horror has been thoroughly reported of course, as it should have been. A fairly recently discharged soldier who had even more recently turned himself into the FBI office in Anchorage in November because he believed the government was controlling his mind had been the shooter. The fact that this had happened in Anchorage and not Juneau or a smaller city in Alaska should have been a lucky break. The major state psychiatric facility is located in Anchorage, so he was able to turn himself in voluntarily, pretty much right on the spot. Had he been in Juneau for example, the intermediate facilities have been closed and whether he would have even gotten to Anchorage for even the minimal observation given, might not have happened. After four days he was released. There were no curbs on his access to firearms, and of course that’s another troubling question, but let’s just focus on mental health treatment and support for right now, because the horrible consequences of these multiple institutional failures are already clear enough.

Kirk Johnson writing in the Times is clear about the failure of Alaskan governmental authorities to provide for mental health consumers in the state, and therefore the community and public as well. He starts it out badly:

In Alaska when people are involuntarily committed for mental health treatment, the median length of stay, at only five days, is shorter than in almost any other state. Only Wisconsin has a shorter median commitment time, at four days, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national group that works to improve mental health laws and care. The national average is 75 days, with some states, like California, having a median of more than four months.

But then it just gets worse:

The mental health needs are great here, too. Alaska has the nation’s second-highest suicide rate, after Wyoming, and some rural areas are by far the worst in America in rates of self-harm, federal figures say. Alaska also has among the highest rates of adult binge drinking, according to federal figures. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation ranked it 47th among states and territories in terms of the percentage of mental health care needs being met. At the same time, the number of beds at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage, the state’s only long-term psychiatric hospital, is now half of what it was in the early 1990s, though many other states also cut their mental health treatment systems during the Great Recession.

Admittedly, and the Times acknowledges this, Alaska started dealing with mental health needs only when it transitioned from a US territory to a full-fledged state. Congress ceded one-million acres as part of the transfer of lands to the state to create the Mental Health Trust in order to use the resources of those assets to create the mental health system virtually from scratch. The Times credits the Trust with lobbying for expansion of Medicaid benefits under Obamacare in the state, but didn’t detail the scandals in the first decades of the Trust’s operation that led to the courts forcing reforms or the current confusing upheaval in the Trust’s management and operations, all of which have left people questioning what is really going on with the Trust.

Alaska’s mental health consumers organized MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers’ Action Network, last year which has broad agenda which includes pushing the Trust for more transparency and accountability, as well as better provision of services and support for the mental health community, but with the shooting in Fort Lauderdale state government and the Trust officials both have to be squirming, because it is now crystal clear and beyond any question that mental health needs to be a top priority in the state and is a job undone and woefully handled. Not only are Alaska’s consumers demanding action, but the rest of the country is now clear that Alaska needs to step up, and its failure to do so, risks all Americans, as well as its own citizens.

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Are There Grounds for Hope in Cabinet Nominees Policy Differences with Trump?

Little Rock   Reading the headlines or listening to the news, reporters seem to be grasping at every opportunity to point out a policy difference between Trump nominees and Trump himself. Some go so far as to speculate that there will be contention and chaos in the Cabinet on important policy issues like immigration or spying or Russia or climate change. I would be careful not to get hopes too high, since I suspect we are dealing with the classic situation of a distinction without a difference.

This is not to say that the nominees didn’t tell Trump what they really thought when he interviewed them for the job, but anyone who has ever conducted an job interview knows full well that people work very hard to try and tell you what they think you want to hear. And, for all anyone might want to say or believe about Trump, he certainly has a lot of experience conducting job interviews.

Once these folks have been cleared for the job with the big boss, then they have to get a passing grade from the straw bosses at the Congressional committee on their review. There can’t be anyone who doesn’t understand that these nominees are working with the Trump transition team and role-playing the questions and answers so that they are hitting the right notes to get the votes. In some ways, what we might be hearing from some of the nominees is the last time we’ll hear their real, personal views before they have to toe and tout a party line as part of the new administration.

So when a CIA or State nominee says that they will support and monitor the treaty with Iran, I’m sure that’s what they believe. Or, when the former Exxon CEO says he’s ok with keeping the agreements intact on climate change, I’m sure that’s what he believes, just as I’m sure it is what he has been told to say to get the votes to get across the line into the job. Same for all of their post-Cold War, Russia bashing all of the gang are running with. I’m sure that’s their view. I don’t even know that that view is different from Trump’s own position. He wants Putin to like him personally. He wants to believe he can personally make a deal with Putin. Russia has hardly crossed his mind. Muslim registry, civil rights, torture, hey, say the right things guys, but….

Are the real questions what they believe or what they will do when they are told by the White House, this is the program, make it happen. So, if they don’t believe in a registry or a wall, will they refuse to implement the programs? Will they resign or go public? Or will they be the good corporate and military soldiers who have spent their whole lives riding for those brands? I don’t think there any real question here. I’m not saying they won’t voice their opinions behind closed doors. I’m not saying when they aren’t under orders or the White House’s thumb they won’t follow their best judgements. I’m not saying they won’t have their say when asked.

I’m saying that when it matters, these are good soldiers, and they will toe the bosses’ line. They didn’t get these jobs as rebels with a cause. They got these jobs because they have already agreed to go along to get along.

These so-called policy differences are window dressing. They’ve already signed long term leases at Trump Tower and many may have effectively already written their resignations so that they can be placed on Trump’s new desk.

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Trump Press Conference was an Out of Body Experience

Little Rock   I have honestly never listened to an Obama press conference in full, nor either of the Bushes, Clinton, and so on, but there I was driving from New Orleans to Greenville, Mississippi, and Mississippi Public Radio was the only clear channel on the radio, so that’s what I had on. I’ve caught their health call-in show before with a doctor from the Jackson VA hospital which is pretty good, as well as some others, and suddenly they interrupted the show to broadcast the full-on Trump show from his New York tower. It was like an out of body experience. It was simply unbelievable compared to any reasonable expectation listeners might have had. Wow!

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind it not being “presidential,” whatever that means, and I’m totally comfortable with disruption and having all of the tables turned upside down. What I’m not comfortable with is crazy.

Here is my best example. Trump said that he “will be the best job producer that God ever created.” I’m not going to try and speak for her, but God must have been shocked. I don’t even think God has been keeping accurate statistics on the worlds’ top ten job producers of all time. And, thank goodness for that, so that Trump won’t have to call God a liar and loser. The pure pomposity and outrageousness of that claim is just breathtaking. It’s one thing to take credit for something. All presidents do that at some level, but this is just a total boast. This is pure ego unleashed. Add to this the fact that Trump is not even president yet. Houston, we have a problem!

The level of mumble-jumble was amazing, and even when he wanted to make a point, he swallowed his ask with asides, personal grievances, preemptive attacks, victim blaming, insults, and hyperbole piled on top of exaggerations. He doesn’t have a cabinet confirmed yet, but it is one of the best ever. They aren’t yet on the job, but he claims they’ve all been working hard and it’s a heckuva team. More unsubstantiated boasts out of nowhere and for no reason. We are about to have a president who has never heard the expression, “actions speak louder than words,” and who clearly totally believes that enough words will drown out all facts and obliterate all fantasies.

It was real work to pull out the brass from the bull. I had to listen hard to hear what he had to say about Russia and the hacking, about conflicts of interest and self-dealing, about how he is going to get Mexico to reimburse us for the wall, about when they would have a healthcare bill, and so on. Part of the struggle is the constant repetition of superlatives crushes the information like a wall collapsing on itself. Even when I thought I was hearing something solid from him, he would dilute and contradict a couple of lines later.

And, then there’s the tone. There’s always been a bit of a scrum in even the bits and pieces of presidential press conferences that I’ve heard in the past, but now we are going all British with name calling and accusations back and forth.

People get ready. Whatever you might have thought a president press conference might have been in the future, get over that. Whatever you might have thought was decorum and the weight and gravity of the office, forget about it. We’re going to see fisticuffs in one of these so-called press conferences in the future. We’re not going to the White House. We’re going Wide World of Wrestling.

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A Good Checklist for Grading an Obamacare Replacement

Greenville   In the chaotic back and forth over what may be about to happen to the Affordable Care Act, it is becoming almost impossible to follow the real issues as the bull passes our knees and rises towards our chin on all sides of the debate. We know something bad is about to happen, but we need a good checklist to measure the extent of the disaster even as we know the pain is likely to be terrible.

Harold Pollack from the University of Chicago and Timothy Jost from Washington and Lee University School of Law did all of us a favor in an op-ed in the Times by listing what they called “seven important questions that Congress must answer before repealing the Affordable Care Act.” Many of their questions are also clearly benchmarks for measuring the minimum standards for equity and justice that should be demanded by all Americans for any so-called replacement coming from Congress.

Here’s their list in brief:

1. How many millions of Americans will lose coverage? They also make the point often lost in the debate that tax credits and deductions are “nearly worthless” to lower income filers who would likely be priced out without direct subsidies.
2. Will people over 55 pay higher health premiums for the same coverage? This is a critical equity and cost issue for senior citizens with fixed incomes. The current Act limits the premium for older Americans to no more than three times that for younger citizens. Speaker Ryan has proposed going five times, which would be a budget buster for seniors.
3. Will the new plan let insurers charge women higher premiums than men while offering them less coverage? Obamacare in a critical reform banned this practice? Will the Republicans attack and penalize women for being women?
4. What other services are likely to be cut? Before Obamacare a third of the market policies did not cover addiction treatment and “nearly 20 percent lacked mental health coverage.” Will Republicans embrace the tragedy and roll this back along with other benefits?
5. Will the new plan let insurers reinstate annual or lifetime limits on coverage? Will Republicans allow a life-threatening illness to bankrupt victims and families while giving insurers a free-ride? We have to ask what insurance is for if there’s no coverage?
6. What will happen to the more than 130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions? This is huge and Congress needs to have the right answer because this was a critical reform of Obamacare and one that was popular enough that Trump even echoed its promise during the campaign.
7. How much more will those with costly illnesses or injuries have to pay in out-of-pocket costs? Costs are now capped at $7150 for individuals and $14,300 for families, and that’s way too much. Current Republican proposals thus far offer no cap to either deductibles, which are already leaving lower income workers outside of coverage in healthcare and service jobs, or cost sharing. You could drive a truck over people unless this loophole is closed.

This list of questions is really only the starting point, but any replacement at the least needs to answer these questions correctly to even pretend to be called a national healthcare protection plan. Keep them handy to grade the outcome in the common debate.

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