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Posts Tagged ‘President Obama’

The Cold Cases of the Jim Crow Era

The New York Times  August 28, 2015
At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

In March 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from a desperate mother. Her son, who was black, had been killed two years earlier, his body pulled from a river near Pickens, Miss.

“I am sending a contract in regards to the lynching of my son Willie Jack Heggard,” wrote Jane Heggard. “I have tried every way to have a trial, but no lawyer will accept the case, because a white man killed an innocent man.”

Despite her plea, it is unlikely we will ever know who killed Ms. Heggard’s son. Roosevelt’s assistant attorney general said it was up to the state of Mississippi, which apparently failed to investigate the crime. Like the thousands of Latin American “desaparecidos” who were terrorized in the 1970s and ’80s, Willie Jack Heggard is among America’s “disappeared,” one of hundreds of black Americans who were victims of racial violence from 1930 to 1960.

Our opportunity to capture their stories — and an important part of our nation’s history — is quickly vanishing as memories fade, witnesses die and evidence disappears. Time is running out to achieve some measure of justice.

For the past seven years, we have traveled throughout the South to document these cold cases. Many of the documents — sworn statements, court transcripts and coroners’ reports — are stored in dusty courthouses, threatened by fires, floods and rodents. Compared with the relatively robust archive on lynchings between 1882 and 1930, researchers have not fully explored the social and political costs of racial violence during the 30 years before 1960.

In 2008, Congress acknowledged this gap in our historical knowledge and passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the 14-year-old boy who was pulled from his bed in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955, tortured and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His case has not been fully resolved, although his killers confessed to a magazine in exchange for $4,000. The Emmett Till act authorizes the Department of Justice to coordinate with local authorities and investigate racially motivated homicides that occurred before 1970.

The problem is, the act has not been adequately funded, and its narrow focus on viable prosecutions limits its efficacy. Many homicides can no longer be prosecuted. In some cases, the government has limited federal jurisdiction. In others, witnesses and perpetrators have died. This year, the Department of Justice reported that it had completed just 105 investigations and three prosecutions over the past several years.

Clearly, the federal government needs to expand the act’s focus. Even if they are largely symbolic, prosecutions themselves are a form of truth telling, and require local governments who often ignored or sanctioned the killings to help re-examine this history.

In addition, prosecutions should be considered alongside remedies like truth commissions, restitution and official apologies which acknowledge that these murders were part of a pattern of intimidation against entire communities, intended to stifle full citizenship. Finally, along with better funding for the Till act, President Obama and Congress should establish an initiative to collect oral histories from this period.

It wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has undertaken a large oral history project. From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project conducted over 2,300 interviews with elderly former slaves. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 funded oral histories and gave reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. In 2000, Congress created the Veterans History Project so Americans could “better understand the realities of war.”

And several states — including North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida — have already sponsored commissions on race riots before 1930 that attempted to assess the long-term impact of the murders, looting, arson and other property damage that ruined thriving African-American communities. Some recommended monetary reparations, economic redevelopment or commemorative monuments. Not all of the solutions were implemented, but the work itself was a significant step forward.

Some countries are confronting shameful episodes in their histories that had been intentionally ignored. In 2007, Spain passed the Law of Historical Memory to recognize those who suffered under Franco, which has supported the exhumation of graves from that era. In June, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the decades-long abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools “cultural genocide.”

A full accounting of the past may evoke shame, pain and impulses to remember and forget. But an acknowledgment that this legacy of violence still haunts African-American communities may foster more productive conversations and help generate trust in our legal system.

Emmett Till, who was killed 60 years ago today, is a victim whose story we know. His name endures because his mother “wanted the world to see what they did.” His memory beckons us to learn the fate of hundreds of others, like Willie Jack Heggard. We must find America’s disappeared, learn their stories and allow them to live in our history.

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If Obama Faces Impeachment over Immigration, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy Should Have as Well

HNN   November 16, 2014

 

When President Obama announced last week following the mid-term elections that he would use his executive powers to make immigration changes, the incoming Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell warned that “would be like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”  Representative Joe Barton from Texas already saw red, claiming such executive action would be grounds for impeachment.

If so, then Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy should all have been impeached.   All four skirted Congress, at times overtly flouting their administrative prerogative, to implement a guest worker program.

This was the “Bracero” agreement with the Government of Mexico to recruit workers during World War II, starting in 1942 but lasting beyond the war, all the way until 1964.  At its height in the mid 1950s, this program accounted for 450,000 Mexicans per year coming to the U.S. to work, primarily as agricultural workers.

Several aspects of the Bracero program stand out as relevant to the impasse on immigration reform over the last 15 years.  First, the program began with executive branch action, without Congressional approval.  Second, negotiations with the Mexican government occurred throughout the program’s duration, with the State Department taking the lead in those talks.  Finally, this guest worker initiative, originally conceived as a wartime emergency, evolved into a program in the 1950s that served specifically to dampen illegal migration.

Even before Pearl Harbor, growers in the southwest faced labor shortages in their fields and had lobbied Washington to allow for migrant workers, but unsuccessfully.  It took less than five months following the declaration of war to reverse U.S. government intransigence on the need for temporary workers.  Informal negotiations had been taking place between the State Department and the Mexican government, so that an agreement could be signed on April 4, 1942 between the two countries.  By the time legislation had passed authorizing the program seven months later, thousands of workers had already arrived in the U.S.

The absence of Congress was not just due to a wartime emergency.  On April 28, 1947, Congress passed Public Law 40 declaring an official end to the program by the end of January the following year.   Hearings were held in the House Agriculture Committee to deal with the closure, but its members proceeded to propose ways to keep guest workers in the country and extend the program, despite the law closing it down.  Further, without the approval of Congress, the State Department was negotiating a new agreement with Mexico, signed on February 21, 1948, weeks after Congress mandated its termination.  Another seven months later, though, Congress gave its stamp of approval on the new program and authorized the program for another year.  When the year lapsed, the program continued without Congressional approval or oversight.

The Bracero Program started out as a wartime emergency, but by the mid-1950s, its streamlined procedures made it easier for growers to hire foreign labor without having to resort to undocumented workers.  Illegal border crossings fell.

Still, there were many problems making the Bracero Program an unlikely model for the current immigration reforms.  Disregard for the treatment of the contract workers tops the list of problems and became a primary reason for shutting the program down.  However, the use of executive authority in conceiving and implementing an immigration program is undeniable.

The extent of the executive branch involvement on immigration was best captured in 1951, when a commission established by President Truman to review the status of migratory labor concluded that “The negotiation of the Mexican International Agreement is a collective bargaining situation in which the Mexican Government is the representative of the workers and the Department of State is the representative of our farm employers.”  Not only was the executive branch acting on immigration, but they were negotiating its terms and conditions, not with Congress, but with a foreign country.  Remarkable language, especially looking forward to 2014 when we are told that such action would be an impeachable offense.

Senator McConnell used the bullfighting analogy because the red flag makes the bull angry; following the analogy to its inevitable outcome is probably not what he had in mind.  The poor, but angry bull never stands a chance.  In this case, though, it won’t be those in Congress who don’t stand a chance; it will be those caught in our messy and broken immigration system.

John Dickson was Deputy Chief of Mission in Mexico and Director of the Office of Mexican Affairs at the Department of State and is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts public history program.

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