Saying the nation's economic turmoil has increased discrimination and inequality for America's poor, especially blacks and Latinos, some of the nation's leading political and civil rights leaders announced the civil rights agenda they will address collectively during the Obama Administration.
During a press conference on the opening day of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund's 38th Annual Conference, "A More Perfect Union - Targeted Stimulus: The Key to Reconstruction", the leaders said they will focus on 10 major initiatives:
1. Reducing the interest rate on student loans. Students should get the same rate the banks get.
2. Voter registration for 18 year olds should be automatic.
3. The Voting Rights Act must be defended given the Supreme Court's rulings on Section 2 and Section 5.
4. Civil rights must be upheld and we must be prepared to respond to the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action expected this week.
5. Felons and the formerly incarcerated should have their voting rights restored when they are released from jail or prison.
6. We need a moratorium on home foreclosures and a comprehensive program to modify mortgages.
7. We must link civil rights to trade and reindustrialization policy.
8. The stimulus and economic recovery program must be targeted to the zones most in need.
9. The ban on assault weapons must be revived and we must reinstitute the Brady bill.
10. We need comprehensive immigration reform.
"We are all free now, but we are not equal," said Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, who led the call to action and organized the civil rights summit. "African Americans and Latinos are leading in every negative category. We are number one in infant mortality, number one in home foreclosures, number one in unemployment and number one in those incarcerated."
Joining Rev. Jackson at the press conference and opening sessions of the conference, were Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA); Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL); Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP; Bertha Lewis, executive director of NY Acorn; Gary Flowers , executive director of the Black Leadership Forum; Stephanie Jones, executive director of the National Urban League's Policy Institute; Janice Mathis, vice president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition; and Jenigh Garrett, assistant counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Congresswoman Lee said that the government is not doing enough to counter these problems and, therefore, constituents must play a more active role in holding elected officials responsible because only with their influence will the issues be solved.
"We need to be reminded every day that our work has just begun," she said. "We have the opportunity to address persistent policy, structural inequalities and institutional racism. It must not be swept under the rug."
Another topic of great concern is the federal stimulus. Disappointed that major corporations and banks, undeserving of aid, have been bailed out by the government, the leaders agreed that in order to rebuild the nation, money should be redirected to people who need the most help.
"To be successful, we must water the roots, not just water the leaves, "Rev. Jackson said. "Right now the stimulus is being targeted to the banks, but it has to get down to where people live."
That also applies to college students, the leaders said. With the costs of tuition rising, and more students plagued with debt, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition has been aggressively leading a campaign called "Reduce the Rate" aimed at lowering student loans to a rate of 1 percent - a benefit that many banks have received.
"Student loan rates should be the same as the banks," Rev. Jackson said. "Banks are getting 1 percent and charging an 8% fee," That is not right. If we can't go to school, we can't compete."
Following the press conference and morning session on civil rights, the focus of the conference shifted to the criminal justice system and innocent individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.
A panel moderated by Jonathan Jackson, national spokesman for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and including Congressman Bobby Rush, Illinois State Representative Constance Howard, Rev. Janette Wilson of Chicago, WVON talk show host Cliff Kelly, and others in the criminal justice field, listened to individuals as they gave testimonies about their experiences. Anthony Porter, a man who served 17 years on death row for double murder, was freed two days before his scheduled execution. He describes the torture he endured.
"They beat me in my chest, kicked me, spit on me, hit me over the head with a flashlight," he said. Anything to get me to confess to a murder I didn't commit. One of the officers even said he knew I didn't do it; he just said I hate you anyway."
Stating that, while there is torture in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Iraq, the same thing occurs in America and the issue is ignored. Poor people of color are common victims, often brutally beaten and forced to admit to false crimes. Uneducated, most do not know their rights and are unable to defend themselves against the system.
"12 million people are in jail right now, and 2.2 million juveniles are incarcerated every year," Congressman Rush said. "America does not want to acknowledge it, but it is the truth. [We have to] let them know we are sick and tired of them ignoring the plight of our poor people. We have to raise our voices."
Rev. Jackson also spoke about the recent passing of music legend Michael Jackson. Having met with the family on Friday, he asked that everyone respect the Jackson family as they cope with the loss of their loved one. "I support them in having their moment of grief and trying to figure out what is going to happen in the aftermath. The wound is still open," Rev. Jackson said. "His music, his legacy will take us on into the future."
He did mention, however, that there is a pending investigation into what happened in the final moments leading to his death.
"We called for a second autopsy," Rev. Jackson said. "There are still some questions, like how long was he unconscious, and why didn't the doctors communicate with the parents?"
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund annual conference runs through July 1, 2009.
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition is a progressive organization protecting, defending and expanding civil rights to improve economic and educational opportunity. The organization is headquartered at 930 E. 50th St. in Chicago. For more information about the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, please visit www.rainbowpush.org or call (773) 373-3366