Five decades ago this years, in the fall of 1956, the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., newly prominent because of the role he played in the boycott by African-Americans of Montgomery, Alabama's segregated bus system, delivered one of the greatest speeches of his career at a Bible camp near a small midwestern community.
Speaking near the Wisconsin village of Green Lake, at a conference of the American Baptist Assembly and American Home Mission Agencies, King recognized a teaching moment. Reaching out to white Christians with a message about the need to join the burgeoning economic and social justice movement that would become the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, King asked his audience to ponder what the the Apostle Paul would say to them.
The contemporary prophet began, as he so often did, by addressing economic issues.
"I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism," said King, as he read an imaginary letter from the apostle. "Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity."
"The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation," the letter continued. "This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem. You cannot solve the problem by turning to communism, for communism is based on an ethical relativism and a metaphysical materialism that no Christian can accept. You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe "enough and to spare" for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth."
Then, still channeling the words of the apostle, King turned to the question of race.
"I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible," King's exposition of "Paul's Letter to American Christians" continued. "They argue that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah's curse upon the children of Ham. Oh my friends, this is blasphemy. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for. I must say to you as I have said to so many Christians before, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus." Moreover, I must reiterate the words that I uttered on Mars Hill: 'God that made the world and all things therein . . . hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.'
"So Americans I must urge you to get rid of every aspect of segregation," the letter continued. "The broad universalism standing at the center of the gospel makes both the theory and practice of segregation morally unjustifiable. Segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ. It substitutes an "I-it" relationship for the "I-thou" relationship. The segregator relegates the segregated to the status of a thing rather than elevate him to the status of a person. The underlying philosophy of Christianity is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of segregation, and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them lie down together."
Today, as we mark the 77th anniversary of King's birth in an era when some Christians still attempt to use their Bible as a justification for discrimination and hatred, it is more important than ever to remember the message of an apostle that was delivered fifty years ago.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), a book that historian Howard Zinn says "reminds us that our opposition to empire has a long and noble tradition in this country."
It sounds as if Al Gore is about to deliver what could be not just one of the more significant speeches of his political career but an essential challenge to the embattled presidency of George W. Bush.
In a major address slated for delivery Monday in Washington, the former Vice President is expected to argue that the Bush administration has created a "Constitutional crisis" by acting without the authorization of the Congress and the courts to spy on Americans and otherwise abuse basic liberties.
Aides who are familiar with the preparations for the address say that Gore will frame his remarks in Constitutional language. The Democrat who beat Bush by more than 500,000 votes in the 2000 presidential election has agreed to deliver his remarks in a symbolically powerful location: the historic Constitution Hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution. But this will not be the sort of cautious, bureacratic speech for which Gore was frequently criticized during his years in the Senate and the White House.
Indeed, his aides and allies are framing it as a "call to arms" in defense of the Bill of Rights and the rule of law in a time of executive excess.
The vice president will, according to the groups that have arranged for his appearance -- the bipartisan Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy -- address "the threat posed by policies of the Bush Administration to the Constitution and the checks and balances it created. The speech will specifically point to domestic wiretapping and torture as examples of the administration's efforts to extend executive power beyond Congressional direction and judicial review."
Coming only a few weeks after U.S. Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, introduced resolutions to censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and to explore the issue of impeachment, Gore in expected to "make the case that the country -- including the legislative and judicial branches and all Americans -- must act now to defend the systems put into place by the country's founders to curb executive power or risk permanent and irreversible damage to the Constitution."
Don't expect a direct call for impeachment from the former vice president. But do expect Gore to make reference to Richard Nixon, whose abuses of executive authority led to calls for his impeachment -- a fate the 37th president avoided by resigning in 1974.
Gore's speech will add fuel to the fire that was ignited when it was revealed that Bush had secretly authorized National Security Agency to monitor communications in the United States without warrants. Gore will argue that the domestic wiretapping policy is only the latest example of the administration exceeding its authority under the Constitution.
With a Congressional inquiry into Bush's repeated violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act scheduled to begin in February -- and with Bush already preparing to pitch an Nixon-style defense that suggests it is appropriate for the executive branch to violate the law when national security matters are involved -- Gore will articulate the more traditional view that reasonable checks and balances are required even in a time of war. And he will do so in a bipartisan context that will make it tougher for Republican critics to dismiss the former vice president's assertion that the Constitution is still the law of the land.
Former U.S. Representative Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican who served as one of the most conservative members of the House, plans to introduce Gore. Barr, an outspoken critic of the abuses of civil liberties contained in the USA Patriot Act critic who has devoted his post-Congressional years to defending the Bill of Rights, refers to the president's secret authorization of domestic wiretapping as "an egregious violation of the electronic surveillance laws."
Count on Gore, who has pulled few punches in the speeches he has delivered in recent months, to be at least as caustic.
"There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer," Martin Luther King Jr. wrote thirty-five years ago in his book Where Do We Go From Here. "There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family."
As the nation celebrates Dr. King's life this weekend, Sen. Edward Kennedy and a broad alliance of religious and community groups are honoring King's dream of social and economic justice with a bold new vision for a national living wage. The Let Justice Roll Campaign--a unique coalition of more than fifty groups including ACORN, The Center for Community Change, the United Methodist Church, and the Union of Reform Judaism, among others-- kicks off its "Living Wage Days" this weekend.
Events will be held across the country, including in Quincy, Mass, where Kennedy, who vigorously led the fight to boost the federal minimum wage in 2005, will speak on the critical need for an increase. If you or your organization would like to take part in the nation-wide movement, click here to sign up and here for a resource guide.
The timing of this effort couldn't be more appropriate. While the states are pushing ahead on the minimum wage (and the New York Times and other media have just begun to notice!) the federal minimum wage has been at a standstill for more than eight years. If we don't see an increase by September, it will be the longest the country has ever gone without one.
As Dr. King would say, "Now is the time for all of us to move forward, not retreat, on the road toward a more just society. Now is our timewe cannot wait."
UPDATE: Maryland's Wal-Mart Law Is Official!
Yesterday, Maryland's legislature overturned Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich's veto and passed the Fair Share Health Care Act, a bill we've been following since last April. Thisbreakthrough law makes Maryland the first state in the nation to require that Wal-Mart devote a share of its payroll to health benefits for employees. "We don't want to kill this giant," Del. Anne Healy, the bill's lead sponsor in the House, told the Washington Post. "We want this giant to behave itself."
More than half of Wal-Mart's 1.3 million employees nationwide are forced to rely on Medicaid programs because they're not covered by the company's health insurance. But Maryland's precedent could have a major impact on the rest of the country, where similar acts are being introduced in 33 other states.
We wrote back in April of '05, "[W]ith continued pressure from activists and legislative action from the states, America's corporations could face a future in which social responsibility is no longer optional." Yesterday's news is a big step in this direction.
We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing email@example.com.
Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.
Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees should always be about more than the abortion debate. And the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to serve on the high court have touched on a broad variety of issues -- including the essential question of whether the court will address the Bush administration's abuses of authority by enforcing the Constitutional balance of powers.
But, as has been the case in confirmation hearings for the better part of three decades, the search for signals with regard to the nominee's stance on reproductive rights matters has played a dominant role in the advice and consent process that has played out in Washington this week.
In something of a deviation from many past confirmation hearings, however, and dialogue about choice has provided useful insights into Alito's activist approach to judging. And those insights have led an influential moderate Republican group to come out against the nominee.
Confirming fears that he intends to join the court with an activist agenda, Alito distanced himself from the language used by Chief Justice John Roberts during confirmation hearings last year, when Roberts sought to ease fears about whether he wanted to join the court with the purpose of constraining or eliminating abortion rights. In answering questions from senators, Roberts expressed the mainstream view that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established that a woman's right to privacy gives her control of decisions about whether or not terminate a pregnancy, is "settled law."
While U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Illinois, pressed Alito on the point, asking whether the nominee believes that the ruling in Roe is "the settled law of the land," the current nominee steadfastly refused to echo Roberts.
Suggesting that the meaning of "settled" is open to interpretation -- "If 'settled' means that it can't be reexamined, then that's one thing. If 'settled' means that it is a precedent that is entitled to respect . . . then it is a precedent that is protected, entitled to respect under the doctrine of stare decisis" -- Alito went out of his way to maintain the option of revisiting Roe and, potentially, reversing it.
Earlier in the hearings, Alito told Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennyslvania, that, if he is confirmed, he will "approach the (choice) question with an open mind."
But Alito, who as a member of the Reagan administration in the 1980s asserted that there was no Constitutional protected right to choose, refused to distance himself from the statement that seems to indicate his mind is anything but open on the issue. "That was a true expression of my views at the time," said Alito, when asked about 1985 memos he wrote disputing the argument that the Constitution guarantees women control over their own bodies. At no point, though he was given numerous opportunities to do so, did Alito suggest that his opinion had evolved since 1985.
Notably, after Alito testified before the committee, the group Republican Majority for Choice (RMC), issued a statement that said, "There is no crystal ball to predict how a Justice Alito would rule in future cases; therefore we have closely monitored the confirmation hearings with the hope that Judge Alito would offer some clarifying statements that would allay our concerns about his record. Instead, he side-stepped the issue of whether or not the right to privacy in the Constitution extends to reproductive choice. He avoided answering whether Roe was settled law and existing precedent required a health exception to statutes limiting a woman's access to abortion."
"Without such assurances, we can only calculate his judicial philosophy on reproductive rights through the prism of his past actions and statements," the RMC statement continued. Referring to retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the critical swing vote on the court with regard to reproductive rights and other issues, the group added, "As the replacement for the architect of the 'undue burden' standard, the stakes are too high for RMC to support an appointee who outlined a blueprint to dismantle that very standard."
Accordingly, the organization announced its opposition to Alito's nomination. The opposition to Alito contrasts with the groups stance regarding Roberts, about whom RMC declared, "Liberal and reactionary opposition based on a circumstantial review of Justice Roberts' limited public record reflect an agenda predisposed to oppose all Republican nominees."
RMC is the largest pro-choice group in the Republican Party and has more influence than most moderate groups with GOP senators. In addition to Specter, three other Republican senators -- Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, and Mainers Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe -- serve on the Republican Majority for Choice advisory council. The question now is whether those senators were paying as close attention to Alito's testimony as the group they advise.
Needless to say, the same goes for other senators, Republicans and Democrats, who claim to support a right to choose.
After all, as the Republican Majority for Choice noted, "The reality is that Judge Alito would not have to vote to overrule Roe in order to be the architect of the denial of a woman's right to choose. He could give lip service to respecting Roe while upholding the numerous legislative efforts to chip away at reproductive freedom. The cumulative result is that Roe v. Wade and its progeny are rendered meaningless."
A few days before the New Year, soon after the New York Times reported that Bush had authorized the warrantless wiretapping of thousands of Americans, I called Elizabeth Holtzman. I remembered that Nixon was charged in Article II of his bill of impeachment with illegal wiretapping for what he, too, claimed were national security reasons. And memories of Holtzman as a young leader on the House Judiciary Committee, during Watergate, made me sure she'd be a rigorous, thoughtful voice on this gravest of issues.
I reached Holtzman at her New York city law office. Anyone who knows Holtzman respects her level-headed, no-nonsense manner. That afternoon, however, her voice rose as she expressed outrage about the recent revelations of Bush's wiretapping, and she was quick to drew parallels to Watergate-era abuses. But Holtzman hesitated before agreeing to take on this assignment, asking for a few days to pull together her material and arguments. A few days later, she sent me an e-mail saying I'd have it a few days after the new year.
As promised, Holtzman got us the piece. Over the course of a week, working with senior editor Betsy Reed, Holtzman revised the article--adding more facts, reviewing arguments with legal colleagues, and updating (for example, the Pentagon study disclosing that proper bulletproof vests would have saved hundreds of lives came out just days before press date).
So, today, some thirty years after Watergate, a leader in the impeachment of Richard Nixon--former member of the House Judiciary Committee Elizabeth Holtzman--returns to the national stage, with her cover story in this week's Nation, to make the case for impeachment again: this time against President George W. Bush.
The article is especially powerful because of its sober tone, its rigorous argumentation and fastidious documentation. It is also moving because it is informed by Holtzman's personal experience and political history.
"I can still remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach," Holtzman writes, "during those [Watergate] proceedings, when it became clear that the President had so systematically abused the powers of the Presidency and so threatened the rule of law that he had to be removed from office." Holtzman understood then, and understands now, that impeachment is a "tortuous process"-- the most extreme Constitutional act in a democracy, a "last resort." Voting for impeachment, she remembers, was "one of the most sobering and unpleasant tasks I ever had to undertake...[And] At the time, I hoped that our committee's work would send a strong signal to future Presidents that they had to obey the rule of law."
"I was wrong," Holtzman admits. And "now that President Bush has thrown down the gauntlet and virtually dared Congress to stop him from violating the law, nothing less [than impeachment] is necessary to protect our constitutional system and preserve our democracy."
This is not a partisan argument. In fact , as Steve Clemons notes in his fine blog, The Washington Note, "there are many moderate Republicans and Democracts who are disgusted by many of the same issues that Holtzman documents." And, as Holtzman argues eloquently, appealing to all citizens who care about our democracy: "A President, any President, who maintains that he is above the law---and repeatedly violates the law--thereby commits high crimes and misdemeanors, the constitutional standard for impeachment and removal from office."
For all Americans who want to preserve and protect our democracy, please read and circulate Elizabeth Holtzman's Nation article.
Use it to spearhead letter-writing campaigns to newspapers, to organize petition drives, and send it to your Representatives demanding that they support hearings and investigations into Presidential deceptions and abuses. And, as we head into this crucial 2006 election year, remember, as Holtzman points out, " If a Republican Congress is unwilling to investigate and take appropriate action against a Republican President, then a Democratic Congress should replace it."
Lest anyone accuse me of conflict-of-interest, let me fully disclose at the outset that this post is both highly self-interested and written to introduce you to a new project with which The Nation is directly involved and invested.
That said, I'm delighted to announce that the new RadioNation show, hosted by author, activist and award-winning radio personality Laura Flanders, debuted on the Air America Radio Network this past weekend in a new collaboration betweenThe Nation, Air America and Laura and her team.
Broadcast live for three hours each Saturday and Sunday from 7:00 to 10:00pm EST, and available online, the show features news and programming from around the country; special remote broadcasts; interviews with Nation writers, editors and Nation Institute journalism fellows; reader call-ins; a weekly journalists' roundtable; coverage of Nation events; live musical performances and cutting-edge political and cultural commentary.
We're psyched to also be producing a one-hour version of the new RadioNation, which is being provided free to noncommercial community and college stations. This is a universe in which Laura and her producer Steve Rosenfeld are well-known names. We're thrilled to be pulling off what to our knowledge is an unprecedented example of a political talk-show bridging the gap between commercial and non-commercial radio.
For general information, click here to check out the show's website, where you can read the show's blog, find out where you can hear it live, and listen to it online. This past weekend's episode featured material from Brooklyn's "Out of Iraq" event, a journalists' roundtable with Raw Story's Larisa Alexandrovna and The Nation's Bruce Shapiro, an interview with former Congressman Chris Bell, who first filed ethics charges against Tom DeLay, and a special commentary by Nation columnist Katha Pollitt.
So listen to the show. I think you'll like what you hear. And watch the RadioNation site, the EmailNation list and the pages of The Nation for information on upcoming special programming. Head's up: On January 14 and 15, Laura will be broadcasting live from Salt Lake City, where she'll meet with the city's progressive mayor, Rocky Anderson. And on January 21, RadioNation will broadcast live from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute.
Questions for Alito
As the second day of Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings get underway today, one of the very few things liberals and conservatives agree on regarding Bush's nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court is that if Alito is confirmed, the Court is likely to shift to the right, especially on abortion issues and in disputes over the separation of church and state.
Read and circulate The Nation magazine's Case Against Alito.
Then click here to implore your Senator to vote against the nomination.
We also want to know what you think. If you were a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, what would you ask Samuel Alito about his record and judicial philosophy? Send us your questions, and as the hearings unfold, TheNation.com will publish the best of them.
When Frank Wilkinson died on January 2nd, obituaries focused on his role as a leading defender of the First Amendment and as a fierce opponent of McCarthyism. But Wilkinson was by all accounts--including the compelling new biography about his life and work, "First Amendment Felon" written by longtime Nation contributor Robert Sherrill--an ordinary, even a conservative, American who became an accidental champion of our right to speak and (by extension) to think what we choose.
For decades, Wilkinson waged a David vs. Goliath battle against the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover and others who illegally wiretapped and harassed domestic dissidents opponent. (In later years, Wilkinson obtained his FBI file--all 132,000 pages of it!)
As many obituaries noted, as a result of a shameful Supreme Court decision, Wilkinson was one of the last two people jailed for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) whether he was a Communist. As a result, in 1961 he spent nine months in federal prison in Lewisburg, PA. After prison, Wilkinson spent more than a decade on the road, working with the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, determined to shut down HUAC. When HUAC was finally abolished in 1975, Wilkinson's crusading work was widely cited as a key reason for its demise.
But there was another important part of Wilkinson's legacy--his pioneering work as an activist for affordable public housing--which received too little attention in the national obituaries. Of special significance was his role in the controversial battle of Chez Ravine--a tightly-knit Los Angeles neighborhood--which became a legend of urban planning, inspiring a recent album by guitarist Ry Cooder, a play by the Culture Clash Theater group, documentaries and many books and academic articles.
In this spirit, longtime Nationcontributor Peter Dreier and his colleague Jan Breidenbach offer a fascinating tribute, with a sharp focus on the other legacy of Frank Wilkinson, which they've kindly allowed me to publish in this space.
Frank Wilkinson's LegacyPeter Dreier and Jan Breidenbach
The obituaries for Frank Wilkinson, who died January 2 at 91, primarily focused on his role as a leading opponent of McCarthyism and his fervent dedication to the first amendment. The years he spent fighting for our basic freedoms were catalyzed by his own experience in 1958, when he was one of the last people ordered to prison for defying HUAC. After prison, he formed what became the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, and until his death, dedicated his energy and brilliance to our basic rights.
We lose a champion just at the time the assault on our civil liberties is increasing--the Patriot Act, National Security Administration spying--these are only the most egregious of the present Administration's attempt to undo all that Frank stood for.
Frank's dedication to civil liberties is worthy of a book-length memorial. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that he began his career as an activist for affordable housing. His crusade for the first amendment actually began when he was fired from the Los Angeles Housing Authority for his radical politics.
For Wilkinson's generation of idealists -- who came of age in the Depression of the 1930s -- public housing was part of a broad movement for social reform and economic justice. To the extent that public housing now bears the stigma of failure, it is due not to the progressive values that inspired Wilkinson and others, but to the political influence of right-wing forces who fought to undermine public housing from the beginning.
Los Angeles and other cities again face a severe shortage of affordable housing. Many of the same battles that Wilkinson fought 50 years ago -- -- over land use, government subsidies for the poor, racial integration, and "not in my backyard" opposition to low-cost housing -- confront the current generation of public officials and civic leaders.
Frank Wilkinson grew up in Beverly Hills, was a Republican when a student at UCLA and seriously considered becoming a Methodist minister. He joined the new Los Angeles Housing Authority in 1942 when it was an independent agency with the mission of ending slum housing in the city. Under the then-Mayor Fletcher Bowron, a reform-minded liberal Republican elected in 1938, The LA Housing Authority supported the idea of building decent housing for poor and low-income families and believed in racial integration in the city's developments.
After World War II, Bowron sought to expand the program, especially for the many veterans who faced a desperate housing shortage. He endorsed a plan to raze many homes in the tight-knit Chavez Ravine neighborhood replace them with a large public housing development to be designed by world-class architect Richard Nuetra that would include two dozen 13-story buildings and more than 160 two-story houses, as well as new playgrounds and schools. Bowron, Wilkinson and other reformers viewed the housing plan for Chavez Ravine as a way to improve living conditions poor Angelenos. Opposition to the plan came from immigrants to lived in the area, which was essentially, a rural setting of small shacks, unpaved roads and no city sewer system. Opposition was understandable, given that in spite of these conditions, the people there considered the hills their home. One of the incentives offered to the residents was the absolute promise that they would be the first ones to move into the new housing. In 1950, the plan was presented to them.
While Frank and the Housing Authority wanted to rebuild the neighborhood for the people who lived there, others in the City--businesses leaders and right-wing politicians--agreed to bulldoze the area but for other reasons. Land so close to the city's downtown was worth more exploited for profit that the provision of affordable housing. Using McCarthyite "Red Scare" tactics, these forces combined to characterize the Chavez Ravine proposal -- and public housing in general -- as socialist planning. The attack focused on its leading advocate--Frank Wilkinson--portraying him as a dangerous Communist. Brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to answer their questions on First Amendment grounds and was fired from his job, tried and sent to federal prison.
The same business leaders who opposed Wilkinson and public housing also ended Bowron's political career. They handpicked Congressman Norris Poulson to run against Bowron and orchestrated his mayoral victory in 1953. During his campaign, Poulson vowed to stop the Chavez Ravine plan and other examples of "un-American" spending. Under Poulson, the city bought back the Chavez Ravine site from the federal government at a cut-rate price.
Los Angeles allowed Chavez Ravine to languish as an almost abandoned slum until the mid1950s, when City Councilman Kenneth Hahn gave the Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley a helicopter tour, pointing out the area's proximity to freeways and downtown. To get O'Malley to bring his team to Los Angeles, the City bulldozed the few remaining homes, forcibly evicting the last residents. No one was relocated into better housing, no decent housing was built for the poor who lived there. Deep ravines were filled in to make the flat playing field of Dodger Stadium.
The "battle of Chavez Ravine" has become a legend of urban planning, inspiring a play by the Culture Clash theater group, a recent album by guitarist Ry Cooder, and many books and academic articles.
The attack on Frank Wilkinson as a housing advocate for the poor was only one of many repeated in numerous ways across the country.
Until the Depression, most American opinion leaders believed that the private market, with a helping hand from private philanthropy, could meet the nation's housing needs. In the first three decades of the 20th century, a few unions and settlement house reformers built model housing developments for working class families, but without government subsidy. The nation's economic collapse provided reformers with a political opening to push their "radical" ideas that the federal government should subsidize "social housing" and help create a noncommercial sector free from profit and speculation. Like their European counterparts, they envisioned it for the middle-class as well as the poor.
These reformers - union activists, economists, planners, architects, social workers, and journalists - had faith in the positive role of government on people and communities. They believed that well-designed housing with adequate amenities ) could uplift the poor. They pushed for well-designed, mixed-income, noncommercial, government-subsidized housing projects, sponsored by unions, church groups, other non-profit organizations, and government agencies. During its first few years, the New Deal build a few model developments that reflected this vision. They included day care centers and playgrounds, involved residents in cultural and educational activities, and were physically attractive enough so that middle-class families wanted to live there.
But the reformers were soon outmaneuvered by the real estate industry. The industry -- worried that well-designed and affordable government-sponsored housing would compete with the private sector for middle-class consumers -- warned about the specter of "socialism." After WW2, recognizing the pent-up demand for housing and fearing competition from public housing, the industry mobilized a major campaign against the program. Especially with the federal housing act of 1949, the industry sabotaged the program by pressuring Congress to restrict its funding, give local governments discretion over whether and where to locate developments, and limit it to the very poor. Senators from the South made sure that local governments had the authority to keep public housing racially segregated.
With limited budgets, many projects were poorly constructed and/or badly designed - ugly warehouses for the poor - stigmatizing "government housing" as housing of last resort. Local housing authorities -- typically dominated by business and real estate representatives -- often located public housing developments in areas without adequate stores, transportation, or schools, and isolated from middle-class neighborhoods, contributing to the concentration of poor people in cities. The problems we now associate with public housing were not inevitable. They were due to political choices made in Congress and at the local level.
Public housing became identified with drug wars and crime, places where children are afraid to walk to school, and elderly tenants, for whom hallways and elevators are as dangerous as streets, are afraid to leave their apartments, portrayed more as a trap than a ladder. Eventually, only 1.3 million public housing units were built -- less than 1 percent of the nation's housing -- and this construction came to an end in the Nixon era. Other programs-- rental vouchers for poor tenants and smaller production funding--have been implemented, but the United States effectively walked away from our responsibility to house everyone--including the very poor--when we abandoned public housing.
Today, Washington provides housing assistance for less than one-quarter of the nation's poor. And while the number of poor people has increased since President George W. Bush took office, his administration is cutting housing subsidies for low-income families.
Some federal funds are still used to build new housing for the poor. Ironically, most of today's government-subsidized housing is built by nonprofit community development organizations. They are typically well-designed to fit into neighborhoods and small-scale compared with the massive public housing projects built in the 1950s and 1960s. A growing number of these developments are mixed-income and provide child care, job training, and education and art programs. In other words, they look similar to the kind of projects that early housing reformers and their political offspring, like Frank Wilkinson, envisioned. But without sufficient federal subsidies, these community groups lack the resources to seriously address housing shortage for the poor.
And to this day, right-wing politicians use stereotypes of public housing to attack the very idea of government activism. During his 1996 campaign, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole said that public housing was "one of the last bastions of socialism in the world", calling the authorities "landlords of misery." More recently, after the Katrina hurricane, Congressman Richard Baker (R-LA) was overheard telling lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."
Having the federal government turn its back on housing for all has not made the crisis go away. The nation's cities must address a serious housing crisis, but without the federal government as a partner. In Los Angeles, where Frank lived his entire life, elected leaders and activists are trying to deal with the legacy of the federal neglect, including more than 80,000 homeless people and a housing market where even middle-class families can't afford to buy a home. Finding resources for a local housing trust fund, exploring policies such as inclusionary housing, ‘granny flats' and increased density, and pushing landlords to fix up slum buildings, progressive Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is calling on local housing advocates--and the spirit of Frank Wilkinson--to come up with solutions to an overwhelming crisis.
After Wilkerson emerged from prison, he was not allowed back to work for public housing. Instead, he went on to become one of the nation's leading civil rights activists. Like his fight to protect the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech, Frank Wilkinson viewed decent, safe, affordable housing as a basic human right. He was an inspiration to tens of thousands of activists in this nation. In his memory, we recommit ourselves to dismantling the Patriot Act, as he fought to dismantle HUAC. And in his memory, we fight for a safe, decent and affordable place to call home--for all.
Peter Dreier teaches political science and directs the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College. Jan Breidenbach is the executive director of the So CA Association of Non-Profit Housing and Housing LA.
Best response to the Abramoff Scandal? That's easy.
As just about everyone else in Congress is rushing to dispose of campaign contributions received from GOP super-lobbyist and convicted criminal Jack Abramoff, California Congressman John Doolittle says he's keeping his Abramoff-linked money. Doolittle, a Republican whose various campaign committees collected close $50,000 from Abramoff and the disgraced lobbyist's associates and clients, has been identified as a top target of the Justice Department investigation of Congressional corruption.
But, his office says, it wouldn't look right for the congressman to rid his campaign of Abramoff's dirty dollars. "Congressman Doolittle refuses to give even the slightest appearance of something wrong by returning money that was accepted legally and ethically," says Doolitte aide Laura Blackann. Keeping the money, explains Blackann, "is a matter of principle to the congressman." Suggested slogan for the congressman's reelection campaign: Doolittle's Got the Courage to be Corrupt.
When the Senate Judiciary Committee begins questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito this week, Americans will again be reminded of the limitations of the confirmation process for presidential picks to serve on the federal bench.
Alito will lie to the committee, intentionally and repeatedly.
In keeping with the standard set by all recent high court nominees, he will treat the hearings, and by extension the American people, who the confirmation process is intended to serve, with utter and complete contempt.
Alito will be asked direct questions and he will claim that he cannot answer them for two reasons.
First, in order to avoid broad questions about his legal philosophy, he will claim that he is not able to comment on cases that might come before the court. This is a deliberate dodge, designed not to protect Alito's ability to judge impartially but to avoid revealing whether his ideas are within the mainstream of constitutional interpretation and judicial responsibility.
Second, despite the fact that his proponents would have the Senate and the American people believe that he is a brilliant man with broad executive branch and judicial experience, Alito will claim that he has not seriously considered fundamental questions of law, politics and public policy. This, too, is a deliberate dodge, designed to prevent an examination of how he approaches issues.
If the recent past offers any indication, Alito's refusal to cooperate with the committee will be extensive. When Chief Justice John Roberts faced the committee during his confirmation hearings last fall, he refused to answer more than 60 questions in a single day.
As members of the Judiciary Committee approach what should be their most solemn duty--since they are being called upon to accept or reject a nominee who could serve on the high court long after they have left politics--senators of both parties should be looking for a way to crack the facade of deceit and disrespect that Alito will erect.
Here's one suggestion for how to do that:
Ask the nominee how he would have ruled in the case of Bush v. Gore. Does he agree that the court was right to intervene, for the first time in history, to stop the counting of the ballots that could have determined the result of a presidential contest? Or does he believe, as University of Virginia professor and Supreme Court scholar A.E. Howard has suggested, "Prudence would call for letting the political process run its course"?
Does Alito believe it is possible to reconcile the high court's intervention in an electotal battle with a strict constructionist reading of the Constitution that says Congress, not the court, is charged with settling disputed contests at the federal level?
Does he believe that Justices Antonin Scalia, whose sons were associated with firms that represented George W. Bush's campaign, and Clarence Thomas, whose wife was working with Bush's transition team, should have recused themselves from the deliberations? Does he worry that the decision to intervene in the case might have damaged the court's reputation as an independent body that stands apart from the partisan politics associated with the executive branch?
Of course, Alito will try to avoid such questions, just as Roberts did when Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, made a tepid attempt to raise the issue last year. But Alito has no excuse for refusing to answer.
The case of Bush v. Gore will never come before the court again. And the court itself has ruled that the decision should not be interpreted as setting a precedent. Thus, it is one of the few court decisions that is entirely, and appropriately, open to discussion by a nominee.
And what if Alito claims he hasn't taken the time to consider the case or its issues?
Considering the fact that the case involved the question of who would be the most powerful person on the planet, if Alito claims he wasn't paying attention, there really would not be any question that he is too disengaged to be confirmed to so substantial a position.
Note: If you were a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, what would youask Samuel Alito about his record and judicial philosophy? Send us your questions, and as the hearingsunfold, TheNation.com will publish the best of them.
John Nichols is the author of Jews For Buchanan (The New Press), an examination of the 2000 recount debacle in Florida and the Supreme Court intervention that settled the dispute for George W. Bush. Jews for Buchanan can be found at indpendent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com
Is Jack Abramoff the gift that will keep on giving? And will he destroy the Republican Party?
It's not a coincidence that Tom DeLay resigned his leadership post--which he was forced to temporarily abdicate once he was indicted in Texas on charges of laundering campaign funds--days after Abramoff, the corrupt-Republican-lobbyist-turned-snitch, cut a deal with the feds that will require him to tell all. That certainly will entail sharing whatever he knows about his intimate relationship with DeLay and DeLay's closest political associates, as well as what he knows about other GOP lawmakers, staffers and high-powered Republican operatives (such as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist). News reports have already said that up to twenty lawmakers and aides are already in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors thanks to Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, his former partner in sleaze, who also has been cooperating with the feds.
With nervous Republicans angling to toss DeLay overboard, the indicted ex-House majority leader had not much choice but to jump before being unceremoniously shoved aside. But GOPers still have reason for fear for at least two reasons:
1. The Abramoff inquiry is big.
2. As big as the Abramoff probe is, it could extend far beyond the corrupt dealings of Jack Abramoff and his pals on Capitol HIll and K Street.
My friend Karen Tumulty reports in this week's Time that Justice Department prosecutors are running a decent-sized investigation:
Another official involved with the probe told Time that investigators are viewing Abramoff as "the middle guy"--suggesting there are bigger targets in their sights. The FBI has 13 field offices across the country working on the case, with two dozen agents assigned to it full time and roughly the same number working part time. "We are going to chase down every lead," Chris Swecker, head of the FBI's criminal division, told Time.
Nearly 50 agents chasing down Abramoff leads across the country? Republicans far and wide better watch out. (Recall the recent GOP scandal in Ohio, in which the allegedly illegal doings of a top Republican fundraiser stretched to the office of the Republican governor.) On Sunday, The New York Times reported that some of these agents are looking at Alexander Strategy, a leading Republican lobbying firm closely linked to DeLay. Unless the Bush White House dares to muscle the prosecutors, the odds are high that they will nab a bunch of legislators, aides and lobbyists who did shady business with Abramoff, "the middle guy."
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Pat Robertson's latest dumb moves and other in-the-news matters.
Abramoff probably possesses the keys to many different floodgates, several involving DeLay. (How about that deal in which Russian energy interests donated $1 million--via a British law firm--to a political outfit set up by DeLay and did so at a time when there was legislation in Congress to back lMF loan guarantees that would benefit these interests?) But here's why the Abramoff scandal might grow larger than Abramoff's wide-ranging dealings: Once prosecutors start to look for crimes, they often find them. Moreover, once they penetrate a corrupt organization (say, the mob) and begin nailing people, they frequently find sources who squeal on others and disclose crimes unrelated to what brought the investigators knocking.
Look at Sunday's Los Angles Times. As DeLay is sinking, sources are coming forward to tell of misdeeds heretofore unknown to the citizenry. The paper reports:
In a case that echoes the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, two Northern California Republican congressmen used their official positions to try to stop a federal investigation of a wealthy Texas businessman who provided them with political contributions.
Reps. John T. Doolittle and Richard W. Pombo joined forces with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to oppose an investigation by federal banking regulators into the affairs of Houston millionaire Charles Hurwitz, documents recently obtained by The Times show. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was seeking $300 million from Hurwitz for his role in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan that cost taxpayers $1.6 billion.
The investigation was ultimately dropped.
The effort to help Hurwitz began in 1999 when DeLay wrote a letter to the chairman of the FDIC denouncing the investigation of Hurwitz as a "form of harassment and deceit on the part of government employees." When the FDIC persisted, Doolittle and Pombo--both considered proteges of DeLay--used their power as members of the House Resources Committee to subpoena the agency's confidential records on the case, including details of the evidence FDIC investigators had compiled on Hurwitz.
Then, in 2001, the two congressmen inserted many of the sensitive documents into the Congressional Record, making them public and accessible to Hurwitz's lawyers, a move that FDIC officials said damaged the government's ability to pursue the banker.
The FDIC's chief spokesman characterized what Doolittle and Pombo did as "a seamy abuse of the legislative process." But soon afterward, in 2002, the FDIC dropped its case against Hurwitz, who had owned a controlling interest in the United Savings Assn. of Texas. United Savings' failure was one of the worst of the S&L debacles in the 1980s.
Doolittle and Pombo did not respond to requests for interviews last week.
This may have nothing to do with the Abramoff mess or DeLay's troubles in Texas, but this story is no doubt emerging at this moment--and may be on interest to prosecutors now--because of these other difficulties.
As FBI agents zero in on suspects--whether they be lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, consultants or fundraisers--the only way out for many of these well-connected and influential people will be tell the investigators something they do not know already. So if you're a chief of staff to a House member and you're faced with the prospect of doing several years at a different sort of federal institution than the one you're used to, what are you going to do? Say whatever it takes to cut a deal. And if you know about untoward and possibly criminal activity that is not connected to already-wide Abramoff scandal, that may well be your stay-out-of-jail card. Imagine if a dozen or more Washington insiders--and we are talking predominantly about Republicans--find themselves in this sort of situation. It could be Christmas every day for the anti-corruption squad at the Justice Department. That is, if the lawyers there are prepared to mount an investigation that pursues serious leads that take them beyond Abramoff terrain. (And don't forget the recent news that Representative Duke Cunningham, the Republican who recently resigned from the House after being caught accepting bribes from a military contractor, wore a wire for the feds before leaving the House. Whom did prosecutors ask him to talk to?)
I'm not predicting all this will occur. But any member of Congress, congressional aide or executive branch official who has engaged in criminal activity ought to be really enjoying their freedom and position at this time. Who knows who will be selling out whom? Yuppies in blazers and khakis usually don't practice omerta very well. If prosecutors play this right, they could end up with an ever-lengthening to-do--and to-get--list.