Cartoon of the Week
To Be Equal
Message To Congress: Show Courage On Gun Safety
“Sometimes I close my eyes and all I can remember is that awful day…But other times, I feel Ben’s presence filling me with courage for what I have to do…” —Francine Wheeler, mother of six-year-old Ben Wheeler, one of the 26 victims of the December 14 Sandy Hook tragedy.
I recently took my children to see the newly released movie, “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson’s courageous struggle to become the first African American Major League Baseball player. The movie also highlights the courage it took for Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to sign Robinson to a major league contract in 1947, marking the end of more than 50 years of all-white teams. In his first year with the Dodgers, Robinson was subjected to racial taunts and threats from white fans and opposing teams, as well as hostility from some of his own teammates, who objected to sharing the field and locker room with a Black ballplayer. But Jackie Robinson exhibited a rare brand of courage, refusing to lash out as he piled up hits and blazed the base paths on his way to becoming Major League Baseball’s first Rookie of the Year. Robinson went on to have a Hall of Fame career, and until his death in 1972, he was also an all-star champion of civil rights. Martin Luther King once described Jackie as, "... a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom."? The life of Jackie Robinson is a profile in courage that has inspired generations of Americans, including millions of young children. I thought about that this past weekend as I watched the tearful plea of a mother who lost her child on December 14th at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Just four months after the loss of her son, Ben, Francine Wheeler found the courage to deliver President Obama’s weekly address to the nation. Visibly shaken, she used the opportunity to passionately implore Congress to “come together and pass commonsense gun responsibility reforms that will make our communities safer and prevent more tragedies like the one we thought would never happen to us.” It is time for Congress to display similar courage by quickly taking a vote on the bipartisan measure reached last week to expand background checks for online gun purchasers and gun show sales. While this legislation is hardly a final answer, it is at least a first step and would demonstrate that our leaders have the backbone to stand up for the American people in the face of opposition and threats from a well-funded and obstinate gun lobby. As the movie “42” makes clear, change occurs when people choose to show courage in the face of adversity. The film demonstrates that it takes the courage of more than one to bring about change and that courage means doing what’s right, regardless of the odds. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball years before Thurgood Marshall argued Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus. There was no blueprint for him to follow. But Congress has a blueprint to guide them as they are challenged to enact meaningful legislation to make America safer. It's time to put the politics aside, and pick up some courage.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the ?National Urban League.
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Felony Disenfranchisement Is Jim Crow Era Holdover
BY BENJAMIN TODD JEALOUS
Last week, the Delaware State legislature approved a constitutional amendment to all but remove the last Jim Crow-era voter suppression law from its books.
The amendment, passed at the urging of the Delaware NAACP, allows people with nonviolent felony convictions to vote after their release from prison. This is a major victory for voting rights and a strike against the practice of "felony disenfranchisement". But it is also a major step forward for a nation still struggling to heal old racial wounds.
Felony disenfranchisement has direct roots in the Jim Crow Era. In the late 19th century, states above and below the Mason-Dixon Line began to find new and creative ways to keep black voters away from the polls. Banning people with felony convictions was one of the solutions.
For example, in 1901 the Commonwealth of Virginia had 147,000 black voters on the rolls. But many lawmakers saw this growing political block as a threat. At that year's Constitutional Convention, they hatched a plan to disenfranchise African Americans through a combination of black codes and felony disenfranchisement. One legislator said on the record that the plan would "eliminate the darkey as a political factor."
Ninety years later, Kemba Smith-Pradia was an undergraduate student at Hampton University. She got involved with the wrong crowd and found herself behind bars as an accessory to a nonviolent drug offense. President Clinton granted Kemba executive clemency in 2000, six years into her 24 year sentence. She went on to become a college graduate, law student, mother and foundation president - but until 2012, when her rights were finally restored, not a voter.
Kemba's story is just one example of how the legacy of the 1901 Convention lives on. In today's Virginia, 350,000 people are still disenfranchised by the 1901 law, and many of them are African Americans. Nationwide, 48 states allow some form of felony disenfranchisement, and one out of every 13 voting-age African Americans is affected. In four states - Virginia, Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida - disenfranchisement can be permanent.
When Virginia introduced felony disenfranchisement in 1901, they also expanded the list of felony crimes. By raising the penalty for a number of minor offenses, they planned to lock African Americans in the prison system - and out of the political system. A century later, our drug laws have the same amplifying effect. African Americans are far more likely to be arrested for minor drug crimes, and therefore more likely to have their vote taken away.
The good news is that Delaware and other states are beginning to turn the tide. In Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell has sped up the review process for those who have finished the terms of their sentence. So far he has restored the votes of more than 4,000 citizens. And Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who callously eliminated automatic restoration of voting rights early in his term, is now taking steps toward restoring those rights.
These are certainly steps in the right direction, but there is more work to do. Virginia, Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida still allow permanent disenfranchisement, and 44 other states permit some level of felony disenfranchisement. You can learn about the law in your state at www.restorethevotes.org. If you or someone in your community is affected, you can use that information to educate your family, your community and your elected officials about why this is an important issue.
Felony disenfranchisement is an affront to our democracy. Millions of people like Kemba Smith-Pradida - parents, workers, and community leaders - pay taxes, raise families and contribute to society. But they cannot fully participate in our democracy.
If poll taxes, literacy tests, and gumball-counting tests could be outlawed because of their racist intent, then felony disenfranchisement laws from the same era should be overturned today.
Ben Jealous is president/CEO of the NAACP.
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National And State Advocates Push To Preserve Foreclosure Assistance
BY CHARLENE CROWELL
A broad coalition of state and national organizations is pushing to preserve a key federal program that has helped more than 1.1 million troubled homeowners and reduced mortgage payments by a median savings of $546 each month. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), created in response to the nation’s housing crisis, is set to close shop on December 31. In its remaining months, housing and consumer advocates are urging the U.S. Treasury Department to reconsider.
A March 26 letter to Jacob J. Lew, U.S. Treasury Secretary, was co-signed by 14 national organizations such as the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Fair Housing Alliance, National Urban League and the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL). Additionally, another 22 state and local groups including the California Reinvestment Coalition, Mississippi Center for Justice and New York’s Empire Justice Center joined with their national colleagues to fight for more foreclosure assistance.
The letter states, “Research has shown that foreclosure and delinquency rates have disproportionately impacted African-American and Latino families, and median household wealth has dramatically declined. . . High foreclosure rates in communities of color have also impacted those homeowners neighboring foreclosed properties, and estimates show that these properties stand to lose $1 trillion in home equity as a result.”
Launched in 2009, HAMP initially sought to lower monthly mortgage payments to an affordable and sustainable level through a uniform loan modification process. HAMP funding was a part of the $29.9 billion authorized for the Making Home Affordable Program. Later in 2012, program options were expanded to focus on principal reduction modifications, expand relief for unemployed homeowners and ease other alternatives to foreclosures, like short sales.
To date, $12 billion has been obligated to pay incentives for HAMP homeowners already in the program. With the approaching expiration date, any unspent funds will ultimately be returned to Treasury’s general fund. Yet many communities have yet to economically recovery.
For example, HAMP’s unemployment program offers a minimum of 12 months’ temporary forbearance to allow these homeowners to focus on securing new employment while still owning their homes. Depending upon homeowner circumstances, forbearance plans can be approved with some required payment or none at all. Thus far, over 30,500 homeowners have accessed this program.
It is also relevant to note that African-American unemployment is higher than most. According to recent U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, black unemployment at 14 percent is double that for white Americans.
The nation’s metro areas with the largest HAMP participation rates are Los Angeles-Long Beach, New-York-New Jersey, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Chicago-Northwest Indiana, and California’s Riverside-San Bernardino. California and Florida homeowners represented more than a third of all HAMP activity.
Additionally, the most recent HAMP program performance report shows that the program is working as it increasingly helps eligible borrowers by forgiving a portion of their mortgage debt. HAMP homeowners that received permanent mortgage modifications collectively were granted $9.2 billion in principal reductions. Additionally, another 114,000 homeowners avoided foreclosures through short sales or deed-in-lieu.
Nationwide, the average non-HAMP mortgage modification reduced monthly payments by $389, while the average HAMP modification reduced the same monthly payments by $558. Similarly, non-HAMP servicers reduced interest rates in 73 percent of modifications made in the fourth quarter of 2012. Participating HAMP servicers reduced interest rates for 81 percent of borrows during this same period.
Of all HAMP trial modifications, 80 percent of the homeowners were at least 60 days delinquent at the trial start. The chief reason—for 68% of the troubled homeowners—was financial hardship due to reduced income or unemployment.
In 2012, CRL research found that among the 10.9 million homes that went into foreclosure between 2007 and 2011 over half of the “spillover” cost to nearby homes have led to a $1 trillion loss in home equity for African-American and Latino families. High concentration of foreclosures in neighborhoods of color perpetuated disproportionate burdens in America’s continuing foreclosure crisis.
Coalition leaders agree: “Effective housing policies must recognize that neighborhoods with higher foreclosure rates and deeper foreclosure-related impacts will take more time to recover.”
Charlene Crowell is a communications manager with the Center for Responsible Lending. She can be reached at: email@example.com