Lauren Williams

Lauren Williams

Story Editor

Lauren Williams is the story editor in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A native of the Washington, DC area, she was previously deputy editor of The Root, a Washington Post Company website, where she covered politics, culture, and social justice. She's also worked as a lifestyle editor at AOL Black Voices, founding editor of an award-winning black news and culture blog, Stereohyped, and a local government reporter for the Hampton Roads Daily Press.

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Why Obama's March on Washington Anniversary Speech Ticked Off Some Black People

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 2:49 PM PDT

In May, President Barack Obama gave a commencement address at the historically black Morehouse College—Martin Luther King, Jr.'s alma mater—that was criticized by many black progressives as condescending for its focus on personal responsibility. He told the young graduates that "there's no longer any room for excuses" and that "whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame." In response, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, "Barack Obama is, indeed, the president of 'all America,' but he also is singularly the scold of 'black America.'"

This was hardly the first time Obama had ventured into such territory, and black critics have often complained that when he addresses black audiences, he turns into a presidential Bill Cosby, acknowledging inequality but also unproductively lecturing black people to stop making excuses for the challenges and problems they face. So it was no surprise that Obama's speech on Wednesday marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which noted that economic fairness for all remains "our great unfinished business" and which was generally well-received by Obama supporters, reiterated this riff:

And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots.

Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself. All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.

And there was no surprise that this slice of the speech got under some peoples' skin. Here are Twitter reactions from several black writers, intellectuals, and activists:

This likely won't be the last time Obama brings up the controversial theme. It's clear he's decided that in order to effectively speak about racial inequality and economic injustice, he has to throw in a dash of tough love.

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The Last Time Obama Gave a Major Speech About Race

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 11:07 AM PDT

On March 18, 2008 in Philadelphia, then-Senator Barack Obama delivered a speech that is considered by many to be one of the greatest speeches on race in America's history. Our own David Corn wrote that the speech, which Obama gave in response to the controversy surrounding his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was "unlike any delivered by a major political figure in modern American history."

When Obama talks about race, he makes waves (see his surprise press conference after the Zimmerman verdict for a more recent example). Wednesday, when he delivers a speech on the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, he's expected to speak about race again. As a reminder of how good he can be when he does, watch 2008's "A More Perfect Union:"

This Black, Gay, Badass Pacifist Mastermind of the March on Washington Is Finally Getting His Due

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 1:42 PM PDT
Bayard Rustin at a March on Washington news briefing in 1963.

Bayard Rustin was for years one of the least known and celebrated major players in the civil rights movement. Now Martin Luther King Jr.'s trusted adviser—the black, gay, "badass" pacifist who organized the March on Washington—is finally getting his due 50 years after the landmark demonstration.

Rustin, born in Pennsylvania in 1912 and raised by his grandfather and his Quaker grandmother—who, along with Mahatma Gandhi, influenced his philosophy of pacifism—had his hand in several major moments in a fight for equality that would span his entire life. He helped organize and participated in the first freedom ride, 1947’s "Journey of Reconciliation" (for which he and several other participants were jailed and put in a chain gang). In the 1950s, he advised, strategized, and raised money behind the scenes for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, helping to direct King's rise to national prominence. He's also credited with honing the King's nonviolent strategy. Later, Rustin was the mastermind of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (now simply known as the March on Washington), organizing it in just two months. But Rustin was kept in the shadows by the homophobia of both his enemies (segregationist Strom Thurmond used Rustin's sexuality to denigrate the movement) and his allies.

"We must look back with sadness at the barriers of bigotry built around his sexuality," NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond, who knew and worked with Rustin, wrote in the forward for 2012's I Must Resist, a book of Rustin's letters. "We are the poorer for it."

Although prejudice kept Rustin behind the scenes—and out of history books—his name is finally making headlines. In March, President Obama awarded Rustin, who died in 1987, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The National Black Justice Coalition, a black LGBT civil rights organization, launched a movement to celebrate Rustin on what would have been his 100th birthday in 2012 and created the Bayard Rustin 2013 Commemorative Project, which highlights his contributions to the March on Washington.

Michael G. Long, who edited I Must Resist, tells Mother Jones the accolades are long overdue. "Rustin is finally emerging out of the shadows," he says. "This is a man who labored for decades behind the scenes. And he labored there willingly, but he was also pushed there and kept there and confined there by civil rights leaders."

Rustin should be remembered not just for his fight for racial equality, which was accompanied by a quest for economic justice, but also his unflinching participation in the fight for gay rights. In a 1986 speech he advocated for a change in civil rights activism: "The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people."

Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, told USA Today this month that her organization is "advocating the preservation of his legacy by removing the barriers that didn't allow society to get to know all of Bayard Rustin. His legacy deserves its due."

"I hope that Bayard can bask in the daylight for decades and centuries to come and that we'll finally see his name in history books in high school and elementary school," Long says. "I hope that every elementary school student will come to know that Bayard Rustin was the man who organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in eight short weeks."

5 Terrible Acts of Voter Discrimination the Voting Rights Act Prevented—But Won't Anymore

| Tue Aug. 6, 2013 2:20 PM PDT
President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law 48 years ago today. But in June, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court struck down a major section of the law, freeing jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to change their voting laws without federal permission. For decades, Section 5 of the VRA required a number of jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to seek the feds' approval—called preclearance, in legal parlance—before modifying voting rules. The Supreme Court's decision gutted Section 5, paving the way for new discriminatory laws.

Since the high court ruling, North Carolina has passed what critics have called the worst voter ID law in the country, Texas pushed ahead with a voter ID law and redistricting plan that the VRA blocked last year, and Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to continue to challenge discriminatory voting laws despite the Supreme Court ruling. Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, announced this week that he would renew his efforts to purge "noncitizens" from the voter rolls, a messy, inaccurate practice that the Justice Department says violates the VRA and unfairly targets black and Latino voters.

In honor of the VRA's anniversary, here are five recent and egregious examples of minority discrimination that were blocked by Section 5, the part of the law the Supreme Court eviscerated in June:

  • In 2001, the all-white board of aldermen in the town of Kilmichael, Mississippi (pop. 830), canceled town elections after an unprecedented number of black candidates made it onto the ballot. When the Department of Justice (DOJ) forced an election and the town finally voted, it elected its first black mayor and three black aldermen.
  • During a 2004 city council primary in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a Vietnamese American candidate, Phuong Tan Huynh, ran against white incumbent Jackie Ladnier. Ladnier and his supporters challenged about 50 Asian American voters at the polls. Their reason? If they couldn't speak English well, they might not be citizens. The DOJ intervened, and Huynh became the first Asian American on the city council.
  • Texas is perfect example of the continued need for the VRA. The state has been repeatedly blocked from implementing both local and statewide changes that blatantly disenfranchise minority voters, from redistricting schemes to the elimination of polling places and early voting in minority districts. A report from Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund found that the between 1982 and 2006 Texas was second only to Mississippi in the number of DOJ objections under Section 5. One example: In 2007, officials in Waller County, home to the historically black Prairie View A&M University, enacted strict voter registration rules (without federal approval) that allowed them to reject voter registration applications, mostly from PVAMU students, for minor errors or omissions. After the Justice Department sued the county, a local judge told the Houston Chronicle that registrars "were maybe being a little picky with some of the things they were rejecting for."
  • In 2008, Alaska submitted for federal preclearance a plan that would have required some Native Alaskan voters to travel by air or boat to cast a ballot. The state withdrew its submission after it was challenged by the DOJ.
  • After the 2010 Census indicated that blacks had become the majority of the voting-age population in Georgia's Augusta-Richmond, a consolidated city and county, the state Legislature passed a bill that rescheduled voting from November, which had a traditionally high black voter turnout, to July, which had a low turnout overall, but especially for blacks. The change only affected Augusta-Richmond, and, not surprisingly, was rejected under Section 5.