Last year’s stories reveal need for 2017 Black AgendaBy Yasmine Register and Hazel Trice Edney / January 6, 2017
As the Obama era comes to a close, a snapshot of the top Black press stories of the past year alone reveal a need for a clear Black agenda as African Americans still struggle for equality and justice.
“We are spending trillions in wars without end. Inequality has reached extremes not witnessed since the eve of the Great Depression. We continue to lock up more people than any nation in the world. On an average day, 27 people die from gun violence in the United States. In Canada and other western nations, the average is fewer than five per day,” wrote the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. in a recent column.
Despite good news – the facts that unemployment and poverty are down and incomes are rising – the African American unemployment rate at 8.1 percent is still nearly twice that of Whites at 4.2 percent and remains consistently well above the national average, now at 4.6 percent.
This is partially the reason economic justice remains among the 10 top stories that will be covered in 2017. The following are synopses of other revealing stories told last year that will likely reverberate in 2017.
Signed into law in March of this year, the Privacy and Public Facilities Act or HB 2, is best known as the “bathroom bill” because it requires transgendered people to use the restroom or locker room according to the sex listed on their birth certificate. The law, passed in rapid fashion by a conservative led the N.C. General Assembly also prevents local governments from expanding citywide discrimination protections to gay and transgender people and prohibits transgender people from using the public bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.
The law also bars cities and municipalities across the state from setting their own minimum wage or placing wage and employment requirements on contractors. Initially, the bill also blocked the ability of employees to seek legal redress in state court against employers for discrimination. Then Gov. Pat McCrory issued an Executive Order in April that eliminated that part of the law. However, opponents of the law noted that the executive order does not address the rights of the LBGTQ community to sue for employment discrimination.
Four N.C. House Democrats: Reps. Darren Jackson and Grier Martin of Wake County, Graig Meyer of Orange County and Susi Hamilton of New Hanover County filed HB 946 in April that would have repealed HB 2.
A fifth special session of the state legislature was called by McCrory in December under the guise of passing disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Matthew and to repeal HB 2 after months of pressure from LGBT-rights groups, local municipalities and Democratic lawmakers. According to legislative Republicans, HB 2 was introduced as a response to an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the Charlotte City Council earlier this year. The Charlotte City Council agreed to scrap its local ordinance in an effort to push state lawmakers to repeal HB 2 in the special session, in a deal that was allegedly brokered by N.C. Gov-elect Roy Cooper.
Instead of repealing HB 2 in its entirety, N.C. Sen. Phil Berger, Republican president pro tempore, split the bill calling for separate votes on the repeal and on a “cooling-off” period in which cities would not be allowed to pass any new ordinances on employment activities or public shower and bathroom accommodations. The repeal was rejected by the Senate, and the House adjourned without voting.
The state is now facing multiple lawsuits challenging HB 2 by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, as well as one from the Department of Justice, that argues the bathroom restrictions violate federal nondiscrimination protections in employment (Title VII) and education (Title IX). Since the refusal to repeal the bill by lawmakers, the N.C. NAACP has vowed to sue the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly.
The state has also lost an estimated $600 million over HB 2 due to the loss of sporting events, cancelled concerts and employers who refuse to do business in the state. Other states have also banned state-sponsored travel to N.C. because of the bill.
Redistricting and Voter ID
In July, a three-judge federal court panel ruled that North Carolina lawmakers must redraw the state’s House and Senate districts by March 15, 2017 and hold an election by next November (2017) with a Primary in late August or early September. The ruling stated that: “The new provisions target African Americans, with almost surgical precision.”
Federal court proceedings held August 2015 determined the districts, as drawn in 2011 by the state’s Republican dominated legislature, to be racially gerrymandered. At that time, the panel ruled nine state Senate districts and 19 state House districts created in 2011 were unconstitutional.
In 2013, Gov. McCrory signed the Voter ID bill into law that required voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls and shortened the early voting period from 17 to 10 days. It also ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-old voters who will be 18 on Election Day and eliminated same-day voter registration and Sunday voting.
N.C. Governor’s Race
Democrat Roy Cooper, who served as N.C. Attorney General, challenged incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory in the 2016 elections and won by slightly more than 4,300 votes. McCrory demanded a recount of the votes, which actually pushed Cooper farther in the lead by more than 10,000 votes. McCrory finally conceded the election on December 5. He then led N.C. Republicans to push through two bills, Senate Bill 4 and House Bill 17, to reduce the incoming governors’ powers.
Some Democrat lawmakers believe that that move was a power grab in retaliation to Cooper’s win and his efforts to get HB 2 repealed before he took office.
SB 4 expands the state election board from five to eight members. It limits the governor to four appointments on the board and allows Republicans select the other four. It also makes the state Supreme Court elections partisan rather than nonpartisan. HB 17, once signed by McCrory, blocks Cooper from appointing any members to the state Board of Education and to the board of trustees for the University of North Carolina system. It reduces the number of appointments up to the Cooper administration from 1,500 to 300 and requires all of Cooper’s top agency heads to be approved by the Senate.
North Carolinians and the Black Lives Matter Movement took to the streets this year to call for more police accountability after the fatal shooting death of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer outside a Charlotte apartment complex. Scott was one of a number of Black men killed by police officers this year. Those men include Alton Sterling, who was killed outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, La. followed by Philando Castile, who was shot inside his car during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
The Greensboro City Council was forced to address police accountability and police body-worn camera footage in May when the council granted the family of 47 year old Chieu-di-Thi Vo permission to see police footage of her shooting death at the hands of Greensboro Police Officer Tim Bloch in March 2014.
While the Greensboro City Council passed an ordinance that would allow for police worn body camera footage to be viewed under the discretion of the City Manager, District 61 N.C. House Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford), a retired police chief with the High Point Police Department, introduced HB 972 to keep footage private. Signed into law in July, HB 972 allows law enforcement agencies to keep officer worn body camera footage from the public unless ordered to release the footage by a court. The law went into effect on October 1.
The citizens also introduced their own People’s Ordinance that instead labeled police video as a public record that would be available to the public, unless a compelling case is made for why secrecy or redaction of certain parts may be necessary.
Greensboro City Council voted to release police body worn camera footage of an encounter between GPD Officer Travis B. Cole and Greensboro resident Dejuan Yourse, which occurred on June 17. The footage was released to the public in September, just before HB 972 went into effect. Viewing the footage left the community with unanswered questions about disciplinary actions taken against Cole, who recently cost the city $50,000 due to his police misconduct.
Election of Donald Trump as President of the United States
President Obama has announced a farewell address to be given in Chicago Jan. 10. The end of his eight-year tenure as America’s first Black president begins a new era for America. It is one marked by the national shock of the Nov. 8 election of business billionaire Donald Trump – a person who not only tormented Obama with racist questions about his country of birth until the president finally produced his birth certificate as proof that he was born in America – but also a person who won the official endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. He has since surrounded himself with a cabinet of nearly all White males, including his chief advisor Steve Bannon, a founder of Breitbart news, the voice of the so-called “alt-right” with its White supremacist and racist views.
Since the Trump election, race-related harassment and intimidation has sky-rocketed across the country. In the first month alone (between Nov. 8 and Dec. 12), the Southern Poverty law center, a foremost monitor of hate groups and activity, received reports of more than 1,000 incidents – mostly anti-immigrant and anti-Black. “Overall, anti-immigrant incidents (315) remain the most reported, followed by anti-Black (221), anti-Muslim (112), and anti-LGBT (109). Anti-Trump incidents numbered 26 (six of which were also anti-White in nature, with two non-Trump related anti-White incidents reported),” states the organization’s Web site, SPLCenter.org.
Guilty verdict for murderous White supremacist Dylann Roof
A federal grand jury on Dec. 15 convicted 22-year-old Dylann Roof of murdering eight Black parishioners and their pastor last year as they attended Bible study and prayer at the historic “Mother” Emanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston, S.C. Roof, who represented himself, pled not guilty during the trial although he had confessed to the killings, saying he had hoped to start a race war. He now faces either life in prison or execution. Roof sat for an hour with Emanuel parishioners and their pastor Clementa Pinckney, also a member of the S.C. State Senate, on June 17, 2015, before firing his 45-caliber pistol. President Obama delivered Pinckney’s eulogy. The shooting sparked the removal of the Confederate flag from public use from many sites across the nation – including atop the S.C. State Capitol.
Death of journalist, Gwen Ifill
Gwen Ifill, the iconic, award-winning journalist who broke racial barriers in journalism, was laid to rest in a star-studded funeral after dying of cancer Nov. 14. President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder were among those who paid their respects. Ifill, 61, spent decades climbing the ranks from print journalist to news anchor and famed political moderator. Last spring, she co-moderated the Democratic primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Ifill had performed that role solo during vice presidential debates in the 2004 and 2008 general election campaigns.
Opening of Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)
More than a century after Black veterans of the Civil War proposed the idea of a Black history museum in D.C., the opening of the NMAAHC on the Mall took place in grand style Sept. 24. Led by Georgia Congressman John Lewis, it was then-President George W. Bush who signed legislation in 2003 that allowed the project to begin. President Barack Obama officially dedicated the museum, saying, “What we can see of this beautiful building tells us that it is truly a sight to behold. But what makes it special are the stories contained inside.”
Death of journalist, George Curry
George E. Curry, the dean of Black press columnists, died suddenly of heart failure August 20. The funeral service, held in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., drew national civil rights royalty, including the Rev. Al Sharpton who delivered the eulogy, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who preached a memorial, the Rev. Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Curry’s lifelong friend and comrade; and Dr. Benjamin Chavis, president/CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, where Curry served as editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service for a collective nine years. Before coming to NNPA, he was editor-in-chief of his beloved Emerge Magazine for seven years until it closed. Curry was among the most respected voices in Black press journalism. When he died, he had founded Emergenewsonline.com, a digital version of the hard copy magazine, which he never gave up hope to revive.
Police shootings and abuse of Black people
Black Lives Matter activists and civil rights leaders across the country continued to protest police shootings of African Americans. The controversy came to another peak last year after the police killings of Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, La. on July 5 by two Baton Rouge, La. police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake and the July 6 shooting of Philando Castile by Officer Jeronimo Yanez, in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile’s girlfriend recorded the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook Live as Castile died. Then, on the evening of July 7, 2016, allegedly in response to the two previous shootings Micah Johnson killed five law enforcement officers in Dallas. Johnson was then killed by police operating a robot with a bomb. In another police killing, the trial of Officer Michael Slager, in the videotaped back-shooting of Walter Scott as Scott fled the officer in South Carolina April 4, 2015, ended in a mistrial Dec. 5. Slager is slated to be retried.
Death of music icon, Prince
The shocking death of Academy Award winning singer, songwriter and musician Prince on April 21 rocked the entertainment world. He died in his home after accidentally overdosing on the opioid, fentanyl. The 57-year-old, perhaps best known for his 1984 Academy “Best Original Musical,” “Purple Rain,” was discovered unresponsive on an elevator in his Chanhassen, Minn. home and recording studio.
Street violence continued to be the number one cause of Black males between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Perhaps no city has been hit harder than Chicago, which ended 2016 with 762 homicides, 57 percent more than last year. Gun violence plagues the streets of major cities year after year. Despite citizen pleas for new gun laws, partisan stalemates prevent Congress from moving new legislation. Other programs to deal with the social aspects of street violence appear to do little without the balance of the gun laws.
Despite major strides by Obama, particularly in areas of health care and criminal justice reform, civil rights leaders say a clear Black agenda is necessary for major progress. A Jan. 14 march planned by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network aims toward that end. President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated Jan. 20. Sharpton said the march aims to “warn President Trump and Congress that the fight for criminal justice, voting rights, affordable health care, improvements in education and other issues around equality and justice continues.”
In August 2014, brothers Devin and Rufus Scales caught the same Officer Cole on their handheld camera as he threw Rufus to the ground and arrested him. Charges against the Scales brothers were eventually dropped, after months of public pressure and legal action against the city, who in May, agreed to pay the brothers a $50,000 settlement.
Changes by the state legislature in 2013 made the 2016 elections for Guilford County School Board partisan and redrew the school districts to align with the districts of Guilford County Commissioners. The newly formed districts left District 7 with one candidate filing by the December deadline. Political newcomer Bryon Gladden (D) took the win in the District 7 race after a contentious race against challenger Bettye Jenkins, who ran unaffiliated.
Guilford County Schools (GCS) also welcomed a new Superintendent, Sharon L. Contreras from Syracuse, New York. With 25 years of experience in education, Contreras was selected in a unanimous vote by the GCS Board of Education in June.
GCS rolled out its first year of the Say YES to Education initiative, the national scholarship program designed to provide last dollar tuition money to help high school graduates attend college.
The GCS Board of Education began the charge for the renaming of Aycock Middle School, whose namesake, Governor Charles B. Aycock was a slave holder and a major architect of a White supremacy campaign in the late 19th century.