Monday, March 16, 2015
Prof. Risa Kaufman's and Prof. JoAnn Kamuf Ward 's students traveled to Alabama last week to participate in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The students provide us with their first hand account.
By: Glory Nwaugbala, Dan Pedraza, Ben Setel, and Audrey Son, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic
As members of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, we have spent this academic year working to advance state and local implementation of human rights within the United States. We recently experienced the importance of this work firsthand over the course of a weekend in Alabama.
Many of the United States’ human rights obligations fall within the jurisdiction of state and local governments. Through the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, we have been working to develop and support state and local implementation of these obligations. As part of that work, we’ve been privileged to work with the Birmingham mayor’s office. We have been particularly excited to work with Birmingham, not only because of that city’s historical importance in the civil rights movement, but also because Birmingham Mayor William Bell has emerged as a champion for human rights, including through his participation on the United States’ official delegation to the CERD last summer.
On Friday, March 6th, 2015, Mayor Bell hosted a dialogue on local human rights concerns in advance of the upcoming review of the United States at the Universal Periodic Review, and in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (when, as part of the Voting Rights Movement, unarmed demonstrators attempting to peacefully march from Selma to Montgomery were attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge).
For this event, we helped plan a day of panels on a wide range of issues, including education, immigration, homelessness, and marriage equality. The panelists included state legislators, law enforcement officers, local advocates, community members, and other actors. A representative from the U.S. State Department attended, as well, and noted in his closing comments that “human rights are universal but are experienced locally.” He went on to say that this event was precisely the sort of local engagement that the State Department hoped to cultivate throughout the country. It was encouraging to hear such strong words of support for state and local engagement with human rights from a federal government representative.
Although the individual panelists may not have shared the same views or experiences, some common ground emerged. Where each had seen a gap in justice, each has worked to fill it. Despite the efforts of these individuals and their respective organizations, however, it was clear that more must be done to address critical social justice concerns in Birmingham. The dialogue among the panelists highlighted one of the major themes of the weekend: the promise of human rights in addressing local issues. As one panelist noted, Birmingham must transition from “the cradle of civil rights to the house of human rights.”
Human rights provide a valuable supplement to the traditional civil rights framework. The language of human rights makes clear the intersection and deep connection between economic, social, cultural, civil, and political rights. A human rights frame can better capture many contemporary issues, and pave the way for holistic solutions. It can empower individuals by explicitly acknowledging them as rights-holders. And such acknowledgement highlights that government actors have a responsibility to protect, respect and fulfill rights.
The following day, March 7th, 2015, marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery that sparked the passage of the Voting Rights Act. We travelled from Birmingham to Selma to hear President Obama, Congressman John Lewis, and others speak on the legacy of the march. As Congressman Lewis embraced our nation’s first African-American president, sharing a stage in this historic place, we were reminded that although the struggle for rights in the United States has been long and difficult, it is one that has made tremendous strides forward. President Obama's speech served as both a reflection on progress made and as a call to further action. Tens of thousands of people of all ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations gathered in Selma that day to rally around one idea: keep marching. As President Obama reminded us: “the most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’”
Throughout the weekend, we were struck by the way in which human rights themes permeated the discourse from the local level all the way to the President’s speech. While not everyone mentioned “human rights” explicitly, the principles were evident in their words and in their work. Human rights have a role to play in cities, in states, and at the national level, and they provide a roadmap for the achievement of the universal rights of all people.
Hearing those themes reflected in Alabama was particularly powerful. The story of civil rights in Alabama is as inspiring as it is unfinished. Knowing that tremendous progress has been made in the fight for civil rights—both in Alabama and across the United States—we have good reason to be optimistic about the promise of human rights. In order to realize this promise, however, we must keep marching.