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Lieberman and civil rights an evolving relationship

Jewish Telegraphic Agency
October 3, 2000

ROCKVILLE, Md.—In the fall of 1963, a Yale University student heads south to Mississippi. Along with a score of other volunteers, he joins a dangerous campaign to raise the issue of black voting rights. It's a crucial step in the struggle to overcome "Jim Crow" laws that have disenfranchised southern blacks since the end of Reconstruction.

Flash forward to August 2000. That young man, now a two-term senator from Connecticut with a receding hairline, becomes the Democratic Party's vice presidential pick.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman makes history by becoming the first Jew on the presidential ticket of a major U.S. political party. And '60s-era civil rights activists remember his early role.

One is John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Now a member of Congress from Georgia, he recalled Lieberman as one of a number of students recruited by liberal activist Allard Lowenstein. Drawn from Yale, Stanford and other campuses, they came south in '63 to address a glaring injustice: out of 450,000 blacks in Mississippi, only 16,000 were registered to vote.

To dramatize the situation, the students helped conduct a mock gubernatorial election among black voters.

In beauty shops, barber shops and other relatively safe meeting places across the state, blacks cast ballots for their own candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.

"Sen. Lieberman and the young people they laid the groundwork for the Mississippi Freedom Summer" voter registration drive, said Lewis. "They were the first cadre. They were the first nonviolent soldiers to come to Mississippi, and they worked in a very efficient and very effective way."

Even this modest campaign put all involved at risk. The state was a bastion of segregation "unique in American history," said Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch, author of the award-winning Parting the Waters. If you were black in Mississippi, he explained, "You couldn't vote, protest, or anything."

Veteran civil rights leader Rev. Walter Fauntroy, pastor of the District's New Bethel Baptist Church, draws a line of causation from these early efforts, through the famous March 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March, to the voting rights bill passed later that year.

"Thanks, quite frankly, to the Joe Liebermans of this country, who came by car, bus and plane ... that march pricked the conscience of enough people around the country that by Aug. 6, we were in the East Room of the White House for the signing of the Voting Rights Act," says Fauntroy, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as founder and president of the National Black Leadership Roundtable.

On the Yale campus, Lieberman remained involved in civil rights, said national spokesperson Dan Gerstein. He took part in the 1963 March on Washington and served as "warm-up act" for a 1963 speech in Bridgeport, Conn., by King. The civil rights leader shook the young man's hand as he stepped to the podium. Later in the '60s, the two would meet again twice at fundraisers for King's cause at the Stamford, Conn., home of Jackie Robinson, major league baseball's own trailblazer.

In the intervening decades, the civil rights arena has expanded, embracing such groups as women, the disabled, and gays and lesbians. Where does Lieberman stand on civil rights today? And do his recent positions represent a continuing thread from his early involvement or a break from the past?

The veteran civil rights group, the NAACP, gives Lieberman generally high marks. Since entering the Senate in 1989, he has received an average rating of 76.7 percent from the NAACP, cresting at 100 percent to date in the 106th Congress. The senator slid to a low of 60 percent in the 105th, with votes against two education and two health care measures on NAACP's agenda.

"If we watch Lieberman's overall performance since he's been a member of the Senate, he's done relatively well, and we've seen in the 106th Congress, his performance has improved," said Hilary Shelton, NAACP's Washington bureau director.

In contrast, Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney won an average rating of 23.5 percent from the NAACP over his five terms in the House of Representatives. His peak rating was 41.9 percent, his trough, 10 percent.

Some black leaders have faulted Lieberman for straying from support for affirmative action, as when he spoke out for California's Proposition 209.

"Affirmative action is still critically important to African-Americans, when it comes to income generation and education ... particularly when job flight and advancing technology are displacing people from gainful employment," said Fauntroy.

He applauded Lieberman's recent comments in favor of affirmative action, since his emergence as running mate for Vice President Al Gore.

Just as in the Jewish community, where there are some who preferred Lieberman's more conservative stances, not all blacks hail these backtracking moves. At the iconoclastic Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), national spokesperson Niger Innis takes a pro-voucher, anti-affirmative action stance.

"If Gore should win, Gore and Lieberman need to do what Clinton failed to do: to have a national dialogue on quotas, vouchers and family values," said Innis.

In the Latino community, affirmative action has less "resonance," says the National Council of La Raza's senior vice president Charles Kamasaki. He calls Lieberman's forays outside the traditional civil rights agenda more a matter of "thinking aloud" than legislative activism.

"Any Democratic senator had many opportunities to vote and to frame proposals, [but] he didn't vote to eliminate affirmative action proposals," observed Kamasaki.

Lieberman, he said, has pleased Latino leaders with "strong support" on such issues of vigorous civil rights enforcement, hate crimes, racial profiling and public education.

On the other hand, he has been more of a centrist on immigration than some Hispanic advocates would like and sponsored a school reform bill seen by bilingual educators as an attack on their programs.

The bill provoked a five-page letter of concern from the Hispanic Education Coalition in January of this year.

Despite these occasional differences, Lieberman won an 82 percent rating from the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda for the 105th Congress.

On his first solo campaign swing, the vice presidential nominee met with a constituency sometimes at odds with the Jewish community: Arab Americans.

Along with Mideast peace, civil rights issues surfaced at the Aug. 27 meeting in Detroit with Arab American Institute president James Zogby, UAW President Steve Yokich, Michigan Democratic leader Michael Berry and local community leader Ismael Ahmed.

Lieberman expressed sympathy for Arab-American concerns about use of secret evidence. Zogby called the meeting "frank and thoughtful," adding that it was "a clear indication of the senator's openness."

An AAI congressional scorecard for the 106th Congress showed Lieberman in accord with Arab-American concerns only about 50 percent of the time.

As for those focused on women's rights, sexual harassment in particular, the 1991 confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas marked a watershed period. All eyes were on the swing votes.

"Sen. Lieberman was, for a long time, one of the undecideds," said one Jewish feminist activist. "He did oppose Thomas in the end."

Lieberman is seen as friendly to feminist issues, although not a trailblazer.

"I would not describe him as a leader on women's issues, but I would say he has a very good voting record," said the activist.

The National Organization for Women gives Lieberman a 60 percent score in the 105th Congress. His views squared with those of NOW on such issues as support for the Equal Rights Amendment, child care funding and affirmative action in the transportation industry.

He parted ways with the feminist group on pay equity, employer flexibility on overtime pay (he favored it) and caps on lawsuit damages for product liability and exemptions for certain industries (he supported this) reflecting his pro-business views.

Despite his traditional religious views, Lieberman has a strong track record in support of reproductive rights.

"Lieberman has proven to be a compassionate and thoughtful senator, and one who stands firmly for a woman's right to choice," said Alice Germond, executive director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

She cites his legislative record during 12 years in the Senate. Out of 74 votes monitored by NARAL, he cast a ballot for abortion rights in 72. This included his vote against a fall 1999 bill that would have banned a controversial late-term abortion procedure.

"I think Sen. Lieberman understood the complexity of this issue and realized this was a decision that ought to be left to a woman and her doctor, who must make complicated decisions under difficult circumstances," said Germond.

Gays and lesbians
Perhaps the most contentious corner of the civil rights tent is that of gays and lesbians. Yet Lieberman has not shrunk from leadership on their issues.

He came forward in 1999 as one of five co-sponsors to reintroduce the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill that would prohibit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. A statement issued by the senator in June of that year alluded to the recent killing of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and a similar murder in Alabama.

"These violent acts have dramatized the extreme consequences of the prejudice that motivates discrimination, and remind us of the price we all pay for intolerance, namely the cheapening of our common values," read Lieberman's statement, which also took inspiration for his stand from the Declaration of Independence.

"I'd give him an A minus," said one Washington-based gay activist. He noted Lieberman's support for the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends the original law covering race, ethnicity, religion to include sexual orientation as well as gender and disability; the Ryan White Care Act, providing for AIDS/HIV care funding; and ending the ban on gays in the military. The senator's own employment policies bar discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation.

As for the minus, the activist cited Lieberman's vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage and conferring on states the right not to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. The senator, he said, also backed a measure to keep people with AIDS from entering the United States.

"The nutshell is: He has generally a good record on issues important to our community, but like Clinton and Gore, he sometimes bears watching," said the gay activist.

"Having said that, compare Joe Lieberman's record with Dick Cheney's record and it's not a very close call." Calling Cheney "anti-gay," he pointed to the former House member's support of the ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces.

So, has Lieberman remained true to his youthful idealism about civil rights? If politics is the art of the possible not the perfect the first Jewish candidate for vice president is still largely in sync with his earlier views.

Putting aside the religious or partisan labels, Fauntroy calls for judging a public servant "not on the basis of what he says he believes, but what he does."

He, and indeed the nation, are watching.

© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.


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