Hate is still alive and well in this country, according to Lecia Brooks, the Director of Outreach, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) . Lecia was the speaker at a forum on “hate crimes,” held on August 29th on Bradley’s campus. The forum was sponsored by The Community Word Newspaper, Bradley’s Department of Sociology, Criminology & Social Work, African-American Studies Department, and the Intellectual & Cultural Activities Committee.
Before speaking for an hour to the standing room only crowd in the Michel’s Ballroom and participating in an hour-long Q&A; Lecia spent the day meeting with a variety of City of Peoria stakeholders. She had coffee with local law enforcement, had a meeting with educators, and a lunch hosted by Senator Dave Koehler at his home with other elected officials.
The night before, Lecia broke bread with the owners & writers of the Community Word. At that dinner of pizza & beer, I had the opportunity to talk with her and listen as she shared her heart and passion for the work she has chosen as her life’s work. Truthfully, I don’t believe you choose this type of work; I believe it chooses you.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Lecia now makes Montgomery, AL her home. She also serves as the Director of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. As the Director of Outreach for the SPLC, Lecia travels often and is often a target for the 917 active hate groups in the United States.
The Hate forum also had four other panelists from the Faith & Social Justice Community, Iman Burham Hamden, of the Islamic Center of Peoria, Pastor Marvin Hightower, President of the Peoria NAACP Branch, Rebecca Carlson, of the Jewish Federation of Peoria, and Sonny Garcia, of Illinois Peoples Action. Garry Moore of WEEK TV & WPNV Radio was the moderator.
Lecia began her talk by giving homage to Maya Lin the artist, who sculpted the Civil Rights Memorial. She told the crowd that she always recognizes those foot soldiers who came ahead, because SPLC came out of the Civil Rights Movement.
She described in vivid detail Lin’s interpretation of the Memoria. It begins with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case and ends at 1968, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. During that period, 40 individuals were murdered, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lin left a space between those dates and the words Dr. King quoted from the book of Amos, “Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Lecia explained that the artist left that space, for each of us to fill in our names, with “what we are doing in this fight for Civil & Human Rights.”
The SPLC was founded in 1971 by two white men, who were born in Montgomery, AL during the Jim Crow Era. “They were born in it and born to continue it, but they allowed what was going on around them to break-away,” Lecia said. They also understood they needed help, so they recruited Julian Bond, who became the first President of SPLC.
The SPLC had their first major victory, when they sued 2 Klansmen in Civil Court. They represented the family of Nineteen-year-old Michael Donald. Donald was on his way to the store in 1981 when two members of the United Klans of America abducted him, beat him, cut his throat and hung his body from a tree on a residential street in Mobile, Ala.
The two Klansmen who carried out the killing were eventually arrested and convicted. Convinced that the Klan itself should be held responsible for the lynching, SPLC attorneys filed a civil suit on behalf of Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald vs. United Klans. In 1987, the SPLC won a historic $7 million verdict against the men involved in the lynching.
The verdict marked the end of the United Klans, the same group that had beaten the Freedom Riders in 1961, murdered Civil Rights worker Viola Liuzzo in 1965, and bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.
The mission of the SPLC is “Fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice.” Lecia stated that hate groups exist because of the demographic changes happening in this country. In 1970 the U.S. was 83% white and 17% People of Color; today we are 66% white and 34% people of color. In 2050 it is forecast to be 49% white and 51% people of color. Today babies of color, outnumber white babies being born.
Lecia went on to say that we cannot go back; this is a natural progression for a country, which chose to be a melting pot. She discussed the dangers of people, who are radicalized on-line like, Dylan Roof, who killed nine people, in the historical, Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC in 2015.
Lecia warned the audience, the students, in particular, that was in attendance, to be wary of the hate sites on-line. Garry Moore asked Lecia, if campuses, i.e., Berkeley was right in banning speakers, which espoused hate? She said even hate speech is a protected right, and believes colleges must allow them to come; one can either ignore them or set-up one’s own protest.
Lecia stated because of Donald Trump’s insults and assault against Hispanics, Muslims, African-Americans, and even the disabled during the 2016 presidential election, hate speech and hate groups have been energized and normalized by the far-right. A survey of 10,000 teachers showed that children in school anxiety levels have increased by 80%.
At the end of the night, I left with a heightened awareness, that we all must stand on the side of right. We must continue to speak truth to power. As Pastor Hightower said in his concluding remarks, “We must continue to educate, litigate, mobilize and Vote!”