BUSH v. GORE (2000)
The 2000 election was a virtual dead heat between Democratic nominee Al Gore and Republican nominee George W. Bush. Under the Electoral College system, votes from the undeclared state of Florida would decide the winner. After a number of complaints, it became clear that thousands of voters were disenfranchised due to problems with paper ballots (including the confusing “butterfly ballot”), antiquated machines and human error. A number of people were also disenfranchised because their names matched those on a so-called felon purge list. Several counties engaged in recounts to ascertain the true intent of voters. Republicans sued to stop the recount and the matter eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On December 12, 2000, the Supreme Court issued a deeply divided ruling in the case Bush v. Gore, overturning the Florida Supreme Court’s call for a recount – and resulting in a sudden, dramatic end to the 2000 presidential contest in favor of Bush. The Court’s ruling triggered a renewed interest in voting and elections and led to adoption of the “Help America Vote Act,” which pushed states to update their voting equipment and bring to an end the era of the butterfly ballot.
THE NEW RACIAL PROFILING (2001)
After the September 11th attacks, there was a tremendous spike in bias crimes and discrimination against Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South-Asian Americans. Members of those groups became the victims of assaults, threats, arson and vandalism. Hundreds of incidents were investigated in the wake of the attacks resulting in a number of prosecutions. For example, two days after the September 11th attacks, a man set fire to cars parked at Seattle’s Islamic Idriss Mosque and fired a gun at worshipers while they exited the mosque. In 2003, four men were sentenced for plotting to destroy the Islamic Education Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. In Sacramento, California, a man pled guilty after severely assaulting a Sikh postal carrier with a high-powered pellet rifle. And in 2005, a Texas man pled guilty after throwing a Molotov Cocktail at the Islamic Center of El Paso. Many have also challenged government actions that seem to target people of Arab descent and Muslim faith through covert monitoring and screening.
DIVERSITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION (2003)
In perhaps its most important decision since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Supreme Court considered the use of race-conscious decision-making in college admissions (often referred to as “affirmative action” programs) in a pair of landmark cases involving the University of Michigan’s admissions policies for its law school and undergraduate college. This was the first time the Court directly addressed the issue since its decision 25 years prior in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which outlawed quota systems.
In Grutter v. Bollinger, a 5-4 majority ruled that the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy was permissible because it used race as one of many factors, furthering “a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” However, in Gratz v. Bollinger the Court ruled that the undergraduate admissions policy was unconstitutional because it used a formulaic system that provided additional points to students of color. Taken together, the decisions allowed for affirmative action programs to continue based upon the diversity rationale – so long as they provide sufficient individualized review of each applicant and race is not the predominate factor. A record number of amicus curiae or “friend-of-court” briefs were filed in support of the university’s policies by a broad coalition of civil rights, business and labor groups, as well as leaders from the military, corporations and students themselves – many of whom also participated in various demonstrations on college campuses and at courthouses as the cases wound their way through the system.
EQUAL RIGHTS IN MARRIAGE (2004)
In the case Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts struck down a state law barring gays and lesbians from marrying, making Massachusetts the first state to permit non-heterosexual couples to legally marry. Efforts to reinstate the law via a referendum to the Commonwealth’s constitution failed. However, similar referendums were placed on the ballot in eleven other states during the fall elections.
JUSTICE AT LAST (2005)
The 1964 “Freedom Summer” murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by a Ku Klux Klan mob in Philadelphia, Mississippi intensified the civil rights movement. In 2005, on the 41st anniversary of the murders, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter for his role as ringleader in the killings, thereby bringing to a close one of a number of tragic chapters in our nation’s history.
THE GREAT DELUGE (2005)
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the most powerful storms in modern history, made landfall – destroying towns in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, displacing over one million people, and killing nearly 1,800. Hurricane Katrina is most certainly one of the worst natural and manmade disasters our country has ever experienced, causing unprecedented destruction and loss of life in the Gulf region. Much of the devastation occurred after the storm when canal levees throughout New Orleans were breached, flooding 80 percent of the city. It was later revealed that many of the levee walls were not built to specification by the Army Corps of Engineers, and shipping channels dug by the Corps for the benefit of commercial shipping interests led to much of the flooding. The images of thousands of people trapped in the flooded city for days without food, water or medical supplies exposed the deep racial divide and crippling poverty that persists in so many urban communities throughout our nation where African-Americans and other people of color remain isolated and marginalized. The situation also exposed the incompetence of federal agencies to fulfill their missions and render assistance in time of need.
Two weeks after the storm, President George W. Bush delivered a speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans where he promised that ”[W]e will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.” But more four years later, a great deal of work remains to realize those promises, rebuild the city, and revitalize the communities of those devastated by the storm. Despite the best efforts of civil rights groups, legal advocates and organizers, estimates indicate that well over 150,000 people remain displaced. The rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast stands as a test of our nation’s ability to resolve the race and poverty issues that define many urban communities throughout the country.
SEAN BELL (2006)
On November 25, 2006, Sean Bell, a 23-year-old African-American man celebrating with friends the day before his wedding, was shot and killed by plainclothes New York City Police officers in Queens. Bell died in a hail of 50 bullets, and his friends were injured. The outrage about the incident was nearly universal. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg referred to the number of shots fired as “unacceptable” and “inexplicable.” Three of the five police officers involved in the incident were tried in 2008 on charges that ranged from first-degree manslaughter to reckless endangerment. All three waived their rights to jury trials and were acquitted of the charges after a judge heard the case in 2008. The case invoked strong memories of Amadou Diallo – an unarmed African immigrant who was shot and killed in a hail of 41 bullets by officers in 1999.
END OF AN ERA (2006)
On January 30, 2006, Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died from a stroke at the age of 78. After the death of her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she served for 27 years at the helm of the King Center, and remained extremely active in the fight for racial justice throughout her life. Moreover, she was a symbol of a bygone era in which dramatic change seemed imminently possible, yet simultaneously elusive.
RACE-BASED SCHOOL ASSIGNMENT (2007)
The Supreme Court issued a sharply divided decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and its companion case Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Public Education, a pair of cases that placed at issue the race-conscious K-12 student assignment policies of school districts in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky. While a majority of the Justices recognized the importance of community efforts to promote diverse local schools, a plurality struck down aspects of the Seattle and Louisville student assignment plans as unconstitutional race-based assignments. This ruling limited the ability of local school districts to take account of race to promote diversity and address racial isolation in their schools. However, the Court did not ban all consideration of race in student assignments, leaving opportunities for school districts to take limited race-conscious measures to promote diversity and avoid racial isolation in schools.
JENA SIX (2007)
A group of African-American high school students was accused of assaulting a white classmate on a school campus after a series of racially-charged incidents unfolded at their school. In the small town called Jena in the northern part of Louisiana, events escalated with a documented noose-hanging on the school campus, previous fights between black and white students, and a perceived threat of intimidation by the local district attorney. The cause of these young men, referred to as the Jena Six, gained notoriety when they were charged in early 2007 with crimes as serious as attempted murder for allegedly participating in the fight. Meanwhile, the white students involved in previous incidents faced little or no criminal sanction. The incident and the criminal charges drew outrage from people throughout the country, especially from other young African-Americans. Many observers saw the situation as a particularly gross manifestation of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” crisis gripping many communities throughout the nation. Through blogs and continued discussions on African-American radio programs, word of mass action spread, and in September 2007, thousands of protesters marched through Jena in one of the largest demonstrations of the decade.
CHANGE WE BELIEVE IN (2008)
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president in the history of the United States. When the election was called in his favor, people huddled around televisions, shed tears of joy and erupted in spontaneously celebrations throughout the country. Running his campaign on themes of change and hope, Obama inspired a nation and galvanized support from people all of over the world.
HISTORIC SUPREME COURT APPOINTMENT (2009)
Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice and only the third woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. After being nominated by President Obama in a decidedly bold and historic move, Justice Sotomayor endured a withering attack by conservatives, based largely upon statements she made in the past about her judicial philosophy and the unique role she plays as a Latina federal judge. Ultimately, she was confirmed by the Senate with notable bipartisan support.
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The first decade of the new century has been marked by incredible triumphs, ongoing challenges, and a number of historic moments. Here, we review some (though certainly not all) of the most significant civil rights moments in the last 10 years. These events make clear that while we have made great progress, there is still significant work to be done to overcome contemporary forms of discrimination and to achieve equality.
We encourage you to leave your thoughts and comments on other significant moments of the last decade.