Forget Duck Dynasty; There Are Important Civil Rights Battles to Fight

Your Take: For the NAACP LDF, the lesson from 2013 is to choose race battles for meaningful political, economic and social impact.

Phil Robertson and Miss Kay Robertson attend A&E Networks 2012 Upfront at Lincoln Center on May 9, 2012, in New York City. Jason Kempin/Getty Images for A&E Networks

When President Obama followed up three weeks later, commuting the sentences of eight of those individuals still serving these onerous sentences, the story drew attention, but not nearly the same passion, analysis and airtime as the Duck Dynasty controversy. The president, who had drawn the ire of liberal critics because of his refusal to use his pardon power, issued a terse but powerful statement commuting the sentences of these eight offenders. It was high drama, designed without question by the administration to draw attention to an issue about which the president has passionate views.

The president’s actions, coming on the heels of the divided Sixth Circuit decision, set the stage for an impactful moment of an engagement with one of the most important racial injustices of our time. But instead this story had a 24-hour shelf life. The decimation of black families and communities by our culture of incarceration will one day be recognized as among the most destructive and inhumane policies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But we have yet to see it garner the kind of attention and focused activism that will be required to make real change.

And what of Trayvon Martin, who didn’t even make the shortlist of contenders for Time magazine’s “person of the year”? (Miley Cyrus did) This was the year when Broadway stars donned hoodies, when young activists sat in for months at the Florida state Capitol, when the dignity of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s parents, held us transfixed and riveted and when we were outraged that the value of a black child’s life could be held so cheap.   

In fact, Trayvon’s death and the acquittal of his killer drew our sustained attention this summer to a monumentally important shift in our criminal-justice laws, with powerful racial implications. Few Americans had heard of “Stand your ground” laws before Trayvon’s death. But because of the trial of Trayvon’s killer, we now know that 33 states have laws that permit the use of deadly force based on the subjective threat of the individual.

Many Americans now also know about the existence of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that drafted model ““Stand your ground” legislation that was simply adopted by lawmakers who attend ALEC conferences. These laws have passed without any significant study or engagement with the vital question of how race (and gender) affects our subjective understanding of threat. It’s no surprise that white shooters of African Americans more successfully invoke “Stand your ground” laws as a defense to homicide, but it is a travesty of justice, which we must confront and change.

In sum, we have our work cut out for us. Thus, the greatest challenge we may face in 2014 is discerning when and how to most effectively focus our attention, our outrage and our activism. The energy marshaled to punish the digital-media executive for her Twitter transgression would be better harnessed in an effort to stamp out overly long and harsh prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, and to release those still held under old sentencing regimes now universally recognized as unfair and racially discriminatory.

When the Blewett case from the Sixth Circuit makes its way to the Supreme Court, we lawyers will be ready with our arguments and our briefs. But we should also be ready with an informed, organized army of activists who are prepared to raise public awareness, speak powerfully to the injustice of harsh mandatory minimums and apply pressure to Congress to do more to restore the lives of those unfairly sentenced.

2014 will mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Each of these occasions stands as a stark reminder that real change—true civil rights victories—comes when we focus with laser attention on the structural barriers that stand in the way of opportunity and access and when litigation, mobilization and advocacy work hand in hand. As we commemorate these powerful moments in civil rights history, our challenge will be to use the power of our outrage with surgical precision—to discern the difference between that which outrages us and those things that truly bar us from opportunity, advancement and dignity.

The good news is that many—like the young activist Dream Defenders in Florida and the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina—have kept their eyes on the prize. We will all have to do the same if we are to honor what men and women with considerably fewer resources were able to accomplish 50 years ago. 2014 is a year of challenge and opportunity for civil rights activists and lawyers, as well as for all Americans who value equality, opportunity and democracy. But our success will be commensurate with our discipline, rather than our outrage.     

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which argued the Blewett case in the Court of Appeals, and the Shelby County v. Holder voting-rights case before the Supreme Court. Follow her on Twitter.