Anthony D. Romero on Civil Liberties in the Wake of Katrina

Document Date: September 24, 2005

Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, ACLU

ACLU Alabama Affiliate
Montgomery, Alabama

Romero addresses some of the vexing questions raised about the state of civil liberties and civil rights in America by the horrible failure to protect the most vulnerable in New Orleans – racial minorities, the poor, the sick and the elderly. Working on the long-term systemic problems of racism and privilege are the real solutions that will ensure that the tragedy of Katrina is not repeated.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero NEWS
ACLU Seeks Information on New Orleans Prisoners (9/28/05)

ACLU Urges Bush to Keep Politics Out of Katrina Relief Legislation (9/15/05)

It is a distinct honor to address you on the occasion of two major civil rights anniversaries: the 40 th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and the 50 th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott.

Looking at this distinguished audience – which includes founders of the civil rights movement and long-time activists – I feel like the man who was washed away in the great Ohio River flood of 1913. His friends and neighbors were sure he had drowned, but he was miraculously saved. For the rest of his life he never missed an opportunity to recount his great adventure.

When he died he went to heaven. St. Peter met him at the gate and told him he would grant him his greatest wish. The man replied that what he wanted most was to tell a heavenly audience how he survived the great Ohio River flood.

St. Peter said, “”No problem, I’ll make all the arrangements – but you should be aware that Noah is going to be in the audience.””


The Voting Rights Act was signed into the law the year I was born. As a result, the American civil rights movement was the formative epic story while I was growing up.

After all, the appeal to conscience was the essence of the civil rights epic. No change could happen until Americans – white, brown or black – understood that segregation was bad, immoral, and unconscionable. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King made this connection, and so did each and every man, woman and child who put their lives at stake to stand for justice and equality.

The fact that black people were struggling for their dignity and winning made a big impression on me and my family living in the Bronx. There is no doubt in my mind that the gains the movement achieved made it possible for people like me to succeed.

So I am here today to say, “”Thank you.”” Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your initiative. Thank you for showing the rest of us the way to overcome injustice with dignity and humanity.


How fitting it is that we should be meeting in Birmingham, the city that was at the center of the civil rights movement throughout the 1960’s. Here was where one of the most abhorrent crimes of the time occurred – the bombing of the 16 th Street Baptist Church that took the lives of four young girls attending Sunday school. The city was also the location of Dr. Martin Luther King’s stirring “”Letter from Birmingham Jail,”” written on the margins of a newspaper because his jailers would not give him writing paper.

In this letter, Dr. King observed that “”Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known.””

The brutality was not only widely known; it was also widely condoned. Changing the appalling status quo was no easy task. By the spring of 1963 the movement appeared to be floundering. People were intimidated by the repressive actions of local authorities. Since few adults were willing to risk arrest and jail, SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) organizers came up with a bold and controversial plan – a “”Children’s March,”” organized in secret and by word-of-mouth. On May 2, 1963, at exactly 11:00 a.m., four thousand school children stood up as one and left their classrooms to join in a mass demonstration.

In response, “”Bull”” Connor, the Commissioner of Safety, unleashed police dogs and opened the city fire hoses. The water coming from those hoses was set at a level that would separate brick from mortar. The police aimed the hoses straight at the kids. Television cameras broadcast the horrible images of defenseless children knocked down by the force of the water and attacked by dogs. The nation was repulsed and the movement regained momentum.

Birmingham was not alone. Other cities in Alabama played key roles in the struggle. We are honored to have with us this evening people who can recount first-hand some amazing stories of courage. One of these is Mr. Fred Gray who took the battle to desegregate Montgomery’s buses all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. While in college, Mr. Gray had made a secret commitment – “”to become a lawyer, return to Alabama, and destroy everything segregated I could find.””

We also have Mr. Solomon Seay, Jr., whom we have just honored. Sol Seay followed in the footsteps of his father, the Reverend Solomon Seay, Sr., who was a founding member of the Montgomery Improvement Association and served on the Executive Board of the SCLC.

Mr. Gray, Mr. Seay — there are many Noahs in the audience tonight.


President Andrew Jackson said that, “”One man with courage makes a majority.”” That wisdom applies to men and women alike.

An organization with courage can also make a majority. That is surely true of the ACLU Alabama affiliate, which demonstrated extraordinary courage in establishing itself in a place and time (1965) that were, to put it mildly, extremely inhospitable.

I mention this history because it deserves to be retold time and again, like a favorite poem full of meaning and remembrance. The history should remind us of how far we have come, but also how far we have yet to go.


I am by nature and necessity an optimist. As a result, I prefer to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. I expect most, if not all, of you here are of the same persuasion. How else could you have had the fortitude to stay the course, and continue to fight the good fight despite all obstacles and setbacks?

However, I must admit that recent events are a test for any optimist. 9-11 and Katrina are the monstrous bookends for four turbulent years during which we experienced the following:

The horrific attacks of September 11 and the seizure of broad-sweeping law enforcement powers by the federal government;

The initiation of two wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan;

The commission of torture and abuse in both countries by Americans, who did so with the tacit (if not explicit) approval of our leaders; and

The horrible failure to protect the most vulnerable in New Orleans – racial minorities, the poor, the sick, and the elderly.

Each of these raises vexing questions about the state of civil liberties and civil rights in America. But right now I would like to focus on the last challenge – the horrible failure to protect the most vulnerable in New Orleans.


We now see that Katrina has seized – and shocked – our national psyche in an unprecedented way. This time – at least this time – the press did not jump on the government’s bandwagon. This time, they asked the tough questions. This time, correspondents readily cast aside any effort to show “”balance”” or “”objectivity”” or present two sides of the debate. Because the truth (at least this time) was one-sided.

We were shown image after image of poor Black Americans cast aside in the storm called Katrina. Evacuate, they said. But those turned out to be empty exhortations, since the poor and black were not provided with the means of evacuation. They were denied the shelter and sustenance they were promised in so-called harbors of safety. If you were poor and black, you were not likely to receive a place in the ark that would deliver others to firm soil.

The poor and black were, in effect, cast aside, but they were cast aside long before a Category 5 hurricane landed aground on August 29. They were cast aside in the storm of American privilege, American racism and American indifference.

It’s obvious that most of the abandoned were people of color. Was it racism or was it poverty that made them so vulnerable? The answer, of course, is that the two issues long ago merged into one. If you were black in New Orleans you were most likely poor. And if you were poor, you were probably also black.

A recent CNN poll found that 6 in 10 blacks interviewed said the federal government was slow in rescuing those stranded in New Orleans after Katrina because many of the people in the Louisiana city were black. But only 1 in 8 white respondents shared that same view. How can we square the dissonance between these 2 very different versions of events?

I don’t think too many people in this room find this much of a revelation. The linkage between race and poverty is well established and known to anyone who has been paying attention. A few salient statistics tell the story:

In 2004, 24.7 percent of blacks were below the official poverty rate.

The 24.7 percent number is up from 22.5 percent in 2000.

It is also nearly double the national rate of 12.7 percent.

The ACLU has been studying the connection between race and poverty in order to determine where best to focus our resources. What we have found is:

1. That racial disparity in access to quality education is a severe national problem. If you are poorly educated then you are most likely poorly employed or not employed at all. Therefore, providing equal access to quality education is key to ensuring equal access to economic opportunity. Which is why the ACLU of Southern California has brought and won a precedent-setting lawsuit on behalf of poor, minority students in California public schools arguing that their right to an education has been effectively violated.

2. That incarceration and the collateral consequences of conviction pose the greatest threat to the liberty and political interests of racial minorities since the age of Jim Crow. Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., over half are people of color. At current rates, one of every three black male infants will spend time in prison or probation in his lifetime. Nationwide, 4.3 million citizens – most of them people of color – have lost the right to vote for life because of a criminal conviction. Which is why the ACLU has launched a national felony re-enfranchisement campaign to grant all individuals the right to participate in our democracy.

3. That the education and incarceration issues are inextricably linked. Failed schools serve as feeder pools for the prison system, particularly for poor people of color. Which is why the ACLU of Massachusetts has focused its energies on the juvenile justice system – to break the link between the failed schoolhouse to the jailhouse.

4. That poor people of color are systematically abused by the federal government’s war on drugs. We know that the war on drugs is largely a war on racial and ethnic minorities. That some law enforcement agencies arrest minorities based on flimsy or fraudulent evidence, and that they often target low-income people of color who lack the resources to challenge their arrests. Which is why we have a Drug Policy Reform Project that has challenged racially discriminatory drug sweeps in places like Tulia and Hearne, Texas.

Working on the long-term systemic problems of racism and privilege are the real solutions that will ensure that the tragedy of Katrina is not repeated. We need to do more than authorize a federal bail-out or provide a $2,000 handout. A solution to Katrina requires moral leadership to begin an earnest conversation about why some were left behind in the storm, while others were able to board the ark.

In many ways, the privileges conferred on individuals by virtue of their class or race are like the benefits conferred on fish by water. The fish does not know that it exists in water. It does not know that billions of gallons of water surround it, and that the water is what allows it to remain upright and adroitly navigate its environment. The fish does not know that it draws oxygen from the water. Nor does it know that the currents and streams in the ocean enable it to migrate thousands of miles in a season.

Race and class function in much of the same way as water to a fish. Nourishing, aiding, propelling – while its beneficiaries may be unaware of such privilege.

Before accepting the so-called shock of Katrina at face value, let’s consider the hypocrisy of our nation’s leaders. President Bush – five years into his presidency – on September 15 – discusses his revelation on the road to New Orleans:

“”All of us saw on television, there is also some deep persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.””

This is a revelation for a man who was governor of Texas – with its poverty rates among Blacks and Latinos that rival those of New Orleans? And if it wasn’t a revelation, where are the policies and programs of the past five years benefiting the poor and minorities?

But lest you believe that the hypocrisy is the exclusive province of the Republican Party, consider President Clinton, with his newfound indignation and criticism of the government’s response to Katrina. You will recall, my friends, that he was the president who said on August 22, 1996, when signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act:

“”This legislation provides a historic opportunity to end welfare as we know it and transform our broken welfare system by promoting the values of work, responsibility and family.””

The progeny of ending welfare as we knew it were the thousands of Americans who were left weaker (not stronger) by President Clinton’s efforts, and therefore lacked the economic means with which to escape the approaching fury of Katrina. Responsibility for the systemic racism and discrimination that augmented the tragedy of Katrina must be parked at the doorstep of both the Democratic and Republican parties.


As an organization focused on safeguarding liberty, the ACLU has much to do in the wake of Katrina.

We have to ensure that the displaced families and children are reunified, and that all of our kids (even those who lost their homes) are given their constitutional right to an education. As thousands of families are relocated miles away from their prior homes and communities, we must ensure that whatever government process is used to assign those families comports with adequate due process protections. The displaced shouldn’t sign away their right to autonomy and self-determination because of the tragedy that befell them. We should reject “”take it or leave it”” programs. Indeed, our prior experiences with relocation programs that targeted Native Americans and Japanese Americans should remind us of the importance of safeguarding due process rights in such efforts.

Questions of due process rights and what happened to those in the government’s care also require us to consider the rights of the incarcerated, the criminally accused and those who were in government-run health institutions. We are investigating complaints that individuals were rounded up by police in the aftermath of the storm, issues of racial profiling and inadequate access to lawyers. Obviously, if more could and should have been done for individuals who were in the government’s care, we will need to address it.

On a broader level, we at the ACLU are concerned about the growing public pressure to make the federal government the first responder in all emergencies. Additional responsibility will mean additional federal power; and the last thing the country needs is for the federal government to accumulate more power than it already has. Let’s not forget that effective state and local governments provide essential checks and balances in our federal system.

In the reconstruction efforts, work protection laws and programs must be strengthened, not weakened. The nine-million-member AFL-CIO is creating a coalition of labor and civic leaders to lobby for the reinstatement of prevailing-wage standards that have been waived by the administration. Those efforts need our support.

Affirmative action programs that give opportunities to minorities and women need to be bolstered – not dismantled. In fact, a growing number of minority business owners across the Gulf Coast say they are being shut out of the first wave of Katrina-related contracts. They blame longstanding ties between federal and state officials and white-owned companies. In addition, they point to Bush administration moves that eased affirmative action rules for new contracts as long as a state of emergency exists. FEMA, which is responsible for awarding most Katrina contracts, says that 9 percent of the contracts put out to date went to minority-owned businesses. That clearly is inadequate.

For the ACLU, there is great potential for making headway on problems that have stubbornly resisted change. Of course, change for the better won’t happen unless we apply the same courage, ingenuity, initiative and humanity that were the hallmarks of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century.

Call me an incurable optimist, but I believe we are living in exciting times. True, the past four years have had more than their share of terrible events and institutional failures. However, the turbulence we are experiencing is also creating the conditions for change – serious, substantive change; change that has the potential to steer the country toward more rather than less equality and opportunity.


In preparing my remarks for this evening, I called my mom and asked her to read me a story from the Bible. She joked with me that her prayers had finally been answered and that I was back on track. “”I don’t know about that, Mom. But what happened after flood? What did Noah do after the rain subsided?””

She read me the passage in her Spanish Bible in which Noah sends out a dove after the rain subsides. And the dove returns to the ark – not finding a place to land. Seven days later, he sends out the dove again, but this time it returns with an olive branch in its mouth. And when it is sent out a third time, the dove never returned to the ark, having found a new home.

As the Katrina rains subside, and as we seek to rebuild the lives of those who lost so much, let’s take the olive branch as our symbol. Let’s build back with renewed strength and commitment, uprooting the inequality and racism that only added strength to Katrina’s storm. Let’s rebuild so that next time the ark can hold all of us.

Thank you.

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