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Reflections of a Human Rights Advocate
Mar 1, 2014

Civil society has yet to define and accept broader human rights ... The struggle goes on, building on those who went before us, for the benefit of those who come after us.

The 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy's assassination this year is poignant for those of us who were well along in high school or had begun college when we heard the news that awful Friday afternoon. We still remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the word came. I was in the locker room in the seminary dormitory with some classmates when a friend ran in to tell us. First came shock; then, hopeful denial. The television, however, confirmed the unbelievable reality. The next three days we rarely budged from in front of the television - not until the state funeral had ended.

Kennedy was, for many of us, the promise of our generation. His eloquence, humor, and charm captured our idealism, as certainly as his call-to-action inaugural address - "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" - inspired us to build our communities and bring our country further along the path of democracy. He urged us to reach out to the world. The Peace Corps, which Kennedy proposed at the University of Michigan during his campaign, captured our imagination.

Tragic history has a way of deadening dreams, and casting youthful idealism upon its ash heap. We strove to resist that trajectory and continued to push our energy forward in the civil rights movement, and those movements that followed ... for women, the environment, and peace.

Many of my generation answered the call, and, with the help of Lyndon Johnson's masterful implementation, and expansion, of Kennedy's ideals, joined the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, or the War on Poverty. Others of us dedicated ourselves to other visions of civil society. Some of us were brutally tortured to death. Many were beaten bloody at lunch counters and on buses, or had snarling dogs set upon them. Terroristic violence even killed four little girls at Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama.

We endured the pain of the unimaginable assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and strove with grit to keep the dream alive and steady the course, despite the odds set against us.

Of course, we were not alone. We were building on the shoulders of the other generations in our time, and marching with them. All of us were honoring the legacy, lives, and struggles of those who had gone before us and now rested in peace. But it was Kennedy's clarion voice that called us younger folks forth.

I myself ended up in the farm workers movement, following the leadership of César Chávez, and eventually moved into broader human rights efforts.

As I look back fifty years, I have learned that the struggle is so much more difficult than what we had seen through our idealistic-tinted glasses. I still cannot bear to watch the anniversary replays of President Kennedy's assassination, and this year is even worse.

But there is never a moment that I don't feel a stirring deep within my heart when I watch his inaugural address or listen to his speeches calling upon our "better angels," as another assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln, did a hundred years earlier.

It is with the same stirring of heart that I watch the next generations so passionately pick up the struggle to make the dream real.

When I look back, I also see other formative people and events that helped move me in this direction. I have learned from this that everything we do well in life has a good impact on others and that we can always learn from the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Probably the person who influenced my life the most was my grandmother. She was an intensely devout Christian, who practiced every day what she believed. She gave her money to the poor, visited people in the hospital, doted on her grandchildren, helped my parents support our family of six kids and send us to Catholic school, and prayed and went to Mass every day. My grandmother lived a life of compassion, tolerance, and justice. In her late eighties, she was on a picket line, supporting the United Farm Workers' grape boycott.

Another important epoch in my life was the eight years in seminary, high school and college, studying to be a priest, even though I eventually chose a different vocation to which I felt called because it offered a more activist role in human rights work; after a stint in graduate school studying philosophy, I went on to become a lawyer.

But my time in the seminary gave me a good liberal arts education and taught me discipline, spirituality, philosophy, and grounded me in Catholic social justice teachings. It was the era of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II. Pope John was much like John Kennedy: he "opened the windows" of the Church and challenged us to bear witness to the Gospel in community life in new ways; to help build civil society, in effect.

And, in my later years, coming to know and work with people in the Hizmet movement inspired by Fethullah Gülen gave me yet a broader, more ecumenical vision of the world, and offered the opportunity of collaborating with people of the Islamic faith to help build civil society. This experience further deepened my own spirituality.

Few of us involved in human rights, I venture to say, are without a spiritual basis for our work. Like all generalizations, mine is surely excessive; but it does capture the point that very many human rights advocates remain in their work because of their spirituality, which comes in all shapes and sizes. As the Christian monk and mystic Thomas Merton warned, without spirituality, we find ourselves caught up in the frenzy of activism and overwork, which overwhelms us.

While in law school, I worked summers with migrant farm workers in Michigan, the vast majority of whom came from the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, along the border with Mexico. It was the era of César Chávez, who galvanized the country around issues of justice, decent pay and working conditions for field laborers.

So it was that I ended up in the Valley and worked there for ten years, helping to support farm worker organizing efforts and undertaking other human rights endeavors. It was an amazing way to witness that people living in poverty had great personal wisdom and an amazing sense of family and community.

Eventually, my work brought me to Austin, Texas, and the Texas Civil Liberties Union.

In 1990, two of us located free office space in a benefactor's community building and began the Texas Civil Rights Project. Over the years, through the help of many generous people and organizations, TCRP has grown to a staff of 38 people in five offices: El Paso, South Texas, West Texas, Houston, and Austin.

TCRP handles the full panoply of civil rights issues, including: voting, free speech and assembly, economic justice, jail and prison matters, police misconduct, discrimination, and disability. For 23 years, the Texas Civil Rights Project has been a tireless advocate for racial, social and economic equality for low-income people, through its education and litigation programs.

Some of the achievements of the TCRP staff include:

  • Handling more than 3000 legal cases for poor and low-income people
  • Developing a vigorous VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) legal program for abused immigrant women in rural Texas that includes our unique "Circuit Rider" component and counseling and support services provided by a MSW supervisor and social work interns
  • Publishing twelve Human Rights reports on issues such as hate crimes, Title IX rights of girls in high school, and the death penalty, and seven "self-help" legal manuals, on matters like veterans rights, disability laws, and prisoner rights
  • Conducting community and lawyer trainings for more than 50,000 persons
  • Publishing more than 400 opinion editorials in Texas newspapers
  • Giving more than 500 speeches and talks on civil rights to diverse groups (such as school conferences, law enforcement trainings, and senior citizen organizations)

Due to the tireless advocacy of many TCRP employees, jails in Texas counties now do much more in preventing inmate suicide, providing interpreters for deaf prisoners, protecting vulnerable inmates from sexual assault, and administering HIV medications.

TCRP set the national model in ballot accessibility for blind voters and has led more than 30 regional compliance campaigns in Texas under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Thanks to our intrepid staff, businesses, churches, and courthouses in Texas are much more accessible to elderly and people with disabilities, as are government programs.

TCRP's Title IX programs on sexual harassment and equal sports opportunities have helped make rural middle and high schools more hospitable for young women, and respectful of them, and opened up the prospect of athletic scholarships to college for them. Our Safe Schools project works with community groups on anti-bullying programs for students and our "Equality under the Law" campaign addressed "benign" discrimination against African Americans and Hispanic Americans in banks, restaurants, motels, and other public accommodation.

Efforts to help South Asian, Muslim, and Arab citizens, permanent residents, and students who fell victim to post September 11th discrimination included filing a suit against a major airline and enlisting Texas attorneys to represent, on a pro bono basis, individuals who were questioned by the FBI.

TCRP worked with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) to help create single-member school board districts and assisted in redistricting the Texas Legislature and congressional districts so as to protect the voting and representational rights of minority citizens.

We assisted the NAACP is persuading the U.S. Department of Justice to audit the Austin Police Department and make more than 200 changes, including its use of force practices in the city's minority communities.

TCRP joined with the American Jewish Congress in one of the first court cases in the country to challenge the constitutionality of government funding of a religiously-orientated job training program that used the Bible as an employment text and proselytized its trainees.

And we are a leading voice in raising questions about the fairness of Texas' death penalty scheme, and the possibility of executing innocent people. So, too, are we an intrepid advocate of traditional civil liberties, such as free speech and assembly, due process, and equal protection under the United States and Texas Constitutions.

Our work that I'm proudest of dealt with:

  • Ending secret collection of and research on blood of all babies born after 2002 
  • Directing 480 suits under the Americans with Disabilities Act and related enforcement campaigns
  • Challenging grand jury discrimination against Mexican Americans, women, and poor people
  • Eliminating the statutory exclusion of farm and ranch laborers from the Texas workers' compensation and unemployment compensation laws
  • Extending the Texas Equal Rights Amendment to minority voting and redistricting
  • Establishing a habeas corpus mechanism to review claims of innocence for persons sentenced to death
  • Winning the right of blind voters to cast secret, adapted election ballots 
  • Banning mandatory polygraph testing of state employees (and establishing privacy as fundamental right under the Texas Constitution)
  • Protecting United Farm Workers Union members from retaliatory employment termination
  • Securing the right of blind people to use dog guides in public accommodations 
  • Seven McAllen police brutality class actions suits that reorganized the department

The most recent and profound personal development, as mentioned earlier, was coming to work with hizmet. It started with one of the movement's interfaith dialog trips to Turkey and eventually led to writing a book on the eight-year-long political trial of Fethullah Gülen, which ended successfully and actually helped the process of more deeply democratizing Turkey.

International human rights law had always been a passion, and it was an honor to write on a subject that no one else in the world had written on. In subsequent trips, I met so many people in hizmet and was always singularly inspired by their good deeds, hard work, amiability, and commitment. It reminded me that people from all walks of life and faiths are struggling for democracy and human rights.

There remains much to do, of course. Human rights is a life-long struggle; it is painstaking to build civil society. As Eugene Debs, the renowned American labor organizer, said, every struggle for human rights is lost, and lost, and lost, before it succeeds. Indeed, many people have given their lives over the years, and suffered enormously to help make the world a better place for its people.

Civil society has yet to define and accept broader human rights, such as the right to employment, the right to a social and economic safety net, the right to medical care, the right to participate in community's cultural life, the right to adequate standard of living, and the right to an education. The struggle goes on, building on those who went before us, for the benefit of those who come after us.

Eleanor Roosevelt put it well in her remarks at the United Nations in 1958:

Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

Such has been the journey of those of us inspired by John F. Kennedy all those years ago. It has been an incredible blessing to "labor in the vineyard" with so many good and decent people; they have contributed to my own growth as a person. I hope and pray that I have given back to them a portion of what they have given me. That, after all, is what living in the human community is all about:

We make a living from what we get.
We make a life from what we give.
What we have done for ourselves dies with us.
What we have done for others and for the world is immortal.
MaryAnn Evans

Harrington is founder and director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation, promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas, for low-income people. He is author of Wrestling with Free Speech, Religious Freedom, and Democracy in Turkey: The Political Trials and Times of Fethullah Gülen.