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McGrath: On this Fourth, celebration and remediation

Updated: August 5, 2013 6:02PM



Hot dogs, beer, baseball, flags and firecrackers are among what we celebrate with on the Fourth of July.

Threats to our freedoms are what we need to scrutinize.

The first threat I ever received for exercising free speech was in September 2007. I wrote a column criticizing Louisiana District Attorney Reed Walters for what many thought was racism.

It had begun when a black student in the town of Jena asked at a high school assembly if he could sit under a shade tree on campus, a location favored by white students. The next day, three nooses hung from the tree.

Conflict and physical confrontations between black and white students erupted in the ensuing days, and Walters subsequent handling of charges against the offenders incensed African-Americans.

That’s because Walters brought no charges against the three white teenagers who had strung up the nooses. But he charged a black youth who attacked a white student with a felony that carried a 22-year prison sentence. The beating victim was not seriously hurt.

My column appeared simultaneously in the Daily Southtown and the Mobile, Ala., Press Register, for which I worked as a freelancer, writing book reviews and the occasional op-ed column.

A resident at that time of Dauphin Island, which is 40 miles south of Mobile, I was used to Dixie politics and had grown accustomed to feedback on articles I wrote for several southern newspapers. But this time an email arrived that was chilling. Its author defended Walters and said I had better write a “retraction,” adding that “we know where you live.”

Practically speaking, there was slim chance that an anonymous critic would gather his posse and track me down in Dauphin Island. But the first time you find something like that in your inbox, addressed to your first and last name, it feels like assault.

I recently thought about that email following the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the Voting Rights Act, which for years had closely monitored elections in certain southern states with a history of intimidation and denial of rights to African-Americans.

In writing the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts explained that there is no longer a need for those states to obtain “pre-clearance” from the government for their voting regulations. His rationale was that more elected officials in those states are black, proving that the times and attitudes have changed.

But have they?

Weeks after the Jena episode, I received word of the message board called Freerepublic.com, whose members were making obscene references to me as a “blankety blank leftie” for a different column I had written about immigration for the Birmingham News. Nothing alarming. Columnists welcome “vivid” feedback. It shows that what you’ve written has impact.

But Googling the group, I found that they were Alabama members of a national right-wing organization by the same name, previously credited with inspiring the President Clinton impeachment hearings by spreading false rumors that he fathered an African-American child.

The organization remains active today, posting racial taunts of President Obama and mocking his family in slave-era dialect.

Obviously, the fight for freedom is not yet over. Look closely at the new voter identification laws in Texas and Alabama. Review Florida’s voting restrictions in the last election that were a national embarrassment.

Meanwhile, let’s celebrate our freedoms today with a parade, a cookout and a fireworks show as well as pride in our flag and our nation. And tomorrow, we better start work on a new voting rights law.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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