Monday, April 16, 2007

Florida Gov. Keeps Civil Rights Legacy Of Harry T. Moore Alive...

Crist Restored Civil Rights And Ended Effects Of Jim Crow Law

Perhaps Gov. Charlie Crist was thinking of Harry T. Moore when he forced Florida to shake off its Jim Crow past by automatically restoring civil rights to all but the most violent felons who have served their sentences.


Moore, a teacher and field secretary for the Florida NAACP, and his wife Harriette were killed in their beds Christmas night in 1951.

Their home in Mims near Titusville was bombed - apparently in retaliation for his relentlessness in registering black voters and fighting for an end to the all-white primary, as well as his push to stop lynchings and other horrors and indignities that held a ghastly grip on black people's lives.

As attorney general, Crist's office logged numerous hours investigating the murders of Moore and his wife. It ultimately tracked the bombings to four Klansmen who had since died.

But even though Crist didn't get to bring the civil rights leader's killers to justice, as governor he recently managed to revive the spirit of Moore's work when he persuaded his colleagues on the state's executive clemency board to, in effect, nullify the 138-year-old law that strips all ex-offenders of their voting rights.

That law, which was passed in 1868 and re-enacted 100 years later, had racist origins. Enacted after the Civil War, it bolstered the "black codes," which called for harsh punishments for vagrancy and other minor transgressions that newly freed slaves were likely to get caught up in.

A delegate at the state's 1868 Constitutional Convention even boasted he had "stopped blacks from taking over the state."

Yet the law survived legal challenges over the years. Then Crist decided that it was time to apply a dose of real-world humanity, rather than more judicial interpretations, to the situation.

So he persuaded the majority of the board to instantly restore civil rights to most felons who have served their sentences and paid court-ordered restitution, rather than require them to endure a cumbersome clemency process. And when Crist did that, he did a few other things.

He removed Florida from a dwindling list of states that do not automatically restore voting rights for most ex-offenders. That list now stands at two - Kentucky and Virginia.

That shrinking group may be a sign that the public is no longer as enamored with perpetual punishment as an effective deterrent to crime. At some point, rehabilitation and re-entry into society must be added to the mix.

It's kind of tough for felons to get a do-over if the price they paid by doing their time isn't enough to get them back into the game.

Also, by automatically restoring rights to most felons, Crist also has taken a first step toward chipping away at a shameful statistic: One in four black men in the state cannot vote because of prior felony convictions.

Many of the black men who have lost their right to vote, serve on juries and to hold various state-issued occupational licenses today often are held back from productive employment.

Most are locked up for nonviolent offenses related to either drug use or possession - crimes spawned by hopelessness and the lack of access to legitimate opportunities.

Drug rehabilitation and job training might do more to turn them around than punishment that holds their civil rights hostage - and stymies any chances of them getting a fresh start.

Lastly, Crist - who pledged to end the ban on felons' civil rights - has also distinguished himself as a politician who keeps his promises.

While not all felons will automatically have their rights restored - murderers, sexual predators and violent career criminals will have to go through a longer process - most of them will.

"It's a move forward, and everyone is applauding this," Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., organization working to reverse the nation's mass incarceration trend, told me.

"While there still is much work to do, at least he [Crist] recognized that he needed to do the right thing."

Indeed, Crist did the right thing. By automatically restoring the civil rights of most ex-offenders, he makes it possible for people -a disproportionate number of whom are black - who desperately need to move off the margins of society into its mainstream.

Harry Moore would have been proud., (904) 359-4251

To Find Out More About Harry T. Moore And His Legacy Please Check Out The Following Links:

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