Politics & Prejudices: Courage and cowardice 

"We know from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor — it must be demanded by the oppressed."

Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

When Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers launched their drive for full civil rights, there were plenty of cowards who urged them not to do it. White America wasn't ready, they said, wringing their hands. We have to go slow!

We don't dare anger the white folks, or some of us will get killed. Well, as the civil rights leaders with backbones pointed out, people had been getting lynched for nearly a century.

If you have to die, better to die for something. King and Evers were indeed murdered. So were Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney, and Liuzzo, and many others.

But today, it's hard to even imagine a world where a black person could be denied the right to sit in a restaurant, use a bathroom or drinking fountain, much less vote.

That's not to say racism still doesn't exist. But a majority of voters in this nation twice elected a black president and we live in a world few could have imagined in 1965.

Today's "Negroes" are the sexual minorities — lesbians, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. For too many of these folks, this is still the South in the 1950s — after Brown v. Board of Education rendered school segregation illegal — but before anyone had done anything to make that meaningful.

Dana Nessel is a sassy, irreverent, tough-as-nails lawyer who is willing to do something about it. Matter of fact, she's not willing not to. Four weeks ago, I reported that she, in tandem with a decent conservative Republican, Richard McLellan, are launching a drive to get a state constitutional amendment on the ballot to guarantee equal rights for all in Michigan — regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Currently, Michigan's constitution doesn't even guarantee equal rights for straight women. Article I, Section II only prohibits discrimination on the basis of "religion, race, color, or national origin." Nessel and McLellan, with the assistance of Wayne State's distinguished law constitutional professor Robert Sedler, have drafted language to include "gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation."

You would think every decent-minded person in the state would get behind this. You'd think especially that groups like Equality Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union would be doing everything they could to help this effort.

But you would be wrong.

They are, in fact, working, overtly or covertly, to sabotage it and keep it off the ballot. Some of them are merely scared little rabbits, the same sort of people who would have told Rosa Parks she better not defy the man. Nessel suspects that the gay bureaucrats of Equality Michigan may have ulterior motives, namely, keeping their jobs; if everybody's rights are guaranteed, they would have no more reason to exist, would they?

The behavior of the ACLU is, however, most puzzling and shameful. Nessel, you remember, was the lead attorney in a courageous group that took on the state of Michigan and its right-wing attorney general, Bill Schuette, over whether a same-sex couple could legally adopt children. That ended with U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman ruling that both same-sex adoptions and marriage were fully legal and constitutional.

That case was bundled with others, which led to the U.S. Supreme Court declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right. But so far as I can tell, the ACLU did nothing to help.

Now, they aren't helping her try to get equal rights on the ballot either. Their reasoning? They say they'd prefer it done by the legislature extending the provisions of the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to LGBT people.

They fear that a ballot campaign will go down to defeat like one recently did in Houston.

Well, that's a risk. But here's the problem with their approach: It is fundamentally dishonest to the core.

The right-wing religious fanatics who control the Michigan Legislature will never — ever — extend civil rights to gays.

Not this year, next year, or in the foreseeable future. Anyone with any sophistication knows this. Two weeks ago, sources — credible sources — told me that the ACLU had met with the governor to try to get him to condemn the ballot initiative — and that he refused. Kary Moss, the head of the Michigan ACLU, denied this when I asked.

Instead, she said she and some corporate executives met with him to discuss "keeping this issue in front of legislators, educating them in particular about the trans issue."

"Multiple oars can row in one direction," she added. When I heard that, all I could think of was the great Phil Ochs song from the civil rights movement, "Talking Birmingham Jam."

Oh, they listen close with open ears

They'll help us out in a couple of hundred years.

But don't push em, whatever you do.

Today, Michigan is a place where you can marry your same-sex partner on Monday and be legally fired on Tuesday because your boss hates gays. Nevertheless, the ACLU, a group which has supported the rights of Nazis, isn't out fighting for the only real way this horrible injustice can ever be corrected.

I never thought I'd be ashamed of the ACLU.

But I am.

Profile in courage

Whenever a judge faces a defendant accused of particularly disgusting acts, there is always enormous pressure to keep them behind bars.

Regardless of whether they are dangerous to the community, and regardless of that pesky little clause in our Constitution, that says everyone is innocent till proven guilty.

Which brings us to one Matthew Kuppe, a 21-year-old former Jewish Community Center camp counselor. Kuppe was arrested after allegations that he took pictures of naked little boys at the camp, and posted some on a Russian website.

Prosecutors say he also exchanged emails with an undercover federal agent, who he begged to share fantasies of "what would you do to these little boys."

Almost certainly, nobody would criticize U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn if he had kept Kuppe locked up till his trial. Most people probably would have applauded if he had ordered Kuppe dropped into a blast furnace.

But instead, Cohn did the hard, but right thing. After careful research, he ordered Kuppe released on bail — but with strict conditions that amount to virtual house arrest.

That set off a storm of protest. But the judge was following common sense and the law.

"The government has not established by clear and convincing evidence that he is a danger to the community," Cohn said. "Pre-trial release is the norm, not the exception."

Though he was bitterly denounced by many, the facts are that there is no evidence that Kuppe sexually touched any little boys. Two court-appointed psychologists thought he should be released under strict conditions.

Kuppe has to wear a monitor, stay in the presence of his parents or other adults, and can't go near a school, the Internet, or have any contact with minors.

By the way, if he had ruled purely on emotion, Avern Cohn might have been less likely to release Kuppe than most people. The judge is a prominent member of the Jewish community, where this scandal has been hugely embarrassing.

But Cohn has spent his life devoted to fairness, justice, and the law, even when that means making hard decisions.

Some say this is an example of why it's a good thing that federal judges don't have to run for re-election.

But my guess is that Cohn would have done what he saw as the right thing regardless — and I know we'd all be better off if we had a state attorney general with as much integrity as he.


More by Jack Lessenberry

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