Civil rights leaders debate new incivility

Civil rights leaders debate new incivility

Lynn Cullen moderates many panel discussions in Pittsburgh, but the topic of the one she headlined last week didn’t give her much pleasure at all.

“It is a decidedly unpleasant topic we take up tonight — the increasing incivility of this nation’s public discourse and the consequences of that,” the local television and radio personality said. “Something has change, and it’s not good.”

Cullen moderated a talk between Benjamin Jealous and Rabbi David Saperstein, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, respectively — at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Thursday, Oct. 28.

They debated modern issues of civil rights in a well-attended event was part of Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee’s annual meeting, and drew many members of both Pittsburgh’s Jewish and black communities.

Jealous spoke on the right wing media’s attacks on the NAACP and Saperstein spoke largely on how only bipartisan civility could heal the nation’s current political and economic wounds.

“Putting the last few years aside, look back over the 20th century,” said Saperstein. “The Labor Movement, Womens’ Rights Movement, the Vietnam War Movement… Go down the list. All legislative achievements that took place in America took place because of a bipartisan coalition of decency on Capitol Hill. Not a single one happened because of a partisan vote.”

The two speakers are no strangers to handling matters of civil rights and public civility.
Jealous, at 37, is the youngest leader in the history of the NAACP, which, for almost a century, has been a leading organization championing civil rights in the United States in his short but distinguished he has been director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesy International and executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

This summer, Jealous made headlines for his harsh criticisms of some leaders of the Tea Party movement, a point, he explained on Thursday, that was meant to pick out the most extreme members to reveal the movement’s core of more respectable followers.

One of the most well known rabbis in America, Saperstein has worked with organizations such as People For the American Way and Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, as well as the NAACP. Heading the RAC, Saperstein was called the “most influential rabbi in the country” by Newsweek Magazine in 2009.

Speaking of the media’s inflammation of sensitive political topics, Jealous said, “the realities of the Democratic Party during the 50’s, the Republican Party during the 70’s or 80’s, or the Tea Party today, is that racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are all great gasoline we’re throwing on a political flame and turning it into a big house on fire.”

While political pundits may seem ridiculous to many, Jealous stressed that much of the American public hears their words as gospel.
“Then there’s Mr. Beck,” he said, referencing Fox News host Glenn Beck, “And we have to take him seriously.”

Like Saperstein, Jealous stressed the importance of bipartisan — and multi-racial, multi-faith — coalitions.

“What has been greatest about this country, in many ways — whether it’s jazz music, the civil rights movement — at its origins have been collaborations between inspired minds in the black and Jewish communities,” he said.

The thread of keeping diversity in public discourse and political life was strong throughout the discussion, which later included a question and answer section. Longtime friends themselves, Jealous and Saperstein both spoke on the black-Jewish relationship.

“Day in and day out, blacks and Jews in communities like Pittsburgh work together for better housing, for to clean up environment, to make communities better,” said Saperstein, adding, “The way we vote is more closely aligned than any two groups.”

Jealous noted one factor that’s often forgotten in discussions about how to make America a more civil place.

“There’s a more powerful wedge than hate, and it’s love,” he said. “You see that with the power of the civil rights movement. We have to be courageous in pushing love and inclusion. That’s what everyday should be about from this point onwards.”

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