Thomas Perez

Thomas Perez

Earlier today, the Senate voted 72-22 to confirm President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department.  Civil Rights attorney Thomas E. Perez was named Assistant Attorney General, Head of the Civil Rights Division.  Once announced as the nominee, confirmation hearings were held back in April; however, debate between party lines kept him in the holding pattern until recently.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, had the following to say about the confirmation:

“There are no questions about the qualifications of Tom Perez. During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Perez made clear his commitment that the Justice Department would enforce the law. In the arena of civil rights, living up to those assurances is particularly important. Given that Tom Perez has a distinguished record of public service and a long career advancing civil rights, I have full confidence that he is the right person to restore the Civil Rights Division to its finest traditions of independent law enforcement.”

To learn more about Thomas Perez, visit his page in Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, where he served as Secretary of the Department.

How World Peace Starts, by Getty Images

How World Peace Starts, by Getty Images

Truman Capote once said, “A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue.”  Dialogue – by definition – is an exchange of ideas or opinions between two or more persons.  However, as Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, writer, and activist points out, “In true dialogue, both sides are willing to change.”  It makes one stop and think: How often are people, specifically Americans, having true discussions about anything at all – let alone in the context of the topic of race.

There was no shortage of people, who, when Barack Obama was elected 44th President of the United States proclaimed that the benchmark of selecting a non-white President meant that we were living in a ‘post-racial era’.  What we’ve seen in the months since – from the commentary surrounding a Newsweek cover asking ‘Is Your Baby Racist?’ to the sentiments that former President Jimmy Carter shared about much of the country not being ready for an African-American President – is that the nation is not living in a post-racial anything.  For better or for worse, racially-rooted issues are now just as prevalent as ever.  What more realistically has arrived through ushering in the Obama administration is that with the amount of coverage our media-savvy President receives, the idea of race weaves itself into more and more conversations.  It allows race (and racism) to be addressed, rather than something many people would prefer not to talk about.  It challenges parents and companies alike to answer questions they avoided before.  And it stirs minds – both young and old – to perhaps consider something they hadn’t before.

In introducing these fresh dialogues, Slate magazine online provides an interest-piquing commentary about racism – and how its meaning has been diluted by its somewhat over-use this year.  It has become a convenient political insult [from both sides of the aisle], instead of describing intentional disparities in equality that are race-based.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that true racism and racial discrimination still exist in a country that was founded on the freedoms that are the polar opposite of those hateful sentiments.  The answer is not simple, and won’t happen over-night because of any political or cultural event.  But, organizations like Sojourn to the Past and others who share our vision, know that inciting intelligent, non-threatening conversation and education – especially among young people – are a big step in the process.  We believe strongly that empowering America’s youth to understand the past, and to inspire others to positive action for the future is our best chance and biggest influence in the fight to equality for all.

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced this year’s recipients for the highly-sought-after designations of MacArthur Fellows.  Among the award-winners of this coveted fellowship was Jerry Mitchell, a long-time reporter for the Jackson, Mississippi-based paper The Clarion-Ledger.  Mitchell – who was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006 – has been with that newspaper since 1986.  His work is being lauded because of his in-depth and unrelenting investigative reporting of tracking civil rights crimes.

Reporter Jerry Mitchell, selected recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship

Reporter Jerry Mitchell, selected recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship

As an NPR announcemnent stated, he “spent the past two decades reporting on unpunished violence during the civil rights movement in Mississippi and the South, beginning with the 1963 killing of civil rights leader Medgar Evers”, and is planning on taking occasional breaks from the newspaper to put forth even more time into this work post-award.

Accompanying the affectionately-dubbed “genius grants” is a $500,000 fellowship fund.

An audio clip (and corresponding transcript) of the September 28th interview by National Public Radio are available for listening and viewing online.

Sojourn to the Past commends Mr. Mitchell for his noble actions, and congratulates him on the recent honor.

This week, The 14th Dalai Lama is in Memphis, Tennessee to receive the 2009 International Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum.  The Freedom Awards is an annual event, which serves as the Museum’s largest fundraiser, and that honors individuals who have made significant contributions in civil rights and who have laid the foundation for present and future leaders in the battle for human rights.  Presenting the Dalai Lama with the key to the city and a proclamation making him an official citizen of Memphis for his devotion to civil rights, were Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton, Jr. and Memphis Mayor Myron Lowery.

His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama

His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama

The National Civil Rights Museum is located in the Lorraine Motel, which is known because it is the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  “I never met him, but I admire him very much,” he said.  According to a Huffington Post article by Tamara Conniff, the Dalai Lama became quiet and pensive at the mention of Dr. King’s name, as paying homage to the influential Civil Rights leader is what prompted His Holiness to make the trek to Memphis.

Though living what seems like decades and worlds apart, the Dalai Lama and Dr. King have a distinguishing fact in common: in the face of adversity, the common thread in each of their fights wasn’t a fight at all – it was more powerful than that – it was an unyielding strong-hold to the ideals of non-violent action.  In the Civil Rights era in the United States, King was the face of peaceful protest of all that was unjust about the law; in modern day China, the exiled religious leader infuses all of his Free Tibet messages with stresses of this same notion.

Sojourn to the Past salutes the 2009 winners of the Freedom Awards, and their committment to conquering inequality without violent confrontation or conflict.  Sojourn to the Past’s vision promotes social justice through non-violence and inspired action.

It’s not even been a month yet since Senator Ted Kennedy passed away, having unfortunately lost his battle with cancer, in the form of a malignant brain tumor.  Already, as the debate rages on about who will step into his role as a Senator from Massachusetts, it becomes blatantly apparent that it will be a long time before anyone truly fills his shoes; the absence of this man’s presence in Washington has not gone unnoticed by those living or working in the District and across the Nation.

Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy

Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy

Anyone who viewed any of the myriad of coverage of his memorial services, funeral, tributes, other dedications, or celebrations of the man’s life could see that it was made clear what an influential, passionate, and respected politician he was – as people on all sides of the political spectrum took a time out to share stories of their experiences with Senator Kennedy as the world watched and grieved at our collective loss.

As the third-longest-serving senator in United States history, the list of essential bills that Senator Kennedy was involved in or responsible for passing is more than most Presidents can boast.  However, one undeniable theme is present among so much of the legislation he pushed for – and that is his unwavering support, stubborn dedication, and relentless progressive action for equal rights for all Americans.  Senator Kennedy maintained a steadfast presence in reform regarding an array of causes from disability discrimination and mental health benefits, to children’s health insurance and cancer research, and of course – civil rights.

Senator Ted Kenney, the "Lion of the Senate", gives one of his famous rousing speeches.

Senator Ted Kenney, the "Lion of the Senate", gives one of his famous rousing speeches.

Kennedy’s campaign appearance in support of then-Democratic-Presidential-contender Barack Obama on the day before Super Tuesday is largely viewed as a major factor in Obama’s successes that day.  Once elected, President Obama made a statement thanking Senator Kennedy, crediting key legislation the he had pushed over the years as being part of the reason he was even able to run for President in 2008.  USA RiseUp posted a great piece last month about Senator Kennedy’s impact on race relations during his Senate tenure.

Like Senator Kennedy inspired goodwill action in so many Americans, with the hope to create a better country for all to live in, Sojourn to the Past seeks to inspire young people, who may one day end up in influential political, civil, or social positions.  Sojourn educates young people about the history of the fight for civil rights in the United States, and prepares them to have the knowledge and experience to draw from when called upon to lead others in the constant movement towards equal rights – among all people.

For more information on Senator Ted Kennedy, and his life and legacy, visit his Senate page on the web.

In admiration of his many years of service in the fight against racism and inequality, Sojourn to the Past’s Jeff Steinberg was honored by the CA State Assembly and Senate with a Resolution recognizing the 10th Anniversary of the San Bruno-based organization.  On Monday, August 17th at the State Capitol in Sacramento, he was presented with the Resolution, which was authored by Assembly member Jerry Hill.

Accompanying assembly member Hill on the floor in the presentation to Steinberg were several influential civil rights activists, including Minnijean Brown-Trickey – one of the Little Rock Nine.

Presentation of Resolution 259

Presentation of Resolution to Jeff Steinberg by Assembly members Jerry Hill and Ted Lieu, Speaker of the Assembly Karen Bass, and Senators Curren Price & Leland Yee. Also present: Minnijean Brown-Trickey, a speaker on the Sojourn journey and member of the Board of Directors serving Sojourn.

Since the founding in 1999, Sojourn to the Past has fought dedicatedly against racism, injustice, inequality and racially-rooted hatred.  A non-profit organization that relies on the generosity of donors, Sojourn takes thousands of students yearly from the confines of their classroom to experience the history of the Civil Rights Movement, rooted in the Deep South, where a uniquely designed educational experience takes place.  The learning goes eons beyond what a textbook or lecture can do, and creates a life-changing experience to encourage community activism and leadership.

For his integral role in this inspirational program, Steinberg was awarded this honor, which speaks volumes about the enormous contributions he’s made over the years to Sojourn to the Past, students, volunteers, donors, educators and speakers.

At a young age when impressions about culture, society, and history are still being formed, the students who are fortunate enough to embark on this journey are forever changed, and make long-term commitments to strive for social justice and the rights of all humans.  Sojourn to the Past thanks Jeff for his service, and looks forward to the many years ahead that he will be on board this essential mission.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Cambridge, MA home.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Cambridge, MA home.

The confrontation at his Cambridge, MA home of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has stayed hot on the newswire since its occurrence on July 16, 2009. It has left some stunned. It has left others outraged. And it has certainly reminded all Americans of something most already knew – that racial bias exists in this country.

When a man with accolades like “Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential Americans” (1997) is arrested at his own house after a 911-caller reports a possible break-in, even after he provides both state-issued and University ID, there obviously exists a disconnect. It almost baffles – the irony – that the noted professor who serves as Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies would be involved in what ultimately has become the next catalyst on a national level to incite discussions on what needs to and can be done to improve race relations among Americans.

Everyone, currently, is weighing in with an opinion – from political analysts to talk show hosts to co-workers at the water cooler – and perhaps the positive note to be found in all of this is that it has gotten people talking. Speaking both from personal experience, when his career suddenly was elevated to National Security Advisor, and also offering some insight as to how the two men’s interaction might have refrained from escalating to the level of discord that it did, former Secretary of State Colin Powell on CNN’s Larry King weighs in slightly critical of both parties, saying Henry Louis Gates Jr. could have been more patient with the police officer who arrested him, and chiding the police. “Once they felt they had to bring Dr. Gates out of the house and to handcuff him, I would’ve thought at that point, some adult supervision would have stepped in and said ‘OK look, it is his house. Let’s not take this any further, take the handcuffs off, good night Dr. Gates.’ ”

More than once, President Obama has been asked to weigh-in on the issue, and made the following summarizing statement about not just the controversy of the event itself, but where it should lead us in the future, “My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called ‘a teachable moment’ where all of us, instead of pumping up the volume, spend a little more time listening to each other,” which articulates to people everywhere that instead of trying to decide who was wrong or wronged in this situation, that the focus should be on starting a dialogue about how to prevent this from happening in the future.

It is the mission of Sojourn to the Past to bring the historical Civil Rights movement to life for young people (11th and 12th grade students), to develop communication and advocacy skills that better enable them to promote awareness of social injustice in their community, and create a more civil society where diversity is embraced, injustice is spoken out against, and all people are treated with dignity. It carries the hope the educating young people about the past to prepare them for the future will in some ways minimize the number of situations like the one in which Dr. Gates and arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley found themselves.

What inspires you?

June 8, 2009


Congratulations to Jessica Schwartz, valedictorian of Sequoia High in Redwood City, who was named one of the 10 brightest students in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Chronicle. When asked who her hero was, she named none other than Jeff Steinberg, founder of Sojurn to the Past! With a debt of gratitude, we thank Jessica for the following statement: 

“Jeff Steinberg. He started Sojourn to the Past, a journey to the South that brings the civil rights movement to life. He is my hero for not only teaching me about nonviolence, justice, tolerance and forgiveness, but also spreading knowledge to thousands and thousands of students.”

For the full article, click here.

Speaking of heros, we want to hear from you: who is your hero?

Presumed Guilty

May 14, 2009

mack_charles_parker_picMack Charles Parker was arrested for raping a white woman in 1959. A Mississippi state trooper offered his pistol to the woman’s husband so he could shoot Parker on the spot. The husband, Jimmy Walters, knew that his wife was not even certain that Parker was the attacker so he refused the offer and he reminded the officer that there was still doubt.

The Walters’, who had a sense of justice, seemed to be the minority in Poplarville, and there was such a strong cry for revenge against Parker that the judge couldn’t guarantee Parker’s safety. Because of this, the county jailer started burying the jail keys in his backyard at night.

M.C. Parker, at 23, had served two years in the Army and was working as a truck driver when he was arrested for the rape of June Walters. He lived with his mother, brother, sister and nephew in a poor black section of Lumberton, Mississippi and most of his wages were spent on his family. On the night of the rape, he had been out with friends, and it will never be known whether he was innocent or guilty of the crime.

Most white people in Poplarville were convinced Parker was a rapist including a former deputy sheriff who believed that Parker didn’t even deserve a jury trial. He ended up recruiting a lynch mob from men attending a prayer meeting and three days before Parker was to stand trial, eight masked white men dragged him from his jail cell, beat him, shot him in the heart and threw his body in the river, where he was found 10 days later. In addition to the former sheriff, the lynch mob included a Baptist preacher and the jailer, who had been persuaded, after all, to give up his keys. Many people in town were afraid of the mob, and many believed the lynching was justified so no one would offer any information to the FBI even though everyone knew who committed the crime. The county prosecutor himself praised the lynching and said he would refuse to prosecute anyone arrested for the crime.

Elsewhere, officials were not so ready to set aside the standards of justice and the lynching was called a “reprehensible act” and pledged a full investigation. This negative publicity only enraged whites in Poplarville, and they took their anger out on Mack Parker’s family. After numerous death threats, Parker’s family had to flee to California.

The verdict of the trial was more than a victory for the killers of Mack Parker; it was a victory for the white South over federal interference. The grand jury refused to indict and the lynch mob went free.

Some plainly viewed the lynching as an act of heroism against a federal government that was slowly destroying the Southern way of life. As one of Mississippi’s State Sovereignty Commission officials put it, “If we sat back and waited for the government to prosecute and punish Mack Parker, it would never happen. So we did it ourselves.”  Unfortunately, Mack Parker was presumed guilty and never had the chance for a trial to prove whether he was innocent or not.

This is a prime example of why it’s so imperative you not only practice your beliefs, but stand up for them as well. The majority is not always right and sometimes it just takes one voice, no matter how small or soft, to be the voice of reason and change the course of someone’s life.

This is one of the many lessons we learn each year during Sojourn to the Past. To learn more, visit


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viola-liuzzo-b-1-01212009-216pxIn 1965, a group of klansmen from Birmingham were sent to Selma, Alabama, with orders to keep the marchers under surveillance. At a stoplight, they noticed a green Oldsmobile with Michigan license plates driven by a white woman with a young, black male passenger. For the klansmen, the car and the passengers symbolized the two most despised aspects for the Civil Rights Movement: outsiders and race mixing.

Viola Liuzzo was a white mother from Detroit who had been shuttling marchers between Montgomery and Selma for three days. She had become known as a tireless and cheerful worker. By all descriptions, Viola was an extraordinary woman. At age 36, with five children at home, she had gone back to school to become a medical lab technician. She worked only for a few months and then quit in protest over the way female secretaries were treated. With the encouragement of her friend, she became one of the few white members of the National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People. On March 7, 1965, Viola and her husband were watching the news when they saw the first clips of state troopers attacking Selma marchers. Tears rolled down Mrs. Liuzzo’s face and she brooded over the scene for days. Despite her husband’s concern, she got in her car and headed for Selma alone.

After the klansmen had spotted her and her young, black passenger they began to follow them. Surprisingly, Mrs. Liuzzo didn’t seem too concerned, and soon both cars were racing down the highway at 100 miles per hour. About 20 miles outside of Selma, the klansmen pulled up beside the car and one aimed his pistol out the window and shot Mrs. Liuzzo, shattering her skull. LeRoy Moton, her passenger, grabed the wheel and hit the brakes, and the car crashed into an embankment. When the klansmen walked over to inspect their work, Moton faked his death while they shone a light in the car. As soon as they left, Moton flagged down a truck carrying more civil rights workers, and although he was terrified, he was uninjured. Viola Liuzzo was dead.

After two trials (one being a hung jury where the klansmen were found not guilty), the three klansmen were eventually found guilty and each sentenced to 10 years in prison. This was the first conviction of murder in a civil rights case and was a landmark in southern racial history. It was also the first time the federal government successfully prosecuted a case of civil rights conspiracy.

 As intense a story as this is, we can look at it as a learning opportunity. It’s important that every day, in every way possble, we experience history in order to inspire the future.

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