This week in Washington, debate was supposed to begin on a bill to address climate change and clean energy. The effort led by Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman is one of, if not the most important effort, underway in Washington right now. If done correctly, and of course, the final bill has not been seen and much of what is in it is still up for debate, this single bill could be one of the most important legislative events of our lifetime.
The issues addressed in the bill go far beyond whether or not global warming is real (it is) but this bill gives us a chance to move our society forward, create a new country, a new non-fossil fuel based economy, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and create jobs, all right now.
This bill has opposition.
Namely, the oil and dirty energy companies who want to make more money.
Any change has opposition, but the opposition to a brighter future should not now, or ever, become the basis for not reaching for that future. Every significant piece of positive change has come over significant opposition. In fact, the more important the issue, the greater the potential for a brighter future, the greater the opposition.
This fundamental fact of life has seemingly created an atmosphere in Washington that dictates that it's kindergarten time in our nation's capitol and everyone must agree if we are to do anything. Actually, it's just the opposite. The stronger the opposition, the more likely it is that you are on the track for positive change.
The clearest example of this in my mind is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a powerful piece of legislation whose passage, rooted in the lingering memories of the Civil War, literally threatened to tear our country apart. Politicians who supported it were threatened in a way that no Senator is ever going to be threatened for supporting solar energy. Why? Because all the italicized sections below were actual laws, passed by states around our country.
These laws were supported by local and state governments around the country. And they were wrong.
Nurses: No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which negro men are placed. Alabama
Buses: All passenger stations in this state operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races. Alabama
Now, think about this for a moment. In 1963 and 1964, as Southern President worked to create a coalition of leaders to change these laws, what would have happened if they had stopped because of opposition from the Southern bus companies? Or railroads and restaurants?
Railroads: The conductor of each passenger train is authorized and required to assign each passenger to the car or the division of the car, when it is divided by a partition, designated for the race to which such passenger belongs. Alabama
Restaurants: It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment. Alabama
People were killed in the South for standing up for change to these laws. Death threats were the norm, but the leaders of the day in Washington didn't say this is too hard, they didn't say we need to tackle other issues first, they looked at the laws, at the fundamental injustices, and the powerful chance for positive change and they moved forward.
Pool and Billiard Rooms: It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards. Alabama
Intermarriage: The marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro, Mongolian, Malay, or Hindu shall be null and void. Arizona
Cohabitation: Any negro man and white woman, or any white man and negro woman, who are not married to each other, who shall habitually live in and occupy in the nighttime the same room shall each be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve (12) months, or by fine not exceeding five hundred ($500.00) dollars. Florida
The issue with the debate on climate change is one of money, just like we have seen Senate Republicans stand up for Wall Street as they, and to be honest, many Democrats as well, line their pockets with cash from Wall Street. No oil company, no dirty energy company is going to support the kind of change we need right now, immediately, to start to restructure our country for the future.
Education: The schools for white children and the schools for negro children shall be conducted separately. Florida
Juvenile Delinquents: There shall be separate buildings, not nearer than one fourth mile to each other, one for white boys and one for negro boys. White boys and negro boys shall not, in any manner, be associated together or worked together. Florida
Mental Hospitals: The Board of Control shall see that proper and distinct apartments are arranged for said patients, so that in no case shall Negroes and white persons be together. Georgia
I agree with the argument that it has been a generation since Washington has actually passed a real piece of legislation as powerful as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act or the Clean Air Act and the time has come for us, each of us, to demand action. We certainly deserve action on more than just climate change but we need action right now. We must make our voice heard.
At NRDC, they are asking people to make their voice heard on the White House Facebook Wall - click here to find out more. We also need the leadership in the Senate to lead, the best way to do that is to tell Harry Reid that the time has come, the time is now. You can do that by clicking here.
Amateur Baseball: It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race, and it shall be unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of any playground devoted to the white race. Georgia
Parks: It shall be unlawful for colored people to frequent any park owned or maintained by the city for the benefit, use and enjoyment of white persons...and unlawful for any white person to frequent any park owned or maintained by the city for the use and benefit of colored persons. Georgia
Wine and Beer: All persons licensed to conduct the business of selling beer or wine...shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room at any time. Georgia
In the mid 1960s, there was a US Senator named Everett Dirksen from Illinois. He was a supporter of Vietnam, one of the biggest hawks on that war, and he was a very conservative Republican. How conservative? Well he beat out a more liberal Republican Senator to become Minority Leader, and that Senator happened to be from Kentucky.
Everett Dirksen worked with Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights act, it was Dirksen who said "there is no force so powerful as an idea whose time has come." Dirksen was well aware of all of these laws that were in states like Arizona, Wyoming, Georgia, Alabama, Florida.
Reform Schools: The children of white and colored races committed to the houses of reform shall be kept entirely separate from each other. Kentucky
Circus Tickets: All circuses, shows, and tent exhibitions, to which the attendance of...more than one race is invited or expected to attend shall provide for the convenience of its patrons not less than two ticket offices with individual ticket sellers, and not less than two entrances to the said performance, with individual ticket takers and receivers, and in the case of outside or tent performances, the said ticket offices shall not be less than twenty-five (25) feet apart. Louisiana
Housing: Any person...who shall rent any part of any such building to a negro person or a negro family when such building is already in whole or in part in occupancy by a white person or white family, or vice versa when the building is in occupancy by a negro person or negro family, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five ($25.00) nor more than one hundred ($100.00) dollars or be imprisoned not less than 10, or more than 60 days, or both such fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the court. Louisiana
Dirksen and other leaders of the day knew that equal rights, civil rights for all men and women, was an idea whose time had come.
Our leaders today know the same thing. Every state in our country and every country in our world is facing the challenges and costs of climate change. The time is now, the time has come.
Consider this one last Jim Crow law to know how deeply ingrained, in our states and in our laws, racism was in those days. How can someone who can not see be offended by the person they can not see?
The Blind: The board of trustees shall...maintain a separate building...on separate ground for the admission, care, instruction, and support of all blind persons of the colored or black race. Louisiana