Five decades ago, Fort Worth began the long and difficult march toward equal justice for all.
Today, a critical question remains. How far have we really come?
On Oct. 20, elected officials and community leaders will host a public celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fort Worth Human Relations Commission. Fort Worth’s city leaders view the ceremony as a time to celebrate the commission’s accomplishments.
I view it as an opportunity to do a gut check.
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What are we really celebrating? Have civil rights in Fort Worth come as far as some want us to believe? Or is this a photo opportunity to give the appearance that Fort Worth is a compassionate, culturally competent city?
Ironically, the same day Mayor Betsy Price and Fort Worth’s City Council Representatives will gather to honor the Human Relations Commission, they will also render it impotent in the modern civil rights movement through a measure of willful inaction.
On Sept. 18, members of the Human Relations Commission voted to recommend that City Council reconsider its position on joining other major Texas cities that have become parties to the lawsuit seeking repeal of Senate Bill 4, the misnamed “sanctuary city” law. Price and four council members — Jungus Jordan, Cary Moon, Dennis Shingleton and Brian Byrd — voted against protecting the civil rights of Latinos, immigrants and other communities of color when they chose not to join the lawsuit in August.
But there was another course of action available – an option that presents no legal jeopardy for the city of Fort Worth. Price and the other prevailing council members on the SB4 litigation vote could direct Fort Worth’s city attorney to file an amicus brief in the lawsuit. This “friend of the court” brief allows municipalities and other entities to provide commentary for consideration in determining the outcome of the case.
The deadline to file the brief is Friday, the same day when Fort Worth’s elected officials will host an event to leverage the Human Relations Commission as a photo opportunity and give the appearance of championing racial justice. This ceremony will honor the role the commission has played in ensuring equality. While select members of City Council dishonor its latest attempt to do so.
The achievements of the Human Relations Commission certainly deserve to be lauded. It played a role in eliminating segregated drinking fountains, changing hiring practices at City Hall to allow employment of minorities and ensuring equal opportunities for Fort Worth’s gay and lesbian community.
But the commission’s accomplishments should not be exploited for the personal and political gain of elected officials who need to rehab their public image. And they can’t be a smokescreen to hide the fact that civil rights have not been fully realized in Fort Worth.
Because 2017, not 1965 — the year a historic civil rights march was held in Fort Worth — is the benchmark from which to measure where Fort Worth stands on issues of social justice. Twice in the last 12 months, our city has faced situations that presented the perfect opportunity for elected officials to tell communities of color “we support you.”
The controversial arrest of Jacqueline Craig in December, and the vote on whether to join litigation against Senate Bill 4 in August, represent instances in which people of color tried to tell Fort Worth’s leaders “we’re wounded, and we’re afraid.” Both could have been opportunities for the city of Fort Worth to build relationships.
Instead, they allowed inappropriate police behavior to pass with little more than a slap on the wrist. They rebuked a longtime community liaison officer for his public comments aimed at allaying immigrant fears. They scolded citizens for raising their voices in a way that made members of City Council feel uncomfortable. They amended council procedures on citizen presentations to place a muzzle on the community. And they allowed a bigoted law that burdens local police to go unchallenged.
Some of Fort Worth’s council members are now seemingly fatigued over recent dialogue about racism and immigration. That type of attitude isn’t how we ensure Fort Worth’s continued march toward a post-racial era.
The unfortunate timing of the 50th anniversary ceremony as it coincides with the deadline to file an amicus brief in the SB4 lawsuit is symbolic. It embodies the pattern of recent decisions, actions and policy changes by Price and select members of City Council to alienate, disregard and undermine communities of color.
The Human Relations Commission attempted to ensure the civil rights movement continues forward in Fort Worth by recommending our city actively move to protect local residents against a bad law. That effort was ignored by the only people who could have taken action to honor the Commission’s recommendation: Price, along with council members Jordan, Shingleton, Byrd and Moon.
Some believe it’s time to celebrate the accomplishments of the Human Relations Commission. I believe it’s time to send the message that Fort Worth won’t allow five decades of progress to come to an end.
Daniel Garcia Rodriguez is the founder of United Fort Worth.