The conference we've organized in cooperation with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the North Carolina Central University School of Law is in full swing, as this morning's opening session kicked off with a introductions by NCCU Law School Dean Raymond Pierce and LCCR President Wade Henderson. The welcome session was geared towards showing that civil rights affect people's lives every day, and that the rollback of our civil rights has left many Americans unable to protect themselves against unlawful discrimination. Two panelists told their stories: Lilly Ledbetter, of this year's Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Supreme Court case on employment discrimination, and Reverend Lois Dejean of the Gert Town Revival Initiative, Inc. in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Ledbetter spoke of the ordeal she went through after realizing that she was paid significantly less than the other male managers at the Goodyear tire manufacturing plant where she had worked for twenty years. Filing a lawsuit in 1998, Ledbetter was originally awarded $3 million in damages, but was then told that the cap for such damages was set at $300,000 - all before her case advanced to the Supreme Court this spring. In a tight 5-4 ruling, the court said that Ledbetter was not eligible for any damages because she had not filed a complaint within the mandated time period from each unfairly low raise she had received. As Goodyear walked away scot-free, Ledbetter has sworn to use her voice to advance the cause of civil rights in America, even recently giving testimony to a House committee that formulated new civil rights legislation that has is up for consideration in the Senate. While she cannot change the result of her own case, she can talk about those aspects of discrimination that we would not ordinarily think of as related to our rights. For example, the discrimination that Ledbetter faced changed not only the salary she used to support her family, but also directly affected the pension and retirement account that she will depend on in years to come. She also spoke about the media attention she's gotten after the ruling, about how the mainstream television news stations requested that she bake a cake or serve tea and coffee while they were videotaping her in a questionable attempt to better define her gender role, a role she described by declaring proudly, "no man ever had to do my job for me."
Reverend Dejean spoke about the area in which she lives in New Orleans, neighborhood known as Gert Town, known before Hurricane Katrina as one of the most devastated neighborhoods in the country. After the hurricane, only 10% of previous residents have returned home, and those that have a constantly struggling for environmental justice, the drive to make their community safe and liveable. Dejean's neighborhood is overrun by toxic waste that floated in from a nearby plant, and she's been largely unable to get the EPA or other organizations to do any testing, even on playgrounds, let alone obtain the funding needed for revitalization. Furthermore, she's watched that as the neighborhood is rebuilding, it is doing so in a way that guarantees the gentrification that will make the area inaccesible to former residents, by demanding minimum incomes and credit ratings. Having traveled to areas rebuilt after tsunami damage, Dejean has come to wonder why the US government is so investing in funding revitalization abroad while it won't do it at home. Her experiences and efforts, including presentations to the United Nations, have helped ensure that issues of environmental justice are firmly tied in will civil and even human rights.
More later about the afternoon sessions!