Freedom Summer: AZ Attorney General's Chance to Learn About Civil Rights

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Common Dreams

Freedom Summer: AZ Attorney General's Chance to Learn About Civil Rights

Facing a $10 million lawsuit and an FBI investigation for campaign violations, and with a federal court decision imminent on the constitutionality of Arizona's thinly veiled ban on Tucson's Mexican American Studies program, it's hard to imagine that Attorney General Tom Horne would have the time to write an opinion piece in the Arizona Republic that mocks the documented death threats of a University of Arizona professor in the Department of Mexican American Studies.

After orchestrating a relentless witch hunt against Tucson's acclaimed and now outlawed high school program, can't Horne just give his Mexican American Studies rants and false assertions a rest?

Or, with the elections heating up and Horne under fire for various allegations, is it simply convenient to jump start the anti-Mexican American Studies bandwagon?

As Polish historian Bronislaw Geremek once noted about Horne's homeland, which his parents fled before World War II -- "It is often said that Poland is a country where there is anti-semitism and no Jews, which is pathology in its purest state" -- the Attorney General's obsession with Tucson's Mexican American studies boggles the mind.

To be clear, I appreciate that Tom Horne wants to present his opinions in a public forum -- unlike Horne, who has branded Latino dissent as "thuggish" and "irrational mob behavior," I treasure the First Amendment rights that my ancestors fought for as American Revolutionary footsloggers and Baptist dissidents and continued to demand as hillbilly "forefathers" of our nation.

As a representative of the state of Arizona, however, Horne does have the responsibility to provide accurate information. Or, rather, as much accuracy possible for someone like Horne who never bothered to visit a single Mexican American Studies class in his 5-year campaign.

For the sake of space and honesty, here are two falsehoods that Horne insists on perpetuating in the op-ed, in the courts, as well as in his numerous media appearances over the past several years that need to be put to rest: That Tucson divided students by race or ethnicity, and Mexican American Studies made students resentful and anti-Anglo.

As part of his well-worn stump piece, Horne claims students "should not be divided by race" -- a charge he has relentlessly tagged on Tucson's now-banished Mexican-American Studies program for years, even though he admits the classes are not exclusionary when pressed for accuracy.

In truth, Tucson never divided its students by race or ethnicity -- an assertion so bizarre it hardly seems worth refuting -- and all Mexican-American Studies history and literature courses were taken by a diverse student body that generally reflected the demographics in Tucson schools. CNN interviewed African-American students; a Pakistani-American student wrote her own op-eds and testified at numerous forums; other African-American and Anglo students have testified at school board meetings and state hearings on the value of Mexican-American Studies in enriching and rooting their own heritage and place in the community. For example, at Pueblo High School, Mexican-American and Native-American students -- and many Chicano/Latino students identify as both -- made up more than 90-92 percent, an enrollment ratio above the 5.726 Mexican-American and 712 non-Latino students that attended the MAS courses over the past decade.

Nearly one year ago to the day, the state-commissioned Cambium audit concluded:

A majority of evidence demonstrates that the Mexican American Studies Department's instruction is NOT designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group. As previously indicated, every current course syllabus states: "At the core of this course is the idea that ALL people should not be required to give up their ethnic and cultural traditions in order to become part of mainstream society."

If anything, only Horne has been exclusionary in dividing and singling out one ethnicity: While Tucson's Ethnic Studies program includes African-American Studies, Asian-American Studies, Native-American Studies and other ethnic studies courses abound in the state, only one Tucson's Mexican American Studies program was targeted in Horne's and his fellow state superintendent John Huppenthal's attack.

Secondly, Horne needs to put to rest the bogus assertion that "students in this class underwent a change -- becoming angry, distrustful of teachers, negative toward Western civilization and the U.S., and disrespectful of authority of non-Latinos."

Again, Horne never visited a single Mexican-American Studies classroom in five years. His only evidence is hearsay from an estranged teacher and a disgruntled parent. Unlike Horne, I have sat down and interviewed scores of Mexican-American Studies students, observed their meetings, social occasions and protests, and never once did a redneck like me pick up on any such resentment or disrespect. Nor did auditors with the state-commissioned Cambium, who concluded: "No observable evidence exists that instruction within Mexican American Studies Department promotes resentment toward a race or class of people. The auditors observed the opposite, as students are taught to be accepting of multiple ethnicities of people."

Beyond Horne's offensive branding of Latinos as "thuggish," and Superintendent Huppenthal's comparison of Mexican American Studies to paramilitary "Hitler Jugend," the most "angry, distrustful and negative toward Western civilization" comments in Horne's campaign were his own chilling demand last summer that echoed the violent history of ancient Carthage and called for the Mexican-American Studies program "to be destroyed."

But there is one glimmer of hope for Horne, Huppenthal and the disgraced TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone and his inept school board members.

Freedom Summer is coming to Tucson in the month of July. Preparations are now underway for classes, workshops and various events celebrating civil and education rights and our diverse cultural treasuries, with a special recognition of Tucson's celebrated Mexican-American Studies and Arizona's front line place in the national spotlight.

Perhaps "freedom summer" might resonate with Horne: Amazingly, he failed to remind us in his op-ed, as he generally does, that he attended the "March on Washington" in 1963 as a young man, and took to heart Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words that "little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

As a young man, I volunteered on the 20th anniversary of the "March on Washington" in 1983, and recall a fuller version of King's glorious "I Have a Dream" speech. In words that resonate in Arizona today, King reminded the nation of "Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification," and admonished the nation: "No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Now in 2012, Horne would greatly benefit from a Freedom Summer crash course in King's writings (and lessons on Arizona history), notably his prophetic words: "This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality."

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers is the author of The United States of Appalachia, and more recently, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (The Nation/Basic Books). Follow him on twitter: @JeffRBiggers

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