Weekly Feature



2013-01-16 / Lifestyles

The fight for civil rights goes on

by JULIE HALM
Reporter


Emily Terrana, Western Region organizer of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Western Regional Director John A. Curr display a sign at a local parade. Emily Terrana, Western Region organizer of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Western Regional Director John A. Curr display a sign at a local parade. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, and on Monday, the nation will celebrate his efforts and accomplishments.

King died almost 45 years ago, and many of his goals have been achieved. Despite this, the fight for a variety of civil rights takes place across the country every day, including in Western New York.

The focus of civil rights workers and activists is fluid, and Crystal Rodriguez, executive director of the Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations for the City of Buffalo, says the work is about much more than just race.

“We still, in America, have an issue with race that has not gone anywhere. It can be argued that it’s improved, but it hasn’t gone anywhere. But we have additional issues that we deal with,” she said. “We have gender discrimination that we deal with now; we have discrimination in terms of Buffalo has a large refugee or immigrant population.”


The New York Civil Liberties Union Western Region is one of eight chapters around the state. The New York Civil Liberties Union Western Region is one of eight chapters around the state. Rodriguez also said the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community; disabled people; and children who are bullied have become major civil rights issues.

“Bullying … has become a civil rights issue because we’re talking about people’s access to education,” she said.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has also been dealing with bullying in schools as a civil rights issue, according to John Curr III, director of the NYCLU’s Western Regional Office.

“A good deal of the new work that we are doing to educate Western New Yorkers on the new Dignity Act not only has taken place in the city, but in the suburban schools as well,” said Curr, adding that his office has fielded more calls from suburban districts on the subject than from the city.

The Dignity for All Students Act, which was signed into law on Sept. 13, 2010, and took effect July 1, 2012, “seeks to provide the state’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function,” according to the state Education Department’s website.

The NYCLU’s Western Regional Office also works with groups that many would not immediately associate with the fight for civil rights.

According to Curr, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 farm workers in the state, and 90 percent live below the federally designated poverty line. In addition to their low pay, Curr says agricultural workers are denied a variety of civil rights at this time.

“They’re not entitled to a day off, they’re not entitled to collectively bargain, they’re exempt from minimum wage laws in the state, and it’s high time that stopped,” he said.

Recently, Curr’s office also did follow-up work regarding the breakdown of voting machines in Cheektowaga and Amherst during the presidential election.

“I’m happy to report that all were simple mechanical failures that were resolved in short order, but all were investigated by our attorneys and staff to ensure that proper backup procedures took place and that every vote was counted,” said Curr.

The first call that Curr took when he began his job 13 years ago was from a woman who had been living with her female partner for 25 years when her partner died. The partner’s family came and took all of her possessions, and there was nothing the woman could do.

“New York State’s marriage laws hadn’t caught up to the reality of their relationship,” said Curr.

While fighting for civil rights during a time when many people feel that the battle is over and when not every issue can be won is no easy task, Curr considers it an important one.

“We have to keep in mind where we’ve been, appreciate the victories that we’ve had and understand that the struggle continues,” said Curr.

For more information on the NYCLU, visit its website at www.nyclu.org.

email: julieh@beenews.com

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