Celebrating Albert R. Lee: An Early Beacon for Civil Rights in Champaign County

Unofficial Dean of African American Students Albert R. Lee

The African American community in Urbana-Champaign and the University of Illinois community gathered this fall on several occasions to celebrate the life and contributions of an outstanding African American man: Albert R. Lee (1874-1948). Lee was the son of a slave, a church congregant in Bethel A.M.E. Church and the second African American employed by the University of Illinois, joining in 1895 as messenger in the President’s Office, and retiring in 1947 as Chief Clerk. Over years of service Lee made himself indispensable to the University, as he extended his tasks beyond clerical duties by counseling African American students and making right many classroom instances of racism. He is thus remembered as the unofficial dean of black students. A figure who resonated with diverse audiences, Mr. Lee held multiple other memberships: he was a registered Republican, an active Freemason, a local member of the N.A.A.C.P., and Sunday School District Superintendent. Lee worked cautiously toward closing the gap between an overwhelmingly white campus and local African Americans and out-of-state black folks wishing to get a college education at a school which, despite not offering them suitable (or any) housing accommodations or even access to campus restaurants, granted them admission and the promise of a future “without discrimination.” Continue reading

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Making a Profit off of the Crisis in Affordable Housing

Manufactured homeowners taking action in support of affordable and healthy communities, economic and racial justice

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds discovered a lucrative new area of real estate investment, manufactured home communities (MHCs), and made millions by buying out older mom-and-pop operations and putting new profit-oriented practices into place. Soon after that they offered their first weekend business seminar to share their techniques: Mobile Home University. For $2000, potential investors could learn how to turn someone’s neighborhood into a profit stream by raising rent, adding new charges for utilities and services, simplifying operations by closing recreation rooms and laundromats, and filling empty lots with rental trailers—in some cases castoffs purchased from FEMA.

For investors, the strategy generates an impressive new revenue stream; but for the residents the experience has been dehumanizing, as neighborhoods are turned into someone else’s investment zone. And now that model has come to Champaign County. Continue reading

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Local Sheriff Cooperating with ICE

On the day Manuel went to have his electronic monitor cut off, he was feeling “uneasy” about being picked up by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It only took minutes for the sheriff’s deputy at the county jail to remove the clunky black box from his leg.

When a friend who was supposed to give him a ride did not show up, Manuel started walking with his wife and one-year-old son to get away from the jail. As they walked west down Main Street toward the Schnucks in downtown Urbana, he sensed that “something was going to happen.” When they got to Poplar Street, he noticed a parked minivan. Two men got out and approached them. Speaking in Spanish, one of them identified himself as an immigration officer, and told him he was under arrest. The man called him by his name and carried his mugshot. According to Manuel, they did not have a warrant. He was placed in handcuffs and put inside the van. Continue reading

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Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago

If you’ve read Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson, you know what it’s like to be kidnapped by a historian who’s also a great story teller. The reading lamp burns late.

I’ve just finished a new book on Illinois history that will do the same thing for you. Continue reading

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Brexit, Regrexit, Lexit: Is Socialism in One (European) Country Possible?

On November 25, Great Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May returned from Brussels with approval from the other 27 European Union (EU) member states for a deal on Brexit, the British commitment to exit the EU pursuant to the results of the June, 2016 referendum. The deal is based on May’s Chequers plan, named after the official Prime Minister’s manor house where it was hammered out with her ministers this June, though it caused the resignation of her two most prominent hard-line pro-Brexit ministers, who saw it as a surrender of British independence and control over its borders. And further concessions were forced in the intervening months by the EU’s resolute position against making exit easy for any member, and by particular issues such as the dispute with Spain on the status of Gibraltar, and fishing rights in waters that could revert to British control. Continue reading

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Democratic Backsliding in Eastern Europe

Polish boy carrying the logo of the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) Party at a pro-PiS demonstration

After the collapse of East European communist regimes, the watchword among Western European political elites and political scientists was “conditionality,” a term borrowed from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) lexicon to express the terms upon which the new regimes could win coveted admission to the European Union (EU) and consolidate democratic capitalism. The EU expected an economic conversion compatible with EU regulations, but added a political requirement never imposed on the current membership, “respect for and protection of minorities.” Poland and Hungary, the countries that triggered the domino transition from Communism in 1989, were on the EU membership A-list. What went wrong? Why is the new watchword “democratic backsliding”? Continue reading

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Getting Money out of Politics and Beyond: A Call for a We the People Amendment

The midterm elections are over. Candidates have been elected and unelected. Ballot issues have been passed and rejected.

What hasn’t changed one iota, however, are the catastrophic harms to people, communities, the natural world and our republican form of self-government caused by the assertion of constitutional rights for corporations, and by political campaign money being defined as First Amendment-protected free speech. Continue reading

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A New Option to Finance A Clean Energy Future for Everyone

Power from the Sun. Photo by Robert E. McGrath

While renewable energy technologies have made tremendous strides in recent decades, financing and investment options for those who want to go green have remained scarce. The Clean Energy Credit Union (CECU), chartered by the American Solar Energy Association in 2017, aims to fill this gap.

It’s about time for some innovation on the financing side of Clean Energy; after all, it’s not as if this is a fringe industry. Even the World Economic Forum concluded in 2016 that solar and wind power would soon be the preferred choice for large-scale energy systems  and small-scale clean energy technologies are providing increasing options appropriate for individual buildings and personal residences (On this topic, I recommend John Farrell’s report, “Is Bigger Best in Renewable Energy?”). Continue reading

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The Effect of the Courts on Everyday Life in America

If the confirmation hearings over the last couple of months haven’t focused attention on our courts, I’m really not sure what can.

But as much as the federal courts receive the attention of the media and our nation’s law schools, the truth is that the state courts—Champaign County Court, Piatt County Court, Macon County Court, etc.—and the Appellate and state Supreme Courts likely have a very strong impact on your and your neighbor’s daily lives in a more direct way than many of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, or even Federal District Court and Federal Appellate Court decisions, do. Continue reading

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A Muslim on the Inside

“Praise the Gods, Martin Luther King is dead.”

Monroe Haynes was an 18-year-old in Vietnam fighting a war he did not understand, with people he did not know, when he heard his commander proclaim this statement. Just barely an adult, Haynes knew only that he was fighting for peace in a foreign land whilst a freedom fighter was martyred back home by the people he was fighting for.

After serving two years in this war, Haynes was honorably discharged and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, categorizing him as a completely disabled veteran according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Returning home, he saw the place he had left through a lens warped by trauma. He received his barber’s certification in Compton, California, and began working in a barber shop in an attempt to normalize a stress he could not escape. At one point when he was visiting his family in Mississippi, he was picked up by the police on minor charges and landed in prison, where his life took a new turn. Continue reading

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