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Bill Britt

What kind of change will come?

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

When the Alabama Republican Party swept into power during the November 2010 elections, they promised us change. In his book, Storming the State House, Mike Hubbard wrote of that November evening, “It would fundamentally change the direction of Alabama, and of my own life, forever.”

Republicans have controlled Alabama’s State government for nearly seven years, and the only justification they offer for their shortcomings is, “It would have been worse under the Democrats.”

The real problem, however, is instead of a sound policy rooted in principle, Hubbard’s brand of Republicanism, like many others of his ilk, lacks real ideology, and is therefore bound to only interests that further their success. This political bent is a type of opportunism, that can be wrapped with any label, Republican, Democrat, Communist, Anarchist, or any “ism” because it is malleable, able to mold neatly around any political interest of the moment. If politics is at its most basic “who gets what” and if the process is one of “what is possible” within a given political context, then how do we as a State proceed?

Our State’s problems are many but solvable. What is absent is a willingness to change the culture that not only created the problems but sustains them.

How can anything be made better when those in power can’t say no to special interests?

How can ideas of reform or progress take hold when lobbyists coopt the agents of change? This is the pox that rests on the House of both Democrats and Republicans.

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Hubbard, who set the agenda for the 2010 takeover, along with former Gov. Bob Riley, BCA Chieftain Billy Canary, and a handful of others, did fundamentally change the State; but not for the better. Their plan did not alter how business in Montgomery is conducted; they just realigned the power base.

The first of their big ticket items began during Riley’s last term in office when he and Hubbard set about destroying the Democrats funding efforts but targeting gaming interests and the Alabama Education Association. Secondly, they, along with Canary’s input, passed so-called Ethics reforms with loopholes for the Business Council of Alabama and Riley’s business interests.

Ethics reform was a magic trick that was to go undetected. However, Hubbard’s embrace and expansion of the culture of corruption exposed it as a lie.

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Of course, that did completely change Hubbard’s life forever, because he was convicted of 12 felony counts of public corruption. So, his words on the night of the Republican’s 2010 victory were prophetic; just not what Hubbard had in mind when he uttered them.

Hubbard, sentenced to prison over a year ago yet still remains free on bail, and many of his cronies are still in power. But Hubbard, like his mentor former Gov. Bob Riley, never intended to change the workings of Montgomery, except in how it paid them and their cronies.

Again, in Storming the State House, Hubbard shows the hollowness of his and Riley’s promises. Recalling a rally where Riley was to lay out his plan if elected Governor, he writes, “Riley, wearing a tie and a blue dress shirt that quickly became dark with sweat, laid out his campaign platform. His reform-minded agenda included changing the State budget process to lessen the possibility of mid-year proration, road-building based on priorities rather than politics, focusing on economic development, and building a world-class education system.”

We are well over a decade removed from Riley’s “reform-minded agenda,” and all that is noticeable is how he has prospered by co-opting road builders, education policy, and economic development to enrich himself as a lobbyist. Sadly, this is the current legacy of the Republican movement in Alabama, but it doesn’t have to stay this way. Even so, to fundamentally change State government in a positive way that benefits the governed and not the governing class, there must be a movement to change the culture guided by principles, not proverbs.

When a political movement forfeits ideas for catchphrases, sound policy is hard to achieve, because there is no real foundation from which to govern.

On a State level, the Alabama Democratic Party is controlled by a leadership team that has passed its sell-by date long ago, and on the other side, the way forward coming from the ALGOP is by-in-large as stale as week-old bread.

Both parties are out of real ideas on how to address the most pressing issues facing our State.

Months before Governor Bentley resigned in disgrace, a close associate of then-Lieutenant Gov. Kay Ivey phoned me, and, in essence asked, “Wouldn’t it be exciting to be a part of a government where for two years, the focus would be ‘righting the ship of state’ without thought of the next election; to make real and enduring change based on principle?”

Gov. Ivey promised to do just that, but so far, other than calling a Special Election for US Senate, there is little evidence that principled change is at hand. Missteps coupled with an insular and secretive management style has led to suspicion and perceived weakness or worse, further corruption.

The Ivey Administration’s reliance on Riley/Hubbard retreads for leadership positions casts a dark cloud over the whole enterprise. Some in the administration have complained that past association with the Riley/Hubbard gang should not disqualify a candidate for public office, which is true. But when an administration’s first hires and appointments are those who have participated in schemes to empower and enrich Riley/Hubbard/Canary and their families, it is difficult to believe it has picked the best or the brightest.

While the next election cycle is already upon us, there are still hours to work toward significant progress, should the Administration embrace the idea of principled change as expressed in the call I received last year.

For the better part of the last seven years, Hubbard, along with the BCA chieftain Canary, and choice lobbyists including Riley Inc., ran the State House for their profit. Canary, the chosen lobbyist, and Riley Inc. are still on the prowl and continue to manipulate State government. Add to that the bullies who control big, short-sighted associations and there remains a threat to good government based on sound policy.

Last Session’s failure to pass a reasonable infrastructure tax and ignoring the much-needed clarification and strengthening of the Ethics laws is a further example of how the system is fractured at its core. Add to that, the Ivey Administration’s tabling of the final report by the Gaming Taskforce, and the Legislature’s refusal to address the State’s prison problems all point to a lack of political courage. Granted the players may be new in their positions, but they are not new to the game, and the major problems we face are decades old.

There is new leadership in the Governor’s office and in the House of Representatives, where there is an opportunity to reshape our State government; but is there a willingness?

Change will come. It always does. But what kind of change will it be?

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | A search for the American conscience

Our response to the immediate crisis will surely determine our long-term destiny, and the collective conscience of “we the people” can be the moral force that brings about needed change.

Bill Britt

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U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights with a quill pen. (Stock photo)

A seemingly unstoppable virus, a sputtering economy and a cry for equal justice for Black citizens are trying the very soul of our nation. We stand at a time when the very conscience of our county and state is being tested in ways perhaps unimaginable just a few months ago.

Is there an American conscience?

Our government, our institutions and even who we are as a people are in question, and as with life in general, there are no easy answers.

Nearly 130,000 in the U.S. have lost their lives to COVID-19. In Alabama, almost 1,000 souls, and yet some of our citizens don’t even believe the virus exists, and if it does, some think it is not as bad as health professionals say.

Hospitals are being pushed to the brink, both physically and financially. While unemployment numbers are improving, there is a yet a steep hill to climb before fiscal solvency is restored to all Alabamians.

There are arguments over masks, fights over monuments and some are corrosively dismissive of the social injustice that disproportionately targets Black citizens.

The winds of change are blowing seeds of renewal; will they find a fallow ground or fall among the weeds and rocks?

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Many of our citizens want the nation to remain in the past, a past that, for the most part, never existed. Others desire that the country move forward and fulfill its greatest promises.

Can a house divided stand?

This national crisis of moral conscience is where the dividing line is drawn.

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The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil.”

In this rendering, it is as if an unseen umpire sits somewhere in our minds and judges our actions.

But if the conscience is formed from birth and as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests, “is like an empty box that can be filled with any type of moral content,” then our learning and understanding is the umpire and not some innate righteous force.

Is this why seemingly reasonable people see things so differently?

Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement. According to a recent CBS/YouGov poll, a majority of the American public, including more than half of white Americans, say they agree with the Black Lives Matter movement’s ideas.

The June CBS/YouGov survey also found a partisan divide exists on the issue with most Democrats and Independents supportive while a “large majority of Republicans say they disagree with the ideas expressed by the Black Lives Matter” and most Republicans also oppose the protests—though “one-quarter of Republicans join that majority of Democrats in supporting them.”

The poll is neither startling nor unimaginable and only confirms a divided nation.

The same schism can be found when individuals are polled about the new coronavirus and monuments.

Since individuals see things through entirely different apertures, is it possible to turn to a national conscience for resolution?

On December 23, 1776, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

Paine was rallying the people of the American colonies to a revolution that would form a new nation with an aspirational promise of equality and unalienable rights, “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

America just celebrated its 244th year of independence and the principles of the new nation were well-defined — even if not universally applied.

For Black Americans, the promise of the founding principles is yet unfulfilled.

Yes, the laws changed in the 60s, but there is still a long way to go in practice. Laws in themselves do not alter hearts and minds.

Alabama’s 1901 Constitution was written to deny equal access to justice for Black and poor Alabamians by keeping Montgomery as the power center from which all money and rights would flow. There have been changes but none so great as to amend the wrongs written into the state’s founding document.

A few short years ago, the state government passed a law that protected Confederate monuments that state lawmakers thought should be preserved as part of Southern heritage.

What monuments are revered speaks to national and local character. Is our character one that says we should honor those who sought to ensure the continuance of human bondage?

Should we honor those who preached and enforced segregation for political gain?

There is another way to look at statues and that is to realize that they are more reflective of the thinking at the time than the shrine itself.

If monuments are artifacts of the moment and not truthfully to honor history, then what they mean today is an open subject for debate.

Is the statue of Jefferson Davis on the Capitol grounds in Montgomery a symbol of who we are now or a reminder of who Alabama citizens were at the time it was erected?

This is not about erasing history but about recognizing monuments for what they are and acknowledging their meaning to all citizens.

The fact that most world religions warn against idols shouldn’t be lost in the moment either. Statues are tricky because heroes are almost always redefined by present events.

While nations should be built on laws alone, they are also made on myths and legends. But history has a way of exposing myths and bringing legends low.

Washington could tell a lie, Honest Abe was not always truthful, and under our current law application, some people are more equal than others. Should their memorials be removed because they were flawed? No

In his work “Adam Smith on the nature and authority of conscience,” Albert Shin argues, “there is a need to cultivate our conscience. We do so; I will argue, primarily through encountering diversity, which leads to disagreements, which prompt us to reevaluate how we judge others.”

Again the Catholic Church finds, “Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them.”

Are we more divided than ever? Probably not.

Is there a way out of the present threefold dilemma? Yes.

Returning to our founding principles while understanding that they are for everyone is a start. But principles shouldn’t change with every election or be sacrificed to win one.

Indeed, King George III thought those who staged the Boston Tea Party were thugs and looters, set to overthrow the government.

No, they were ordinary citizens who saw injustice and launched a revolution.

Today, we do not see so much a call for revolution but a demand for evolution across a broad front of problems.

There is now a need for better respect for health and science, for our neighbors of all skin colors and a rethinking of the inequities of poverty.

Our response to the immediate crisis will surely determine our long-term destiny, and the collective conscience of “we the people” can be the moral force that brings about needed change.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Who will stand and lead?

Bill Britt

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Alabama is beset by a worldwide pandemic, economic collapse and a growing cry for social justice for its black citizens.

Anyone of these crises alone would require superior leadership of conscience, fortitude and political skill. But at this moment, who is leading?

The silence of the state’s top leaders is troubling but speaks to the paralyzing effects of polarizing politics.

As the number of sick, hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 continues to rise in Alabama, the voices of those in charge are painfully silent.

Has the state abdicated its responsibility for the health and safety of its citizens in favor of hoping for a quick economic rebound?

In the wale of the protest that began with the killing of George Floyd and continues today, on the Republican side, only a few have offered constructive comments.

In a recent column Congressman Bradley Byrne wrote, “These last few weeks have riveted the country’s attention on police brutality. The murder of George Floyd was an atrocity, and unfortunately, it’s not the first one. As we have so often in our history, it’s time for America to respond with appropriate and reasonable reform. It’s not time to lose our heads, however.”

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He also said, “Let’s say it plainly. Black people are of equal moral value as white people. It’s Biblical; it’s American. And to treat people differently based on their race is morally and legally repugnant. To injure or kill them for the same reason goes against everything we stand for.”

Byrne argues that it is mostly a local issue and singles out only rouge cops, but it’s a starting point for dialogue.

Gov. Kay Ivey, in a June 1 statement said, “Like so many others throughout the country and around the world, I, too, was shocked and angered by the tragic actions that led to the senseless death of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis,” Ivey said. “It is a death that should have never happened, and it is a tragedy for which that too many people, especially African Americans, are all too familiar.”

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While Ivey condemned violent protests, she recalled that Alabama citizens have a rich history of using “peaceful protests to lead the country – and the world – to positive change.”

While peaceful protest did, in fact, over time bring about change, it would require willful ignorance to forget Alabama’s Bloody Sunday where civil protesters were beaten by law enforcement or the Birmingham Campaign where Bull Connor’s police and fire department clubbed, fire hosed and sicced attack dogs on the activists.

Alabama’s peaceful protests were marked repeatedly by brutal acts against black citizens who were only asking for the promises made at the nation’s founding.

The state’s history of racism is legend, and even the State’s 1901 Constitution was and still is used as a segregationist weapon to oppress blacks Alabamians.

In a campaign to drum up voter support for the 1901 Constitution, an advertisement read, “White Supremacy! Honest Elections! and the New Constitution! One and Inseparable!”

So, where is the state’s white Republican supermajority? Certainly they all don’t believe the novel coronavirus is a hoax to ruin the economy and defeat President Donald Trump.

How many must die before the human cost demands they stop lying?

Surely not all of them think protesters are thugs and anarchists.

How many more years must black citizens face injustice before they say “enough?”

There comes a time when a leader must stand for those who are being wronged and those who are sick and dying.

When will the state’s elected leaders stand for more than the next election?

Perhaps it’s time to turn away from Montgomery and to the big city mayors as an example of how to get things accomplished. The big five city mayors have done remarkable work guiding their cities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

And except for Huntsville, these five mayors — three Democrats and two Republicans — have managed to keep Black Lives Matter protests mostly peaceful.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has faced the most challenges and has shown courageous and wise leadership. Likewise, Montgomery’s Steven Reed, Tuscaloosa’s Walt Maddox, and Mobile’s Sandy Stimpson have displayed calm, decisive guidance through both the COVID-19 panic and the protest. Only Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle has stumbled, allowing law-enforcement to teargas and fire rubber bullets at the mostly peaceful protesters. In all other respects, he has done well, but he should renounce the police actions that took place in his city.

In a state where leaders often cite scripture, it is perhaps time to remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:8 where he said, “Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?”

It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing that so many of the state’s leaders remain voiceless when a call to action is needed.

Where is the leader who says, “The pandemic is at its worst right now. Stay home when you can, wear a mask when you go out, avoid large gatherings, and care for your neighbor.”

Where is the one who stands up and says that black citizens are being repressed, underrepresented and abused?

Who dares say “Black Lives Matter” without a caveat.

Our state once again is being tried and failing is always an option, but let’s pray we don’t fail again.

People are jobless, sick and dying, and our black citizens are being mistreated in so many ways.

If, as Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” let it bend now in our state’s time of need.

And let leaders stand up for justice for all.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Echoes of George Wallace heard as tear gas and rubber bullets fly in Huntsville

Bill Britt

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A small group of mostly peaceful protesters were shot with rubber bullets and tear-gassed by Huntsville Police and Madison County sheriff’s deputies after an NAACP rally last Wednesday.

The city’s mayor, police chief and the state’s attorney general want the public to believe that anarchists and outsiders provoked law-enforcement to use paramilitary tactics to disperse protesters on the courthouse square.

A video obtained by APR shows peaceful protesters being sprayed, gassed and shot with rubber bullets, as law-enforcement in black-clad riot gear pushed them from the city center.

After the police began their assault, some protesters did hurl insults and a few firecrackers at the approaching officers.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, police chief Mark McMurray and attorney general Steve Marshall would later assert, without proof, that it was the presence of outside anarchists that led to a violent show of force by law enforcement.

It is a bizarre irony that those protesting police violence against black citizens were met with more police violence.

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But what took place in the supposedly progressive Madison County is just a continuation of the type of repressive brutality that has plagued the South for generations.

And the reasons given for the police action is older than “Dixie” and as false as the myth of “The Lost Cause.”

McMurray claimed in a press conference that sheriff’s deputies and police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters because anarchists had infiltrated their ranks.

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“It’s an unauthorized protest against the government. That’s what it is. That’s what anarchists do. This was not NAACP. This was a separate splinter group that took advantage of a peaceful protest and hijacked it to cause anarchy against our government. Their way is to cause damage, set fires, loot, pillage.”

The idea of professionally trained anarchists whipping up crowds during protest marches is the latest justification for deploying military-style aggression against U.S. citizens.

Battle, in a statement the next day, said he supported law enforcement’s tactics and that outsiders were to blame for the police action.

“What occurred after the NAACP event was disheartening. A second event occurred, structured by people who were not part of our community,” Battle said.

While Battle didn’t use the word anarchists to describe the protesters, he accused “people who were not part of our community” for inciting police violence.

Marshall agreed with McMurray and Battle’s assessment that outsiders and anarchists were the reason law-enforcement fired on protesters. In a press statement, he said he was “satisfied” that the officers had acted appropriately.

According to McMurray, at least 24 people were arrested that evening, all of them from Madison County.

McMurray said that only Madison County residents were detained because professional anarchists know how to avoid arrest.

“The anarchists who came prepared and armed, they’re now going to another city to do the exact same thing,” the chief said. “They know how not to get arrested.”

But directly after the incident, Lt. Michael Johnson of HPD, said the reason for the police action was because they weren’t “going to roll the dice” and take a chance that the crowd could become hostile.

Johnson, speaking soon after the police action, seems to have not yet received the memo about anarchists.

But these false narratives used by Battle, McMurray and Marshall are not new and can be seen in an April 1964, letter from Gov. George Wallace.

“[W]e have never had a problem in the South except in a few very isolated instances and these have been the result of outside agitators,” Wallace wrote to a Ms. Martin. 

“White and colored have lived together in the South for generations in peace and equanimity,” Wallace continued. “They each prefer their own pattern of society, their own churches and their own schools—which history and experience have proven are best for both races. (As stated before, outside agitators have created any major friction occurring between the races.)”

Wallace also claims that the news media and propagandists are the real problems and not segregationist policies.

“Contrary to reports of many of the national news media and the propaganda distributed by various organizations, our efforts here in the South are not against the Negro citizen. We fight for the betterment of all citizens in our State.”

He further claims to have done more for black citizens than anyone in the history of the State.

“I personally have done more for the Negroes of the State of Alabama than any other individual.”

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because even today, politicians hope the public is ignorant or so moved by calls for law and order as to miss the point of the protests.

The idea of a tranquil and even docile black population whipped into a frenzy by anarchists and outsiders is as repugnant today as Wallace’s.

Battle, McMurray, and Marshall’s coded racism is as repulsive today as Wallace’s was then.

The false notion that anarchists and outsiders are the reason for aggressive police actions should be condemned.

There should be an independent panel commissioned to investigate the Huntsville police and Madison County Sheriff’s office.

The specter of George Wallace now hangs over Huntsville’s Courthouse Square, and only the bright light of justice can remove it.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | With liberty and justice for all

Bill Britt

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Photo: Rosa Pineda

As peaceful protests over the last week have been marred by violence and looting, the nation should be asking what kind of country we are and what we are to become?

Are we to be the shining city on a hill or a lord of the flies kingdom of warring factions?

Most of the protesters who have taken to the streets across the nation are only asking for those things promised in The Declaration of Independence and quoted in the nation’s Pledge of Allegiance.

They want the promise of “all men are created equal,” with “liberty and justice for all,” to be fulfilled.

Amidst the chaos, we hear calls for “law and order” and chants of “No justice, no peace.”

A nation can have law and order without justice, but when justice is denied or meted out unequally, people will only remain silent or peaceful for so long.

Law, justice, and peace should flow from the same fountain but rarely ever do in equal measure.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi before him, showed the world the power of nonviolent resistance. From the Salt March, which took place from March to April 1930, in India, to the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965, a small band of individuals has shown that peaceful protests can overcome even institutional wrongs.

But laws passed in the 1960s, while changing what was legal, didn’t answer inequities or alter everyone’s hearts and minds.

Even today, the dog whistles of racism and bullhorns of hate compete against calls for change.

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Only when bigotry is shown in bright relief against the suffering of a nation’s citizens, do the powerful lose their stranglehold.

The murder of George Floyd is further evidence of a long-festering problem, and the ensuing rage is simply the manifestation of years of systematic mistreatment of black citizens. The laws may have changed in the 1960s, but the mindset of those who fought against that progress has been reborn.

As a nation, we cannot stand with a Bible in one hand and a club in the other and claim equal protection under the law.

Perhaps opening the Scriptures and letting the voice of Jesus speak, rather than holding his words as a prop, would be a good first step. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Are these not the values we should hold dear?

I do not condone violence or property destruction, but I do understand the grievances that lead to both. We, as a state, and nation, can’t address the one without offering to answer the other.

President Trump’s failed attorney general Jeff Sessions has appointed himself as the spokesman for law and order. In a recent press release, Sessions said, “All over the country we have seen the results of ‘politically correct’ and completely ineffective leadership.”

Sessions blames, “Antifa, far-left radicals, and criminal thugs,” and many agree with him.

During George Wallace’s political rally at Madison Square Garden in 1968, he blamed anarchists, activists, militants, revolutionaries and communists for the nation’s ills.

Wallace also said, “The Supreme Court of our country has hand-cuffed the police, and tonight if you walk out of this building and are knocked in the head, the person who knocks you in the head is out of jail before you get in the hospital, and on Monday morning, they’ll try a policeman about it.”

Today, Wallace, like Sessions, would say that political correctness was the problem, not a culture that targets certain citizens.

Wallace expressed his disdain for demonstrators who tried to block President Lyndon B. Johnson’s limousine saying, “I tell you when November comes, the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they ever lay down in front of; their day is over.”

On Facebook, some Alabamians have suggested protesters be shot in the head if they resist arrest. And so it goes that the ugliness of human nature stands ready to repeat the sins of the past over and over again.

In an Op-Ed, Alabama State University President Quinton T. Ross, Jr., invoked the past in a very different way.

“Our nonviolent stand proved successful in the past, and I believe it could be the catalyst for real and impactful change. Let peace be at the core of all of our actions,” wrote Ross.

“While it seems as though remaining calm in the midst of a racist storm is a signal to be disrespected, disregarded and endangered, remember the lives that were lost to get us to this day. Remember the examples of those who were brutally beaten and rose up from that brutality to walk the halls of Congress, to become mayors, governors, state legislators and community leaders.”

Our nation was born out of public defiance in the face of political oppression. Our nation was to be a port for those seeking hope and justice in a world of tyrants.

President Ronald Reagan called the United States “the shining city upon a hill.”

“In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace,” said Reagan in his 1989 Farewell Address to the Nation. He further said he saw the nation as, “A city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Reagan saw a nation where everyone was allowed to live with peace and prosperity. A place where all were equal, deserved freedom and justice. Is that not what we all want, including the protesters?

America has always been a land of promise, and many times, promises are not kept.

But today, our nation may very well be at a turning point.

Will the moral imperative of fairness break over the dam’s edge, or will some just add more sandbags to the top?

Will we decide liberty and justice for all are more than words we repeat by rote, and that everyone deserves the promise of America?

That is the question before us, and now what we choose will show who we are and what we will become.

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