Human rights are two very big words. Recently they’ve been covered in a number of separate articles in the US press, and each story has me shaking my head at our ability to be so blindingly stupid. I’m sure if I delved further into the world of the web I’d find many more instances of arrogance, and ignorance.
First to catch my eye was the death at 72 of an African-American woman, Beneva Williams Nyamu, who in 1956 attempted to enrol in McReynolds Junior High, an all-white school. She and her father, a civil rights activist, were turned away at the door and were then harangued and threatened for their temerity. This despite the fact the Supreme Court had two years earlier ruled in Brown v Topeka (Education Board in Kansas), in a unanimous vote (9-0), that racial segregation in “educational facilities” was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution; and thereby striking down the 1896 ruling of Plessy v Ferguson which held that “as long as separate facilities for separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the (same) Amendment”. Facilities were not equal in those 17 states that mandated segregation before the 1954 overturn. Beneva Williams never attended a desegregated school – the Houston Independent School District not being in the vanguard and taking until 1965 to fully combine black and white schools. From that early injustice until her death Ms Williams Nyamu continued her fight against inequality, both in the US and Africa.
Racism we know is alive and kicking in one form or another in most countries, but it still shocks me that sixty years ago the south eastern US states were so blatantly prejudiced. And in South Africa, a mere twenty years. A story of arrogance and ignorance, and let’s add intolerance.
The second story is one that will no doubt get more coverage as the Sochi winter games near. While Russia does not have an anti-homosexuality law, the recent banning of gay ‘propaganda’ has put the country near the edge. India’s Supreme Court, who in December 2013 struck down a lower court’s ruling that had suspended the enforcement of Section 377, the anti-buggery law a hangover from colonial days, have crossed that edge. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia are watching closely as they tackle the constitutionality of their own anti-gay laws. The news that Nigeria is increasing the mandate against homosexuality by banning the right to even hold meetings punishable with up to 14 years jail time, let alone have relationships, is setting the hunt scene for homosexuals with tragic outcomes. The country’s conservative society reflects the feelings of many Middle and Far Eastern countries, as well as the 37 other African countries banning homosexuality. This as the different US states grapple with same sex marriage, and divorce.
And then back in dear old Texas, we have Governor Rick Perry decrying big government unless it fits his own agenda – that of chipping away at abortion laws and women’s rights with regard their own bodies. Currently in the news is the tragic case of a young woman, Marlise Muñoz, who six weeks ago collapsed at home apparently from a blood clot. Found a number of hours later by her husband she was pronounced brain dead by doctors, but because she was 14 weeks pregnant they would not / will not turn off the life support even though the foetus was not viable. This despite pleas from her husband and family, and his wife’s previously stated desire “to never be kept alive by artificial means.” Mr Muñoz, a paramedic as was his wife, is now taking the state to court.
So whilst Texas, a Republican state, insists big government is bad and riles against edicts on healthcare, education, gun control and so on as intrusive in our private lives, it is quite okay to interfere in the explicit wishes of a family facing an unimaginable private tragedy.
Can people not be allowed to make their own decisions regarding their own families when faced with terrible personal choices? Can people not be allowed to choose who to love? Would there were more people like Beneva Williams Nyamu.
Human rights: two very big words.