After eight years as president, President Barack Obama leaves the Oval Office with a legacy of significant civil rights gains.
Among those include enacting health care reform, promoting equal pay for women, preserving the economy and protecting the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender persons.
Yet a number of civil rights leaders in Kansas City are expressing deep concern that many of those hard-fought gains realized during the Obama presidency — and even those won during the 1960s civil rights era — will be reversed soon after Donald J. Trump is sworn in as president.
They argue that Trump is a bombastic billionaire with an itchy Twitter finger who waged a deliberate presidential campaign that was as racist as it was divisive.
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“All we have to do is look at some of the appointments that Trump has already made or is planning to make,” said the Rev. Rodney E. Williams of the Kansas City branch of the NAACP. “Those have the possibility or the potential to set us back. But we are in this fight for the long haul, and so we are going to be standing for what we have been standing for well over 100 years, and that is the equality for all people.
“So I think at the core, racism is still alive and still well in America, and it is having a very major negative impact upon different aspects of social justice.”
Civil rights leaders say while the Obama presidency ushered in a wave of optimism and much needed-reforms, the work for racial and economic equality remains unfinished.
“What we need to carry on the desire to produce the ‘beloved community’ — we are people regardless of ethnicity, no matter what their gender might be or what their education is or is not,” Williams said. “I think we have to come together and work to bring this beloved community to fruition.”
Civil rights leaders agree that progress in some areas has lapsed in recent years despite Obama’s presidency.
Public schools have become increasingly segregated, despite repeated efforts to reverse the trend. Unemployment among African-Americans remains high compared to whites. The minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
Last year, Missouri became one of the latest states to approve a constitutional amendment that requires voters to produce a photo identification before they can vote. Proponents of the measure said that voter ID laws are designed to prevent fraud. Opponents maintained the law would make it difficult for some Missourians, especially minorities, to cast a ballot.
“The voting rights for Missourians have been curtailed, they have burgeoned, they have been squashed,” the Rev. Bob Hill, former senior pastor of the Community Christian Church.
“Seeking how best to respond to that degradation of the right to vote and its warping into a privilege for fewer people is something that needs to be taken up as a premier cause for those of us in Kansas City and throughout Missouri,” Hill said.
Other civil rights concerns include opposition to Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform, racial profiling in law enforcement and the ongoing debate about the need for police departments to issue body cameras for their officers.
The aftermath of the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., generated debate about the need for reform. A U.S. Justice Department report was critical of Ferguson police and the city’s municipal court system.
Across the state line in Kansas, Secretary of State Kris Kobach pushed for the law requiring new voter registrants to provide documentary evidence of U.S. citizenship. Courts generally discarded the rules.
Last year, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill designed to move families off of welfare and into the workforce. The new law reduced the lifetime limit on cash assistance from 36 to 24 months, although the state can grant an extension of up to 12 months.
Local leaders say they are undeterred by those changes and remain committed to racial and social justice.
“We have been here before and the civil rights agenda has prevailed, and we will engage with the challenges that we face in the new year and beyond, not only with courage but with great hope,” Hill said.
In 2016, civil rights movements experienced brand new participants in their ranks, some fueled by the divisive, controversial and volatile nature of the latest presidential election.
Sarah Wess Potter of Columbia said she had never been involved in any kind of activism before the 2016 election.
“I have never worked for a campaign or anything like that,” Potter said. “This is brand new to me.”
But as a woman, she found Trump’s rhetoric scary and upsetting.
It wasn’t just statements Trump made that indicated he might stunt LGBTQIA or immigration rights. She felt excited about priorities that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had suggested she would focus on, such as paid parental leave and an end to wage gaps. And when a video emerged of Trump speaking with an entertainment host about groping women, Potter thought it was an end to his ability to become president.
In the wake of Trump’s victory, Potter decided to become a local organizer as a national march on Washington for women’s rights began to be organized. And when the chance to be a Missouri coordinator for the Women’s March on Washington opened up, she said she jumped on it.
The march has evolved since its early days to a one-day event on Jan. 21 that is expected to draw 200,000 people to Washington, D.C., to rally for the rights of women and other disadvantaged groups. The group is rallying under the mantra “women’s rights are human rights” and is gathering for the “protection of our rights, our safety, our health and our families,” according to the event’s web page.
“I’m just worried about civil rights … the erosion in people’s civil rights,” Potter said. “I felt an urgency to go and make my voice heard.”
Not all local civil rights leaders are as worried. Henry E. Lyons, president of the branch of the NAACP that represents members in Overland Park, Leawood and Olathe, said he was keeping an open mind on Trump.
“I don’t believe Trump is going to be bad for America, or the many Republicans who have been elected,” Lyons said.
“All I am saying is give the man a chance; let’s see what he is going to do,” Lyons said.