Our state and country are experiencing a regression in civil rights. There’s no other way to say it. President Trump’s tacit support of the Alt-Right and other groups have created a toxic environment in which hate flourishes. Many communities have seen a spike in hate crimes against Jews, Muslims, African Americans and LGBTQ people.
Years ago, I met a fascinating and groundbreaking woman named Merle Fleming. She served on the first Iowa Civil Rights Commission, a group formed by statute after the passage of Iowa’s groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1965. Merle and her commission were in charge of implementing and enforcing this new law throughout the state. Never was a more consequential law enacted in our state. It is currently being put to the test in the courts and is an enduring legacy that was produced by the majority Democrat legislature that held a trifecta that year. (Governor’s office and majorities in the Iowa House and Senate).
Merle taught me how important it was to have people in office who truly understand and appreciate the power of lawmaking and laws in the granting of civil rights. I remember her saying on numerous occasions, “It doesn’t matter what people think the rights of other people should be at any given time in history. It matters what the constitution says and what the law says. The people are usually 20 years behind the times.” I love and miss her. She was a mentor and a dear friend.
In 2015, Tyler McCubbin was a substitute teacher at Dowling Catholic High School, my alma mater. He was offered a full-time teaching position for the 2015-2016 school year. Someone called Bishop Pates (head of the diocese of Des Moines) and told him that Tyler is gay and was engaged to be married. Bishop Pates ordered the Principal to rescind the employment offer. That is exactly what happened. Tyler left Dowling – but not before an all-out rebellion by students and alumni.
I contacted many of the current board members and publicly encouraged my fellow alumni to do the same. There’s no way to know the lasting impact – but I heard from many sources within the school that the decision to fire Tyler resulted in a loss of support and donations to the school.
I’m not afraid to stand up and do what’s right. Every time a situation like this comes up – I think of Merle and her wise words.
We have a lot of work to do in Iowa with regard to civil rights. Iowa has left a lot of people behind economically and also still has a long way to go in having inclusiveness and diversity in leadership – both in state government and in business. Most of our key institutions are completely devoid of people of color. We must work hard to change that.
I’m thankful for the brave leaders who passed the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 1965. Many of them lost their seats for their brave stand and the majority only lasted two years. Many politicians today go with the status quo rather than taking bold steps to change. I am not one of them.