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Let's see Tea Party deliver on civil rights

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Contributor
  • Roland Martin says Tea Party spokesman claimed civil rights high ground in recent debate
  • Tea Party's criticism of NAACP would surprise civil rights groups, he says
  • He challenges Tea Party to address racial profiling, education, "don't ask, don't tell"
  • Martin: Tea Partiers have talked the talk on civil rights, now they should walk the walk

Editor's note: Roland S. Martin, a CNN political analyst, is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith," and the new book, "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One Cable Network and host of a Sunday morning news show.

(CNN) -- While Glenn Beck continues to pathetically assert that he is a modern day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his listeners and viewers are the rightful heirs to the Civil Rights Movement he spearheaded, it may catch some by surprise that Tea Party leaders claim their movement is also one that is about advancing the civil rights of Americans.

During a debate I participated in Wednesday night on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams -- who moonlights as a radio talk show host -- blasted the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People for not doing anything to fight crime in the inner city, as well as for advancing issues that go against the U.S. Constitution.

I had to do everything I could to maintain my composure, considering that the NAACP's long and storied history has been about forcing Americans to actually uphold the Constitution and apply it evenly to all citizens, especially African Americans.

Yet as Williams continued his tirade, I really did want to hear exactly what civil rights issues he and other Tea Party members are fighting for. I'm sure they would come as a surprise to civil rights organizations, the folks who are on the frontlines every day.

Video: Where's the racial harmony?
Video: NAACP vs. Tea Party over racism
Video: Tea Party spokesman on NAACP
Video: NAACP's message to Tea Party

I asked Williams if he would be willing to sit down and meet with the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and other civil rights organizations to find common ground on various civil rights issues. His response? Attend the more than 70 Tea Party rallies in the fall as a participant.

Yeah, right.

So with my suggestion in mind, it would be great for Williams, Sarah Palin and other Tea Party leaders, advocates and supporters, especially those candidates receiving their backing in November, to clearly state their position on some of the civil rights issues of the day (The following are not in a particular order of importance).

Education. President Obama and the Democratic establishment are against the notion of school vouchers. Republicans have advanced the issue for years, yet in Illinois it was GOP members who could have made the difference in vouchers being offered to students who attend schools that rank at the bottom in Chicago.

State Sen. James Meeks (who also is founder/senior pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, Illinois, where I'm a member), fought hard to pass the measure. He was rebuffed by a lot of folks in the Democratic Party, but also a number of Republicans. While we all wait for the day when our public education is fixed for the have-nots, will the Tea Party make education a civil rights issue and demand that students in the worst schools be allowed to leave via vouchers? And will it also fight to equalize funding across the board for those inner city schools that are unable to compete with suburban schools?

Racial profiling. There is nothing more insidious and unconstitutional than police officers pulling folks over or frisking them based on nothing in particular, except the color of their skin. Numerous cities and states have documented this horrible practice. The NAACP is gearing up to advance a federal anti-racial profiling bill. Will Mark Williams and the Tea Party join them in an effort to say no more to this hideous practice?

Voting rights. The right to vote is at the heart of our democracy, and it's shameful to watch members of both political parties use archaic rules to prevent folks from voting. We have seen voters with no history of criminal activity purged from voting rolls. It's time that we have consistent rules nationally and not be subject to various state, county and city rules.

As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the Bush vs. Gore decision, there is no affirmative right to vote in the United States. Our Constitution forbids minorities and women being disenfranchised (It's interesting to note that basically white men can be denied the right to vote, depending on how you look at this).

In Chicago, if you move from one address to another, you are automatically removed from the voting rolls. Why not have your voting rights follow you to a new address? We have a driver's license that is legal in all parts of a state, why not the voting card? To fix the overlapping and confusing rules, it's time we amend the Constitution and establish a clear and affirmative right to vote. Tea Partiers, are you willing to support that? Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has had such a bill ready to be voted on for nearly a decade.

"Don't ask, don't tell." Tea Partiers claim they are all about the U.S. Constitution, that they are patriots. OK, fine. How crazy is it for someone who is gay to be kicked out of the U.S. military solely because of his or her sexuality?

The right wing has made a major effort to keep gays and lesbians from serving openly, and the left has fought to have the measure repealed. If the blood of a homosexual flows the same on the battlefield as that of a heterosexual, then what's the problem? Mark Williams, is this the kind of civil right you and the Tea Party support or oppose?

Leading a 21st century Poor Peoples Campaign. At the time of his assassination in 1968, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were planning the Poor Peoples Campaign, set for Washington, D.C., to show the plight of poverty in America. Today, we have Republicans in Congress who are against a jobs bill and extending unemployment benefits, but are ardent supporters of keeping the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Will the Tea Party put the concerns of America's poor at the forefront of its movement? The Civil Rights Movement wasn't just about those at the top, but the downtrodden, disenchanted and ignored. I haven't heard Tea Partiers talking about the least of those among us. So, Mark Williams, will we see Tea Partiers descend on the nation's capital to demand that lawmakers stop ignoring the nation's poor?

It's easy for Williams and other Tea Partiers to casually toss out assertions that they are fighting for the civil rights of Americans. Fine, but put your money where your mouth is. It's time to call the Tea Party Express together at the table with the civil rights establishment to forge a comprehensive civil rights strategy headed into the midterm elections and 2011.

Saying it is one thing, Tea Partiers, but doing it is another. You've talked the talk, now it's time to walk the walk. So what say you?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin