Neely Young: Welcome to Georgia

Discrimination is as old as Georgia itself. In fact, fear and discrimination in politics are the tools of many both today and in the past. They are used to target people with the smallest population who are different, and presidential candidate Donald Trump is using them as a keystone of his campaign.

The leadership in Georgia’s government has been lauded in the past for rejecting the use of discrimination for political gain. Over the past six years, however, there have been reversals of this policy.

This past legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill that targeted a minority group living in our state. House Bill 757 gave Georgia businesses and citizens the right to refuse services to people who are gay or transgender. The root of the bill is a desire to discriminate. Gov. Nathan Deal wisely vetoed it, saying “Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people. … I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”

That hasn’t always been so.

In 2011, Georgia’s legislature instituted House Bill 87, which targeted a minority Hispanic group by making it a felony for Georgia citizens to help unauthorized immigrants get a job with false documents and even transport undocumented people within Georgia. Most of HB 87 has been struck down by the courts or has not been enforced.

Acts of discrimination are as old as Georgia’s beginnings. Our state charter of 1732 singled out groups who were not allowed to settle here: Catholics and Jews, dealers in alcohol, Africans and, of all things, lawyers.

The Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution limit the power of the federal and state governments to discriminate. The Fifth states that governments cannot deprive individuals of “life, liberty or property without due process.” The 14th sets limits on the power of state and federal governments to discriminate against individuals because of race, religion or gender.

In the early days of our country, Cherokees living in Georgia were subject to many state discrimination laws restricting their rights as citizens. The Cherokees filed suit, and they won a U.S. Supreme Court victory when the court ruled these laws invalid.

When Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the court, under Justice John Marshall, questioned this law’s validity. President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and said: “John Marshall has made his decision; let him enforce it.” Thus the infamous “Trail of Tears” removal of the Cherokees away from their homeland.

Then, of course, came the Civil War. Northern states banned slavery, while Southern states, including Georgia, felt slavery was the cornerstone of their economy.

The clash of the two ideas resulted in our Civil War, where more than 600,000 Americans died. Only an estimated 6 percent of Southerners owned an enslaved person. Yet Southern succession laws made it clear that the war was fought over the issue of slavery. Language used by the legislature in Texas to justify leaving the Union was typical. It stated that the Southern states’ governments “were established exclusively by the white race” and that “the African race had no agency in their establishment” as they were “regarded as an inferior and dependent race.”

The Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War freed those who were enslaved. However, Black Code laws were soon introduced throughout the south. They evolved into Jim Crow laws, which mandated the segregation of whites and blacks in restrooms, restaurants, public schools, public places and even drinking fountains. Segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, and the remaining Jim Crow laws were overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This summer, members of the legislature will meet to plan what new laws to present for the 2017 session, and we should hope the issues of discrimination will be left out of those plans. Georgia’s public officials are elected to represent all of the people, and part of that leadership is to give everyone, minorities included, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

By vetoing HB 757, Gov. Deal goes a long way toward that end. His action allows Georgia to continue to reflect the foundation of our country that welcomes every person.

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