03/02/2006

International Visitors Consult SPLC on Civil Rights Issues

Two separate European groups recently visited the Southern Poverty Law Center for insight on contemporary civil rights issues in the United States.

On February 22, Martin Rickerd, the new British Consul General for the southeast United States, visited the Center in connection with a report he is completing for the British ambassador, David Manning. Accompanying him was Gillian Cooper, press and public affairs officer at the consulate. The two are based in Atlanta.

"I'm putting together a paper for the embassy in Washington on the current state of race relations in the United States," Rickerd told Southern Poverty Law Center staff. "I wanted to come here and learn about the work of the Center."

Meeting with Rickerd and his staff were SPLC legal director Rhonda Brownstein, chief intelligence analyst Joe Roy, campus outreach coordinator Brandon Wilson and Jim Carrier, author of the Center's handbook 10 Ways to Fight Hate.

Rickerd said the report was spurred by the recent deaths of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, a half-century after the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. He said their deaths provide an opportunity to take stock of what the Movement achieved and what's left to accomplish.

Center staff told Rickerd that the face of hate and intolerance in the United States is very different than it was during the Civil Rights Movement.

Brownstein said the classic era of filing civil rights litigation has largely come to an end, primarily due to increasingly conservative federal courts. Instead, civil rights groups today focus on public policy advocacy and other strategies for social change. She cited as an example the Center's successful advocacy for juvenile justice reform in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Rickerd's visit was followed the next day by a group of public and nonprofit leaders from Bulgaria. Coordinated by the U.S. Department of State, the visit is part of a program focused on professional development for civil rights advocates in foreign countries.

Members of the group included experts on ethnic and demographic issues, Eurorintegration and minority issues, and a vice mayor of one of the country's largest cities.

Andrew Blejwas, who coordinates presentations for groups visiting the Center, provided an overview of the Center's work. The Bulgarians then met with Intelligence Project director Mark Potok and discussed the Center's monitoring of hate groups in the United States.

Whille civil rights issues in Bulgaria differ in some ways from the United States, the Bulgarians said the Center's work combating hate groups can offer a guide for countering increasing hatred in their country.

"Today the nationalist party is very popular in Bulgaria," said Svetlin Raykov, vice mayor of Lom. Raykov said the Nationalist Union Attack, the country's nationalist political party, gained 21 out of 240 seats in the 2005 election. The party, whose leaders are known for giving the Nazi salute, has built a strong following, in part because of their criticism of ethnic minorities.

Raykov and others say they plan to consult the Center in the future as they develop strategies to work against the Nationalist Union and other similar groups.