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A youth vocal trio consisting of Veronica Stevens, Mariam Diallo, and Annabelle Thies sang “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” at the annual Martin Luther King celebration at Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro on Jan. 21.

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More than just one day a year

At a Martin Luther King Day event, former State Rep. Kiah Morris — who resigned from the Legislature over her family’s racial harassment — challenges Vermonters to stand up for social justice every day

BRATTLEBORO—In the words of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it was a service that was all about “the fierce urgency of now.”

And former state Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington made sure of that.

Morris — the featured speaker at Brattleboro’s annual King Day celebration on Jan. 21 at Centre Congregational Church — resigned her seat in the Vermont Legislature last fall after she and her family were the targets of numerous incidents of racial hate crimes for more than two years.

She made it very clear that fighting for social justice was more than a once-a-year thing.

“My meaning is plain,” Morris said. “If you are not actively working toward dismantling systemic racism, economic inequality, bigotry, sexism, and more every day, I am uninterested in your platitudes.”

“If today’s conversation is not relevant and important on any day other than today, folks might as well go about calling themselves Easter and Christmas anti-racists,” she said.

Morris reminded people of an aphorism made famous by King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“He said those words a lifetime ago, and yet here we are with worse inequalities than we had during those times,” Morris said.

Then as now, she said, there were many who counseled patience. But, she pointed out, “oppressed people have never been given the luxury of time to have their entire world view and very ways of living torn asunder and remade by someone else’s hands.

“So when we come to you today and say, ‘The work must begin today,’ you must move beyond any apprehension or fear of personal gain to do what is necessary and what your very conscience requires.”

Change isn’t easy

Morris pointed out that even seemingly small changes can be met with unexpected resistance.

She gave an example from the last legislative biennium: a bill she co-sponsored that would have addressed systemic racism in public schools and would have offered ways to improve the school curriculum to reduce it.

Many groups were involved in the drafting of the bill, which easily passed the House. When it got to the Senate, she said, Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, and President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, watered down the bill and attached a provision that would provide free college tuition payments for students in private high schools participating in the statewide “dual enrollment” program.

“The same programs put in place to reduce inequitable outcomes in our underfunded public schools was weaponized against efforts to liberate marginalized youth in the state,” she said.

The original bill died in conference committee, but Morris said it will be reintroduced in this year’s session and urged the capacity crowd inside Centre Congregational Church to push lawmakers to pass the bill as originally written.

“Ask yourselves,” she said. “Is it loving to tell the parents of children of color in our state that the work of culturally relevant, historically significant, representational curriculum and policies is less important than providing free college tuition to kids at private schools? To impose your own ideas about what policy should look like, in mockery of the diligent work at hand?”

She sees her bill’s journey as more than a dispute over a piece of legislation. She described it as another example of how things still work in the corridors of power.

“Why are we still fighting these battles alone, again and again? Where is the political courage of those whom we granted power to represent us? And why does that political power resemble repression, sexism, and racism in its execution?

“Is this the best we can do?”

Justice denied?

Morris didn’t address the incidents that made her decide to quit the Legislature. That was left to her husband, James Lawton, who gave an impromptu and emotional speech about what he and his family have gone through for more than two years.

While state Attorney General T.J. Donovan said on Jan. 14 that Morris “was a victim of racial harassment,” no charges were filed against Max Misch after an investigation.

Misch, the man responsible for the bulk of the harassment, has described himself as a white nationalist.

Lawton claimed that police and prosecutors in Bennington County didn’t properly investigate her complaints or protect her family.

He said there were “so many occasions” when police could have spoken to Misch — whose name Lawton refused to say during his remarks — “and tell him to stop.”

But Lawton said that every time Misch did something, the response that Morris got was that Misch’s speech was protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s not him that we are afraid of,” said Lawton. “It’s the people that his stuff is attracting. We got threats from all over the country.”

The last straw for Lawton was seeing Misch at Donovan’s Jan. 14 news conference at the Congregation Beth El synagogue in Bennington.

“Kiah was speaking, and he came in.”

Lawton said Misch was wearing a t-shirt with a racist message “and his gun in his belt.”

“And you know why he could do that?” he said. “It was his right.”

“It was his right to say hateful things to my wife. It was his right to terrorize us for two years. At a moment that was supposed to help us move on, to some degree, he took that away from her. And nobody from law enforcement, including our attorney general, stopped him.”

Lawton said that “under the guise of political dissent,” Misch “could call her the ‘n-word’ as long as he said ‘I don’t like your policies.’ And he was protected!”

“This was not about free speech. It was about harassment and terrorizing our family. And we can’t come with something we could charge him with?” he continued.

“It’s got to change, and it has got to start with all of us,” Lawton said in closing.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #494 (Wednesday, January 23, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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