- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

A 14-year-old black girl from tiny Paris, Texas, was sent to a youth prison for up to seven years for shoving a hall monitor at her high school. The same judge sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for burning down her family’s house. Bigger offense, lighter sentence, lighter skin: the ingredients of injustice.

That’s how it sounded to my friend and colleague Howard Witt, the Chicago Tribune’s Houston-based Southwest bureau chief. He heard about the girl from Gary Bledsoe, an Austin attorney who is president of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch.

“It’s like they are sending a signal to black folks in Paris that you stay in your place in this community, in the shadows, intimidated,” Mr. Bledsoe told Mr. Witt.

Mr. Witt pursued the story. His March 12 Tribune article hit the Internet like a pimp-slap heard round the world. More than 300 blogs and thousands of message boards, many of them geared to black community issues, picked it up. The story also led to a nationwide letter-writing campaign to the Texas governor and expressions of outrage from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other activists.

March 30, the black teen, Shaquanda Cotton, walked out of prison, released early after serving a year of her sentence. The Texas Youth Commission ordered her immediate release after learning her prison authorities had extended her sentence after finding “contraband” in her cell — an extra pair of socks.

Congratulations to Howard Witt. He and the editors who backed him up showed the enterprise that makes great newspapers.

I hope the civil rights movement will take some important lessons from this story. After I recently wrote that the NAACP’s national leaders should broaden their focus beyond civil rights to include other social problems plaguing black America, a reader e-mailed a copy of Mr. Witt’s story to me.

The message: Racism is still alive and well. No doubt. But rather than refute the need to change the NAACP’s mission, Shaquanda Cotton’s story confirms it. Among other questions it raises is why this child was allowed to sit in prison for almost a year before media-generated heat from outsiders led to her rescue? The evidence suggests she was forgotten not only by the white establishment but by much of the black middle class and political establishment the civil right revolution helped create.

There’s no question civil rights leaders need to keep an eagle eye out for any cases in which justice is not being handed out equally. It is good that the Education Department has been investigating complaints of disciplinary bias against black students in the Paris school district. But the larger problem of a new invisible underclass of poor blacks and others left behind by the civil rights revolution is by no means limited to little Paris or to Texas.

As race has declined in significance as a barrier to opportunity, economic class has become even more pernicious, opening a new gap between those moving up economically and those stuck on the bottom in black America. We who are fortunate enough to have benefited from the civil rights revolution have a special obligation to guard against injustice without getting too cozy with those we should be watching.

With that in mind, I am encouraged by another Witt discovery in the wake of this scoop, a phenomenon he calls a “new, ‘virtual’ civil rights movement out there on the Internet” that “can reach more people in a few hours than all the protest marches, sit-ins and boycotts of the 1950s and ‘60s put together.”

Perhaps the civil rights revolution’s next phase will be found on the Web, in the “Netroots,” just as the last one erupted at the grass roots. It wouldn’t be the first time movement leaders have to rush to catch up with people they are trying to lead.

Even so, as Mr. Witt recently wrote, they’ll probably be reading about it here first.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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