ST. LOUIS — Over the last few months one of the most important electoral struggles of 2008 played out in Missouri. The deceptively-named Missouri Civil Rights Initiative (MoCRI), which would have outlawed affirmative action programs here was blocked May 4 because petitions to get the measure on the ballot were not submitted.
Ward Connerly, an African American multi-millionaire lobbyist for the construction industry, who also financed successful anti-affirmative-action initiatives in California, Washington and Michigan, was the main backer of the measure here.
Earlier this year he announced his “Super Tuesday for Equal Rights,” a five state, multi-milliondollar program designed to place anti-affirmative-action initiatives on the ballot in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona and Missouri.
He was supported by major construction firms and reactionary segments of the economic and political elite.
For Connerly’s anti-civil-rights movement, this year was supposed to be a watershed moment eventually leading to a majority of states banning affirmative action policies, and eventually a federal law.
Also, the prospect of an African American or woman Democratic presidential nominee meant that the extreme right wing in the GOP needed to mobilize voters using racism and sexism, with the belief that they would vote for the Republican candidate in November.
Much like anti-choice or anti-marriage equality measures used by the right wing in the past, this initiative was viewed as their best bet in mobilizing a Republican victory in key states.
After Connerly made his intentions known, Missouri labor, community, civil rights and faith groups came together to form Working to Empower Community Action Now (WeCAN) and decided the best way to stop the initiative was to do direct action voter education.
By tirelessly searching out anti-civil-rights petitioners and then giving Missouri voters information about the true intent of the petition, we informed thousands of Missourians, most of whom said to the petitioners, “No, thank you.”
Why did we do this? Because the petitioners if seldom ever said that the initiative would ban affirmative action. Most said it would end workplace discrimination. It was necessary to speak with voters at the point of contact, so that they would be aware of the true meaning of the petition.
Missouri became the poster child for the national right-wing campaign. Outside money and resources began pouring into MoCRI’s coffers. They not only increased the amount they paid per signature (some petitioners were being paid as much as $10 per signature) started to pay for flights and lodging for signature gatherers to come to Missouri.
Suddenly we saw more and more unfamiliar faces, who we later found out, were Minutemen, Nazis, and sundry white supremacists. This was a sign of desperation on the part of MoCRI.
When MoCRI failed to deliver it spetitions to Missouri’s secretary of state on May 4, the WeCAN coalition announced a victory had been won. (See pww.org for the coalition’s full statement).
While Connerly and his surrogates made rambling excuses about why they were unable to gather enough signatures, the reason was obvious to others. “Missouri is a state that believes in fairness and equality,” said Lynn Oldham, Missouri ACORN member “Once our voter educators got the word out, people learned quickly that this initiative was bad for everyone.”
Missouri is known as the Show Me State, where you have to try hard to win trust and back up your promises with action. Right-wing forces believed that they would easily triumph here. But, in the end, it was the voters of Missouri who showed them.
Glenn Burleigh is St. Louis Metro political director for MO ACORN and lead organizer of the statewide effort to defend affirmative action.