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ACLU's chief lobbyist draws on family legacy

History of rights activism informs fight to limit scope of anti-terror bill

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

October 06, 2001|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Murphy said she learned lessons about the value of diversity when she made the transition from an all-black environment to predominantly Jewish classrooms in Northwest Baltimore. She said she learned much about Jewish culture and how to adjust to classroom situations where there were "one, two or three" black students.

"I grew up with people in Cherry Hill who either worked for Bethlehem Steel or were domestic help for the wealthier families, and I think that whole experience honed my appreciation for the dignity of the individual," she recalled. "Then in high school I was exposed to Jewish culture, and then I went to ultra-WASPy Wellesley. All of these things have given me a great foundation to work from."

Living in Cherry Hill also exposed her to the class differences in society, she said: "So many of my black and white middle-income counterparts looked down their nose at Cherry Hill; some of them wouldn't even drive down there to visit me, especially at night. I really got an education about class and how cruel Americans can be to their own countrymen, black and white."

Murphy said her background enables her to feel comfortable in low-income minority communities or when she visits the White House. "I feel like my growing up in Cherry Hill prepared me to deal with anyone," she added.

Murphy said her childhood was "unusual" because both of her parents ran for public office much of the time. She said she began working in campaigns handing out literature when she was 7 years old.

"There was no way you could grow up in my house and not know about current events, and not know about the civil right movement," she said. "I had an uncle, George Murphy, who was my father's brother, who was a mentor to me and was a labor organizer and social activist. He traveled around the world with Paul Robeson, and he decided that I was his little protege. He imbued me with a strong sense of social justice."

Murphy does not hold a law degree. At Wellesley, she majored in the history of imperialism and colonization during the 18th and 19th centuries. "That major taught me the various methods governments use to oppress people, from the opium wars in China to apartheid in South Africa," she said.

Murphy said she is concerned by polls showing that many Americans favor giving up some of their rights if it will provide security from terrorism. The hysteria, she said, creates a climate that could lead to a loss of civil liberties and discrimination against Arab Americans and Muslims. Murphy said the ACLU believes that the nation can improve security without draconian laws. And she said the public is mistaken if it believes that the courts will always act expeditiously to right a constitutional wrong.

"It's very difficult to have bad laws struck down when the federal courts give so much deference to Congress," she said, adding, "It's more effective to catch the civil liberties violation while legislation is in Congress than to hope the Supreme Court will overturn a bad law later."

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