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Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

Contents

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Finding and Contacting Your Legislators: Federal

There are several options to help citizens identify their representatives.  

  • You can find your senators' and representatives' contact information here
  • You can also call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to your representatives or senators.
  • You can text your zip code to 520-200-2223.  You will receive a text back with the relevant contact information for both federal and state representatives.  

For anyone struggling to reach your Senator's office lines, you can also consider some online sleuthing.

  • Simply Google the senators name and staff directory which should take you into inside gov website.
  • Try CapWiz. You'll find an up to date list of the staff and their responsibilities.

If you need help identifying the last four digits if your zip code (e.g., 97225-xxxx), you can look it up using the USPS website.

Generic emails used in Congress follow a template:

  • House emails (firstname.lastname@mail.house.gov)
  • Senators and their aides (firstname_lastname@lastname of senator.senate.gov)

 

Finding and Contacting Your Legislators: State & Municipal

Open: States can be a useful tool for determining who your state legislators are and how they've voted. It's a collection of tools that allow users to track what is happening in their state's capital by aggregating information from all fifty states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Oftentimes, you will need to visit the websites for your city or county to determine who your elected officials are. You may be able to access some local government websites through the Municode library.

If you are struggling to identify reliable information about your local officials at the municipal level, reaching out to libraries is often the most effective and reliable method to track them down.  In addition to taking walk in requests from patrons, all public libraries accept phone calls at their reference desk.  Most now provide for email and chat reference as well, and they are happy to connect users with authoritative information.

Strategies to Reach Your Members of Congress

These recommendations are ranked in order from most to least effective.

  • Face-to-face contact
  • Live phone call that reaches a staffer (see detailed recommendations below)
  • Voicemail
  • Letters and postcards
  • Faxes - You can send faxes to your congressmen via Resistbot. Texting "resist" to 504-09 will get the process started.
  • Emails (avoid using someone else's language if at all possible)

The one method that is guaranteed to have no effect whatsoever is to do nothing at all.  The methods listed above can be used in conjunction with one another (e.g., call and send a letter).  Do what you can as often as you can.  And keep in mind that the ultimate, most powerful mechanism voters have is to hold their  accountable by voting in each and every election.  Keep them in office if their voting record aligns with your values -- or elect someone new.  The methods outlined above are to help pressure our elected officials while they're in office in order to remind them that their record is being closely monitored and the are risking reelection with their constituents.

Calling Your Members of Congress

  1. Give your name, city, and zip code, and say "I don't need a response." That way, they can quickly confirm you are a constituent, and that they can tally you down without taking the time to input you into a response database.

  2. Only call your own members of Congress! Your tally will not be marked down unless you can rattle off a city and zip from the state, or are calling from an in-state area code. Your call will be ignored or at risk of being ignored if you are not a constituent.  In other words, Mitch McConnell will not be persuaded by Oregonian callers giving him a piece of their mind since they aren't the ones voting him in/out of office.  If there is a nationwide poll (e.g., Paul Ryan's ACA poll), he is soliciting input from everyone -- not just his constituents.  Everyone should participate in those. 

  3. State the issue, state your position. For example: "I am opposed to a ban on Muslims entering the US." "I am in favor of stricter gun control legislation including background checks." "I am in favor of the Affordable Care Act." That's it. That's all the staffers write down so they can get a tally of who is in favor and who is against. It doesn't actually matter WHY you hold that opinion. The more people calling, the less detail they are able to take down. Help them out by being simple and direct.

  4. Avoid scripts if you can. If the script has been drafted by an organization, the staffers can tell after getting hundreds of the same calls. If you're nervous, draft a script with your own words to help you get through it, and let the staffer know in advance that you're using one because of nerves. You don't want to risk the more automatic delivery undermining your message.  The more calls you make, the easier this will get and the less you'll need to rely on a script.

  5. Pick one issue each day.  Use this format (I am in favor of _____ or I oppose ______), and call your 2 Senators and 1 Representative on their DC and State Office lines, and you'll be on your way to being heard.

  6. Call during regular business hours if you can. Taking the time out of your day to call your members of Congress carries the most weight. Voicemails count too, but often the voicemail box fills up quickly and the opportunity to be counted is missed. If you have to leave a voicemail, be as brief as you can so you leave room for other messages to be left.

  7. Be polite. The people answering the phones on Capitol Hill have one of the hardest jobs in DC and some of the lowest pay as well.  They are often taking calls nonstop for nine hours every day.  It's brutal.  Thank them for their hard work answering the phones, because without them our members of Congress are operating blind.  What does this sound like?

"Hi, my name is Katherine, I'm a constituent from Portland, zip code 97225. I don't need a response. I am opposed to any ban on Muslims entering the United States and I encourage the Senator to please oppose implementation of any such ban. Thanks for your hard work answering the phones!"

Following these steps makes it easier for the people answering the phones and takes less time and emotion than a long script. Keeping it short and sweet helps the office answer more calls per hour, meaning more people get heard. The bigger the tally, the more powerful our voice.

Mid-Term Elections

In 2018 (November 6, 2018 to be exact), the country will have the opportunity to vote in the midterm elections. This will be an opportunity for Democrats to take back at least one of the houses in Congress, and perhaps more state legislatures. As of right now, things look a bit bleak for Democrats. Below are some resources to assist in keeping track what what you can do and where to make an impact on the 2018 midterms. At the bare minimum, everyone should register to vote. For those fortunate enough to have early voting options, voters should take advantage of it.  Voters who wait to the last minute are often unable to make it to the polls in time due to unexpected changes in their personal schedules. Elections are so infrequent that a missed opportunity to vote can have dramatic consequences.  Make a plan and reach out to voters in your community who may have difficulty reaching the polls (e.g., elderly, low income) and find out how you can help.  

  • Swing Left is an organization that has identified districts that were won by a thin margin. By providing your zip code, users can identify the closest swing district to them. This will become especially important in the 2018 mid-term elections where the Democrats have the best chance of winning back the House of Representatives.  This information, no doubt, will be used by both parties in an effort to maintain or reestablish a majority.  Similar groups include Flippable (focusing on state races), and Sister District (focusing on state and mid-term elections).  Though these organizations are focused on more progressive agendas, the identification of close elections can be used to prioritize resources -- no matter your affiliation.  
  • One of the most consistent criticisms of the recent outcome of elections at the congressional level is the manipulation of districts to favor or disfavor one political party over another (i.e., gerrymandering).  A recent article in the Washington Post has provided examples of states' current districts as designed by politicians, and those generated by a computer to optimize nonpartisan qualities (e.g., compactness). 

The 2018 midterms are nearly two years away. Start paying attention now. - Vox

Civic Accountability

My Civic Workout is a biweekly email sent to subscribers with 5, 10, and 30 minute activism "workouts" to help you (and America) get in shape.  Complete them all, or pick one based on what you're realistically able to commit.  Activities range from identifying your members of Congress to testing whether you have what it would take to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Wall of Us provides four concrete acts of resistance each week to subscribers.  Their mission "is to make it simply irresistible to engage in our democracy."

One of the 44th President's more public acts as a private citizen was to launch the website for The Obama Foundation.  Through the website, the foundation is soliciting requests for ideas for future projects and initiatives. 

From the foundation's website:

The Obama Foundation will focus on developing the next generation of citizens -- and what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century.  It will draw strength from the rich diversity and vitality of Chicago, where the President and First Lady met and raised their daughters, and it will have nonprofit programs across the city, the United States, and the world.

Whether you are looking for a role in your community or have been active on the field of democracy for years, we look forward to working with you and for you. Together, we will build programs to inspire us all to be better citizens and to help young leaders develop their ideas. This will be a design year for us, and we hope you'll join in.