Donor Privacy: A Civil Rights Lesson Democrats Should Remember

Donor Privacy: A Civil Rights Lesson Democrats Should Remember

Feb 04, 2021 The Philanthropy Roundtable

No issue or accomplishment is more central to the contemporary Democratic Party’s self-identity than civil rights. It was President Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat, who pushed civil rights, voting rights and fair housing laws through Congress in the 1960s.

This makes it all the more difficult to understand why Democrats — who now control both chambers of Congress for the first time in six years — would make what they’re terming “democracy reform,” specifically H.R. 1, their agenda-setting legislation for the new Congress. In one provision of the bill, Democrats turn their backs on a key U.S. Supreme Court decision of the civil rights era: the right for charitable donors to avoid racial violence by not being forced to reveal their names.

This issue dates to Alabama in the mid-1950s — a time when the Ku Klux Klan was perpetrating heinous acts against American civil rights leaders as the movement gained strength in the Deep South. Rosa Parks had just earned national attention for her refusal to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, where Martin Luther King Jr. would soon lead a 13-month signal bus boycott. Klan violence against Blacks and their white supporters was very real: The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham claimed the lives of four young Black girls, and Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit activist, was murdered for assisting the voting rights movement following the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.  

The NAACP was organizing direct and legal action in the South at the time, which meant its supporters were exposed to exactly this sort of deadly retribution. This imminent danger is what made the state of Alabama’s effort to force the NAACP to reveal its membership list so crucial. Members, of course, were likely to be financial supporters as well.

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