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From the Land of Emmett Till: Strong Women to be Remembered, Praised During Women’s History Month

MARCH IS WOMEN’S History Month. Particularly meaningful for me, are the courageous acts of two deceased women, Mamie Till and Rosa Parks, as well as the courage shown yesterday by a young New Mexico Native American woman, ShantelleHicks. 

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Mexico filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of 15-year-old Shantelle, who was initially kicked out of middle school and then publicly humiliated at an assembly by the school director and another staff member because she was pregnant. 
The complaint alleges that school administrators violated Hicks’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law, Title IX’s prohibitions against sex and pregnancy discrimination and violations of her right to privacy. 

EMMETT TILL’S MOTHER (Mamie Elizabeth Carthan Till Bradley Mobley, November 23, 1921 – January 6, 2003) was by all accounts an extraordinary woman, as well. Defying the social constraints and discrimination she faced as an African-American woman growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, she excelled both academically and professionally, as the fourth black student to graduate from suburban Chicago’s predominantly white Argo Community High School and as the first black student to make the school’s “A” Honor Roll. While raising Emmett Till as a single mother, she worked long hours for the Air Force as a clerk in charge of secret and confidential files.
Coming only one year after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandated the end of racial segregation in public schools, Emmett Till’s Mississippi Delta murder provided an important spark for the American Civil Rights Movement. One hundred days after Emmett Till’s murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama city bus, sparking the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott. Nine years later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing many forms of racial discrimination and segregation, one year later it passed the Voting Rights Act outlawing discriminatory voting practices.
Although she never stopped feeling the pain from her son Emmett’s death, Mamie Till (who died of heart failure many years later) also recognized that what happened to Emmett Till helped open Americans’ eyes to the racial hatred plaguing their country, and in doing so helped spark a massive protest movement for racial equality and justice. Before Till’s murder, she said, “people really didn’t know that things this horrible could take place. And the fact that it happened to a child, that make all the difference in the world.”


Rosa Parks heard about young Till’s murder, and contacted Mrs. Till before she took her own courageous act, refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on Dec. 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. That was the day when this unknown seamstress was arreted and fined for violating a city ordinance, a lonely act of defiance that began a movement that ended legal segregation in America and made her an inspiration to freedom-loving people around the world.

Both Mamie Till Mobley and Rosa Parks are women to be remembered during this important month, as well as a young woman from New Mexico who is also helping to open our eyes to the cruelty of pregnancy discrimination.
IN MY OWN SMALL TOWN of Gallup, New Mexico this young 15-year-old is taking on adults who are supposed to be educating her, because she was kicked out of a BIA school and humiliated in front of her peers for becoming pregnant. She, like the lonely other women who take on giants are to be remembered by us all, and used as our own models when we face down people who would not want us to know or experience our civil rights.
Young Shantelle was humiliated in front of her whole school when staff told everyone she was pregnant during an assembly. This young teen mom, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, is now suing, citing a violation of civil rights. 

Vicky Hicks said she noticed her daughter’s belly growing in October. The family immediately told school administrators at Wingate Elementary School near Gallup that Shantelle was pregnant. Vicky said the school’s reaction was shocking. 

“We can’t have her back on school campus. We won’t allow it,” the school said, according to Vicky. “They didn’t want her there due to the fact that she was pregnant, and she was going to be setting a bad example to other female students.” 

Vicky said she hired an attorney, who helped get Shantelle back into school. But Vicky said administrators decided to make an example of her daughter by announcing her pregnancy at a school assembly. 

“This was like in front of hundreds of students and faculty,” said Vicky. “Are they crazy? They had no right telling everyone (she’s) pregnant.” 

Now the family and the ACLU have filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Education boarding school, stating Wingate Elementary and its administrators violated Shantelle’s civil rights. 

“There are obligations under federal law that require people to not discriminate against students based on gender or pregnancy or being parents,” said ACLU attorney Alexandra Smith. 

Often known for its discrimination against the very people this agency is supposed to protect, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is an agency of the federal government of the United States within the US Department of the Interior. It is responsible for the administration and management of 55,700,000 acres (225,000 km2) of land held in trust by the United States for Native Americans in the United States, Native American Tribes and Alaska Natives.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is one of two bureaus under the jurisdiction of the Assistant Secretary — Indian Affairs: the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, which provides education services to approximately 48,000 Native Americans.

The BIA’s responsibilities once included providing health care services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. In 1954, that function was legislatively transferred to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now known as the Department of Health and Human Services, where it has remained to this day as the Indian Health Service (IHS).

Hicks attends Wingate Elementary School, a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, and is currently in the eighth grade. She discovered she was pregnant approximately three weeks before the assembly, and she and her mother told the director of the middle school and two other staff members. They initially responded by kicking her out of school. The ACLU of New Mexico sent a demand letter to the school, informing them that it is illegal to deny a student access to education because of pregnancy status. Wingate readmitted Hicks after four missed days of instruction. 
Approximately two weeks later the director of the middle school and another staff member had Hicks stand before the entire middle school at an assembly and announced that she was pregnant. Until that point, no one other than Hicks’ sister knew that she was pregnant. 
“Too often, pregnant students face significant barriers or outright discrimination in school,” said Galen Sherwin, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Instead, schools should give pregnant and parenting students the support they need to help them succeed, for both themselves and for their children.”  
“The ACLU’s lawsuit seeks damages and declaratory relief for violations of Hicks’ constitutional right to equal protection under the law and of Title IX prohibitions against sex and pregnancy discrimination in education.” 
“We believe that Wingate intentionally humiliated Shantelle in retaliation for her refusal to leave the school,” said ACLU of New Mexico cooperating attorney Barry Klopfer. “It is outrageous that educators would subject a young woman in their care to such cruelty. Adopting one’s moral convictions from the Scarlet Letter is completely inappropriate and fails to take into account a child’s educational needs.” 
Lawyers on this case include Klopfer, Alexandra Freedman Smith, Laura Schauer Ives and Maureen Sanders of the ACLU of New Mexico; and Sherwin and Lenora Lapidus of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. 
More information about this case can be found at: www.aclu.org/womens-rights/hicks-v-edsitty-beach