Civil Rights

Colleen Long / AP

Community leaders and representatives from law enforcement agencies throughout the region gathered Thursday to discuss and learn more about civil rights. 

Used by permission. © Tom Olin - Tom Olin Collection.

The Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. But like any civil-rights legislation, it required a fight. And photographer Tom Olin was on the front lines

Keith Srakocic / AP

Two Philadelphia men sued Governor Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation this week for automatically suspending their driver’s licenses when they were convicted of minor drug offenses.

Frederic Bisson / Flickr

Starting this year, neighborhoods throughout Pittsburgh are expected to get more surveillance cameras and gunshot detection devices, also known as ShotSpotter.


The city’s 2018 budget includes funding for a 30 percent expansion of an existing camera network over the next three years, and there are plans to deploy ShotSpotter over an additional 14.5 square miles.


Chicago Police Department / AP

Police misconduct can do a lot of damage -- inciting fear or upsetting the public trust that officers need to do their jobs, especially when their actions affect primarily people of color.

Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Hundreds gathered in the Hill District Friday afternoon and pledged to uphold civil rights in Pittsburgh at the People’s Inauguration.

Representatives from social justice groups, including Fight for Fifteen, Planned Parenthood and the Black Lives Matters movement addressed the crowd about the importance of inclusiveness going into the administration of President Donald Trump.

Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

President Barack Obama pardoned a former Pittsburgh city councilman's 46-year-old federal gun charge.

Seventy-three-year-old Sala Udin says he filed a formal request for clemency four years ago and had given up hope when he was surprised on Monday.

The civil rights advocate served seven months of a five-year sentence on charges of illegally transporting firearms and untaxed alcohol.

Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

A federal jury will be allowed to decide whether a white Pittsburgh police officer violated the rights of a black man left paralyzed after he was shot during a traffic stop almost four years ago.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly on Monday rejected a motion for summary judgment on the portion of the civil rights lawsuit involving the officer who shot Leon Ford in November 2012.

Kelly also allowed the suit to continue against another officer who Ford said tried to drag him out of his car, but threw out claims against a third officer and the city of Pittsburgh.

W&J College

Longtime civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman John Lewis received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and delivered the commencement speech recently at Washington and Jefferson College. He is celebrating his 30th year representing the Georgia fifth district and reflected on his lifetime of activism with Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer.

The Obama administration issued guidance to schools Friday, saying they must allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

The administration acknowledges this is "new terrain" for some people and says it wants to help school districts avoid running afoul of civil rights laws.

A fired Pittsburgh police sergeant accused of wrongly pushing and punching a drunken man at Heinz Field and then lying about it says he's fighting the criminal case against him.

Ex-sergeant Stephen Matakovich has been indicted by a federal grand jury. He's appealing his firing.

Defense attorney Blaine Jones said Wednesday they're prepared to fight the case wherever they need to fight it.

The police chief and the public safety director agreed to fire the 22-year veteran for using what was deemed to be "unreasonable" force during the arrest in November.

Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

An investigation conducted by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reports western Pennsylvania has been following a national trend regarding civil rights. Nationwide, over the last 20 years the U.S. Department of Justice has declined to bring charges in 96 percent of civil rights complaints against law enforcement. Joining us to address this issue are, Tribune Review reporters Andrew Conte and Brian Bowling. We’ll also speak with U.S. Attorney David Hickton.

What Was It Like Being A Member Of The Black Panther Party?

Mar 2, 2016
Uncredited / AP Images

With the recent release of the PBS documentary on the Black Panther Party, we wondered what it was like being a part of the movement during the civil rights era. T. Rashad Byrdsong is the President and CEO of the Community Empowerment Association in Homewood. He’s been working for years to combat violence in Pittsburgh through strengthening family systems and educating individuals on how to use their resources. He’s also a member of the Black Panther Party and served in Vietnam. He joins us live to tell us about his experience.

Monica Cwyner

This past weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. Jen Saffron, director of communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council took part in the events commemorating the civil rights event. She and Monica Cwyner, a social worker from Pittsburgh, recount their experiences at last weekend’s event and the issues it raises for them.

Monica emphasizes that there is only one race, the human race. 

"As long as we try to define it by color, or by sex and make the differences, why don't we start looking at the things we all want. We all want a safe place to live. We all want something to do...something that makes us get up, that we can feel good about." -Monica Cwyner

However, as a Caucasian American, Jen points out that it's important for her to be cognizant of white privilege. 

"It is crucial that people like myself, white privileged people-- I'm willing to say that-- are investigating what that privilege means, what that does to others, how much space we take up, and how we may be inflicting micro-agressions against people and we don't even know it because we're just prescribing to the dominant cultural values of our time." -Jen Saffron

Also in the program, after years of protests, Earth Quaker Action Team gets PNC Bank to divest funding for mountaintop removal mining. 

Kurt Sampsel / WESA

It may not have received the Oscar recognition it could have, but the movie "Selma" is inspiring discussions about the civil rights movement among school-age children and young adults. Actor Stan Houston played Jim Clark, the sheriff of Selma, Alabama in 1965. Houston talks about the impact of the film and what he thinks it will take to move America forward in the aftermath of current events. Asked about how his own background as a Southerner impacted his preparation for the film, Houston explains:

“Well, growing up in the South, everybody’s met ‘the guy.’ .. You know, not specifically, but we know the personality, the attitudes, that we grew up [with] in the South. … I portrayed my old high school coach. … I tried to turn it around -- if Jimmie Lee Jackson had the baton in his hand, and he was able to do to Clark what he was doing to Jimmie Lee in the scene. Reverse the roles, in other words -- carry out his frustrations of being discriminated against, denied the right to vote, just because of the color of his skin. So, I used that as a motivation.”

Also today, a former school teacher and activist remembers marching in Selma, Alabama in 1965. And representatives from the National Aviary discuss an online auction to name one of its African penguin chicks.

Best of 2014: George Takei Talks Sci-Fi and Social Justice

Dec 29, 2014
Ryan Loew / WESA

As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back on our favorite Essential Pittsburgh stories and guests from 2014. Today we’re highlighting our favorite science and sci-fi guests. 

To hear the full-length audio for this story, please refer to the original post.

In November, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra explored strange new worlds with the PNC Pops’ Sci-Fi Spectacular. The concert featured music from classic sci-fi TV programs and films, such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Star Trek,” among others. Actor and activist George Takei was one of the stars of the first Star Trek TV series and originated the role of helmsman Sulu.

Beyond Star Trek, there were many aspects of this man’s life and career to explore, including his role in the award-winning musical “Allegiance,” which is coming to Broadway in 2015. George sat down in studio with me in November. Among other things, we asked him about working in Pittsburgh on the show “Supa Ninjas” and his activism for Japanese Americans and the LGBT community.

“The imprisonment of innocent American citizens who happened to be of Japanese ancestry is parallel to the story of what the LGBT community has gone through and still will have to go through in order to be totally full American citizens.”

Ryan Loew / WESA

George Takei, who originated the character of Hikaru Sulu on “Star Trek,” joins us in studio. This weekend, Takei will host the PNC Pops "Sci-Fi Spectacular” at Heinz Hall. Takei talks about that event, his acting career, his history of activism and the upcoming Broadway musical "Allegiance," in which he has a starring role.

A Mother's Loss During The Freedom Summer

Jun 17, 2014
Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia

Fifty years ago this week, three men who were working for Freedom Summer, a project to register black voters in the South, disappeared.

The bodies of Andrew Goodman, James Cheney, and Michael Schwerner were found 44 days later by the FBI.

The men had been driving through Mississippi when they were pulled over by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and led off the road, where they were shot and killed by members of the local Ku Klux Klan. 

Before she passed away in 2007, Goodman's mother Carolyn collaborated with author Brad Herzog on a book called My Mantelpiece, a memoir of survival and social justice. Herzog talked about his collaboration with Mrs. Goodman, who was an activist herself, and the influence she had on her son.

Voices from the Firing Line: Jim Crowe Customs in Pittsburgh

Jun 17, 2014
National Archives Foundation

Community County of Allegheny County Professor Ralph Proctor has just released his latest book Voices from the Firing Line: A Personal Account of the Pittsburgh Civil Rights Movement.

Written as a personal narrative, the book discusses demonstrations and the methodology of those in the movement, as well as the results they achieved. Proctor said he remembers a segregated Pittsburgh, even though he was far away from the Jim Crowe laws of the south.

Why the "I Have a Dream" Speech Endures

Aug 27, 2013

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963, he brought the Civil Rights movement into the homes of mainstream white America.

As the first big integrated protest to be staged in the north, PR counselor and executive speech writer Bob Oltmanns says at that point in history, the speech was a breakout PR moment.

A Moment Of Peaceful Integration in 1963

Aug 27, 2013
US Marines / Wikipedia

Greensburg native, William Severini Kowinski was 17 years old when he participated in the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom on August 28th, 1963. He had been campaigning for John F. Kennedy since the age of 15 and was inspired by Kennedy’s views on the civil rights struggle.

Kowinski went by train with a group called the Catholic Interracial Council. It was only his second train ride and his most vivid memory of the ride involved a train car packed with young people.

Comemmorating the March on Washington

Aug 26, 2013
U.S. Marines/Wikipedia

Nelson Harrison is a Pittsburgh musician who teaches jazz and played with numerous groups including the Count Basie Orchestra. He was at the March on Washington in 1963 and talks about how the march shaped who he is today.

Heather McClain / 90.5 WESA

Long-time civil right activist and former Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin recently spoke with WESA Senior News Editor, Mark Nootbaar about his memories of the 1963 March on Washington.

Sala Udin Remembers the March on Washington

Aug 22, 2013

Fifty years ago, Sala Udin was a 19-year-old living with his aunt and cousin in New York. He was involved in the civil rights movement but was not as active in the struggle as he would soon become.

The Passing of Former Governor William Scranton

Jul 30, 2013
Congressional Pictorial Directory / Wikipedia

William Scranton, former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, died Sunday night at the age of 96. He served as governor from 1962-66, carrying a political outlook that has set him apart from his political party, both then and now.

According to Terry Madonna, Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, Scranton’s approach to governing was that of a “Kennedy Republican,” one who believed that the government should play an active role in helping the lives of others. Though Scranton was a man who was, as Madonna puts it “born to the manor,” or born into exorbitant wealth, he was instilled with a sense of responsibility for his community at an early age.