06/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

There is Nothing to Fear but Staying Silent

May 15th marks the seventh anniversary of the first Civil Rights law enacted in the 21st Century, the Notification of Federal Employees Anti discrimination and Retaliation (NoFEAR) Act.

Seven years ago, both houses of Congress unanimously passed legislation that sought to insure that institutional crimes are punished, and equally important, that whistle-blowers who report them are protected.

This action confirmed the jury finding in Coleman-Adebayo v. Browner, a case brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

There is still work to be done though, and this anniversary serves as a call to again pick up the cause. During this time of national reflection, as we recover from a severe hangover from the Bush administration, we must ask ourselves: "What it is that makes America exceptional?"

At a time when so much in America seems to have gone so wrong, from banking fraud and the fraudulent "intelligence" that manufactured an illegal war, to the systematic use of torture that shattered our moral standing, we must reclaim the high ground and stand for something again.

To do so requires reasserting our values humanely and honestly, in spite of the tendency to revert back to post-9/11 prejudices of the unknown and the fear of speaking out.

Suppose, for example, that during the last 10 years Treasury Department underlings felt secure enough in their federal protections to have stepped forward and revealed the massive fraud in the housing market and insurance industry. Imagine if when the Bush administration presented falsified "evidence" to justify war, sources within the intelligence community had come foreword to reveal the lie.

Consider if, instead of prosecuting a few "bad apples" when a military whistle-blower revealed U.S. atrocities at Abu Ghraib, others within the military, horrified by the orders to torture flowing down from the White House, had confidence that their whistle-blowing would have been protected if they reported those crimes.

In 2001, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo came forward about EPA crimes believing, correctly, that the 1964 Civil Rights Act had long ago guaranteed no American would ever be treated as a 2nd class citizen again. That took courage. In fact, Rev. Walter Fauntroy who represented Washington, D.C., for 20 years in Congress and was a trusted aid to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calls Dr. Coleman-Adebayo, "the Rosa Parks" of the 21st century.

It took courage for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to take on her own party's attempts to sanitize the investigation of what was happening on its watch.

It took courage for the old guard of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Congressmen John Conyers, Danny Davis, and James Clyburn, to stand with Jackson Lee.

Perhaps most significantly, it took a white Midwestern republican, from a conservative mostly rural white state, to look at a black woman's persecution inside the Federal government and see his own humanity.

It was Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin who championed the NoFEAR bill and steered it through the house. Another white male Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, hardly a bastion of the black civil rights movement, took Dr. Coleman-Adebayo's cause up as his own.

Ironically Marsha Coleman-Adebayo was fired from EPA in retaliation, at the very end of George W. Bush's second term. So a whistle-blower case that began during a democratic presidency, surviving two republican terms, has now come full circle to a sitting civil rights president, who is also a democrat and rather popular.

Marsha is once again working Capitol Hill to see if there is any remaining will in Congress, to pass NoFEAR II legislation, after the Bush presidency's eight-year vivisection of the Constitution and good government.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office says NoFear II and its tougher language than the original bill is needed to grant protection to her and the pitiful few left in government with the courage to blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse.

With that protection in place, perhaps America can lessen the likelihood of future financial meltdowns, terrifying forays into the dark side of tyranny, and the loss of the First Amendment's most important function: speaking freely even if it means speaking out.

As a civil rights giant from another era used to say, "one can always dream."

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