11/12/2008 01:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Threats of Violence Persist Against Civil Rights Leaders

Even as the country was celebrating its extraordinary milestone of electing the first African American President, The Washington Post published a sobering reminder that there is still much work to be done in amending our race relations. The Washington Post reported that three of the largest Latino civil rights groups in the nation, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) have received death threats and threats of violence.

It was only last month that a Raleigh, NC man was convicted and sentenced to 45 days in federal prison for emailing death threats to NCLR. Christopher Michael Szaz pleaded guilty to two charges of sending email threats.

Andrea Bazán, president of the Triangle Community Foundation in Durham, NC and a board member of NCLR, was menaced by: a voicemail filled with profanity, a white commercial van with no license plates monitoring her residence, an unidentified man pounding on her door, and a break-in during which the smoke detectors were removed from her home. As if those threats were not personal enough, Bazán's daughters were made vulnerable to addition aggression when their names and addresses were posted online.

Tony Asion, the current executive director of El Pueblo, the nonprofit that Bazán helped establish, takes a different route home every day to avoid any problems and advises his staff members to never work or travel alone.

"I think people do feel afraid, and legitimately so," said John Trasviña, president and general counsel of MALDEF.

"We've seen a rise in threats directed against Hispanic groups," said Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of NCLR. "We've seen a rise in hate groups. This is not just a feeling."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that hate crimes against Latinos have increased between 2003 and 2006. In 2003, there were 595 reported hate crimes committed against Latinos, and that number increased to 819 in 2006. Leaders in the Latino community believe that the vitriol surrounding the immigration debate is to blame for this increased targeting of Latinos.

Last week, USA Today ran an article titled, "Many in the U.S. see the Obama Election as a race relation milestone". A milestone it is. However, the fact that we have finally elected our first African American President does not mean that our work fighting hate speech and hate crimes is finished. Threats directed at Latinos persist, and there is still much work for us to do.

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