Reenactment of historic civil rights march highlights intersection of immigrant, African-American causes
Thousands from across the country descended on Alabama early last month for the 47th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march —the pivotal event in the Civil Rights movement that illustrated the plight of African-Americans under Jim Crow and their fight for the right to vote.
Race-based voter disenfranchisement is still an issue in the polarized South. However, this year’s march sought to bring people together against House Bill 56, which has been dubbed the “toughest immigration law in the country.” HB-56 is not just “tough” for immigrants, but for every poor person in Alabama, especially African-Americans.
Among the most controversial aspects of the law is its voter-ID provision. The law creates a government-issued ID, which is now a requirement to vote. In a state where 25 percent of the documented population does not possess an ID, this bill will keep a substantial portion of African-Americans from the voting booth. That’s why this year’s march combined the issues of voting rights with immigrant rights, fighting back against the racism and xenophobia that has brought such heinous policies to Alabama.
Exploiting tough economic times
Alabama is one of the three poorest states in the country. Marching along the historic route into Montgomery, the poverty was obvious everywhere. Business after business was boarded up and there were little signs of new development. It is easy to see that the people of Alabama have been beaten down by the economy and are frustrated. Unfortunately, these conditions allow out-of-state interests to pray on people’s frustration and fear in order to win elections and profit off of their anxiety.
HB-56 and Arizona’s SB-1070 are model pieces of legislation crafted in the think tanks of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a membership organization for conservative legislators that creates, and then pushes, this type of legislation across the country. In areas where shifting demographics are challenging established conservative strongholds, these divisive policies are a godsend for conservatives who wish to remain in power.
Unfortunately, the regressive HB-56 does little to solve the economic problems in Alabama. The state has been losing an average of $1 million a day as more and more people leave the state and businesses close.
Farmers have lost much of this year’s crops and they stand to lose next year’s as well. The undocumented seasonal workers they counted on to pick and plant their crops have fled the state. It is clear that HB-56 does not make any sense for Alabama. Unfortunately, these types of anti-immigrant laws are spreading all over the south, with Georgia being the latest victim.
The impacts of anti-immigrant legislation are not constrained to the intended undocumented Latino population. Everyone who looks “different” is subject to search and seizure.
One incidental impact on the African-American community has been more incarceration for black males who are already disproportionally stopped by the police and who are often not carrying their identification.
HB-56 made the news when a German CEO of Mercedes Benz was stopped and arrested for not carrying his passport. The CEO was promptly released but what the news did not mention was that there were also 34 black Alabamans, who were not released, sitting in that same jail for the same offense.
Among the leaders who attended the march were the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Dolores Huerta, and Hilda Solis. They spoke at rest stops, led the marchers in prayer, and used their celebrity to show unity between African-American and Latino communities.
“¿Que queremos?” yelled an English-speaking African-American chant leader into a megaphone. The Spanish-speaking Latino immigrant rights contingent marching in front were surprised yet gleefully responded, “¡Justicia!” All throughout the march chants and speeches shifted between languages as cultures came together.
This small moment during the march served as an example of the cross-cultural connections that were happening all throughout the week. The question on everyone’s mind was whether there were any tensions between the Latino and African-American community and whether they could overcome the barriers of culture and language to see the bigger picture. The answer was a resounding yes.
When Jesse Jackson inaugurated a section of the march with prayer, he invited a Spanish-speaking religious leader to do the same in Spanish. When community leaders spoke about voting rights for African-Americans they also explained how racist HB 56 was towards Latinos and how it tore families apart. Dolores Huerta led the entire rally in the farm worker clap and chant that was used by President Obama — “¡Si se puede!” or “Yes we can!”
Something new was happening in Alabama; something born out of the visceral impacts of state-sanctioned racism on these communities. The rhetoric used to divide communities is no longer enough. It cannot stand in light of the realities that are so clear to those who are stopped by the police for looking “illegal” or asked for ID at the grocery store and those who cannot connect their basic utilities like electricity because they do not posses a government-issued ID. Many cannot sit idly by as they watch their neighbors handcuffed in front of their children and taken away simply for not possessing the proper identification. A new movement for civil rights is beginning in Alabama.
From Selma to Montgomery, from Montgomery to the 2012 elections
In the coming months the conservative attack on our communities will only increase as they try to line up their votes by scaring their constituencies and dividing ours. We cannot let this happen. It is up to us to ensure that we maintain the humanity of all the people who make up our community.
If there were any lessons to be learned from Alabama it would be to get involved now. Learn about immigration, talk to your friends and family, volunteer for organizations that work to end racism. Don’t take your right to vote for granted. Make a plan to register yourself and five others. Be a part of your community.
In order to turn the tide that’s raging toward our communities we need to join together and block its path. The people of Alabama now know this; it’s time for us to rise together.
Alejando Juárez attended the march on behalf of We Are Oregon and SEIU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Este artículo también está disponible en / This post is also available in: Spanish
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