Riding with the Wind: Immigrant Rights Activists Travel the Deep South to Learn from the Civil Rights Movements
Calpotura, Francis, Colorlines Magazine
On March 7, 1965, Congressman John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led one of the most dramatic protests of the civil rights movement when 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, singing "We Shall Overcome" and claiming their full rights as citizens of the United States. State troopers and local police attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas in a confrontation that has become known as "Bloody Sunday."
On another Sunday morning, 38 years later, 90 immigrants and their supporters, part of the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides, reenacted the Pettus Bridge march, this time singing "We Shall Overcome" and "Las Mananitas de los Inmigrantes" and chanting "Somos Uno/We are One." We have come from Texas, riding in two coach buses, winding our way through the important markers of the civil rights movement--this time to gain public support and to press legislators in Washington, D.C. on an immigrant rights agenda. "I can't believe that we're here," says an awed Maria Jimenez, a Houston-based activist and a veteran of the immigrant rights movement.
Resurrecting a Movement
Walking with Maria at the head of the Pettus bridge march are Maria Elena Durazo, president of HERE Local 11 in Los Angeles and head of the IFWR, Pat Ford, vice-president of SEIU, and Marilyn Sneiderman, director of field mobilization of the AFL-CIO. The frontline symbolizes the central role of the labor movement in the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides and in resurrecting the immigrant rights agenda that has been floundering in the aftermath of 9/11.
"Sept. 11 created a crisis in immigrant communities," says Durazo in an interview. "Thousands of people lost their jobs and immigrants were branded as enemies. We wanted to provide a spark to promote unity between workers, and to make sure that no one gets left behind."
The spark found fuel at the December 2001 AFL-CIO convention in Las Vegas when the proposal for the Freedom Rides was adopted. "Now is not the time to retreat on immigration issues," declared John Wilhelm, president of HERE and chair of the Immigration Committee of the AFL-CIO, in an impassioned convention speech.
Maria Elena Durazo, president of HERE Local 11, recalls that back then, organizers envisioned a plan much smaller in scope. "We thought of going through eight cities with one bus," she says. But as word got out and enthusiasm spread, the plan changed radically. "The response from immigrant rights, community and religious organizations overwhelmed us," Durazo says. As the rides kicked off last summer, 18 buses with 900 riders from 50 nations stopped in 103 cities and covered 20,000 miles. "We have built alliances and coalitions across the country ready to fight for the values of justice, fairness, and dignity for all immigrants," she adds.
The Blessings of Another Movement
The immigrant rights movement purposefully traveled through the South to get the blessings of African American leadership, and to draw on the legitimacy and unassailable moral standing of the civil rights movement. In city after city, speaker after speaker, the message from the South was consistent; it echoed the words of Rev. Jim Evans, president of the Mississippi chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: "I don't care if you came from the Mayflower or crossed the border last night. You are entitled to the same human rights as I. You are my brother. You are my sister. You are my people. The fight for freedom is not over."
Outside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, longtime resident Diane Nolen watched two busloads of immigrants solemnly walk to the burial site of Martin Luther King, outside Ebenezer Baptist Church and lay a wreath at the foot of the crypt. When told about the purpose of the visit, Nolen said simply, "Martin would have liked it. People just want to be free, just like anybody else." Inside the church, Martin Luther King, Jr. III addressed the assembled Freedom Riders. "We welcome you, not with dogs and hoses, but with hope and fellowship."
Unqualified support from the black civil rights leadership was not always certain, however. Just a few weeks before the buses rolled through Atlanta, some black leaders express edsome misgivings about using the mantle of the civil rights struggle. "Organized labor and the Democratic Party need to reexamine their relationship to the black community on issues of reciprocity," said the Rev. James Lowery, one of the stalwarts and respected elders of the civil rights movement. "Black folks have contributed far more than what labor and the party have given to us."
In response to such sentiment, Bill Fletcher Jr., president of TransAfrica Forum and former education director at the AFL-CIO, wrote an editorial entitled "Blacks Should Embrace Immigrant Workers." The piece urged African Americans to view the Freedom Rides as a continuation of their own justice agenda, arguing that "joining hands with immigrant workers helps build the power that we need to bring us closer to the justice that we have always demanded."
If there was residual doubt about African American support, it sure didn't show at any time during the ride through the South. On the contrary, the message of solidarity and treating the struggles as part of a continuum was consistent and unfailing. At another stop in the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, Pat Ford, vice-president of SEIU, captured the political significance of the convergence of the civil rights and immigrant rights movements. "You don't have to be a foreigner to be stamped the enemy of the state," she said in a speech. "Immigration is a black issue just as it is a brown issue; it is a civil rights issue." Ford ended her speech with a sentiment echoed throughout the South during the Freedom Rides "There is no monopoly in racial discrimination, nor can there be a monopoly on the fight for racial justice."
Coming Out of the South
As the buses roiled into Washington, D.C., the tone and content of the message became warped. Pronouncements that extolled "hardworking, taxpaying, play-by-the-rules immigrants" replaced the message proclaiming "We are all human" and "We are one," which demand that all people have basic rights. The inspiration and excitement, feeling the breeze of a new movement in the making, had given way to the stale air of legislative pragmatism. In the wake of the Freedom Rides, a wave of immigration legislation has gathered momentum, most notably the DREAM Act that would grant legal status to undocumented high school students and graduates who have no criminal record. Another is the Craig-Kennedy Bill, a Senate proposal that would grant legal status to 500,000 undocumented farmworkers. Under the bill, immigrants would need to show that they worked as farm laborers for 100 days over the past 18 months. They would be required to complete 360 days of farm work over the next six years to receive their permanent resident status, in what Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) called "an earned legalization program." Berman is pushing a similar bill in the House.
Such legislation, needless to say, met with disapproval from the riders. "This is not why I boarded that bus," says Cecilia Alvarez, a 21-year-old union organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Local 408, who joined the Houston route. "How do you 'earn' to become a human being?" Alvarez said the legislation reminded her of her visit to the Slavery and Civil Rights Museum in Selma: "Isn't this another form of slavery?" she says.
If the passage through the civil rights markers of the past means anything for the immigrant rights agenda of the present, then it must stand firm to its loftiest ideals even in the face of overwhelming adversity and not be lured by hollow victories.
Lesson from History
It was fitting that one of our last stops on the ride featured the comments of Congressman Lewis, one of the original freedom riders. "Ride with the spirit of the freedom riders," Congressman Lewis urges the 900 bus riders assembled at the Bible Way Temple Church in Washington, D.C. "Forty-two years ago, I was one of 13 original riders who left D.C. for the South," Lewis continues. "I was bloodied and unconscious, but I didn't give up."
A week after leaving Washington, D.C., the original freedom riders were met right outside Anniston, Alabama, by a violent mob of over a hundred white people determined to stop them. Their bus was firebombed and the riders beaten severely. More violence greeted them when they arrived at the Birmingham bus terminal. The series of attacks prompted the national organizers to end the ride, and the riders were flown to New Orleans, their final destination. It appeared that the freedom ride was over.
But activists at SNCC, along with Diane Nash and the Nashville Student Movement, refused to budge. "We can't let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead," Nash argued at that time. The civil rights leadership, including Martin Luther King who declined to join the determined riders, was weary of the students' decision. Nevertheless, seven men and three women rode from Nashville to Birmingham on May 17, 1961, to continue the rides. In the next few weeks, students from all over the country bought bus tickets and headed to the South, crowding jails from Alabama to Mississippi.
If this new civil rights movement--one that demands that democracy and basic human rights are applied consistently to all--is to flourish, then there must be people who summon the courage to continue the Freedom Rides of 2003 and pay homage to the freedom fighters of the past who braved the beatings, the firebombs, and a reluctant leadership.
Until then, Maribel and Jose, freedom riders from Houston who turned a Mexican birthday song into an ode to freedom and hope, the joyful visit to our hometown and the warm embrace of our loved ones will have to wait.
Francis Calpotura rode with the Houston Freedom Riders. He is a frequent contributor to ColorLines.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Riding with the Wind: Immigrant Rights Activists Travel the Deep South to Learn from the Civil Rights Movements. Contributors: Calpotura, Francis - Author. Magazine title: Colorlines Magazine. Volume: 7. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2004. Page number: 5+. © 2009 Color Lines Magazine. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.