Riding with the Wind: Immigrant Rights Activists Travel the Deep South to Learn from the Civil Rights Movements

Article excerpt

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. …