Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Marching Again—Selma to Montgomery for Voting and Immigrant Rights

The 2012 Selma to Montgomery March steps off.  All Photos courtesy Maggie Rivera..

Note: This is the first of an unprecedented two day blog series.  Today we focus on what some of the media wants to down play as a mere reenactment of the great Selma to Montgomery march of 1965.  Instead it should be seen as a re-commitment to a just cause in the face of new waves of reactionary legislation in Alabama and an important union of two minority communities that the White Power Structure has tried to pit against one another.  Tomorrow—A look back at the original march.

Sunday about 3,000 people of every imaginable color began a march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery.  It was not the first trip for some of the participants.  Among the marchers, some now in wheelchairs, were veterans of a similar march for voting rights in 1965.

Spurred by repeated vicious police attacks on local voter registration marches in Selma and the surrounding communities including the murder of local activist Jimmie Lee Johnson, John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference set off from Selma to march to the capital on March 7.  They were met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama State Police and Sherriff’s deputies who attacked with clubs sending the 800 marchers reeling back to town with many injuries.

The resulting outrage sparked a massive movement.  A Federal judge ordered that the march be allowed to proceed.  The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. announced that he would return to Selma to lead a new march.  A call went out nationwide too which members of the clergy, White and Black, responded.  The Justice Department ordered Federal Marshals defend the second march.  Before it set off Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. James Reeb was beaten to death and two of his fellow ministers injured.  

The second march set off on March 21 and reached the Capital for a memorable rally.  Driving a local young man back to Selma, U.U. laywoman Viola Liuzzo was ambushed and shot to death.  National outrage made possible the passage, with the strong support of President Lyndon B. Johnson of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A lot of people thought those rights were well secured and even unassailable.  Empowered Blacks have long since been elected to local and statewide offices in Alabama.  Police forces, once essentially an extension of the Ku Klux Klan armed and paid for by taxpayers, have been integrated.  The state even now officially celebrates the original march and other Civil Rights Movement milestones.

But demographics and the rising power of the Tea Party era Republican reactionaries has led to a whole new assault on those hard won gains.  The demographics are simple.  Whites in Alabama will soon be a minority thanks to a growing Black population swelled by high birth rates and the phenomena of reverse migration that has brought back many Blacks from high-unemployment Rust Belt cities in the north.  To make matters worse, a burgeoning Latino population including large numbers of both legal and undocumented workers was adding a brown tone to the once stark Black and White palette.

The already large Republican majority in the Alabama state legislature was reinforced with a whole new crop ideologically driven hard-right Tea Partiers, many of them neo-Confederates and allies of White supremacist organizations.  They have wasted no time in enacting a number of draconian laws aimed at suppressing minority voting on one hand, and attacking the immigrant community with the other.

Most obvious of the voting rights attacks was the adoption of a strict voter identification act based on model legislation being adopted or pushed by Republicans nationwide.  The law requires that voters produce photo identification which must exactly match both their names in the voter data base and their current address.  The absence or addition of a middle initial or even a spelling error in either the ID or in the rolls could debar a voter.  In addition only a handful of photo ids are acceptable.  Non-drivers would have to pay a fee—read poll tax—to be issued a State ID form.  

But, catch 22, those ID themselves are almost impossible to get without another photo ID,  Common proofs of identity such as birth certificates, family Bibles, and sworn testimony of reliable witnesses—all commonly used among some of the state’s poorest citizens—are  usually now not enough.  Even existing voters who move or have name changes through marriage or divorce find the hoops to jump through both intimidating and frustrating.  The happy result, if you are a racist trying to maintain—or perhaps re-assert—you control over the state, is that many minority people are turned away.

While this is the most obvious attack, there are others, including reducing the places state issued ID cards can be obtained, causing many to travel miles, often repeatedly, to obtain them; restricting rules on who can conduct voter registration drives and creating criminal penalties for errors; and using allegedly color blind factors in conveniently drawing up new election districts in which Black and other minority population centers a split up and placed in white majority districts.

The legislature also turned its attention to Latinos and immigrants.  It outdid Arizona in enacting the some of the most draconian anti-immigration laws in the country.  They required local police agencies to check on immigration status in almost any contact with citizens as suspects, witnesses, or even victims.  Schools and hospitals were required to ascertain and report the immigration status of students, their families, and patients.  People receiving or applying for any level of assistance were similarly targeted.  Harsh penalties were established for even providing voluntary services, like offering an undocumented person a ride.  Social service agencies were terrorized.  Employers were also targeted with new restrictions.  

The predictable result is that Latinos, both legal and undocumented, are fleeing the state.  Parents take their children from school.  Illness and injury go untreated.  Also predictable, but perhaps a surprise to the mopes behind the legislation, was an immediate labor shortage of crisis proportions in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing.  Despite advance claims that “real Americans” would flock to the vacated jobs, most remain unfilled.

One of the things that Republicans counted on was a simmering enmity between the Black and immigrant populations.  Some blacks viewed Latinos as unfair competition for jobs.  Others, including a few outspoken veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, resented the growing power of another minority population.  Indeed anti-immigrant passion ran deep in some Black communities.

Luckily, most respected Black leaders recognized the danger of divide-and-conquer tactics.  They faced similar problems with religiously conservative Black churches being used to attack women’s reproductive rights, and protections for the Gay and Lesbian communities.  For the past several months these leaders have been working hard to build bridges and find common ground.

If not the brain child of the Rev. Al Sharpton, a second Selma to Montgomery March was proposed and first organized by him.  Sharpton, once a lightning rod for white outrage for his sometimes brash early antics, has matured into a major Black figure influential in the Democratic Party and now a well regarded national commentator and MSNBC host.  He secured the support of John Lewis, now an esteemed Congressman.  The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other leaders soon joined in.

On the ground in Alabama, the march has earned the support of local and national Latino and immigration rights organizations, which were called in early a made an organic part of the march leadership.  Labor, including the AFL-CIO also was included.

The march, now in its third day, will reach Montgomery on Saturday, with the ranks expected to be greatly swelled in the end.  Each day has featured rallies along the route and special education projects highlighting the concerns over voting rights, immigration, and labor.

My good friend Maggie Rivera, now the Midwest Director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) is among those making the march as I type this. I have collaborated with her on projects for almost 20 years including early struggles to establish human relations commissions in McHenry County towns, immigration rights education projects, a May Day Immigration Rights March, Diversity Day, and protests against local Minute Man activities.

I wish I could be with her, and participating Unitarian Universalists and the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign.

I am proud to share some of her photos today.

Tomorrow—Bloody Sunday and the original Selma to Montgomery marches.

Maggie Rivera, in red, and friends from Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.
School children along the route offer thanks.  A great memory for them--and the marchers.

Maggie and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
With 100 year old Amelia Boynton, a veteran of the 1965 March.

Maggie on the March!

No comments:

Post a Comment