Walking in the footsteps of history, 750 students from Alabama State University marched from their campus in Montgomery to join with the many hundred walkers from Selma to Montgomery for the last leg of the five-day, 50-mile march to the steps of the state Capitol. (See related story on the march.)
They raised their voices, chanting, "We are the dream of Martin Luther King," and moved in time to "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," the same freedom song that drove their grandparents' generation before them.
Leading the students were AFT president Randi Weingarten, ASU Faculty-Staff Alliance co-president Derryn Moten, Jefferson County AFT president Vi Parramore and other AFT activists from the region. At a campus rally before the march got under way, Weingarten laid out the high stakes for the students, whose futures are jeopardized by legislative actions including a budget cut for ASU of 33 percent this year and tuition hikes totaling 47 percent over the past three years. "This fight is about making sure that people dream their dreams and achieve them," Weingarten said. "That means that everybody who should be eligible to vote is able to vote."
Later in the day, Weingarten joined the labor, civil rights and immigrant rights leaders who addressed the thousands at the Capitol.
"We are foot-weary but heart-full," said AFL-CIO executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker, one of the march organizers.
"We stand on sacred ground," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Alabama is sacred ground to those who love democracy and hate tyranny."
"It is sad and outrageous that we find ourselves fighting the same battles we thought we won almost 50 years ago," Weingarten said, but she aimed particular rage at Alabama's vicious anti-immigrant law. "The whites-only restrooms may be gone, but in 2012 we are fighting new lethal threats to civil rights and liberties. The law, HB 56, has done nothing but destroy households and put additional strain on already strained Alabama teachers.
"Today I heard about six children living fatherless, with their mother having no food and no means of support because their father was deported. I heard about the young student of one of our Alabama teachers, who was turned away from first one, then a second, doctor's care because her mother could not sign a paper—a contract—promising to pay. That child ended up in an emergency room with an abscess in her stomach.
"I heard about a high school salutatorian who worked hard to go to college, then had her scholarships taken away because of her parents' status.
"Register to vote," she urged. "Vote! Fight to ensure economic dignity and strength!"
Bill Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, vowed to fight for the fundamental rights of immigrants to not be discriminated against. "The American labor movement will not abandon you," he said.
We have come here with one message, said Hector Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement: "Vote! We must change the extremists and get people in the statehouses who look like us!"
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the moving force behind this year's march and president of the National Action Network, took to the podium and sought to "correct several lies and distortions."
"One, voter fraud: The only voter fraud we can find is the statement that there is extensive voter fraud. The fraud is to use allegations of voter fraud to suppress the vote and stop people from voting.
"Two, another lie is the immigration law that says you can't serve people [who are] here illegally. The laws in Alabama are not immigration laws. They are Jim Crow laws. You have imposed Jim Crow laws. Then you turn around and tell the black community that they have taken our jobs. We don't have jobs to take!"
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow PUSH Coalition, alluded to projected losses of jobs and tax revenue due to HB 56. A recent study from the University of Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research shows that, as in other states with extreme anti-immigrant measures, Alabama's law will shrink the state economy by at least $2.3 billion annually and will cost the state 70,000 jobs. These are losses already being felt.
"We are not each other's enemies," said Sharpton, reiterating the march's theme of power in unity. "If we cooperate, we can make America work for everyone." [Barbara McKenna]
March 12, 2012