03/09/2012

The March to Montgomery, 47 Years Later

Share This
Print

Hundreds of activists for immigrant and voting rights waved signs, sang songs and kept moving one foot in front of the other on day four of the 50-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march re-enactment in Alabama. The marchers came from all over the United States to protest extreme laws that legislators are passing in many states to limit voting rights and worker rights and to attack immigrants.

Randi with marchers in Alabama

Each day, the march has focused on a particular theme; on March 8, it was protecting the civil rights of immigrants. Alabama has passed a law, HB 56, that contains some of the worst provisions of the notorious Arizona anti-immigrant law—and then some. One provision, since enjoined, required schools to check the immigrant status of students. Other provisions allow police to demand documents during traffic stops and make contracts immigrants enter into with state agencies, employers, landlords and utility companies unenforceable. This has resulted in workers not being paid and families being evicted or having their water shut off.

During a lunch stop, some of the marchers shared their stories. Beatriz, an undocumented high school senior, described what it is like for her family to live in fear. She took a day off from school, with the blessings of her teachers, to march "not just for myself, but for everyone. Now is not the time to be quiet!"

Yvette Fernandez and Gloria Jimenez were two of five marchers from the University of Idaho, who recruited a sponsor, AFT member Brian Wolf, a professor of sociology and criminology, and raised the funds to go to Alabama. "We focus so much on things outside the United States," says Fernandez. "But we need to keep in mind that we have problems here. It is a violation that because of my color, I could be pulled over and questioned."

"What affects people here in Alabama, affects us all," says Jimenez. She and her friends are working in Idaho to turn out the Latino vote. "We are trying to get people to be more active. We will take what we see here and bring it back to campus to raise awareness."

Randi with AFT members in Alabama

As the marchers were preparing to resume the last leg of the march into Montgomery, a cheer went up when the announcement came that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily blocked two provisions of HB 56. One was the provision making it illegal for immigrants to enter into contracts, and the other prohibits entering into business transactions with the government. The portion of the law that allows police to detain people who can't provide proof of legal status in the United States will remain in place until the U.S. Supreme Court makes a decision in the case involving Arizona's similar law.

The day's events ended with a rally at the historic St. Jude Educational Institute. Labor unions were a mighty presence in the hall, as well as throughout every aspect of the march. As the speakers fired up the crowd, they reiterated that all the people who have fought for and secured civil and human rights since the historic Selma-to-Alabama march 47 years ago will not let this country go back to that time. Said the Rev. Al Sharpton, "Those who are trying to take away immigrant rights, they are the same people who are taking away voting rights. They forget they didn't give us our rights. We suffered to get these rights. We came to Alabama to say, we will fight to keep them. We are never going back."

Meanwhile, the week has featured numerous activities and events at Alabama State University, where faculty have conducted teach-ins on the march and its significance in these times, and students have explored the themes in many classes.

Students in professor Shirley Jordan's African-American humanities class did not need much prompting to deconstruct the dangerous provisions of Alabama's new voter ID law and the anti-immigrant law. "For me, I don't carry around my birth certificate or Social Security card. If they pull me over, I might end up sitting in a holding cell," said Marcus Davis, a 19-year-old student from Georgia.

Jordan, who is a member of the ASU Faculty-Staff Alliance/AFT, urged students to attend the final part of the march on March 9. She noted that 47 years ago, marchers had so much to fear. "Today, our biggest concern is finding comfortable shoes to wear."

The march concludes on March 9, when AFT president Randi Weingarten will join the Rev. Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, AFL-CIO executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker and others as they march the last miles to the Alabama Statehouse. [Barbara McKenna]

March 9, 2012