Alabama and the Nation’s Conscience

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Alabama and the Nation’s Conscience  

By Larry Kleinman  

Note: Published in the Salem Statesman-Journal as an Op-ed on April 17, 2012  

In the first week of March, PCUN President Ramón Ramírez and I each participated in the re enactment of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. This year, the  march took on a whole new meaning—and issue—as Latinos and immigrants’ rights activists  joined in. During the civil rights era, events in Alabama raised both our hopes and fears about  the state of America’s creed that this is a country “with liberty and justice for all.”  

We traveled to Alabama because, last year, Alabama passed HB 56, the worst anti-immigrant  law in the nation. HB 56 orders public schools to demand immigration papers from children  when they enroll, it shuts off municipal water service to customers who lack legal immigration  status, and it requires local and state police to demand proof of legal status (supposedly, without  engaging in racial profiling).  

HB 56’s most draconian provisions are on hold, temporarily enjoined by a federal court. On  April 25th, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the propriety of injunctions issued  against the law in Arizona (SB 1070) that inspired HB 56. The Alabama Legislature has before  it bills to either repeal HB 56 or re-work its most decried provisions.  

Our experiences in Alabama reminded us that the colonies—and the United States that they  became—took 250 years and a civil war to eliminate government sanctioned slavery. Until  1868, Africans and African-Americans on U.S. soil were not considered citizens. It took another  century-plus to establish that African-Americans are entitled to equal access to voting, to public  services and to public spaces.  

America—and Alabama—was a very different place in March, 1965. An all-white State Police  force savagely beat 600 marchers as they nonviolently stood their ground on the Edmund Pettus  Bridge in Selma, the first stage of their pilgrimage to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.  

Forty-seven years later, national leaders, local and national elected officials crossed that Bridge,  leading thousands of others, assisted by Alabama State troopers—many, African-Americans.  U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who co-led the 1965 Bridge crossing, denounced HB 56 as an affront to  civil rights and un-American. Other iconic leaders of that era stood at his side and added their  voices.  

HB 56 forces us to confront deep questions: What does it mean to be an American? Are we all  people? Can everyone participate? Do we respect and value all people who contribute to our  society and economy?  

Oregon’s political leadership has, for the most part, rightly resisted consideration of anti immigrant laws. We are more convinced than ever that those laws do nothing but damage to a  community’s social fabric and its economic vitality. We returned from Alabama inspired by  bonds we saw forged across race, ethnicity, and history to uphold human dignity and to turn back  scapegoating and oppression. 

The sea of humanity gathered at the State Capitol in Montgomery on March 9th demanding  repeal of HB 56—an historic outpouring of African-Americans, Latinos, whites—raises our  hopes that America will finally fulfill its creed. 

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