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Race and Beyond: Selma to Montgomery, Then and Now

SOURCE: AP/ Kevin Glackmeyer

Thousands join arms and march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Sunday, March 4, 2012, 47 years after the historic march that led to the Voting Rights Act.

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Forty-seven years ago this past Sunday an interracial contingent of some 600 civil rights activists attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They failed. Alabama state troopers and local police officers, upholding the racist laws of that time and place, met the peaceful marchers on the bridge with the brutal force of billy clubs, attack dogs, and tear gas.

It took two more marches—a second effort two days later saw 2,500 marchers crossing the bridge and turning around and a third march had the federal protection of 2,000 soldiers and 1,900 National Guard members—for the civil rights activists to finally succeed in their journey from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capitol.

Marking how much life in America has changed, there’s a website today promoting something called the Bridge Crossing Jubilee. Set against a stark-black background and underneath the photo of a gray-haired black man holding Old Glory at the foot of the iconic bridge, the website’s home page explains its welcoming purpose:

The Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee is held the first full weekend of every March to commemorate “Bloody Sunday," the March from Selma-to-Montgomery, and the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In addition, the Jubilee is the celebration and commemoration of the right to vote and March from Selma to Montgomery… We look forward to seeing you at this year’s Jubilee.

Now this is progress! The annual observance of “Bloody Sunday” is now promoted by the city of Selma as a featured activity for tourism. The week-long commemoration will include workshops on “Bad Immigration Laws: A Civil and Human Rights Issue,” and “Legal Ramifications of Attack on Voter Rights.” There will be prayer breakfasts and parades, a hip-hop music summit, and a golf tournament. No one could have imagined such a thing nearly 50 years ago. Last Sunday a crowd estimated at 3,000 to 4,000 gathered for the annual kickoff of the Jubilee with speeches and protest songs.

But all is not well in Alabama in 2012. This year there’s an element of poignant urgency to the celebration. The emotional highpoint of the activities will be next weekend’s retracing of the footsteps of the original march along U.S. Route 80, then named the Jefferson Davis Highway and today the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail. The largely black marchers will be joined by thousands of Latino activists seeking to draw attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants, who have been especially targeted by Alabama’s mean-spirited anti-immigrant laws.

Last year Alabama’s Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, H.B. 56, became the nation’s most onerous anti-immigrant law. The law effectively makes it a crime to be undocumented in the state. Initially it required schools to check and report the immigration status of students and barring undocumented students from postsecondary education, until U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn issued a preliminary injunction of the education provisions. The law instructs police to demand proof of immigration status from anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, even on a routine traffic stop or roadblock. It also invalidates any contract knowingly entered into with an undocumented person—including routine agreements such as a rent contract—and makes it a felony for an unauthorized immigrant to enter into a contract with a government entity.

As a recent report written by journalist Tom Baxter for the Center for American Progress demonstrated how the Alabama immigration law has been a disaster for nearly all concerned, including business interests in the state. But it has been especially harsh and cruel to the social and civil rights of Latinos living in the state.

So it stands to reason that Latino activists—including the leaders of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the National Council of La Raza, and the Hispanic Federation—would call upon their members and supporters to march in the annual Selma to Montgomery March and Rally.

Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, raised her voice above the crowd last weekend to say that Latinos recognize the shared struggle of the civil rights with African Americans. So, she said, Latinos are marching. “This is about repeating a part of Alabama’s past that does not bear repeating,” she said. “Voter suppression laws and anti-immigration laws are their way of turning back the clock, but we are not going to allow that to happen.”

History records the original Bloody Sunday as a tipping point, a moment in our nation’s life when Alabama’s enforcement of segregation and white supremacy could no longer be viewed in the same way from that day onward. The brutality of police affected our collective conscience, setting the stage for average Americans to demand change.

And change came. After the marchers’ suffering witnessed by our nation and the world, Congress responded by passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the first in a string of civil rights laws to grant black Americans full citizenship rights. Now, nearly 50 years later, it’s a cause for inviting tourists to celebrate in Selma.

Could it be that this week’s march represents a 21st century tipping point, the coming together of black and Latino Americans in a march to spur Congress to once again do the right thing? Has the nation changed so much that the modern-day civil rights cause of Latino immigrants might also come to pass, without bloodshed this time, on an Alabama bridge?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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