LEARNING THE LESSONS OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

Posted on February 24, 2011

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By Elvira Arellano
After the great marches of 2006, Latinos began to say that the immigration struggle was “our civil rights movement.” While I was in sanctuary, I had the opportunity to discuss the parallels with veterans of that movement and today I want to share some of the lessons of those discussions.
First, the civil rights movement rose to national attention during the Presidency of a very popular democratic President who was up against the beginning of the republican conservative movement and its leader, Barry Goldwater. There were many attempts by the Democratic leadership to suppress the civil rights movement because they were afraid of losing the white vote in the southern states. Leaders and organizations were both threatened and bought.
          Unlike the Latino led immigration movement, the civil rights movement, from Malcolm X to Martin King, refused to cave in. They did not accept compromises, like the “downpayment”, which would have made the democrats look good to the African American community without alienating the southern white vote. They refused to tone down the campaign of non-violent action- even when pressured directly by the White House.
          The historic march on Washington was in fact aimed at forcing the Democratic White House to get behind the civil rights bill in Congress. Ultimately, Kennedy and his successor Johnson were convinced that the growing African American vote would compensate for the losses of southern white votes.
          The civil rights movement had to contend with openly racist governors and local sheriffs like Bull Connor. At the same time, they never let up their campaign of pressure on the Democratic White House.
          It is interesting to note that Barack Obama would certainly not be the President if the civil rights movement had not persisted in coming up against the Democratic leadership. The Latino civil rights movement has not had the same integrity.
          The parallels go further. The massive growth in the Latino vote would not only replace lost anti-immigrant, anti-Latino votes, but the last election showed that the democrats lost those votes anyway –even though Obama broke his promise to our community!
          The demand from Familia Latina Unida that President Obama use his legal powers to stop the deportation of the families of the 5.1 million U.S. citizen or dream act eligible children, granting them “parole in place status”, is the current test of our “civil rights movement.” We have to fight the local sheriff Arpaos and anti-immigrant state and county officials, but we also have to confront the President if we hope to have any success. It is time to gather the families faced with immoral and unholy separation, to gather our community in solidarity with them, and to begin the marches and the sit-ins to force the issue with the President.
          The civil rights movement had political courage and wisdom leading to its success – but it also was led by men and women of faith and moral integrity. Against the advice of “political experience”, civil rights leaders like King and Malcolm stood up in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the movement against the war in Vietnam, joining those demands to the cause of their civil rights. While we face 1100 deportations a day from the Obama administration, we are also watching Latin America bleed to death from the “win the future” policies of the United States – and Latino leadership is silent.
          The main lesson we must learn from the victories of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s is the lesson of integrity. Our movement cannot be defined by democratic elected officials concerned primarily with their own reelection – including President Obama. We will do better to listen first to the suffering of our families and to the “politics” of Jesus.
          Jesus was not afraid to sacrifice his relationship with the priests and the Pharisees in the struggle for the liberation and salvation of his people. Like King, he went to the mountaintop and told the people he saw the victory.”I may not get there with you, but I promise you that we as a people, we will get to the mountain top.”
          What about us?

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