Civil Wrongs

When I see the words “Jim Crow,” I think of the south, of segregation, of black codes, of a minstrel show song.

When I think of Alabama and segregation those images run the gamut of violence—little girls in a bombed church in Birmingham, Bull Connor, marchers being hosed.

They are stark images, in black and white.

The people are black and white as well.

It seems that we have slid backwards to those days in Alabama—except perhaps we should reference “Juan Crow” now, instead of Jim.

When I think of Alabama’s racial history, and those who tilled its soil in the past, first as enslaved people and then after emancipation as sharecroppers, it is yet another study in black and white.

Fast forward to now.

Blacks are still trying to wrench a living from the soil in Alabama and other parts of the south. They still face racial and economic discrimination. The recent Pigford settlement stands as testimony to their struggle.

But the south is changing—and more often than not, the faces of those tilling and picking are the ruddy copper brown of Mexico and points further south, and the sibilant sound of spoken Spanish is heard in the fields.

This changing demographic points also to changing economic realities. Contrary to the rants from the right wing, these immigrants play a key role in the states economic growth and health.

Where once we thought of civil rights battles in Birmingham and Montgomery as the forging of activist ties between blacks and progressive whites, a new civil rights battle is upon us—this time building bridges between latino migrants, blacks, whites and other peoples of color.

We now face a new Jim Crow—or perhaps it is the “same ole same ole.” The languages may have changed, but the conditions are the same. Where once harsh black codes were enacted to repress blacks, we now have draconian laws like Alabama’s HB 56 to contend with, and similar measures in Georgia, South Carolina and Arizona.

One of the important features of this new coalition that has formed in opposition to HB 56 is that it not only cuts across racial and ethnic lines, but it is engaging inter-faith communities: Baptists and Catholics, Evangelicals and Jews.  It cuts across class lines, and labor leaders are now engaged.

American labor leaders have taken an interest in what is happening in Alabama.

Back in July, an interfaith protest march was held, and congregations from around the state continue to make their voices heard in protest. Some church leaders came together to file suit against its enactment.

Caught in a web of their own making, white farmers and business owners who depend on an immigrant labor force are feeling more than a pinch. The Republican elected officials they voted into office, who patted themselves on the back for passing this travesty, are now the object of scorn from their own electorate who stand in their fields watching crops rot, unharvested. They want solutions, they want workers, and the solutions proffered by officials aren’t gonna cut the mustard or pick the greens.

Many of their loud complaints have wound up on the desk of John McMillan, commissioner of agriculture in Alabama, where life is already changing under the new immigration law.

In October, McMillan recommended that farmers experiencing labor shortages consider using work-release prison inmates.

Sound familiar? Inmate labor looks a lot like slave labor to me. And doubtful anyone collecting unemployment from being laid off in today’s economy has plans to head into the fields to pick tomatoes.

None of these band-aid “solutions” are going to work. Nor should they, since they don’t get to the root of the problem. We need immigration reform that goes hand in hand with ending farm labor inequity.

Listen to the unhappy voices of some of the white growers and business owners:

The impact of this bill, and others like it, affects everyone. As people continue to protest in the streets, the battle continues on the legal front. Just as in past civil rights struggles, long-time fighters from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and others are engaged. As is the federal government. The Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, filed suit back in August.

For the latest update on the status of the battles in court, check out these posts at the Southern Poverty Law Center website:

This is not simply a matter of Alabama. Challenges are also being issued in other states like South Carolina and Georgia.

As more people recognize the impact of these laws on their daily lives, we have the potential as progressives to stop the backsliding and forge forward in a strong united rainbow coalition, once again.

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. The people, united, will never be defeated.

Editor's Note:  This article was originally published November 20, 2011, at Daily Kos. Photo Credit:  Screen grab from video on YouTube.
Denise Oliver Velez

Denise Oliver Velez

Feminist, Activist, former Young Lords Party and Black Panther Party member, applied cultural anthropologist.  See her diaries at Daily Kos.