Those who follow me on Twitter know that over the holidays I discovered my adoptive dad’s African ancestor on Ancestry.com! It was an absolutely amazing moment — a rare one for most African-American families who usually can’t trace their families beyond the civil war. In the Antebellum South, our families weren’t considered families; they were chattel — property counted as estate holdings in pre-Civil War Census Records.
So I had to check my eyes to make sure I was seeing the 1900 census record correctly when I found that my dad’s 76-year-old great-great grandfather had listed his father as having come from “Africa.” He survived forced immigration through the Middle Passage and he probably arrived in chains at the port of Mobile, Alabama, sometime between 1800 and 1820.
My adoptive dad’s family goes back five generations in Mississippi. They endured the most ruthless lashes of American slavery and the most brutal state-sponsored terrorism during the Jim Crow legal regime. In fact, my dad personally had a brush with the Klan as a child. The Ku Klux Klan broke up an evening meeting at his grandparents’ church in the early 1950s. He doesn’t remember much about the night, except the terror. In his adult years, he looks back and realizes they were probably organizing.
Organizing… in Mississippi… before Rosa Parks said “No” in Montgomery, Ala. My grandparents were organizing.
Yet even my family history—along with images of sneering white southerners during the desegregation of Little Rock High School, complicit whites riding near-empty buses during the Montgomery bus boycott, and white officers hosing down black children in Birmingham, Ala. — did not prepare me for what I encountered when I traveled to Montgomery last month.
I boarded a plane in Washington, D.C., to fly to Montgomery early on December 17. There I would conduct Sojourners Organizing training for Immigration Reform in partnership with the Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM), a faith-based organization dedicated to building more just communities and systems in Alabama.
Since Arizona passed its draconian immigration law (SB1070) in 2010, 23 states have passed or introduced copy-cat laws. Alabama’s HB56 (also referred to as the “Alabama Tax Payer and Citizen Protection Act”) was signed into law on June 9, 2011. It is currently the harshest immigration law in the United States.
During the training, GBM’s Rev. Angie Wright, shared testimony offered by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) Legal Director Mary Bauer on November 21, 2011 at a field hearing on HB56. Here is an excerpt:
After HB56 went into effect, SPLC … started a telephone hotline to field calls about the law. In the first weekend, we received close to 1,000 calls. We have now received close to 4,000 calls through the hotline… A small sample of the kinds of concerns people have raised follows:
- A mother in northern Alabama was told she could not attend a book fair at her daughter’s school without an Alabama state ID or driver’s license.
- Latino workers on a construction jobsite were threatened by a group of men with guns, who told them to go back to Mexico and threatened to kill them if they were there the following day. They declined to report the crime to law enforcement because of fears of what would happen to them if they did.A victim of domestic violence went to court to obtain a protective order. The clerk told her that she’d be reported to ICE if she proceeded.
- By the first Monday after HB56 was allowed to take effect, 2,285 Latino students were absent from schools across Alabama.
- In Northport, the water authority provided notices to Latino customers that their services will be shut off if they didn’t provide proof of immigration status immediately.
- Legal immigrants, including those with temporary protected status, have been told that they cannot obtain drivers’ licenses in the state.
- A worker called to say that his employer refused to pay him, citing HB56, and stated that the worker had no rights to be paid under this law.
- A Latino man was arrested and detained. While in jail, he was told that he could not use the telephone to call his attorney because the use of the phone would be a “business transaction” prohibited by HB56.
I felt like I had been transported back to a black, white and sepia toned era, but these events took place over the last six months! These current day restrictions on immigrants are exactly what African Americans across the south faced during nearly 100 years of Jim Crow law, from about 1870 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Tears rolled down my face. I wasn’t prepared for just how bad it is… again.
But there’s something else I wasn’t prepared for. During the training, we did an exercise where each of the nearly 70 mostly white, young, and well-seasoned faith leaders came forward to share their dreams for their state. Strikingly, their dreams created an echo chamber. Occupy Birmingham participants shared the same dreams as 70-plus-year-old white women and men who lived in Montgomery during the days of the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott. One by one they stepped forward and shared.
And in the end, their common dream could be summed up as follows: “We dream of the day when Alabama would be known as the most welcoming, most just state in the nation… and our actions would match our professions of faith.”
The U.S. Department of Justice, a department created by Republicans after the Civil War to protect the well-being of minorities, has filed suit against the state of Alabama to block several of the most heinous mandates of HB56. Oral arguments will be heard the week of February 27, 2012.
Until then, Alabamans of faith are getting busy. They are organizing… again.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.