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Immigrant Youth Movement Takes a Civil Rights Lesson

How young immigrant activists are learning from the the civil rights campaigners who came before them.

May Day 2010 Rally, photo by Justin Valas

May Day 2010 rally for immigration reform in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Justin Valas.

Recently, commentators and congressional witnesses [pdf] have debated whether the immigrant rights movement is today’s civil rights movement. Some contend that immigrant activists, leading arguably the largest U.S. grassroots movement since the 1960s, carry Dr. King’s torch. Others respond that the civil rights movement, which emerged from slavery and segregation, was a different animal. But, whatever your position, it’s really the wrong question.

The real issue is whether and how people fighting for inclusion and equal rights learn from those who fought for similar things in the past.

No doubt, each movement is different. As recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown, even struggles that look quite similar possess distinctive internal logics and elicit divergent responses from the state.

But the civil rights movement does undoubtedly offer one of our nation’s most powerful examples of widespread direct action to achieve a more inclusive and equal union.

One student mused to a friend, “Years from now, if we do our job right, there’ll be a museum about us, too.”

Earlier this month in Memphis, over 200 activists for the DREAM Act—a proposed piece of legislation to offer undocumented youths who grew up in the United States an earned path to citizenship—came together to glean lessons from past civil rights struggles. These students, who suffered devastating defeat when DREAM came up five Senate votes short in December, gathered to plot strategy and continue building their national network, United We Dream (UWD).

Memphis was not an accidental choice for this gathering. The first stop: a visit to the Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King’s assassination and home of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Trail of Dreams photo stillImmigrants on the Trail of Dreams
Four undocumented students walked from Miami to Washington, D.C., risking deportation to tell the stories of immigrants living in the shadows.

Inside the museum, the mostly Latino activists huddled around portraits of a mostly African-American struggle. Their awe proved especially poignant given recent efforts from restrictionists—notably, witnesses called by Republicans [pdf] in a House of Representatives hearing—to pit African-Americans against Latinos by arguing that African-American workers are immigration’s big losers.

At the Lorraine, a young Latina activist scrutinized a Norman Rockwell portrait, “The Problem We All Live With,” which depicts an African-American girl in a pearl white dress relying on four marshals to help her enter a school. In the next room, two fellow Latino students watched video footage of the dogs and the fire hoses that Sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed on Birmingham’s youth in 1963.

Then, as now, young people provide a mirror for our best and our worst selves.

When we think of the civil rights movement, we tend to think of figures like Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph. But when we remember these heroes, it’s easy to forget that theirs was principally a youth movement. As Hollis Watkins, a civil rights veteran who addressed UWD’s congress, remarked, “The vast majority of the people involved in the civil rights movement were young people.”

Mr. Watkins recounted being drawn into activism as a teenager, when he joined the NAACP and then the SNCC. He recalled being jailed and receiving death threats, but, above all, he remembered how young people drove a movement that generated enormous political change.

Students have breathed new life into the immigrant rights movement in the past two years; for DREAM and other pro-immigrant efforts to succeed, they must continue fighting.

Encouraging youth activists to continue fighting today, Mr. Watkins explained, “Young people are our future, but they are also a part of our present. And, since they are part of the present, they need to be involved in the issues that need to be straightened out in the here and now.”

The immigrant rights movement is no carbon copy of the civil rights movement, but Mr. Watkins’ speech and the UWD congress revealed several lessons that immigrant rights activists can learn from the history encapsulated in a Memphis museum.

First, youth can, and often do, lead grassroots struggle. Students have breathed new life into the immigrant rights movement in the past two years; for DREAM and other pro-immigrant efforts to succeed, they must continue fighting.

Second, movements rely on grassroots organizations and effective coalitions. Unbridled energy and activism are critical, but activists must also build organizations capable of sustained, strategic action. UWD’s Memphis congress aimed at precisely such organizational capacity building.

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Third, struggles for inclusion and rights center on collective action, including civil disobedience. Civil rights activists’ nonviolent resistance—whether the Montgomery bus boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, or the Selma march—advanced the moral case against segregation. Similarly, pray-ins, marches, and vigils have been—and will continue to be—critical to growing immigrant power.

Finally, struggle requires risk. When DREAM students come out publicly as undocumented, they risk being deported to countries that they scarcely know. One DREAM student recalled meeting members of the Clinton Twelve, who risked their lives to integrate the schools in Clinton, Tennessee in 1956. Her lesson? “I’m afraid sometimes, and that’s OK. I act despite that fear.”

In short, irrespective of whether this movement is analogous to the civil rights movement, young immigrant activists know they have a lot to learn from African Americans’ landmark struggle.

Walking away from the museum, one DREAM student mused to a friend, “Years from now, if we do our job right, there’ll be a museum about us, too.”


Daniel Altschuler is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. He has written extensively on immigration politics, including recent pieces for the Christian Science Monitor, Americas Quarterly, the Nation, and CNN.com. This piece was originally published by Dissent Magazine.

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