Angela Davis, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the Problem of Monetizing Our Past

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Follow the money.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded its decision to honor activist Angela Davis with its highest award, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth Award, and canceled the annual gala at which she would have received it. This following complaints from high-rolling sponsors ($50,000) for the most esteemed spot and from Jewish community leaders because of Davis’ association with the BDS movement. BDS is the acronym for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Its mission is to “work to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

The cancellation of the award and gala raises fundamental problems with the monetization and commodification of Birminghan’s troubled past. Or of any area’s past.

Birmingham was once so heinous, so notorious it was dubbed “Bombingham.” Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s home in what came to be known as Dynamite Hill was one of those infamously bombed by foaming at the mouth segregationists. Shuttlesworth was a firebrand blue collar preacher, completely unlike Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He made the elites of the Civil Rights Movement nervous.

Dynamite Hill is the neighborhood in which Dr. Angela Davis grew up.

Then came the Children’s March, Sheriff Bull Connor, his police dogs, the fire department’s water hoses, the cameras, and the assassination of JFK. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Birmingham began to rebuild its image. The Civil Rights Movement was monetized. It became an attraction, a must-see for any visitor. The City built the BCRI, strategically situating it between the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the bombing where the Four Little Girls were killed, and Kelly Ingram Park, site of the Children’s March.

Birmingham became a required site to see on any and all “Civil Rights Tours” with the BCRI becoming its premier stop. For a mere $55, Red Clay Tours provides hotel pickup, the luxury of a small group experience, and air conditioned comfort.

It’s a good museum, especially for those who didn’t grow up in Birmingham or any part of the segregated South as I did.

The problems with these kinds of museums is that they stop the present. They suspend the past like a fly in amber. They are symbols of what once was, not signs pointing to the future.

Unless, of course, there is some intention at forward movement for which the BCRI has announced with clarity it has not with its recision of the award to and gala for Angela Davis.

Enter Israel, the BDS, and Palestine. The monetization and suspension in amber of the Civil Rights Movement meets the horrendous on-going slaughter of Palestinians, a human rights violation of unimaginable magnitude.

The inability of the BCRI to act as a sign vis-à-vis Israel, its lie of omission which at the moment it was crafted became an act of commission in genocide is precisely the same problem I observed at the National Holocaust Museum.

It is a problem fundamentally related to a problem with Bryan Stevenson’s National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, formally known as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I have not yet been to it but sooner or later I will. I expect it to be as moving and powerful as everyone says it is. But we have to acknowledge that lynching is, for the most part, part of our past.

In one of my earliest published pieces on immigration, I referred to the deaths of migrants in the southwest as “the new noose”, a phrase which was eliminated from the published article, whether by me or the editor I don’t recall.

Why not a museum to the ongoing, horrific problem of an official policy of the US government to push migrants to their deaths as part of its policy of “deterrence” of illegal immigration? Will there develop at the NLM a wing dedicated to that?

How do we memorialize the past without monetizing it, without suspending it in amber, and without it becoming complicit in future efforts to guarantee civil and human rights?

Is that even possible?

Asking Mr. Jones To Save Us From Whitey

From Guest Contributor, Majadi Baruti

 

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Majadi Baruti

When he asked, “What happened to BLACK Liberation Revolution?”

I answered with unintended but pregnant verse . . .

It became the insanity of youtube videos and

womanizing men who get paid to speak publicly in cities at

 

kwanzaa events and bring

the same information every year. It became

people who refuse to read,

people who disrespect Black Women as if their part of our struggle is somehow

irrelevant.

It became I-phone sickness and lack of engagement, it became

alleged Black Panther presentation at Super Bowl events

it became presidents and mumble rap,

it is firmly locked in the erroneous belief that we need to and can rebuild

Kemet

to its greatness.

It is a dance by some girl named

nae nae

it is black beauty supply products being black owned and then sold to koreans,

black liberation revolution is a marxist black family who never read marx and has completely ignored

Angela Y Davis, Claudia Jones.

it went the way of quiet talks in black barbershops that suddenly turns to

discussions of black hoes and bitches after a sister drops her son off for a haircut she could barely afford because daddy shitted on her child support,

it went the way of facebook activism, and is tucked and hidden colors hidden by

ankhs and allegations

that the sisters should follow black men that

have no,

want no

and ask no direction,

it is soft when she needed an erection not an election,

when we gave her an infection when she asked for

an insurrection. It is whips and ripped souls, no aims and no goals

BLACK liberation revolution is a pair of kneepads

asking Mr. Jones to save us from whitey

Majadi Baruti, December 15, 2017, Birmingham, Alabama

Twelve Songs of Dignity

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No more manager scenes. Resistance this time.

i. John of Patmos understood. In his apocalyptic vision he saw a great sign in heaven—a Woman clothed with the sun, her womb struggling to bring forth new life, who so antagonizes the Powers (Powers, represented by a Dragon, which deceive) that they sweep to earth a third of the stars. The Woman flees to a plot of land which is prepared to nourish her for a time and times and half a time —1,260 days!

ii. Orishas are Yoruban deities. Some of them crossed the Atlantic on slave ships. One of them, Oya, is an Orisha of winds, violent storms, lightning, birth, and death. Named for a river in Niger which has nine tributaries, she has been torn by the nine children she bore.

iii. An apocalypse is the full revelation of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge so well articulated and widespread that it necessarily brings with it the destruction of the present age.

iv. Dynamite Hill was the nickname given to Center Street, the site of multiple drive by bombings in Birmingham, Alabama which itself was known by the sobriquet “Bombingham”. Between the 1940s and 1960s, there were some forty bombings in a city known for the viciousness of its segregationist sentiments and practices.

Center Street marked the residential color line running through the area of Birmingham known as Smithfield. Whites claimed the land to the west. Blacks were consigned to the land to the east. At the top of the hill, prosperous middle class Blacks steadily chipped away at the boundary as zoning laws were successfully challenged. As it chipped away, occupying White land, the Ku Klux Klan pushed back with fires, gun shots in the night, and dynamite.

Theodora Shores, the wife of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores, once found a case of dynamite in her garden. Her home was a frequent target of mob violence which led to a Shores family ritual: hit the floor and crawl to safety.

The frequency of fires and bombs prompted a neighborhood group called the Dynamite Hill Defenders, a rifle patrol, to defend their properties from attack.

v. Mary, her son, Jesus, growing in her womb, sang a resistance song about bringing down the powerful from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things. So dangerous was she that she had to flee to the hill country of Judea. When her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who also was pregnant, heard Mary’s approach, she cried out loudly, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth’s own child leaped within her womb.

vi. Susan Diane Mitchell has borne nine children all of whom survive. She lives now on Center Street and 11th Court North. Inspired by Dynamite Hill’s legacy of resistance, courage, and self-determination, its community spirit, and the sight of revolutionary Angela Davis’s former home across the way, in 2015 Mitchell initiated the Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust with support from the Magic City Agriculture Project. The Project emphasizes democratic decision making in the development of sustainable, cooperative agriculture. Mitchell and her beloved partner, Rev. Majadi Baruti, find spiritual nourishment in remembering the Black Goddess.

vii. The Black Goddess bears a resemblance to the Virgin of Guadalupe who is a representation of the Woman who fought the Dragon. Clothed with the sun and with stars on her cloak, she stands on the moon, pregnant. Known in Mexico now as the Queen of the Americas, the madonna first appeared to an indigenous man near Tepeyac sometime after the Conquest. The Spanish had destroyed a temple to the Aztec’s mother goddess, replacing it with a chapel dedicated to their European goddess, Mary. But resistant indigenous people knew she was, in fact, Tonantzin.

viii. In 2014, Birmingham had been chosen as the site of the 2021 World Games. With tax incentives, the choice accelerated the development of Downtown Birmingham. For residents of the Smithfield Community, the first community west of Interstate 65 and Downtown Birmingham, “development” is a euphemism for “gentrification” or the displacement of the low and moderate income residents who already lived there.

ix. Susan Mitchell and Majadi Baruti have a home in Smithfield. In the land around the house, they grow food to eat, sell, give away, or barter. A registered urban farm, they named it Ua Mer which means Beloved Water. The name was chosen in solidarity with the millions of women around the world have no access to clean, nourishing water.

The Land Trust Susan established is part of a plan to provide access to affordable housing and sustainable agriculture in the five predominantly African American Smithfield neighborhoods through a process of land adoption. A cooperative, the idea is that the Trust will own the land but individual families will have access to their own plot. There, they will give back to Mother Earth more than they receive.

For Susan, the Trust is an act of resistance and remembrance.* Her resistance is not only to gentrification, but it is resistance to the toxicity of living on earth in the present age. She dreams of creating small villages where people live communally, share what they have, acknowledge the indigeneity of land, and where they can have a home to care for.

The Trust is also an act of remembrance of a time before patriarchy, before large scale agriculture, and before capitalism when land was not owned but was worked by women. Susan remembers the time before the Garden spoken of in Genesis.

x. The Black Goddess whom Susan and Majadi remember is the crystallization of this long ago time when the black or brown or red earth was our Mother whose womb provided home and hearth, living waters, clean food, and safety.

xi. In an act of resistance, members of indigenous communities all across Colombia marched to demand the country’s leaders adhere to the terms of a peace agreement. They said, each and every one with the red and green flag held high, with pain and anger for their fallen comrades at the hands of the government for the sole reason of defending their territories, the platform of struggle and the principles of unity, land, culture, and autonomy called them to defend life, Mother Earth, and every being that inhabits it. They called each and every indigenous in one voice to sing a single song of dignity.

xii. So angry was the Dragon with the Woman that it tried to drown her but the earth came to her rescue, opened up its mouth, and swallowed the river pouring from the mouth of the Dragon.

*Many thanks to Susan Diane Mitchell for explaining what the Black Goddess, Ua Mer farm, and the Land Trust mean to her, in a phone conversation, October 31, 2017.

Ellin Sterne Jimmerson

To Those Who Were Ever Oppressed: Time to Pay it Forward

oppression

 

The time has come to pay it forward.

Those of us who were ever poor white, African American, Asian American, Middle Eastern American, German American, Irish American, indigenous from anywhere, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Pentecostal, atheist, LGBTQ, or a woman

and someone who was not poor white, African American, Asian American, Middle Eastern American, German American, Irish American, indigenous from anywhere, LGBTQ, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Pentecostal, atheist, a day laborer, or a woman actively worked to change the system which was oppressing us:

it is time for us to try to change the system which is oppressing undocumented people and others today.

#Resist #JusticeNotDeals #Not1More

Were My Integrationist White Parents Racists? Does It Matter?

23173695_127488861487I grew up being absorbed by race and racism. They were not just problems or issues. They were the distressing realities of my life. In the last few years, I have found my mind turning again and again to this very difficult problem.

My parents were among those very few Deep South white opponents of segregation and its racist underpinnings. We lived in two of the most volatile places in the South during the Civil Rights Movement — Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. Not a day went by when I did not hear my parents’ outrage over the way colored people, as we said before people were Black or African American, were treated. I have recounted some of our experiences a number of times, for example in this article published by the Raven Foundation, in a review of the film, Selma. I won’t repeat those stories here; instead I will offer some new ones.

My father, a lawyer who moonlighted as an adjunct history professor, was outspoken in social and family situations and in his classrooms. Albany’s Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, Mayor Asa Kelley, Georgia’s Governor Lester Maddox, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace — all were routine objects of my father’s contempt which he expressed heatedly and daily. Far too many smoke-filled family gatherings ended in shouting, followed by silences. I began to dread them, much as we all loved one another.

My mother, a trained social worker, brought the Head Start program to Albany. An integrated Federal program, she was soundly criticized by other white women. But she persisted. One of the things she wanted to impart to her colored students was that they were beautiful. She constantly told them how beautiful black skin was, how pretty black girls were.

Once, I recall our housekeeper, Belle, came to the front door selling green beans she had grown. My mother, coming down the interior stairs with a visitor, met her in the front hall. The visitor, a white woman, cautioned my mother not to buy the green beans. “You know how niggers are,” she said in front of Belle, “they cut their hair over the beans. You’ll get nigger hair in them if you buy them.” My mother was struck dumb not knowing how to respond. Later, she called Belle on the phone, crying, and tried to apologize.

I tell this to try to convey that by any reasonable human standard, my parents could not be counted as racists.

Yet, to be completely honest about them, I have to fast-forward several decades.

Even though he had quit 20 years earlier, my father’s smoking finally caught up with him. In 2006, about five days before he died, he went home from the hospital with Hospice personnel. A black woman with Hospice came into room where we had installed his bed. He looked at her and said, “Have you come to cook for us?”

In the dimly lit room several nights later , the night he died, he began to sing “I Dream of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair.” Why, Daddy, I asked, do you sing that? “Oh,” he said with the wide eyes of the dying, “that is a song all about a girl and they came and took her from her native plantation. She never got over that.” I said, “Daddy, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that interpretation.” He replied, “Oh, yes. There are all kinds of racism in the world.” I told my father good night. Those were the last words he ever spoke.

Well into her eighties, with dementia getting its hooks into her, my mother, too, continues to be absorbed by race. She does not understand that some battles have been won or that, if not won, ground has been gained in post-Black Is Beautiful America. She continues to tell every black woman she meets how beautiful her skin is, often touching them.

I cringe when she does this. I cringe because it feels inappropriate. I cringe because if I were in their shoes, I would not like it. I also cringe because the women who are the objects of her attention often pull away or visibly show that they are offended. Invariably, because my mother has been in various nursing homes where they are employees, they cannot challenge her directly, although I can see that some would, given the chance. On more than one occasion, I have tried in a subtle way to plead with them before I leave my mother in their care to understand that she means well, she just doesn’t understand what she is doing.

Were my parents racists? Is my mother? What is your take on this? And, does it matter?

 

A Context For Hope: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

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Harper Lee

This article originally appeared in the Faith Forward section of Patheos.com.

Harper Lee died today. She would have been surprised, I think, to know what a profound impact her book, To Kill A Mockingbird, in its film form, had on me. It gave me what I had too little of in my childhood — hope.

As a child growing up in demonically racist Albany, Georgia in the 1960s, reared by white Civil Rights activist parents who were outspokenly opposed to the South’s racism and segregation, the film To Kill A Mockingbird provided me hope. By hope I mean, as do many liberation theologians, the by-product of a context in which people find reason to believe that the future can be substantially better than the soul crushing present. I was introduced to that concept by Brazil’s Leonard Boff in his book, A Path To Hope: Fragments From A Theologian’s Journey.

For me, that context was To Kill A Mockingbird which I saw long before I read the novel. 

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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Released on Christmas Day, 1962, I recall vividly how, when the film came to our segregated theater, my parents and I got dressed up to go see it. I cannot recall another movie we ever went to see as a family. But, they made sure that I got to see this one. On the screen, in the film subtly directed by Robert Mulligan, I discovered there were other people like us — white people who hated segregation and racism. The story centered on a white lawyer, much like my father, who publicly stood up to segregationists and their vicious habits.

It was not that the film gave me hope that segregation would one day end – in that day and time for me that seemed beyond reach. It was less than a year later when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I recall being in my 7th grade math class when we got word over the loudspeaker that he had been shot. Only a few moments later, we were told the president had died. The children in my classroom erupted in cheers – “the nigger lover is dead!” – foot stomping, and laughter. Horrified not only by the death of the president, I was horrified by my classmates’ response. I was overwhelmed with the sense that if they knew who I was – a “nigger lover” – they would wish me dead, too.

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To the contrary, to my child’s mind, the idea that segregation and the racism which upheld it ever would end was too much to hope for in 1962. It and the people who loved it were intractable, it seemed to me then.

The hope the film gave me was the knowledge that there were other people in the world like me and my family. I might go through the rest of my school years hiding, but one day I could find people like the Finches who would like me the way I was. People who would see the cruelty and ugliness of our culture’s “peculiar institution” the way my family did and wish it dead and gone the way we did.

I will always keep a tender place in my heart for Harper Lee, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, and Maycomb, Alabama. Godspeed, Miss Lee, and thank you.

 

Comparing Politicians to Christ: Facts, Please

 

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Dr. Russell Moore

It is not often that Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC], and I agree. He opposes same sex marriage and abortion, for example. I support same sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose. When I officiated at Madison County, Alabama’s first same sex wedding, that started a chain of events that led to the church with which I am associated to be “disfellowshipped” by the SBC. Typically, Moore and I do not agree on much.

However, prominent Christian pastors on both the left and right have publicly supported their favorite politicians – comparing them to Christ. Here is where Moore and I agree – if you are going to compare a politician to Christ, you need to back up your comparison with facts.

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Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Several days ago, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University endorsed Donald Trump. He gushed, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment”.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Moore demonstrated that Falwell’s praise is at odds with the facts of Trump’s life. He wrote,

[Trump] revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the ‘top women in the world’ [and that Trump] is a casino and real estate mogul who has built his careers off gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate. When Mr. Trump’s casinos fail, he can simply file bankruptcy and move on. The lives and families destroyed by the casino industry cannot move on so easily.

Similarly, Michael Brown, a Messianic Jew and conservative host of the popular radio show, The Line Of Fire, wrote this op-ed for the Christian Post. In it he quoted a colleague:

I just don’t understand how a true Christian can so easily dismiss all this … wife posed nude, married three times, nasty, crude, cruel, proud, dishonest, manipulative, casino owner and promoter, bankrupted several companies, ‘hates’ abortion but agrees to make it legal, gutter mouth … and on and on and on.

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Donald Trump

Citing Trump’s attacks on those he happens to dislike at the moment, Brown asks,

be it Megyn Kelly or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush or Rosie O’Donnell – attacks in which he behaves more like a spoiled, petulant child than a presidential candidate, how [can Falwell] point to his Christ-like character?

In other words, Moore and Brown are addressing the facts of Trump’s life and career. These facts fly in the face of claims that Trump is the embodiment of Christ from a conservative Christian, personal morality point of view.

There are equally extravagant claims being made by progressive Christians. John Pavlovitz, a pastor and blogger with millions of followers, recently said in the Huffington Post that President Obama has “in effect out-Jesused many of his Conservative Christian critics”. Obama, he wrote, has “championed justice, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people in a way that closely resembles the stated mission of Christ”.

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Rev. John Pavlovitz

Among other claims, Pavlovitz said that Obama

has vigorously defended the civil rights of all human beings, has challenged us to be hospitable to refugees and immigrants, and has called out corporate lobbyists and big business special interests that have crippled the middle class and widened the income gap between the richest and poorest.

These claims are factually inaccurate if not downright preposterous. The most cursory glance at his policies should make that clear.

Despite his campaign promise, for example, Obama did not close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base where some prisoners have been held for decades without being charged. Among the detainees’ basic rights, which Obama has failed to champion in any meaningful way, are the rights of habeus corpus, a US and international principle providing the right to challenge the legality of one’s arrest, and the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution which provides the right to a “speedy and public trial”.

Then there is the matter of Obama’s foreign policy. Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation and for Democracy Now!, traces the expansion of covert wars in countries ranging from Somalia to Pakistan. He says that

particularly in the Obama administration . . . . we’ve returned to the kind of 1980s way of waging war, where the US was involved in all these dirty wars in Central and Latin America, in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and beyond.

For example, he says, the US and Obama are “using proxies, that effectively are death squads, in Somalia to hunt down people the US has determined are enemies . . . . [and] mercenary forces in various wars, declared and undeclared, around the world.”

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King Hamad bin Isa Al Kahlifa

Similarly, Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post, wrote “Obama’s Troubling Counterterrorism Allies: Dictators”. Hiatt detailed Obama’s alarming embrace of Syria’s Bashar-Al-Assad, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Kahlifa, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov. Hiatt calls Al-Assad the “bloodiest butcher of this young century”.

He goes on to say that Al-Sisi has “killed and imprisoned opponents with a brazenness Hosni Mubarak never dreamed of,” that when Al Kahlifa “cracks down on peaceful dissidents, the United States barely notices”, and that Karimov “presides over a closed society of prison camps and forced labor.”

As for being “hospitable to refugees and immigrants”, as Pavlovitz asserts, that has been anything but true of Obama with the exception of his recent welcome of Syrian refugees. Obama supports further militarizing the United States / Mexico border which was militarized to prohibit Mexicans and others displaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] from coming to the US. Militarization has taken a minimum of 6,000 migrants’ lives.

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President Barack Obama

Obama has earned the derogatory nickname “Deporter in Chief” among Latinos because under him deportations sky-rocketed, ripping some 2.5 million people from their families. Deportations have left over 5,000 children stranded in foster care and forced other US citizens into exile to be with their deported husband or father. He has deported asylum-seeking Central Americans which has cost 83 their lives, according to London’s newspaper, The Guardian. And, according to the Washington Post, his administration failed to protect thousands of other Central American children, placing them in the hands of human traffickers or abusive caretakers in the U. S.

As for Pavlovitz’s claim that Obama has “called out corporate lobbyists and big business special interests” one needs only to look at his support for free trade agreements [FTAs] to know that is inaccurate. He signed FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea and has been negotiating vigorously for the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP]. As I demonstrated in my film, The Second Cooler, NAFTA not only pushed some 2 million Mexican peasants off their lands and into migration, it allowed good-paying jobs in the United States to be sent overseas. Displacement of peoples is inherent to FTAs which push people off their lands and out of their jobs in order to fulfill the goal of “opening up markets.”

Economic researchers with Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute have projected that the TPP would likely lead to the loss of 448,000 US jobs and cause labor’s share of income to decline by 1.3%. This necessarily would increase the gap between rich and poor and widen inequality. The researchers found that while the US job market will suffer the most, the TPP would lead to 771,000 job losses over the next 10 years in the member nations.

FTAs, however, are about more than opening up markets, displacement of peoples, and the offshoring of good paying jobs. Lori Wallach, Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, has called trade deals “backdoor financial deregulation,” a “power tool to demolish financial stability policies,” and part of the establishment of an “investor-state” system. She concludes that the TPP and other FTAs are mainly about “new rights for corporations and new constraints on governments’ non-trade regulatory policy space”.

Gretchen Morgenson, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who writes about markets for the New York Times, voiced similar concerns. She wrote that “trade agreements might well be read as an invitation to fight financial regulation”. She points out that Ecuador in 2011 asked that World Trade Organization to allow it to preserve its ability to create regulations to ensure “the integrity and stability of the financial system”. But the proposal was rejected by trade representatives in the U. S., the European Union, and Canada.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in economics to surmise that it is the middle class that suffers the most from these deals.

Christian pastors and bloggers have the right to endorse or support any candidate and any president they wish, but Russell Moore and I agree on this: when Christian leaders compare the president or a presidential hopeful to Christ, they must backup their claims with facts. We may disagree on which facts are or are not critical, but they must be backed up. Other people’s lives are hanging in the balance.

Illegal Immigration — Op-Ed for Mobile Press Register, 2008

I wrote this article in 2008. It was about this time that I began to get the idea of making a documentary about immigration.


“Illegal Immigration” (unedited version)

Mobile Press Register

March 3, 2008

300px-Wallace_at_University_of_Alabama_edit2The borderline has come to the colorline in Alabama and we are off to a bad start. There should be no people in the country better prepared to step up with empathy, courage and humility to the issue of illegal immigration. Our history of slavery, segregation and debt peonage should have brought us the insight that what is legal is not always right. Rosa Parks’ momentous decision should have etched on our collective psyche the profound understanding that what is illegal is not always wrong. Strong histories of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments and Birmingham in 1963 should have taught us to respect the complicatedness of race and class. The struggle to reverse our well-deserved reputation as a safe haven for demagogues should have made us leery of the politics of race, fear and confusion.

The borderline has come to the colorline in Alabama and we are off to a bad start. There is not a dime’s worth of difference between George Wallace vowing he would never be “out-niggraed” and Gardendale Rep. Scott Beason’s aggressive decision not to be “out-illegalled.” There is not a dime’s worth of difference between Wallace’s “segregation yesterday! segregation today! segregation tomorrow!” and local city councils proposing ordinances referring to a group of human beings as a “public nuisance.” There is not a dime’s worth of difference between the arrogance of “whites only” and “English only” nor between the current crop of vehicle impoundment ordinances and the old voter literacy laws designed to harass and humiliate.

The borderline has come to the colorline in Alabama and we are off to a bad start. The racial cast of characters has changed but the old, ugly vilifications have made a comeback. At a public meeting a black man rants he cannot rent his property because of Hispanics “running around half-naked.” A white, professional Hispanic with papers lords his supposedly Spanish descent over the poor, indigenous, undocumented Latinos in his church. A white woman with refined speech mannerisms dresses up her racist anti-Catholicism as concern for women. At the Joint Interim Patriotic Immigration Commission’s (JIPIC) lynch mob-like Huntsville meeting, black and white police officers step into the crowd to protect a Latina attempting to speak up for illegal immigrants. At the JIPIC’s Hoover meeting, in words chillingly reminiscent of “Crucify him!” the mostly white crowd chants “deport them!” when a white minister attempts a “what would Jesus do?” mini-sermon.

We are at it again. We need to remember our history. We need to develop a working knowledge that U. S. history includes installing, supporting or colluding with Latin American dictators and their Mafia-like national guards and promoting economic “developmentalism” plans both of which, many historians conclude, have concentrated more and more wealth, land and power in the hands of fewer and fewer. We have been instrumental in creating the poverty pushing Latin Americans across our borders.

We need to develop a working knowledge of current “trickle down” developmentalist subsidies, tariffs and U. S. free trade agreements with Latin America. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a phased-in agreement signed by Canada, the U. S. and Mexico in 1992, was designed to make the countries safe for investors. That it may have done. Experts who look at economic policy from the perspective of workers and peasant farmers, however, conclude NAFTA has brought catastrophic suffering to already impoverished Mexico. For example, NAFTA’s lifting of export tariffs the big, subsidized U. S. producers of corn and beans had to pay allowed them to dump their products in Mexico well below the cost of production. The result has been, according to conservative estimates, the bankrupting of 1 ½ million small corn and bean farmers pushing them off their lands and into migration. Many of them are Native Americans pushed onto the latest leg of a hemispheric “Trail of Tears.”

Experts who look at economic policy from the perspective of small and medium Alabama farmers and ranchers conclude free trade agreements are also bringing economic suffering to Alabamians. Our once strong peanut producers are being hard-hit. Small and medium-sized Alabama beef ranchers, flower growers, tomato farmers and lumber mills are struggling to compete with cheap corporate-produced Argentine beef, Ecuadorian flowers, Mexican tomatoes and Canadian softwood.

And jobs? Fort Payne’s sock factories are in the Dominican Republic. In Huntsville, a Canadian-owned maquiladora, as low-end, foreign-owned assembly plants in Mexico are called, says it simply cannot operate without importing and abusing 900 human beings duplicitously referred to as “guest workers.” At the Joint Interim Patriotic Immigration Commission’s “fact-finding” meeting in Mobile, shipyard, oyster company, and seafood company owners politely testify they simply cannot operate without that most vulnerable of all worker—the guest worker far from home, legally bound to the employer who imports them, who speaks little English and who has incurred thousands of dollars in debts to get here. Meanwhile, predominantly black Perry County languishes in eternal underemployment, poverty and neglect. And the Poarch Creek Indian reservation in Escambia County languishes in eternal underemployment, poverty and neglect.

The borderline has come to the colorline has come to the picket line in Alabama and those of us who advocate for legal and illegal migrants are also off to a shaky start. We have been quick to assume that if migrants are right, farm and trade unionists concerned about the adverse affect of “guestworkers” on U. S. workers’ wages and working conditions must be wrong. We are quick to assume that because blatantly racist Minutemen are wrong, polite corporate owners insisting they need more “guests” must be right. This despite the fact Montgomery’s Southern Poverty Law Center has called the H-2 guestworker program an “inherently abusive modern day system of indentured servitude.” We have been quick to lament the failure of the U. S. Congress’s proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill oblivious to its effort to extend this cruel system of “disposable workers” and to its proposed extension of the militarized border which since 2000 has sent 1,000 migrants to their deaths in Pima Co., AZ alone, including at least four little girls. We have been slow to be horrified by this new federal experiment which exchanges real peoples’ lives for hypothetical safety from hypothetical terrorists. The new noose.

The borderline has come to the colorline has come to the picket line in Alabama. This phase of our on-going civil rights struggle, as before, is about race, class, fear, small jobs and big money. It will be won when we insist on human dignity. We are in a struggle for our soul. It is going to be a long haul. It is not too late to get it right. Somewhere encoded deep in our DNA is the intuitive conviction that the politics of division is feeding a sinful socio-economic structure that is benefiting the few at the expense of the many. Somewhere deep in our DNA is the intuitive conviction that cruel, oppressive systems are bigger than the people, like slaves, segregated blacks, poor whites and illegal immigrants, caught up in them. We need to bring that deeply buried but nonetheless real intuition to the surface and allow it to work for us. Sí, se puede, Alabama. Eyes on the prize!

Ellin Sterne Jimmerson