This past week, I had the privilege of joining with thousands of people from Alabama and around the country who walked from Selma to Montgomery to commemorate the historic march 47 years ago that forced Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act and that changed our country forever. Hundreds of leaders from the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), the immigrant rights coalition convened by the Center for Community Change (CCC), came to Alabama from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Illinois, Florida, Tennessee, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Kansas and Colorado. We joined with thousands of members and leaders from civil rights organizations, immigrant rights organizations and AFL-CIO unions and other unions in a powerful, diverse show of strength and unity that transformed the hearts and minds of everyone who was a part of it. I believe that this week’s events will go down in history as a turning point in our efforts to build a broad-based coalition to advance progressive change.
We were marching to honor the extraordinary sacrifices of our forbearers, but we also were marching to right the wrongs of today, especially the assaults on workers’ rights, voting rights and immigrant rights—in Alabama and around the country. There were several lessons that I took from the week’s events.
First, we saw in reality the dream that many of us have been working for decades to achieve: a multiracial, progressive coalition united across issues in the fight for justice. I was part of the team that led the march on Thursday, and there was a moment when we came down a hill and turned around that will stay with me for the rest of my life. We saw well over 1,000 marchers who looked like America, singing and chanting and walking together, arm in arm down U.S. Highway 80. This was a spiritual moment in which I saw and understood the power and potential of the coalition we are building.
This is crucial because what connects our struggles is the desire of our opponents to make sure that the emerging majority of color never attains power in America. The effort to disenfranchise people of color and young people through voter suppression laws is highly strategic. It is an effort to make sure that the country’s changing demography does not result in a change in the electorate. This fear of a new emerging majority also explains the ruthless assault on immigrants and the effort to deny a path to citizenship to millions of immigrants.
The march reminded us that the only antidote to this cynical and undemocratic strategy is the kind of mass movement that lit up Alabama last week.
Second, we learned that when we organize, we can win. It was no coincidence that the same day the marchers focused on the injustices of H.B. 56, Alabama’s worst-in-the-nation immigration law, we heard the amazing news that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unexpectedly enjoined two of the worst provisions of that racist law. We have created a climate of resistance that has forced the courts to act. Even the Alabama state legislature is now considering how to backtrack on the bill. While there is still enormous work to be done, this very real progress is a testament to the extraordinary organizing and coalition building we have done together.
Finally, I and many of the marchers from community organizations were reminded yet again of the centrality of unions to the fight for social justice in America. The march would have been inconceivable without the strategic, human and mobilization capacity of the union movement. Labor leaders such as Bill Lucy, Eliseo Medina and Arlene Holt Baker were the moral and strategic force behind this incredible week. The effort to destroy the labor movement and undermine workers’ rights is a direct and strategic threat to civil and human rights in our country. Our opponents understand that by weakening the labor movement, they will undermine the bulwark of social justice struggles in the United States. That is why we who are in the community and in civil rights organizations understand that workers’ rights is an issue that affects all of us, whether or not we are in unions. The ties between labor and community are so much stronger thanks to the work we did last week.
We still have much work to do. State fights on workers’ rights, immigrant rights and voting rights are ahead of us. The Supreme Court will be taking up cases this year that if decided wrongly could roll back the 20th century and take us back to a dark past. And most importantly, just a few months away loom the 2012 elections, which are crucial to our hope for a better America. By building the broad coalition that can take on these huge fights through the work we did in Alabama last week, we paid proper respect to the marchers who took to the same highway 47 years ago under much harder circumstances. If they could change the country facing violence and repression on a scale that we cannot imagine, we can do our part today to change America. Si, se puede! Yes, we can!This was originally published in the AFL-CIO blog on March 13, 2012.