United for Underclass Rights

Author's Note: On the new Hutchinson Report blog, learn how to take action against Neal Boortz, the talk radio host who said Rep. Cynthia McKinney "looks like a ghetto slut."

During a planning summit in Atlanta for his Poor Peoples March in March 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quizzically turned to one of his aides and asked, "Tijerina who?" The Tijerina in question was Reies Lopez Tijerina. A year earlier, Tijerina had rocketed to national fame when he and a band of armed men took over a courthouse in New Mexico demanding land rights for Mexican farm workers.

Though King was puzzled at who Tijerina was, he eagerly sought an accommodation with him and other Latino leaders. He demanded that Tijerina and other Latino leaders play a top role in the march. King wanted Latinos, blacks, American Indians and poor whites to march in lockstep for civil rights and economic justice. But King was virtually a lone voice calling for such an alliance.

Many in King's inner circle of black ministers and activists grumbled loudly that black leaders must call the shots in the March. Their meaning was clear, blacks had done the marching, picketing, demonstrating, fighting and dying for civil rights, and racism affected blacks more deeply and profoundly than any other group. To them, the struggle for land and immigrant rights was a sideshow struggle that did not have the glitter, glamour or poignancy of the black struggle. Latinos and other ethnic groups were at best subservient partners that were welcome as long as they knew their place. The most crass and cynical of King's black advisors regarded Latinos as interlopers that benefited from the black struggle but had contributed nothing to it.

At a planning staff meeting, a campaign advisor bluntly said, "I do not think I am at the point where a Mexican can sit in and call strategy on a steering committee." It was paternalistic, offensive and condescending, and totally demeaned Latinos and the importance of their struggle. Tijerina and other Latino leaders chafed at the slight and some refused to participate. Those that came made it clear that their struggle against racism, for land and farm worker rights, and for cultural identity was just as important as that of blacks. They demanded that they be recognized and respected as leaders.

King's murder, the collapse of the civil rights movement, and the self-destruct of the Black Power movement brought fragmentation and disillusionment to black organizations. King and the handful of other black activists that saw the fight of first and second generation Latinos, both native born and recent immigrants, as a fight for civil rights and economic justice that was as important as the struggle of that of blacks were gone. That leadership vacuum marked the start of the retreat to race isolation.

By the 1990s, the steady rise in the number of immigrants, legal and illegal, had radically changed the shape of ethnic politics in America. The number of illegal immigrants soared from an estimated 3 million to 5 million in 1990 to double-digit numbers a decade later. Many now worked jobs in cities, such as Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, that were majority black or where blacks made up a significant percent of the population. In those cities Latinos made up the largest number of illegal immigrants that worked in the lower skill and wage jobs.

By 2004, Latinos displaced blacks as the largest nonwhite minority in America. More blacks sounded the alarm bell. They bitterly complained that Latinos were overcrowding what had formerly been exclusively black neighborhoods and running down achievement standards in the schools. But the issue that pricked the sorest spot was jobs. Blacks shouted that illegal immigrants had booted them out of unskilled entry-level jobs in hotels, restaurants and car washes. Generations of black students and the black unskilled had used these jobs as a stepping-stone up the economic ladder to better paying and skilled jobs and professions.

Immigrant rights groups countered that these were jobs that blacks wouldn't take anyway, and in bashing Latinos, blacks were unfairly scapegoating them for their loss of economic ground. By then, the memory of black and Latino cooperation that had marked the Poor Peoples March had long since faded. For too many blacks and Latinos, that model no longer seemed relevant anyway.

They are wrong. Despite its towering logistical problems, mishaps and ideological rifts, the march still ranks as the best effort black and Latino leaders have made to forge an alliance to fight for civil rights and economic justice. For King and the small band of black visionary activists, injustice was injustice, and it didn't matter whether the victim was an American-born black or a foreign-born Latino. For that too brief moment in history, the Poor Peoples March meshed the old civil rights movement for black rights with a broader movement for the civil rights of other minorities. That's still a worthy model to emulate to truly transform the immigrant rights movement into the new civil rights movement.

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