Posts Tagged ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’

Civil Rights Opportunity of the Century

April 5, 2008

When Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he had in mind several prominent preachers, including Episcopal Bishop C.C. Jones Carpenter. When King wrote, “The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people,” he was envisioning these men of faith who had their hands on the levers of hundreds of thousands of consciences. While C.C. Jones Carpenter legalistically disagreed with King’s direct action strategies, he was in effect weighing in with support for the segregationists. One of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr‘s best friends, Bishop Will Scarlett, had attempted earlier to rouse Carpenter’s conscience for integration. Scarlett wrote that integration was “…in line with my suggestion years ago that the sight of the great Bishop of Alabama ridden out of his State on a rail because of courageous and enlightened speech, would be one of the greatest events of many years…I still think so: I think you have an opportunity of a hundred years.” (Parting the Waters, 742)

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 and the shockingly un-Constitutional waivers of 30 laws this past week in order to hasten the wall’s construction provide American citizens and residents the civil rights opportunity of the century. The Secretary of Homeland Security’s waiving of border citizens’ rights and due process is shocking in its blatant disregard for morality and basic human rights; however, we must not let this, the largest waiver so far in the construction of what would eventually be a 2,000-mile border wall, enervate us and cause us to falter.

No, this mass waiver and the thoughtlessness of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 must serve as a rallying cry to unite Americans and to call for real immigration reform with solidarity. I must admit that when I first heard of the waiver on Tuesday, I trembled with shock and disbelief. Having walked 126 miles with 300 people but a few weeks before in the No Border Wall Walk here in the Rio Grande Valley, I had felt we had made a difference. UTB Professor Eloisa Tamez’s case had been a partial victory, and the UTB decision on Wednesday, March 19, had made all activists and citizens begin to believe that perhaps the lines of dialogue were open and our leaders were willing to listen to reason and conscience. My hopes were jarred this April Fool’s Day 2008, but I have now come to understand that this is merely a call to action.

And so to oppose the foolhardiness of this Fool’s Day decision, people of faith must say to the fool there is a God and he is on the side of the stranger and the migrant. People of faith, from Baptists and Methodists to Mennonites and Lutherans and Quakers, from Catholics and Unitarians to Jews and Muslims and Buddhists – all these people of faith are united around the idea of protecting the sanctity of human life and defending the rights of immigrants. All people of faith must therefore unite in solidarity against a border wall which threatens the way of life and the basic human rights of the millions who live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. People of faith must join in opposition against a double-layered, 18-foot wall which would be economically destructive, environmentally unconscionable, politically backward, socially devastating, and morally reprehensible. If we do not step up in this moment of opportunity, then Dr. King’s words from prison will ring true.

So often [the church] is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent – and often even vocal – sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century (Why We Can’t Wait, 92)

People of faith, and in fact all citizens, must come together today. The REAL ID ACT holds the potential to waive any number of laws in constructing a border wall. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 stands as a deterrent from positive immigration reform and a detriment to the border region, Mexico, and our entire nation of immigrants, both legal and extralegal. Please speak with your faith leader and urge them to adopt a strong resolution against the border wall. The Church is strongest when it is a check of the State, and our nation’s power imbalance must be righted by people of faith today. It is no longer our place to discuss whether or not this is a church issue or a moral dilemma – the time is ripe to do right right now.

America – The Story of Integration

March 21, 2008

    This past week, Obama gave a speech for the ages when he openly confronted the issue of race in a conciliatory fashion. Like him or not, the speech was noteworthy in that it spoke to the future of the United States.  The “more perfect union” he addresses is one in which every little boy and every little girl is afforded the same opportunity to participate in our country’s democracy.  To be successful, we must integrate.

    American history is a long story of integration. Our greatest successes have been ones of inclusion, from Emancipation Proclamation to the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. The most abysmal times in our nation’s history, similarly, have been those times when our nation was most segregated. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Japanese internment camps, Jim Crow Laws, and the long residue of the original sin of slavery are just some examples of the sad moments in our nation’s history when it has refused equal access or equal rights to all its people.

    Our story is one of integration, and it must continue to be so if we are to continue to live up to our moral and social potential. Currently, our country has some 12-20 million people residing and working within our borders who have been refused the rights, protections, and opportunities most basic to the American story. The same individuals decrying these workers’ rights smack of the same rhetoric segregationists employed with chilling effect in the 1950s and 1960s.

    When my great-great-grandparents immigrated from Ireland to these United States, they were greeted by Army recruiters like so many immigrants. The military has always been ready to bestow citizenship on those immigrants who would be willing to die for their newly adopted country. How much more impactful would it be if our nation were to tender the same means to earned citizenship for workers who have been contributing to, but not benefiting from, Social Security and taxes all these years? To truly call ourselves an “integrated” nation, we must move beyond the rhetoric of black and white and extend the discussion to human beings with and without rights.

    Harvard Professor Charles V. Willie once stated that school desegregation was worlds better than it was 50 years ago, but only nominally different than it was 30 years ago. This idea of an unacceptable plateau can be equally applied to the issue of immigration. Our nation’s immigration policies are more just than they were in the 1920s, when nation of origin and the idea of a racial ratio became the measuring device for who could and could not immigrate legally. However, our nation’s current immigration legislation is much more backward, prohibitive, and segregated than it was 150 years ago before nativistic policies began stemming the full integration of immigrants.

    The United States must decide that it has to abolish the class of illegal immigrants, not through massive and fiscally prohibitive deportations but rather through laws which would moralize the quota system, enhance family reunification policies, allow all students to pursue higher education, and extend a means to earned citizenship for our nation’s extralegal working class. Integration must advance from the limited fields of voter rights and school systems to the heart of civil rights, which is equality for all. Dr. King famously stated in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” that “Anyone who lives within the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” The civil rights movement of this past century stemmed from the migration of peoples and sought to reconcile their rights. For the sake of American history and our country’s future, we must apply this same reconciliation and extend this same palm branch of redemption to those working families who have migrated or would wish to migrate here. Our future depends on the integration of everyone, the full participation of every resident in the American dream. As Joel Millman writes in his book The Other Americans, “Our future is being born today in a village somewhere far away. Our welfare depends on the quality of our welcome when that future arrives.”


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.