When I see the words "Jim Crow," I think of the south, of segregation, of black codes, of a minstrel show song.
When I think of Alabama and segregation those images run the gamut of violence—little girls in a bombed church in Birmingham, Bull Connor, marchers being hosed.
They are stark images, in black and white.
The people are black and white as well.
It seems that we have slid backwards to those days in Alabama—except perhaps we should reference "Juan Crow" now, instead of Jim.
When I think of Alabama's racial history, and those who tilled its soil in the past, first as enslaved people and then after emancipation as sharecroppers, it is yet another study in black and white:
In Reconstruction-era United States, sharecropping was one of few options for penniless freedmen to conduct subsistence farming and support themselves and their families. Other solutions included the crop-lien system (where the farmer was extended credit for seed and other supplies by the merchant), a rent labor system (where the former slave rents their land but keeps their entire crop), and the wage system (worker earns a fixed wage, but keeps none of their crop). Sharecropping was by far the most economically efficient, as it provided incentives for workers to produce a bigger harvest. It was a stage beyond simple hired labor, because the sharecropper had an annual contract. During Reconstruction, the Freedman's Bureau wrote and enforced the contracts.Alabama Negro working in field
near Eutaw, Alabama.
(Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress)
However, sharecropping was an easy way for white former slave owners to take advantage of uneducated freedmen. Former slaves had little to no education, so the landowner could draw up a 70-30 contract instead of half.
Croppers were assigned a plot of land to work, and in exchange owed the owner a share of the crop at the end of the season, usually one-half. The owner provided the tools and farm animals. Farmers who owned their own mule and plow were at a higher stage and are called tenant farmers; they paid the landowner less, usually only a third of each crop. In both cases the farmer kept the produce of gardens.
Fast forward to now.
Blacks are still trying to wrench a living from the soil in Alabama and other parts of the south. They still face racial and economic discrimination. The recent Pigford settlement stands as testimony to their struggle.
But the south is changing—and more often than not, the faces of those tilling and picking are the ruddy copper brown of Mexico and points further south, and the sibilant sound of spoken Spanish is heard in the fields.
Census: Alabama Latino Population Up 145% in 10 Years
Editor’s Note: Alabama saw a 145-percent increase in its Latino population between 2000 and 2010, the second-highest Latino growth rate in the nation, after South Carolina. The two states that saw the biggest increase in Latinos have enacted two of the strictest immigration laws in the country.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The song 'Sweet Home Alabama' has a special resonance for the thousands of Hispanics who have made this state their home in the past 10 years. Although they only account for 3.9% of the total population according to the 2010 Census, the number of Latinos living in Alabama increased 145% in the last decade, from 75,830 in 2000 to 185,602 in 2010. "We were a little surprised to know that Alabama was the second fastest growing state in the country. However, we believe that the census figure was a little low. We believe (the actual number of Latinos in Alabama) is close to 200,000," said Isabel Rubio, founder and director of Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA).
The purchasing power of Latinos in Alabama in 2009 was $3 billion, an increase of 1025% according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
The largest population increase occurred in the counties of Tallapoosa, with a 331% increase, and Shelby, which grew 297% since 2000. But the county with the most Latinos is still Jefferson, with 25,488 Hispanic residents, followed by Madison in the north with 15,404. In Alabama, the majority of Latinos work in construction, gardens and services, and in chicken factories in the north. More than 50% of Latinos in Alabama are Mexican. In 2010, undocumented immigrants in Alabama paid $25,769,851 in personal taxes, $5,825,919 in property taxes and $98,709,564 in sales tax, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
Where once we thought of civil rights battles in Birmingham and Montgomery as the forging of activist ties between blacks and progressive whites, a new civil rights battle is upon us—this time building bridges between latino migrants, blacks, whites and other peoples of color.
We now face a new Jim Crow—or perhaps it is the "same ole same ole." The languages may have changed, but the conditions are the same. Where once harsh black codes were enacted to repress blacks, we now have draconian laws like Alabama's HB 56 to contend with, and similar measures in Georgia, South Carolina and Arizona.
Alabama Federal Judge Calls State Immigration Law "Civil Rights Crisis"
African-American voices are increasingly joining the choir of advocates who say that Alabama’s controversial immigration law, HB 56, is one of the largest attacks to civil rights since segregation. The latest to join the fight against HB 56 is federal judge and civil rights veteran U. W. Clemon, who says that the law is not just a problem for immigrants, but a critical civil rights issue. "We are at a point in American history where powerful forces are determined to turn back the clock on the tremendous progress we made in civil rights over the last 100 years," Clemon told the ACLU. "And they've come very far in doing so."
Clemon, whose career as an advocate has spanned many decades and included experiences such as marching in demonstrations alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and becoming the state's first African-American federal judge, says that among all civil rights issues he has seen in recent years, HB 56 stands out as the most offensive and requires swift action. "The Alabama immigration law was designed to be the most severe, the harshest immigration law in the country," he said. "The design, purpose of it was to drive out people who don't look like us. In this instance, it turned out to be Hispanics. Many of them, unfortunately, are American citizens, just as American as you and I."
One of the important features of this new coalition that has formed in opposition to HB 56 is that it not only cuts across racial and ethnic lines, but it is engaging inter-faith communities: Baptists and Catholics, Evangelicals and Jews. It cuts across class lines, and labor leaders are now engaged.
Heavy hitters from American labor are now on the ground taking a special interest in Alabama due to the growing controversy surrounding the state's draconian immigration law. An AFL-CIO sponsored delegation of union leaders actively engaged in the struggle for civil and human rights recently spent a day in Birmingham and Pelham getting a first-hand view of the law's impact by hearing from local community leaders and undocumented workers.
Back in July, an interfaith protest march was held, and congregations from around the state continue to make their voices heard in protest. Some church leaders came together to file suit against its enactment.
Caught in a web of their own making, white farmers and business owners who depend on an immigrant labor force are feeling more than a pinch. The Republican elected officials they voted into office, who patted themselves on the back for passing this travesty, are now the object of scorn from their own electorate who stand in their fields watching crops rot, unharvested. They want solutions, they want workers, and the solutions proffered by officials aren't gonna cut the mustard or pick the greens.
Many of their loud complaints have wound up on the desk of John McMillan, commissioner of agriculture in Alabama, where life is already changing under the new immigration law:
John McMillan, Alabama's agriculture commissioner, has urged the state to force residents receiving unemployment benefits to take farm-labor jobs or risk losing their benefits. "[The Legislature] had no idea of the unintended consequences," Mr. McMillan told a meeting of Alabama editorial writers recently.
Ala. ag chief recommends inmate labor for farms
Oct. 7, 2011, 4:30 p.m. CDT
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's agriculture commissioner, John McMillan, is suggesting farmers look at work-release inmates if they are experiencing labor shortages due to Alabama's new immigration law. Some farmers have complained that Hispanic workers who traditionally harvested their crops have left and they can't find replacement workers. A spokesman for the Department of Corrections says there are 2,300 inmates in the work-release program and they are available for all types of jobs, including farming. But spokesman Brian Corbett says the department can't attribute any increase in work-release jobs to the immigration law so far.
McMillan says he's talking with officials from the governor's office, Department of Corrections, and Department of Industrial Relations to find short-term and long-term solutions to farm labor problems.
Sound familiar? Inmate labor looks a lot like slave labor to me. And doubtful anyone collecting unemployment from being laid off in today's economy has plans to head into the fields to pick tomatoes.
None of these band-aid "solutions" are going to work. Nor should they, since they don't get to the root of the problem. We need immigration reform that goes hand in hand with ending farm labor inequity.
Listen to the unhappy voices of some of the white growers and business owners:
The impact of this bill, and others like it, affects everyone. As people continue to protest in the streets, the battle continues on the legal front. Just as in past civil rights struggles, long-time fighters from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, and others are engaged. As is the federal government. The Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, filed suit back in August.
Here's the latest update on the status of the battles in court:
SPLC Ready for Long Legal Battle Over Alabama’s Harsh Anti-Immigrant Law
We would have preferred for the entire law to be blocked until a final – and permanent – ruling is reached by the judicial system. While that has not happened, we’re encouraged that we’ve kept several provisions from taking effect. It’s important because a long legal process is ahead of us. Right now, we have been granted a partial preliminary injunction, which will last until the federal district court makes a final ruling in the case. It is this preliminary injunction that is currently on appeal in the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit (it is also the preliminary injunction that the 11th Circuit expanded by blocking two additional provisions of HB 56 while the appeal is pending).
After the 11th Circuit rules, the same issues could go as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. But that is just the beginning. After the appeals process of the preliminary injunction is over, we will go back to the U.S. District Court and seek a permanent injunction – an order that permanently blocks parts of the law from taking effect.
The SPLC is ready for this long legal battle. The fear and panic that has spread across Alabama is a stark and frightening reminder of why this law must be struck down. We have seen families pulling their children from school out of fear. Crops are rotting in the fields because workers – regardless of their immigration status – have fled the state rather than live under this law. Families have been told their water supply will be cut off because they cannot produce their “papers.” This isn’t a viable or humane solution to the problems in our nation’s immigration system. It’s a campaign of fear and chaos that has trampled the rights of the state’s residents. We will not stop until this law is defeated and the rights of all Alabamians are protected.
If you are in Alabama, or have friends or family there, the SPLC has established a Spanish/English hotline for people to report abuses: 1.800.982.1620. Please pass this information on.
Calls to SPLC Hotline Show Alabama Anti-Immigrant Law Creating Humanitarian Crisis
It is already clear this law is wreaking havoc in people’s lives:
Our filing describes how in at least one Montgomery public school, teachers questioned currently enrolled Latino students about their immigration status and the immigration status of their parents. This happened despite assurances from the state that currently enrolled students would not be questioned. News reports have clearly shown that school children – regardless of immigration status – are being kept out of school. We have heard from people asking if their landlord can kick them out of their apartment because the law invalidates leases with undocumented immigrants. Countless families could be pushed out of their homes and into the streets as we wait for this law to be declared unconstitutional. We’re also hearing of utility authorities requiring proof of immigration status for customers to maintain water service. In other words, some families may have to go without clean water and the convenience of indoor plumbing while they wait on the courts to determine what we’ve known all along – this law is unconstitutional and should have never been enforced.
These stories, and many others like them, show why we're working to have the law blocked until the court issues a final ruling. Too many lives are being thrown into disarray. The SPLC pledges to continue fighting this law. We also will continue to educate people of their rights under this law and maintain a hotline for people to report issues pertaining to it.
As more people recognize the impact of these laws on their daily lives, we have the potential as progressives to stop the backsliding and forge forward in a strong united rainbow coalition, once again.
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. The people, united, will never be defeated.