Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2013

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Today, many of us will be marching for unity and justice on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and we’ll be listening carefully to the words of President Barack Obama at his inauguration in Washington, DC.

Less than one year ago, OneAmerica partnered with dozens of immigrant rights and civil rights organizations from across the nation in a powerful reenactment of the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama.  We marched for a week following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr and the grassroots civil rights leaders of his era.  As Alabama State Senator Hank Sanders described the experience, we were praying with our feet.  We were together – African American, Latino, Asian American, and so many others – unified, in remembrance and hope.

March in Alabama

The broad themes of the re-enactment centered on a common commitment to civil rights, voting rights and immigrant rights. I was particularly moved by the broad commitment to finally enact comprehensive immigration reform and a pointed call for the repeal of HB56, the extremist anti-immigrant law enacted in the Alabama legislature the year before. The message from generations of civil rights leaders that led the march was clear: the movement is alive and growing; together, we are powerful, and the struggle for immigrant rights must be embraced by the entire movement for social justice, just as the struggle for immigrant rights is at its core a vibrant element of the broader movement for civil rights.

Together, we called for unity, and we pointed our attention to the hard work ahead to fight against unjust immigration and voter suppression laws, and committed to registering voters in our communities, turning them out to vote in the November elections.

As a member of the organizing committee of the re-enactment, the experience was especially meaningful.

I had been working with grassroots leaders in Alabama for more than a decade. I took my first pilgrimage to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the late 1990s. I was working with public housing residents, people with disabilities, faith leaders and the Montgomery Improvement Association to support the Montgomery Transportation Coalition, an effort to restore basic transit service to Montgomery’s residents. The same bus system that African Americans had fought to integrate through the famous bus boycott, had fallen into severe disrepair due to sprawl and disinvestment to the point where anyone in need of public transportation could only catch a bus if they called the city’s transit company in advance to schedule a pick-up.

Years of organizing returned basic bus service to the city, but the experience brought home that while the arc of history may bend toward justice, the march toward justice can only be assured by the active and courageous organizing of individual and institutions willing to take action.

Several years later, I was living in Alabama while coordinating the work of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a national coalition of immigrant rights organizations of which OneAmerica is a member. Many may recall the massive mobilizations that took place in 2006 in response to a harsh immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives in December 2005. It was from Washington, DC and Montgomery, AL where we helped to coordinate many of those marches, including a wave of mobilizations that took place on April 10 in the build up to the traditional May Day marches on May 1st. As part of a massive day of mobilization, thousands marched on April 10th in communities like Birmingham and Albertville, AL; Lexington, KY; Columbus, SC and countless towns and cities often overlooked.

What set apart the 2012 re-enactment from the immigrant mobilizations of the recent past was the deep and engaged leadership of the African American community and the tremendous diversity of those leaders from across the nation who came to walk for more than 60 miles over a week’s time, and then participated in rallies that engaged thousands along the way, around a shared commitment to our common struggle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of 2013 will have special political meaning, and in my heart, special resonance. Last November, a powerful electoral coalition of African American, Latino, Asian American, and younger voters helped to propel President Obama to re-election. He won reelection not on a tide of hope and change, as he did in 2008, but because voters came out and voiced their support for the president’s promises to push forward on issues like comprehensive immigration reform. This coalition strongly rejected the tone and policies of the President’s challenger around issues like immigration, voting rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, and here in Washington State, LGBT equality. And these voters embraced the notion that we have a shared future grounded in our nation’s growing diversity, and that this change must be embraced rather than feared. I’m proud of OneAmerica’s work to engage and turn-out voters last fall. At any given moment in the weeks leading up to the election, we were conducting GOTV phone banks in up to 7 different languages.

At OneAmerica our strength rests soundly in the commitment of our grassroots base and supporters, and our political power is grounded in coalition. Our future will be defined by our diversity, and the same can be said for our state and our nation. As we celebrate MLK day and the inauguration of the President’s second term, let’s bear down on the important and urgent work ahead to enact comprehensive immigration reform and to live a vision inclusive of all of our communities.

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