More than 40 years after the famous civil rights Freedom Riders challenged
segregation in the southern states, a new Freedom Ride is being planned to champion
the rights of millions of immigrants in the United States without documents.
The aim is to bring hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters
from all corners of the country to Washington to press politicians to grant them
a new legal status.
Among the leaders of the new Freedom Ride are relatives of immigrant workers
who died in the World Trade Center and surviving members of the original protests
in the early 1960s who rode buses to flout laws that prohibited racially mixed
groups from traveling and associating together.
The purpose of the ride, which also has the backing of the major unions and
churches and will take place in spring 2003, is to draw attention to the plight
of millions of immigrants who work in the shadows for meager wages and live in
fear of deportation. There are an estimated eight million to 10 million undocumented
immigrants in the US.
"A freedom ride is a great idea to make our land live up to the ideal of equality
of all," said the Rev James Lawson, one of the original freedom riders, a colleague
of Martin Luther King, a student of the teachings of Gandhi and the pioneer of
non-violence in the civil rights struggle in the US.
"Our business is not primarily in Afghanistan or the Middle East but to secure
equality and justice here."
Mr Lawson spoke at the launch of the new Freedom Ride at a gathering last week
of union and church leaders, civil rights activists and relatives of workers at
the Windows on the World restaurant who were killed on September 11.
He said that many people in the US had been unaware of the horrors of segregation
until they were brought to their attention by the Freedom Rides in 1961.
"We have something of the same thing going on with the matter of immigrants,"
said Mr Lawson.
Another leading original Freedom Rider, Congressman John Lewis, will also participate.
Before September 11, moves were underway to legitimize the millions - estimates
vary as to exactly how many - of undocumented immigrants in the US. But since
then, immigration controls have tightened and the issue has dropped off the political
agenda. Organizers hope the Freedom Ride will revive it.
Freedom Riders will board buses in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston,
Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis and Boston and will converge first on New York and
then on Washington.
The manifesto of the ride stops short of asking for an amnesty for illegals
and suggests a program that includes the right for all immigrant workers to apply
for citizenship and to reunite their families.
The situation of many immigrant workers was highlighted by what happened in
the wake of September 11. All 43 workers at the Windows on the World restaurant
were killed and some of their relatives were afraid to ask for help because they
were in the country illegally.
Their stories have been told in a documentary, Windows, directed by David Koff,
which is being used as a recruiting and fundraising tool for the Freedom Ride.
Koff made the 1978 documentary, Blacks Britannica, about race in Britain.
The new film was screened at the Freedom Ride launch at Dreamworks animation
studios in California, and the widow of one of the workers, Carmen Mejia, called
for support for the ride.
John Wilhelm, the president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
International Union (Here), many of whose members are undocumented, said the ride
offered Americans the chance "for opening our arms and welcoming the people who
make this country possible".
The unions' support for the march is seen as crucial. In 2000, the powerful
AFL-CIO - America's union federation - changed its historic opposition to immigrants
and is now supporting the ride. Previously, the major unions had opposed undocumented
workers whom they saw as undercutting their members.
Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, said the
ride would draw attention to the "faceless people" who pick the country's food,
clean the offices and streets and make the hotel beds.
"We reached back [to 1961] to get the inspiration we all need sometimes,"
said Maria Elena Durazo, vice-president of Here. "We want to make history."
In 1968, Mr Lawson invited Martin Luther King to Memphis to support the striking
sanitation workers. The visit ended in King's assassination. Just before his death,
King told a rally: "You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment
Mr Lawson and the other leaders of the new Freedom Ride (www.immigrantworkersfreedomride.com)
are hoping to bring that message to a new audience.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002