Immigration, NAFTA, and Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King in Mexico
Remarks at the Autonomous University of Mexico City, April 2008
By Gerald Lenoir
Director, Black Alliance for Just Immigration
April 21, 2008
I would like to first thank the Autonomous University of Mexico City, the Mexico City Human Rights Commission, Casa de los Amigos, Mesoamerican Migrant Movement and the other sponsors for inviting me to speak at this first Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Symposium. It is, indeed, an honor to be a part of an event on Mexican soil honoring a leader that has been so important to the struggle for peace and justice in the United States and the world. Hosting this event is a testament to Dr. King’s relevance to peoples and struggles in the Americas, in this hemisphere and all over the world.
It is hard for me to believe that it has been forty years since Dr. King’s untimely assassination. On April 4, 1968, I was a 19 year-old sophomore at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Like most African Americans, I was stunned, saddened and outraged by the murder of a man who stood for justice, love and nonviolence. That night, we marched, we cried and we resolved that Dr. King’s death would not be in vain.
In the aftermath of his death, black students on campus banded together and demanded a Black Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin. The black student demands, supported by many white students, led to campus-wide strikes and for the first time in the history of the university, the National Guard occupied the campus. Students were beaten, arrested and some were expelled from the university. But in the end, we prevailed.
In the fall of 1969, the Department of Afro-American Studies was established as a result of the student actions. We were inspired by Dr. King and honored his memory by continuing his legacy of nonviolent direct action for social equality.
Over the next few days, many people in the United States and throughout the world will honor Dr. King as a great Civil Right leader. And well they should. He fought with every fiber of his corporeal, intellectual, and spiritual self to free his people—black people—from the bondage of Jim Crow segregation and racist exploitation.
But to remember Dr. King as just a Civil Rights leader would do an injustice to his life and his legacy. Dr. King transcended the divisions of race, class and nationality to become, over the course of his life, a champion of social and economic justice for all peoples of the world. By the time of his death in 1968, the Martin Luther King, Jr. that headed the Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott in 1955 had been transformed from a nascent U.S. Civil Rights leader to an international champion of human rights. He espoused what I believe is a form of liberation theology adapted to the conditions facing African Americans in the twentieth century. Of his faith, Dr. King said:
“A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions… Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”
Dr. King combined his religious beliefs with a concrete analysis of conditions and a prescription for change. He often spoke out against what he called the triple threat of racism, militarism and materialism. He called for a “revolution of values” and a new world order. In his speech, “Beyond Vietnam” which he delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, Dr. King said:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
He went on to say, “A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’ It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”
In that same speech, Dr. King called for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, calling the U.S. government, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
At the time, Dr. King’s indictment of the U.S. government was extremely controversial. He knew that his stance against the Vietnam War and his call for economic justice would create a backlash. Some of his advisors warned him not to speak out against the war but he went against this advice. Dr. King saw the issues of racism, militarism and economic exploitation as inextricably linked. He addressed this issue in his speech at the Riverside Church.
He said, “For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear…
“Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. I America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.”
The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that we honor here today was a man of far-reaching vision, deep religious conviction, incisive analysis and decisive action. His understanding of the world and his commitment to nonviolent direct action are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.
Today we face the same constellation of issues—racism, militarism and materialism—that Dr. King so eloquently denounced and fought against. In the United States, this triple “axis of evil,” if you will, is arrayed against working class people, especially people of color, who are bearing the brunt of economic recession, a resurgence of white supremacist ideology, and the prosecution of an illegal and immoral war in Iraq. And U.S. foreign, military and trade policies are detrimental to the countries of the Global South to the benefit of U.S. social and economic elites.
I came of age in the Vietnam War era when the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a supposed attack on a U.S. ship by the North Vietnamese, led to a sharp escalation in the war. That attack was later exposed as an outright lie that thousand of Vietnamese people and U.S. troops paid for with their lives. Today, we are embroiled in a preemptive war that was started by the U.S. under the pretext that the Iraqi government was complicit in the 9-11 attacks and possessed weapons of mass destruction it intended to use against the U.S. and its allies. Again, the people of Iraq nd U.S. soldiers are paying the ultimate price for the empire-building ambitions of an out-of-control government.
And over the past three decades in the United States, we have experienced an assault on our basic civil, constitutional and human rights, the criminalization and incarceration of our black and brown youth in record numbers, the militarization of our southern border, a sharp deterioration in the health of our environment, a decline in our standard of living, and the scapegoating of immigrants of color for our economic ills.
In my work in the immigrant rights movement, I am often challenged by black folks. What is a black man born in America doing working for immigrant rights? We black people have so many problems that we should attend to.
My response is to say that the racial justice movement and the immigrant rights movement must unite to form a new human rights movement to challenge the misplaced policies and priorities of our country. The Black Alliance for Just Immigration was founded upon this premise.
Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We say to African Americans that we must come to understand that when immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries are racially and religiously profiled, denigrated as camel jockeys and rag heads, jailed without probable cause and indefinitely detained, that is a threat to our own freedom. When Haitians who have risked their lives in rickety boats to escape political persecution and economic deprivation are jailed and deported; when right wing talk show hosts lament about the “browning of America” and rail against “illegal aliens” from Mexico invading our country; when the Ku Klux Klan morphs into the Minutemen and the White Citizens Council become the Federation of American for Immigration Reform; and when our government pursues a policy of spying on people without warrants, of funneling immigrants across a vast stretch of treacherous, perilous desert, conducting raids on workplaces, homes and schools, and deporting thousands of undocumented immigrants, these are all threats to our own civil, human, and constitutional rights.
African Americans know full well the biting sting of racism. We have fought against it for generations. Our message to black folks is that we cannot stand by while these racist attacks are visited upon our brothers and sisters from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. We have common cause with immigrants of color in fighting against an entrenched system of institutional and structural racism and the ideology of white supremacy.
African Americans have always had allies in our struggle for emancipation, civil rights and social and economic justice. Today, it is in the self-interest of African Americans to align ourselves with immigrants of color who are bearing the brunt of a right wing assault that threatens all of us. We must challenge the media hype and right wing rhetoric and begin to understand the struggle of immigrants in their home countries and as they make their way to the United States.
Of course, that alliance must be a two-way street. We have often challenged immigrant rights activists and immigrant communities to understand and appreciate the contributions and historical significance of the Civil Rights and the Black Power Movements and to understand the current day situation of African Americans. We challenge them to examine the stereotypes about African Americans promoted by the dominant culture and to seek out alliances across a range of issues that affect our communities. The black community in the United States and immigrant communities must enter into an ongoing dialogue and must establish solid relationships built upon mutual respect and political unity for the benefit of all of us. This, I believe is one of the most urgent task of our times.
But the dialogue must also extend beyond borders, as it is today. We must challenge the collusion of elites in our various countries who conspire to violate human rights and who benefit from the exploitation of human labor, land and natural resources.
On April twentieth and twenty-first, President Bush, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet in New Orleans to discuss the expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other issues. Activists, trade unionists and scholars from Mexico, the United States and Canada are joining together in a “People’s Summit” to counter the misinformation about the impact of NAFTA.
Recently the U.S. presidential candidates have been debating the worth of NAFTA. At least one candidate, Barak Obama, admitted what we have been saying—that NAFTA has been one of the major contributing factors to the flow of immigration to the United States. Under NAFTA, Mexico opened its markets to subsidized food crops from the United States. The result, is nearly three million farmers could not compete with cheap U.S. commodities and lost their land and their livelihood. Many of them have migrated to the U.S. looking for jobs.
These and other policies of the U.S. government and similar polices by the European Union have led to the distortion of economies throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Economic globalization and corporate greed have been major contributing factors to displacement and migration. Over 200 million people around the world are migrants, according to the United Nation. We cannot turn a blind eye to the actions and impact of our government and corporations.
In our discussions with African Americans, we point out how these forces of economic globalization impacted black communities in the seventies during the first round of globalization. As the Civil Rights Movement opened up jobs for African Americans in manufacturing—in the auto industry, the tire and rubber industry, the steel industry and others—we were faced with the phenomenon of the “runaway shops.” To lower their labor costs and to escape labor and environmental laws, corporations simply picked up and moved their operations to Taiwan or Mexico or somewhere else with a “business-friendly environment.” This meant that the hard fought economic gains of African Americans evaporated. And people of the Global South have been subjected to inhumane working conditions for little pay. This continues today in the maquiladores of Mexico and the sweatshops of Bangladesh. I say all that to say that African Americans, immigrants of color in the United States, and peoples of the Global South have a basis to fight together against the negative impacts of globalization and for social and economic justice for all of us.
Whether we are motivated by our religious beliefs, our humanitarian convictions, or our political principles, we must come together across the lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation and national borders to be a part of a unified movement calling for social and economic justice for all. Using critical analysis, building strategic alliances and engaging in direct action across the globe, we can overcome. This is the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the challenge of the 21st Century. Si se puede!
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