The Freedom Riders and the Dreamers: High Noon in the Immigration Debate

04/03/2013 04:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2013

The setting was the iconic Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had served as pastor from 1954 to 1960. Founded in 1877 in a slave trader's pen, the church had been the locus of the Montgomery bus boycott. On stage were the Rev. C.T. Vivian, the civil rights leader and King confidant; Catherine Burks-Brooks, an early Freedom Rider; Henry Fernandez, a board member at the Center for Community Change, which organized the event; and a young man without immigration status living in a state that had recently passed the most punitive "self-deportation" law in the nation.

The gathering brought together veteran civil rights activists with the Dreamers, the network of young people brought to the United States as children that have galvanized the immigrant rights movement. After Rev. Vivian and Burks-Brooks spoke, Hernandez asked the young man to describe why he had risked deportation to publicize his story. He began haltingly. He said that he had grown up in Alabama and, like many Dreamers, had been surprised to learn that he lacked immigration status. He said he did not have a dramatic story to tell: it was just that he had become "tired." Burks-Brooks turned toward him and nodded in encouragement. He said he had grown tired of worrying that his mother would be deported. "Yes, that's right, tired," Burks-Brooks said. Tired, he said, of looking in the mirror every morning and worrying that he could be arrested at school and deported that day and might never see his mother again. Tired, Burks-Brooks repeated. Tired, he said, of living in fear. As the young man continued his story, emboldened by the Freedom Rider, "it was lost on no one," according to one member of the audience, that 56-years earlier in the same city, a young woman who had also grown tired had ignited the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus.

Many resist drawing parallels between the African-American civil rights movement and the immigrant rights movement. However, Burks-Brooks sees many similarities. "One similarity is what they have to do" she said recently. "There's a law against them and they need to change the law. They need to get the law on their side." The young man's decision to go public with his story had been motivated by his deep fatigue at his situation. "Well, with some of us," Burks-Brooks said, "we'd been tired and fed up all our lives. I felt I had been resented all my life." What about the risks of coming forward? "The main thing that locks you down is fear," she said. "Once you get over that, you can move. You have to move. Little steps first. Then you take the big steps."

Burks-Brooks and the other Nashville Freedom Riders had been deported from Alabama by Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, with whom she spoke throughout the trip. "I had no fear of Bull," she said. When Connor deposited her group - with their luggage -- in the early morning hours in a secluded spot on the Alabama/Tennessee border, she told him that they would be "back in Birmingham by high noon." "I said 'high noon,'" she explained, because in the Western movies, "if something was going to go down, it would be at high noon." High noon is coming in the immigration debate. It's coming largely because a group of courageous young people confronted their fear, and took little steps, then big steps. "I feel very, very strongly," said Burks-Brooks "that they should be allowed to stay."