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From Jim Crow to Juan Crow -- a Boomer Reflects on Alabama's Civil Rights Legacy

Posted: 10/13/11 02:16 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Last week the Water Works -- in the ironically named community of Allgood, Ala. -- informed local residents that they must now present a valid driver's license or ID. Otherwise, the notice threatened, "You may lose water service."

The warning stems from part of Alabama's drastic new immigration law stipulating that no one can qualify for a driver's license or any other government service in the state unless they can prove citizenship or are otherwise authorized to be in the United States -- especially those who are brown or have a Spanish accent.

Water as a Racial Divide

The official notice from the Allgood Alabama Water Works was not the first time the good citizens of the Cotton State have used water as a racial divide.

Similar images flowed through my mind during a long bus ride 46 years ago. I was on my way to join the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. That was a time of shocking black-and-white TV pictures of police blasting demonstrators off their feet with water canons, a time of separate toilets and water fountains -- legislated by other laws -- for blacks and whites.

Today, Jim Crow has become Juan Crow.

Last week's eager decision on the Water Works by the Allgood mayor streamed from the unexpected ruling by U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn in Birmingham. Although she nullified much of Alabama's new anti-immigrant law, she left intact clauses that authorize police to demand "papers" showing citizenship or immigration status, such as during traffic stops, and denying the parched but undocumented so much as a tap of water.

Frightened by Judge Blackburn's decision, Alabama's growing Latino population is now fleeing that state in huge numbers.

One small town, Albertville, lost a substantial part of its Hispanic population -- including those with documentation to be in the United States -- practically overnight.

While local farmers and contractors complain that the exodus leaves them without enough labor to harvest crops and complete their jobs, I wonder how many of those in flight from the prospect of police harassment are fully established U.S. citizens, born and bred here -- like me, and maybe you, too.

Judge Blackburn also preserved a requirement compelling public schools to verify the immigration status of children and their parents. That, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center is "a provision that will have a chilling effect on children's access to public schools."

Of course, outrage and condemnation over the immigration law will continue to flare in the coming weeks, and the Obama administration has asked for a federal court injunction to stop implementation of the law until it can work its way through the federal judiciary.

Rolling Toward Selma

But the Alabama decision -- coming the same week that witnessed the death of Fred Shuttelsworth, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Derrick Bell, the Harvard law civil rights advocate -- sent my mind rolling back through Birmingham on a chartered bus full of college students almost a half-century ago.

I was 19 and one of about 20,000 people wheeling in from around the country following Bloody Sunday. That was the police riot that left protesters like John Lewis -- now a member of Congress -- bloodied as they tried peacefully to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the first leg of a march to the state capital in Montgomery.

Decades before Twitter feeds existed, and long before anyone called us baby boomers, calls had gone out for student support. Organizers at the University of Minnesota, where I was a sophomore, mustered enough of us to fill two, maybe three buses.

In the ensuing days after the attack on the marchers, U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy called out the National Guard to protect marchers from the likes of the Klan and police thugs, such as Selma Sheriff Jim Clark and Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, one Eugene "Bull" Connor.

As our Minnesota bus traveled south through the afternoon and night, I hunched sleepily against a bus window. In the aisle seat next to me was my college roommate, Teferi, a fellow journalism student from Ethiopia.

In the early morning light, I felt the bus pull into a gas station. Drowsy at first, I took in the station's homespun blue-and-white paint job. Then I found myself wide awake at a sight I'd only read about until that moment.

Two water fountains were marked "For Whites" and "Colored."

I was not prepared for the jarring emotional impact that sight had on me. As I glanced over at my ebony friend and idol, Teddy (whom we on the Minnesota Daily staff all called the coolest, most worldly guy), I felt tears moisten my eyes and anger tighten my chest.

There it was, right in front of us, in all of its banal, institutionalized expression of fear and hatred. The prosaic sight now before me was somehow even more unsettling than the televised images of police dogs, Billy clubs and flailing limbs in water.

By Alabama law, Teddy and I simply could not share the same spout for a drink of water because -- because why?

The gas-station stop was quick, and only those with a morning urge got off the bus; we were trying to get to Selma and the Brown AME Church as soon as possible before heading out to join march.

The decades have rolled by like so many state "Welcome To ..." signs, and the years have sped along fueled by many causes, loves and regrets, among the latter a falling out with Teddy -- all my fault -- that remains unrepaired.

But in the miles toward Selma that morning -- and again now -- I couldn't help but think of the folk-music inquiry of those days, "When will they ever learn?" Sad to say, even after this "long time passing," the answer remains, not yet...

 

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