What do Rosa Parks, César Chávez, Japanese Americans, Nelson Mandela and American Jews have in common? They were all law breakers. “Illegals” we would call them today. And like today’s undocumented Mexicans (and the other third of the state population in Arizona who look like Mexicans), they were suspect and persecuted primarily because of their race.
In 1955, Montgomery, Alabama police charged Rosa Parks with violating the local segregation laws by sitting in a “Whites Only” part of the bus. In 1973 César Chávez, (a native Arizonan) and 3,500 migrant farm workers were arrested for striking against unfair employment practices in California. Of course, the fact that they were mostly Mexican-Americans made it easier to argue they didn’t deserve the same rights as other Americans at the time.
In 1942 Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the mass incarceration of 110,000 Japanese Americans. Two-thirds were American citizens, and more than half were children and infants. From 1948 to 1994 thousands of black and white South Africans, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested for violating the segregation “apartheid” laws of that country.
Jewish discrimination has roots during the Civil War, when General Ulysses S. Grant issued an order of expulsion against Jews from the portions of Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi under his control. President Lincoln rescinded the order shortly thereafter. Despite Lincoln’s action, Jews continued to be discriminated against in employment, social clubs and colleges throughout most of the 19th and part of the 20th centuries.
In most of these cases, popular opinion supported these unjust laws and discriminatory treatment of certain groups. Whites in the American South overwhelmingly supported laws such as the one used to arrest Rosa Parks. California farmers and many local citizens supported the unequal treatment of Mexican migrant farm workers. The overwhelming majority of Americans supported the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Most white South Africans and western governments did not oppose apartheid until two decades after its implementation. And only recent generations of Jews have been fully accepted in the American social and political landscape.
Headed for the dustbin
There are other similarities between these historic events and countless other misguided attempts, such as Arizona’s SB1070 to deny rights based on national mood, a poor economy, or unabashed racism:
• First, all of these policies or laws have at their core discrimination against a group of people because of their race or nationality.
• Second, all them justified arresting and punishing these groups based on “illegal” activity – i.e. they broke laws that perpetuated discrimination.
• Third, as discussed above, these laws had broad support in their local and national citizenry, at least among those in the majority or in power.
•Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all of these laws were ultimately repealed, struck down or otherwise relegated to the dustbin of history.
So it will be with Arizona’s SB1070 and similar attempts around the country. Unjust laws that target people based on race or national origin have never survived in America or most of the civilized world.
Whether they are blacks or Japanese or Jews or Mexicans, the courageous and just among our leaders and countrymen have stood up to these efforts – even if it was politically unpopular at the time. And history is on their side.
Let’s hope more Americans speak out
Thomas Jefferson once said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Not enough Americans are speaking out against SB1070.
The vast majority of Americans are themselves descendents of immigrants who came to this country for the same reasons most Mexican immigrants come here – to work, to raise their children with an education, and most of all to have some dignity. There were no papers or documents when the Irish, Italians, Germans, Dutch or countless other waves of immigrants arrived on our shores. They were welcomed and, although many faced some of the same discrimination Mexicans face today, ultimately they became part of the American mosaic and we are better for it.
Rosa Parks said, “I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.” She wasn’t just talking about black people.
Let’s hope the ill-conceived Arizona immigration law, and the nationalistic and often racist sentiments it has raised in American public opinion, will go the way that segregation in the South, apartheid in South Africa, Japanese internment, and anti-Semitic laws and the “leaders” who defended them have all gone – straight into the scrap heap of dark chapters in history.
Let’s also hope that more Americans and their leaders speak out against this kind of political scapegoating.
Griego is a state senator representing southern Albuquerque, the East Mountains and Northern Valencia County. He is the former chairman of the state economic development commission and former president of the NM municipal league.