Let Freedom Roll
In 1961, 19-year-old Ruby Doris Smith arrived in Rock Hill, South Carolina, fully expecting the violent racist fury that awaited her and the other black students on her bus. At the time, the term "Freedom Ride" had not yet come into use. But everyone, including the menacing white thugs in the bus station, understood that these young people had come to challenge the oppressive state segregation laws that had been struck down, at least on paper, by the US Supreme Court. So prepared for danger were the riders that some had given sealed letters to friends to mail in case they were killed.
I'm thinking of Ruby Doris Smith as I roll down Highway 80 in the brilliant Nevada sunshine, an Afghan homecare worker on my right, a Chinese hotel housekeeper on my left, an African-American custodian in the seat ahead. Each of these women has taken her seat on the bus as part of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR) of 2003. Although theirs is far from the same world confronted by Ruby Doris four decades ago, the powerful moral example of the original riders emboldens them all.
The IWFR sprang from the imagination of organized labor, which has recognized that its future depends on recruiting new immigrant members. The IWFR's ambitious five-point agenda reflects the demands of a diverse immigrant constituency: a new legalization process for undocumented workers, an accessible "path to citizenship," a commitment to family reunification for immigrants waiting for relatives abroad, extension of labor protections to all workers and strengthening of civil rights and liberties to insure equal treatment of immigrants. For two weeks, buses from ten cities--Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Boston and Portland, Oregon--hit the road, bound for Washington, DC, then a rally in Flushing Meadows, Queens, on October 4, where the crowd surged to 100,000, according to organizers.
It's 6 pm on September 23 when my bus pulls up to a local park in Reno, where hundreds of Latino families have gathered to welcome the riders with a barbecue and soccer tournament. The event's speakers include Raul, a Mexican day laborer from San Jose, who describes the harassment of immigrants whose only crime is "looking for work," and Maria, a hotel employee who has not seen her children in El Salvador for fourteen years.
Bob Fulkerson, the fair-haired director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, is elated by the turnout. "In Reno, nothing has ever happened on this scale. Around here the Department of Motor Vehicles will call in the INS when people go to register their car."
In my nine hours on the IWFR bus, I heard a diverse range of stories from the riders, underscoring the breadth of their needs and interests. Many are union members. Most are foreign-born, representing the whole spectrum of immigration status categories, from those without any documents to legal residents to fully naturalized citizens. Olia tells me about how she fled Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power, leaving behind three children. "I never forget," she says, carefully crafting a sentence in English. "I do job eighteen hours every day and save all my money. After four years, my children come."
Or Helen, who speaks to me through an interpreter, and tells of migrating from Hong Kong to take a job as a seamstress in a sweatshop where she "couldn't even make minimum wage." Now she works at the San Francisco Marriott, where she helped lead her Chinese, Latino and Filipino co-workers through a successful six-year union contract fight.
There's Antonia (not her real name), who hesitates before she explains that she is an undocumented Mexican immigrant and a lesbian. She speaks softly in Spanish about her decision not to maintain a heterosexual facade for immigration officials scrutinizing her marriage to a US citizen. "I had to sacrifice the opportunity for 'papers,'" she tells me, "because of my sexual identity."
Then there's Doretha, who talks energetically about what it's like to be a black woman and union steward at her predominantly immigrant worksite. "When you have a language barrier or anything they can put over on you, they'll use it," says Doretha. "It took me a long time to get it," she confesses. "The way they treat immigrants is how they treated us in the sixties."
Who, I wonder, are "they" now?
Of course, there are still traces of the "they" the 1960s Freedom Riders faced: the violent white mobs whose ugliness was captured forever in grainy black-and-white photos. On our bus, I've heard talk that white supremacists will be descending on Little Rock, where one of the IWFR buses is set to stop. I'm concerned, but know it's easy to become preoccupied with isolated flash points, harder to grapple with the insidious structures of racism that mold so much of the daily experience of immigrants and African-Americans.
"The Freedom Rides of the 1960s challenged the racist policies that were central to how the United States functioned," says Bill Fletcher Jr., who left a top-level job at the AFL-CIO to head the TransAfrica Forum. "Through the civil rights movement we won an end to legal racial segregation. But while the 'colored only' signs are gone," notes Fletcher, "racism has taken a different form. Back then, laws prevented blacks from buying certain homes. Now, it's that we can't get a loan, or that a realtor won't show us the house. The enemy is no longer as clear as when you had a George Wallace standing out there."