REPORTING FROM BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA — All around this city, the cradle of the civil rights movement, history emanates from solemn streets.
This is, after all, home to the 16th Street Baptist Church, the historic African American sanctuary where four girls were killed after a bomb exploded, marking a turning point in the state's — and country's — segregated past. Nearly five decades later, a different sort of explosion, at once moral, political and economic, rocks the largest city in this Southern state, directly targeting yet another racial group: Alabama's relatively small but growing Latino immigrant population.
Until last week, when the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit temporarily blocked sections of HB 56, the country's toughest immigration law, it was a state crime for undocumented immigrants to even be in the state, and schools were required to ask for the immigration status of students who are enrolling. But among the sections of the law, overwhelmingly supported by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley, that remain in place is that it's a felony for undocumented immigrants to conduct a "business transaction" with any governmental entity. As ruled last month by District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, it's essentially a crime for undocumented immigrants to get running water in their house or apartment, and the police are required to ask for a driver's immigration status if he or she is pulled over during a traffic stop.
In arguably one of the most high profile criticisms of the law's ruling, the federal judge whom Blackburn succeeded as chief of the United States District Court for the Northern District said that Blackburn was "mistaken."
"I’m sure that she ruled in accordance with what [Blackburn] views to be the law," U.W. Clemon, Alabama's first black federal judge who served on the bench for nearly 30 years, told me in an exclusive interview. "Unfortunately, in some very serious ways, she was mistaken."
Sitting in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church early Sunday, following a breakfast forum attended by some of the state's most influential political and religious leaders, including former Alabama governor Don Siegelman and Rev. Lawton Higgs, Sr., a former chaplain for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Clemon was unequivocal in his attack of HB 56. As a young civil rights activist in the 1960s (he challenged Bull Connor and George Wallace, he helped desegregate the University of Alabama), he considers the law as an affront to not just to Latinos, undocumented and documented, but to all Americans, particularly because of the country's racial and racist history. As it happened, this was the same day the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. Clemon had marched alongside King.
"Ours is a country basically that is based on immigration. We are a nation of immigrants. Only two categories of Americans don’t fall into the category of immigrants, and that is the Native Americans – the Indians – and the black Americans. We’re the only ones who didn’t seek to come here," said Clemon, who retired two years ago and now practices law privately. "Everybody else has to look to Europe, or Asia, in terms of their background, in terms of their ancestors coming to America, most of them without having to go through all kinds of hoops to become Americans. They just showed up, and worked hard."
In a speech to the breakfast forum, and in a subsequent interview, Clemon, the son of Mississippi sharecroppers, said that in light of the HB 56 ruling, "the Hispanic man is the new Negro."
"It's a sad thing to say," Clemon told me, "and I think it reflects reality."
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