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Blacks, Latinos Mark Civil Rights Milestone


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, some advocates for more expansive reproductive rights say women are being disrespected and demeaned by state and national debates about access to abortion and contraception, particularly those debates that include few, if any women. We are going to hear from a female state lawmaker who has flipped the script and crafted legislation focused on the reproductive choices of men. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about how activists marked the anniversary of a historic civil rights demonstration this weekend. In Alabama on Sunday, protesters against new laws that take a tougher stance against illegal immigration and requiring voter IDs gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They walked in the footsteps of non-violent protesters who were violently attacked trying to make the same crossing in March of 1965.

That event became known as Bloody Sunday after protesters were viciously beaten by Alabama law enforcement officers. The public outrage that followed those attacks was credited in part with fueling the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The demonstrators gathered this weekend hope to inspire the reexamination of the voting ID and immigration laws in Alabama, and other parts of the country, where they are under consideration. Protesters say they'll continue to march to the state capital, Montgomery, throughout the week.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Orlando Rosa. He is a host for La Jefa, a Spanish-language radio station that broadcasts throughout metropolitan Birmingham. Welcome, Orlando, thanks for joining us.

ORLANDO ROSA: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Also with us, Chuck Dean, senior political reporter for the Birmingham News. Chuck, thank you so much for joining us also.

CHUCK DEAN: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, Chuck, I'm going to ask you to start us off. Tell us about the scene. Tell us the tone of the event.

DEAN: At its height, I think there were several thousand in the crowd that assembled Sunday afternoon. It was a gorgeous day, and you had the Reverend Al Sharpton leading the event. Jesse Jackon, ML King III, other luminaries. A number of people from Congress, congresswomen and men and they marched to the bridge and then crossed it, as I said, led by Reverend Sharpton, and most especially Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, an Alabama native who, 47 years ago, was badly beaten on Bloody Sunday. He is the spiritual leader of the annual commemoration in Selma.

And it was a crowd of African-Americans and a number of Latinos and some whites, all there to push against Alabama's - what some consider to be a harsh immigration law.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that, Chuck. Orlando, I have not forgotten about you. But, Chuck Dean, I wanted to ask, of the people there, how many did you think were there to commemorate the historic event and how many do you think drew a direct line as some of the organizers did between the historic event and the contemporary issues of the voter ID laws and the immigration - anti-illegal immigration measures passed in Alabama?

DEAN: The commemoration is partly solemn event and partly carnival. I would say the several thousand that gathered, a goodly number - perhaps more than half - have drawn that line. They were brought there because of the immigration law and the voter ID issue.

But there were a good number of Hispanics in the crowd. And I have to also point out that when I attempted to talk to a number of them, they would talk to me but very few would give me their full name. One woman told me she was afraid to do so, and that many of us, quote, "many of us are afraid to do so to really identify ourselves."

MARTIN: Orlando, that leads me to you. Orlando Rosa, we've been reporting on the effect of the measures, you know, over the course of the time that they have been debated there. One of the consequences of the law, as we understand it, is that many people of Latino heritage are either leaving the state, trying to leave the state, or trying to stay out of public view, trying to lie low as it were. And I wanted to know in the course of your reporting about this, did you have a sense that more people would have liked to have participated but were afraid to do so? What is your sense of how the overall environment affected the willingness of people to participate?

ROSA: We noticed kind of like a rollercoaster effect. You know, a lot of people, when the law came about and, you know, it was passed, you know, a lot of the people, yes, they went to other states. You know, some went back to their country. You know, the months have gone by. I have sensed that the Hispanics have changed their way of sensing the law or fearing the law. But, yes, there is still a very strong amount of fear when it comes to asking them about their name, you know, full name. They're very timid about giving that information due to, you know, where we stand still with this law.

So, yeah, it's definitely, you know, caused them still, you know, a lot or the majority still that they fear. And, yes, a lot of the people, if they didn't show up, yes, I would say is because of fear of, you know, being stopped or on their way here being stopped by the cops and, you know, being taken into custody because of their immigration status.

MARTIN: And the people who did come, Orlando, what was your sense of why they decided to come?

ROSA: You know, in our fact, as La Jefa radio station, you know, we're the only station here - Spanish station - that's been giving that information out to people. And we got the sense that the people felt happy. We were the only station, radio station, broadcasting live with our little portable unit. We were just walking around the whole, you know, march from where it began at the Brown Chapel Church all the way down to the Edmond Pettus Bridge. And we were interviewing the Hispanic people and, you know, we just got a sense of them wanting to support such an important commemoration like Bloody Sunday. And, you know, to learn a little more about the history of the civil rights and how everything began.

So, you know, they were just happy to be there and to feel love from such important people like, you mentioned, like Chuck mentioned about, you know, Jesse Jackson being present and so many people. So, it definitely, you know, gave us unity as a minority group.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Orlando Rosa. He is a host for La Jefa. That's a Spanish language radio station that broadcasts throughout metropolitan Birmingham. Also with us, Chuck Dean, senior political reporter for the Birmingham News. We're talking about this weekend's commemoration of the Selma march, so-called Bloody Sunday. Activists there wanted to tie the commemoration of that historic event to contemporary debates around voter ID laws and laws aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

So, Chuck Dean, to that end, I wanted to ask you about that. Over the course of your reporting, not just on this weekend but over the time that this debate has been sort of taking shape in the state, many of those who are advocating a tougher stance on illegal immigration frame it as a jobs issue. That they say that undocumented workers take jobs and suppress wages, particularly for lower-skilled workers, many of whom are African-Americans.

And so, I'm wondering that there were these national luminaries at the event this weekend. But I'm wondering just throughout the state, from a grassroots perspective, how do you feel that this debate is taking shape? Do you think that African-Americans and Latinos in general are seeing themselves in alignment on these issues or perhaps not?

DEAN: I think they do or, perhaps more accurately, they're beginning to their - or other issues here historic issues in the state. This bill was easily passed by the Alabama legislature last year, and then the push back began. And it has been significant in the last year. And in a state like Alabama with its history, it has boomeranged. I think polls would tell you not with rank-and-file voters, but in business corporate interests in this state feel that it has given them a black eye, has hurt the image of a state that has worked hard to change its image.

MARTIN: What about the voter ID laws? You know, national civil rights leaders have made the argument that requiring voters to produce these government-issued ID at the polling places is discriminatory, particularly against say, for example, people who live in rural areas, where it maybe far away or people who are elderly who cannot readily prove their birth but have been successfully, you know, voting without incident all these years and that that is - they make the argument that this is like a poll tax. And, obviously, other people think that's ridiculous. And I'm just wondering if putting the two issues together - the voter ID law and the illegal immigration measure - is that a matter of coalition politics? Or do people really do see them as related?

DEAN: I think that's the strategy, but my feeling is that voter ID laws here simply don't have the same - it's not at the same attention level in Montgomery, in the capital, that the immigration law is. Voter ID laws are, I believe, largely popular, and they're seen by many as not an unreasonable requirement. I really don't see any way the legislature would undo what's it's done there. But the hope is that by bringing attention to it, with certainly star power, that it will perhaps result in some changes. But right now, I would say that is a distant second to the more pressing issue of the immigration bill.

MARTIN: And Orlando Rosa, what about that argument? There are those who say that comparing measures aimed at illegal immigration or curbing illegal immigration and civil rights laws is just - that's apples and oranges, because some say one set of regulations is meant to prevent citizens from exercising fundamental rights that everyone enjoys, or should enjoy, but others are aimed at enforcing the law. And how do you respond to that?

ROSA: You know, I kind of sense that, like, they're trying to separate, you know, what we're trying to bring together, you know, as far as a community, in as far as civil rights and different - you know, things that are being talked about. But as far as, you know, what we're hearing the most and what we push a lot here on the radio is, you know, we're pushing for our civil rights, and we're pushing for, you know, things that are going on at supermarkets, at local stores, you know, being discriminated.

That's what we're mainly pushing. You know, we don't try to get too much into that because, you know, we just try to push what we hear the most on our calls. You know, we hear kids in school being bullied by other kids, telling them to go back to their country. You know, we hear that a lot still, you know, and just so many different stories. I could go on, you know...


ROSA: ...of people being discriminated here.

MARTIN: I appreciate that. Orlando, I'm going to give you the final word. Chuck Dean already kind of gave us his prognosis for how he sees the debate going forward in the capital. But just from your reporting and your contact in the community, how - do you see a change in the way people are talking about this issue? Are they feeling optimistic or pessimistic that their voices are being heard, from their particular point of view?

ROSA: I would say more pessimistic, because it's hard, I would say, because of the language barrier. But we try to get that information out there through our media, and they still think that their word's not getting out there. But they kind of blame theirself(ph) because, you know, we get callers saying, hey, you know, I was at yesterday's bloody Sunday, for example, and I only saw 200 Hispanics, you know, that was to have seen, you know, 1,000 Hispanics. Why aren't we going there? And a lot of people's excuse that we hear a lot is, hey, I had to work, or I couldn't find somebody to watch our kids, or I'm just scared to go there. So, they kind of blame theirself(ph). That's kind of what I sense when I go to the manifestations or what I hear listeners talking about, as far as, you know, being heard or not being heard.

MARTIN: Hmm. OK, we're going to let you get back on the air, because we know you're still in the middle of your broadcast day. Orlando Rosa is a host at La Jefa radio station. They broadcast throughout the metropolitan Birmingham region. It's a Spanish-language station. He joined us from Pelham, Alabama. Also with us, Chuck Dean. He is a senior political reporter for the Birmingham News, and he was kind enough to join us from member station WBHM in Birmingham. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

DEAN: Thank you.

ROSA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.