Black and Brown unity in Alabama

Black and Brown unity at Voting Rights March, Shelby County, Ala.WW photo: Minnie Bruce Pratt

Black and Brown unity at Voting Rights March, Shelby County, Ala.
WW photo: Minnie Bruce Pratt

Columbiana and Gadsden, Ala.

“Forward ever, backward never! Not one step back!” shouted over 100 people in Columbiana, Ala., on the morning of June 20 at the first annual march for restoration of voting rights. The Alabama NAACP and the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice called the action.

The Black and Brown unity crowd was protesting the U.S. Supreme Court strike-down of part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act last year, as well as the growing right-wing assault on voting access in the U.S. Speakers made clear these attacks are racist in intent. One said, “The Klan doesn’t wear white robes anymore. They wear black robes and they are in the courthouse.”

Columbiana is the county seat of rural Shelby County, now a “white-flight” suburb of Birmingham complete with McMansions, horse farms and up-scale housing developments with names like “Old Ivy.”

Its all-white Board of County Commissioners won the suit to gut the Voting Rights Act by removing Section 4, which had mandated that states with a history of racist discrimination in voting must have any voting law change OKd by the federal government.

Marchers saw the attack on voting rights as an attempt to wipe out hard-won victories of the Black Civil Rights Movement, known worldwide through the Selma struggle, only 60 miles to the south.

NAACP Shelby County President Rev. Kenneth Dukes had stated previously: “Shelby County has become the new Selma. Not because of the brutality. But because we’re still here fighting for the same things, fighting the same battle.” Dukes is a bus driver for the Montevallo school district.

Ben Monterrosa, of the California-based, Latino/a-focused Mi Familia Vota, thanked all those who had “fought the fight” for many years for voter rights. He stressed: “We can not depend on the courts or elected officials — but on ourselves. Strength in unity!” Other speakers emphasized the importance of wresting back local community control of decisions about education, health care and jobs.

As the march wound through the tiny town to the courthouse on a street lined with police cars, we sang civil rights protest songs updated to “Ain’t gonna let the Supreme Court turn us around” and “We shall overcome — today.” Marchers included American Federation of Government Employees members; the Montgomery Mu Nu alumni chapter of the traditionally Black men’s fraternity Omega Psi Phi; representatives from the traditionally Black Alabama Education Association; NAACP Women in Network members; and officers from Birmingham, Calera, Jemison, Montevallo, Troy and elsewhere.

ICE out of Alabama!

That afternoon, 90 miles north in Gadsden, over 50 people protested in front of the Etowah County Jail/ICE Detention Center. The demand was “No more cages in Alabama!” The county has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement to jail more than 300 men detained because of their immigration status.

The protest, “Chant down the walls,” was part of a series of concerts and demonstrations at detention centers begun in Los Angeles by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. On the parking lot in front of the jail, Los Jornaleros del Norte (Day Laborers of the North), part of NDLON, played traditional Mexican ballads about worker struggles as well as spirit-lifting salsa.

On this blazing hot afternoon, protesters sang and called out to the incarcerated men in spite of the phalanx of police in front of the fortress-like building. Caroline Earhart, a member of the Huntsville Visitation Committee, held up a sign with the names of those who are now her friends inside the jail, and was greeted by thank-you signs in one high-up window: “Caroline, thank you from Robelto.”

The men have come from all over the world and all over the U.S.; some have been jailed for many years. At the Detention Center they live in extreme social isolation, in conditions among the worst in the U.S., including no access to exercise facilities, recreation or educational programs, according to Detention Watch Network. In addition to DWN, groups participating were the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Southerners on New Ground and Birmingham Quaker meeting members. The Adelante Worker Center near Birmingham called the protest.

Kenyan citizen and former Etowah detainee Sylvester Owino spoke at the rally, saying: “I spent nine years in immigration detention before finally winning my release in March. I am coming back to Alabama to let other detainees know that they are not alone, and we all must keep fighting. I also want the public to know more about the abuses that go on inside the Etowah Detention Center and the way those of us caught up in the immigration detention system are treated as less than human.”

As recently as 2013, Gadsden was counted as one of the 10 poorest cities in the U.S., but the County Jail/Detention Center stands out on the aging street as impressively new and modern.

The name of the street where the jail was built underlines how racism buttresses the U.S. prison system, both governmental and for-profit. The Etowah Detention Center is located on Forrest Avenue — named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan after the U.S. Civil War.