I do not claim to be an expert on the history of the civil rights movement in the 1950's and 1960's. But I am a member of a generation that was there, not one that only reads about it in the history books, hears about it from their parents, or sees short edited clips on TV news shows lasting 30 seconds or so. Growing up in New York, I was not on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. But at least I had an observer's seat.
In the early 1960's as a young law school graduate, I worked for a small firm in New York which represented a number of civil rights activists. One of the partners was an advisor to Martin Luther King, and the firm represented him in a successful attempt to obtain an injunction in Federal District Court against some people who were trying to use his "I Have A Dream" speech commercially without his permission. I played a very small behind the scenes role in helping to prepare the complaint.
More importantly, almost everyone growing up during that period was part of the discussion about equal rights for African-Americans (a phrase which only came into use later on, but was not widely heard in the 1960's). And it was a discussion. The idea that people of color should have equal rights with white people was not only anathema in the South, but was far from widely accepted in the North. For many white Americans, in New York and everywhere else, the idea that African-Americans should have equal rights to vote, go to school, ride on the bus, or sit at lunch counters was just as controversial as immigration rights are now.
Refusing to obey the Southern segregation laws was considered by many people to be just as heinous as violating the immigration laws is now. I do not mean to equate immigration laws with segregation laws. The latter had no justification whatsoever. They were based solely on the notion that one race of people was biologically inferior to another. Immigration laws, on the other hand, are there to control America's population and preserve its resources, as well as to serve other purposes according to the needs of our society.
But no one who has been an adult in both periods can be blind to the common element in public attitudes toward these laws. The rage and fury that greeted attempts to abolish segregation in the 1950's and 1960's can only be matched by the anger over the growth of immigration, both by legal and illegal mmigrants, today. In both periods, the common feeling has been that a persecuted and despised ethnicity, a "genus invisum", to quote Virgil, whether black people then or Latinos now, should stay "in its place". That place used to be the black ghettos of the old South. Now it is Mexico.
That is the message that states which were former bastions of slavery and segregation and now have recently passed draconian anti-immigrant laws, such as Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, are sending to to the rest of America. Many other states, which are trying to prevent all minorities, including, African-Americans, Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans, from voting in next year's delection, are sending the same message.
Will the rest of the country be foolish and bigoted enough to follow that message? Equally important, when will America finally have a president who, like Lyndon Johnson in the 1960's, will have the courage to recognize the evil of racism in America head on and fight against it? If only America had such a president now.
Roger Algase is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He has been practicing business immigration law in New York City for more than 20 years.