Tommy Stevenson is a veteran reporter and columnist, and a contributor to Weld.
In its nearly 20-year history, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has most visibly been associated with African-American rights–not surprising considering its location sits across from the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. But as immigration issues continue to drive public debate, the diversity of the institute’s public mission becomes even more critical.
Over the course of the next few weeks, the institute will be hosting a variety of programs and events in connection with national Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15 and ends Oct. 15. The commemoration kicked off Tuesday when the BCRI partnered with Montgomery-based legal advocacy group Alabama Appleseed in a “Welcoming Alabama Dialogue” aimed at bringing together diverse members of the community for a “respectful dialogue outside the political context and emotional debates,” as Melissa Snow-Clark, BCRI communications director, said.
Other events will include film screenings, workshops and more chances for dialogue emphasizing Hispanic culture in Alabama.
“We’ve been working with the Hispanic community for a long time,” said Priscilla Hancock Cooper, the BCRI vice president of institutional programming. “But this year our celebration of the month takes on special significance in light of the new Alabama immigration law.”
That law, actually passed by the Alabama Legislature two years ago, is considered one of the toughest in the nation aimed at reducing illegal immigration. It has also sown the seeds of fear and doubt among legal immigrants and citizens as well. Many Latino immigrants have fled the state as a direct result.
“Our mission here is to promote civil and human rights worldwide through education, and while none of our activities this month focus specifically on the new law, I am sure it will come up,” Cooper said. “We hope to make person-to-person connections because it is when we begin to know each other as human beings that we begin to be more respectful of each others’ rights and opinions.”
Staffers at the BCRI, a teaching museum deliberately sited at the geographical epicenter of so many Civil Rights Era protests, have engaged in self-education about the particular struggles facing Latinos in Birmingham and Alabama.
“I have learned so much over the last few months since the immigration law was passed,” Cooper said. The main thing she learned “was how much I didn’t know.”
Cooper said she has been struck by “the level of fear about the impact of the law.
“We’re seeing young people not being able to go to college because they are not documented. There is the potential for people to be mistreated and taken advantage of because they are not documented and are afraid to report crimes against them.
“There are so many misconceptions about the law that are out there that have become sort of urban myths,” she noted. One example: the notion that immigrants don’t pay taxes. Cooper pointed out that immigrants – like everyone else – pay sales taxes on purchases and, in many cases, through withholding on their paychecks.
“There is the assumption that they are taking more than they are giving in terms of social services,” Cooper said. “If social security is taken from your pay and you can’t collect it because you are undocumented, you are actually giving more than you are taking.”
Cooper says she is convinced by demographic and immigration trends that “the increase of the Hispanic population in the South will be the greatest story in this region since the Civil Rights era. “We’re taking mostly about the number of young people who will be growing up here, documented or otherwise,” she said. “So many of them are and will be born in Alabama.
“As a community we have a responsibility to recognize the reality and I think to embrace it. I always say Birmingham is a city of immigrants and it is going to be in the future,” Cooper said. “So we also have a responsibility to reach out to each other and not let our fear dominate how we relate to each other. That’s what our events this month are aimed at.”
On Thursday and Friday the BCRI will host museum colleagues from The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C. and the Atlanta History Center during the third in a series of “Listening Sessions” being held across the South.
The sessions are part of the Latino New South project, a regional initiative designed to develop ways for museums to establish relationships with the growing Latino population in the southeast. The sessions will include discussions to gather input from Hispanic and non-Hispanic community members.
“The information will be used to inform program development in the museum field,” Cooper said.
On Oct. 4 at 6 p.m., BCRI will partner with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama to screen ¡Viva la Causa!, a documentary about the grape pickers strike and boycott led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta in the 1960s. The film depicts how thousands of people from across the nation joined in a struggle for justice for some of the most exploited workers in the country.
The screening will be followed by a question and answer session which is free and open to the public. For information, contact BCRI Archivist Laura Anderson at (205) 328-9696, ext. 215.
October 6 the Institute will host a workshop for educators about engaging Hispanic families, as well as its already established family literacy program, “Community of Readers,” featuring a bilingual presentation of Carolyn Garcia’s book Connie and Diego. After the storytelling local dance ensemble Tango Elegante will offer a demonstration.
The U.S. began celebrating Hispanic culture as far back as 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson as Hispanic Heritage Week. President Ronald Reagan in 1988 expanded the commemoration to the 30 days between September 15 and October 15.
The reason for those dates relate to several significant events and annual occurrences: September 15 is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September18, respectively.
Columbus Day, which is October 12, also falls within this 30 day period.