While civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis was speaking on civil disobedience at the “We Shall Overcome” Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library, April 9, four immigration reform activists chained themselves around a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on the University of Texas at Austin. The protest, organized by United We Dream, was to “protect Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of civil rights for all, including the immigrant community” and to call on President Barack Obama, who was scheduled to speak the next day, to “not only speak in memory of LBJ and what he was able to accomplish, but also be on the right side of history by keeping families together,” the group posted on their Facebook page.
The four activists, who remained chained overnight, were joined by students and local activists, including a group of fourth graders, for a march to the summit, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. The marchers, carrying signs calling Obama the Deporter-in-Chief and calling attention to the “2 million 2 many” deportations during his administration, were scheduled to meet the president’s motorcade before he spoke.
The juxtaposition of the three-day summit and the protest was startling. Mavis Staples movingly sang the classic civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome;” protestors too used the song used to greet the president before his April 10 speech. Or when three of the activists who had chained themselves had just been arrested, Rep. Lewis spoke of activists who had been arrested for sitting at lunch counters.
Immigrant rights activists insist the president can end the draconian deportations, which was backed up by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
The “notion that the administration doesn’t have some prosecutorial discretion on deportations is ridiculous,” House Minority Leader Pelosi said, in an email from America’s Voice.
In that same email she also argued that “immigration activists shouldn’t train all of their fire on Obama” as that lets Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders off the hook for their own inaction on comprehensive immigration reform.
Pelosi also said, though she insists that comprehensive immigration reform is still possible, that she’s well aware that the legislative window is rapidly closing.
The president did not speak on his plans for immigration reform as the protesters hoped, only referencing the immigration reform that Johnson pushed forward.
On the Civil Rights Act, he said, “Only the law could anchor change and set hearts and minds on a different course.”
In a quote that might give some hope to immigration reform activists, he rejected the cynicism of the people who told LBJ to hold back on the reforms he was pushing forward because he has “lived out the legacy of those efforts”.
He also said “we are here today because we know we cannot be complacent.” It has been clear that immigration reform activists take this attitude to heart, persevering through arrests and inaction, and continuing to be hopeful.
Photo: Immigration activists are learning from the civil rights movement that unjust laws have to be challenged including by nonviolent direct action (SEIU).