Immigrants take a page from the historic civil rights playbook
I had never met Mario Ramos before, but here we were, looking out the 31st floor window of his law office in the Renaissance Nashville Hotel toward the Shelby Avenue pedestrian bridge.
''We're going to gather on the east side of the bridge beginning at 5 p.m. Monday, and at 6. we're going to march across the bridge back into downtown where we'll gather at the Hall of Fame Park,'' Ramos said, his eyes still glued toward the bridge.
''It's going to be symbolic of Selma,'' he added, referring to the historic day in March 1965 when civil rights participants attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for blacks.
''There will be Hispanics, Muslims, Kurdish, African-Americans, whites, union members and civil rights activists coming together for the same thing,'' said Ramos, who specializes in immigration law.
Ramos was preparing for tomorrow's arrival of a group of participants in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride who are making their way to Washington to meet with members of Congress Wednesday and Thursday. Afterward, they will head to New York for a mass rally next Saturday.
The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which began in nine major cities Wednesday, is a national mobilization to focus public attention on ''immigrant rights and the injustices of current immigrant policies.''
Inspired by the Freedom Ride movement of the early 1960s — a protest against segregated seating on interstate buses and segregated restaurants and restrooms in bus terminals — the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride is incorporating the history of the African-American struggle in the United States into the current struggle of immigrants in search of freedom.
''It's the continuation of the struggle for humanity,'' said Ramos, the local lead organizer for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride events that will take place here tomorrow beginning with a noon-1 p.m. kickoff rally at the Metro Courthouse where some 100 Freedom Riders from around the country will be greeted.
Afterward, they will march to First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, where the riders, union leaders and others will break bread together. First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, formerly First Colored Baptist Church, served as the gathering place for many of the civil rights meetings that took place here during the early 1960s as well as the site where participants in the sit-in movement gathered before going downtown in an effort to desegregate lunch counters.
At 3 p.m., the participants will march to the downtown public library where they will see a film and take part in ''Civil Rights History 101.''
During the 6 p.m. rally at the Hall of Fame Park, across from the Country Music Hall of Fame at 222 Fifth Ave. S., one of the speakers will be the Rev. James Lawson. Lawson, who now lives in California, was expelled from Vanderbilt University's Divinity School for his role in organizing the sit-in demonstrations here.
''In a sense, this movement ties a lot of groups together in that we're seeking freedom, security and opportunity,'' Ramos said. ''And there are four main principles that we're seeking.''
He listed them:
• The right to legalization and a road to citizenship for all immigrant workers in the United States.
• The right to reunite families.
• Protection of workers' rights.
• Protection of civil rights.
''We know that leaders of the anti-immigrant movement are telling their followers to oppose this event,'' Ramos said. ''They want don't us together. They want to keep us divided so they can conquer us.''
Ramos said the different groups involved in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride movement have the same common interests, as well as the same kind of values.
''We're hard workers. We pay taxes, and we obey laws,'' he said. ''We want our lives to reflect reality. We're here, and we're working, and we want to be treated fairly.''
He added: ''The United States is a nation of immigrants. I heard an African-American minister once say something to the effect that it doesn't matter where we come from because we're all in the same boat.''
Indeed we are.
And, as I heard Senior U.S. District Judge John Nixon tell a group of new citizens during a naturalization ceremony here several years ago:
''Don't close the door behind you. We're all Americans, but either we or our ancestors, including the American Indian, have come from all the continents of the world, not always willingly,'' but that is what makes up the American culture.
And that's exactly why all of us should support the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride that makes a stop here tomorrow.
Dwight Lewis is a columnist, regional editor and member of the editorial board for The Tennessean.