From a cramped, dingy Birmingham cell, he wrote a letter to the liberal and moderate civic leaders of the community. It was a letter written to those who were supposed to be allies in the struggle for basic human rights, but instead were cautioning "patience" and privileging political expedience over justice.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), left, believes President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, lower right, is a major obstacle to immigration reform, de la Torre writes.
This prisoner of conscience wrote: "white moderates … paternalistically believe [they] can set the timetable for another man's freedom … Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."
These words written some four decades ago by Martin Luther King Jr. ring just as true today as they did back then. Only this time, it is the liberal and moderate whites and blacks of our nation's capital who are choosing to protect their political power over and against justice for the discriminated Hispanic community.
We who are Hispanics believed last year's political rhetoric of "Yes, we can" – a phrase rooted in the Cesar Chavez civil-rights movement of the '60s that was appropriated and translated into English. In record numbers we went to the polls with the hope and promise that a new leadership will fight for our dignity, especially in what every opinion poll said was our main concern, comprehensive and humane immigration reform.
The Democratic-controlled Congress, led by a Democratic president, has the opportunity to use their political power to advance the cause of Hispanic civil rights by seriously taking up the challenge of passing comprehensive immigration reform.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration's chief of staff and main gatekeeper, Rahm Emanuel, has no desire whatsoever to advance any type of legislation that could bring justice to the Hispanic community.
When he was in charge of winning congressional seats, Emanuel equated getting behind immigration reform with political death. "For the American people, and therefore all of us, [immigration reform] emerged as the third rail of American politics," he said.
His view might explain why what was once a concern for candidate Obama to tackle in his first year is now in continual postponement. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), the point man for any comprehensive immigration reform that might make its way through Congress, seems to believe that a major obstacle for Hispanics is Emanuel.
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"A forensic study would show it all leads back to Rahm Emanuel and the White House," Gutierrez has said. I sincerely doubt any comprehensive legislation will see the light of day in 2010 although I'm praying I'm wrong; the need for Democrats to be re-elected trumps justice for Latinas and Latinos.
Our more potent opponents to securing human rights for the undocumented are not found among the right, but among the left.
Just as King expected the Bull Connors of his day to oppose his struggle for justice, so we today expect the Tom Tancredos and the Lou Dobbs to occupy similar roles. Yet the reality is that the marginalized, disenfranchised and dispossessed have more to fear from our supposed allies than from the Connors, Tancredos and Dobbs of the world.
King understood that well-meaning liberals and moderates were quick to profess solidarity with noble concepts like equality, justice and dignity. But when it came to actually implementing social change, they tended to discourage praxis that could threaten their privileged positions within the social structures. Then, as now, we have U.S. representatives and White House administrators who are more concerned with maintaining Democratic control than letting "justice come down like water and righteousness flow like an everlasting stream."
Shame on the Democratic leadership who will not seriously attempt to enact comprehensive immigration legislation out of fear they may lose votes, out of fear that nativists might use their stand for justice against them in the next election.
The fact is, they will. When the civil-rights bill was passed, Democrats lost the South, a fact exploited by Nixon and others in his infamous "Southern Strategy." But as King reminded us in his letter, "I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation."
With King, we Latinos and Latinas say that we can no longer wait for a time that may politically seem more apropos. With King, we tell our elected officials that "justice delayed is justice denied." We, who are Hispanics, as well as all who care deeply for justice, must hold our elected leaders accountable to working for those of us who believed they would be different.
If they do not, why should I, and my fellow Hispanics, bother going to the polls come the next election cycle?
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice and Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.