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This summer, NPR is looking back 50 years to the civil right activism of 1963 and we're reflecting on how our society has grown and changed since then. The nonviolent struggle for civil rights has inspired many political movements, among them the current campaign by activists pushing for passage of the DREAM Act and immigration reform. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji brings us that story from south Los Angeles.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Edna Monroy is a young, undocumented activist from Guerrero, Mexico. Today, she calls south Los Angeles home, a historically black part of LA that's now very Latino. Monroy met me at her neighborhood park named after the African-American Olympian Jesse Owens. And there, she told me about the first time she crossed the border. She was 12, all by herself and she got caught.
EDNA MONROY: And for me, was my very, very first time seeing people handcuffed from head to toe, literally in chains.
MERAJI: The experience freaked her out, but it wasn't until she went to high school in south LA that she realized how that moment shaped her political views.
MONROY: Seventy percent of my teachers were black and I am very much thankful for that because they broke down for us, especially my history teacher, Miss Lee, who is very - she's a very strong woman. She made us watch many documentaries. "Roots," I don't know if you know about "Roots," that got me. And it's when I kind of made that connection, right? Like, those undocumented adults that were chained and the slaves from "Roots," from the book and the movie.
MERAJI: She says she knows the enslavement of Africans and the detention of immigrants are not the same, but the chains, the ones she saw after being detained at the border, gave her a hint of just how dehumanizing slavery must have been and why African-Americans feel its aftereffects all these years later.
MONROY: Something that we are definitely acknowledging from the civil rights movement is that, beyond anything, we are humans, you know, we are people. No matter, if they want to take away our dignity, our humanity, we have to fight for it, right? Like this is a 21st century civil rights movement, whether you want to understand it or see it that way or not because we are dealing with protecting our humanity.
MERAJI: Monroy is 24 now and a graduate of the UCLA. She says she's fighting to get legislation passed, like the DREAM Act, that would give a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came as kids. But she's fighting for her parents, too, because they're also undocumented and she went straight from our interview to plan a sit-in.
REVEREND JAMES LAWSON: The DREAM Act people are probably the best illustration in the last 10 to 15 years of the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle.
MERAJI: Reverend James Lawson is a veteran civil rights activist and he worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come up with successful protest techniques. He says young undocumented activists have truly embraced the main point of the civil rights movement.
LAWSON: The creating of power in themselves. I am not illegal; I am not undocumented; I am a human being, first and foremost. And secondly, they've used the power of organizing among themselves and organizing in their family.
MERAJI: Lawson left the South for south Los Angeles in the mid-'70s after he accepted the position of pastor at a black Methodist church here. Alongside preaching, he's helped immigrant activists organize, extending old civil rights techniques into the 21st century. He worked with labor unions ten years ago to train activists for an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a modern tribute to the Freedom Rides of the civil rights era.
Here's Lawson at the send-off rally in LA.
LAWSON: These issues are connected. The Freedom Ride is not only about the rights of immigrant peoples in our land who work, the Freedom Ride is also about the rights of every man, woman and child...
MERAJI: One of those buses that left LA filled mostly with domestic workers from Mexico was stopped in El Paso by immigration officials. Everyone was asked for their papers. And instead of complying, they burst into an accented civil rights anthem.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING "WE SHALL OVERCOME")
MERAJI: On that bus singing "We Shall Overcome" was Donte Lamar Woods, one of a handful of African-Americans on the Freedom Ride for Immigrant Workers. He was 26 years old.
DONTE LAMAR WOODS: Like that was a watershed moment for me to say, hey, everyone should have as much "freedom," quote/unquote, as anyone else.
MERAJI: A union organizer at the time, Woods says he supported better pay and treatment for immigrants, even those here without documents. Still does. But he doesn't like hearing it called the new civil rights movement or the civil rights movement of the 21st century.
WOODS: No, no. Here's the thing. I mean, I fall back to this, there is other races who are able to assimilate much easier than African-Americans.
MERAJI: Woods lives in the Nickerson Gardens housing projects in south LA, a neighborhood that was once majority black. Today, it's majority Latino. He says he won't lie. Tension does arise between blacks and Latinos when it comes to jobs. He was out of work for a year not too long ago and says bilingual skills are now a must.
WOODS: So what does that translate for an average black man that doesn't have bilingual skills? That's not for me because there's going to be a whole lot of applicants, a whole lot of Latinos who are bilingual, who have been here and all that stuff, which is not a problem, but, in fact, you know, it excludes us.
MERAJI: Donte Lamar Woods says he's all for immigrant activists using techniques learned from the civil rights struggle, just as long as they acknowledge that the civil rights movement for black Americans is far from over. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.