“It’s not the same Birmingham, Alabama,” the black driver said proudly as we passed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
We were speaking about how far the city and state, once automatically associated with Jim Crow racism, has evolved since the September 13, 1963 bombing of the landmark church by members of the local KKK.
The perpetrators of that hideous crime deliberately ignited their massive device as a Sunday school session was going on in the church basement. The explosion left many terrorized children and teachers badly injured.
Four girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, who was just 11 – were crushed to death.
After unconscionable delays, some lasting decades, three of the four Klansmen involved were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Even in that era when race crimes were common, this despicable act was so wicked the revulsion it generated helped empower Martin Luther King Jr. and mobilize the state to cast off the Civil War shackles that bound Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.
Eventually, even racists as hard-core as governor and presidential candidate George Wallace renounced the evil deed, as the state moved toward integration and racial justice.
On the September 2008 day of my impromptu visit to the Sixteenth Street Church, I had just spoken to about 350 lawyers and business leaders at the Hispanic Business Council’s annual breakfast at the Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham.
Ironically, my remarks concerned the persecution of another disenfranchised group routinely denied their civil liberties – undocumented immigrants. At the time, fall 2008, they were being hunted down in a vigorous Bush-era campaign to root them out while they worked in the South’s poultry processing plants, among other venues.
“Call off these raids and pardon these people, then go forward and help heal the inequities and the other bureaucratic problems and irregularities with the immigration system,” the Birmingham News quoted me as saying to the crowd.
I was asking the city’s business leaders to join me in urging President Bush to pardon the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, about 130,000 of them in Alabama, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Three years after that speech, my dream of controlled amnesty lies in ruins. In fact, things have never been worse for the embattled population recently targeted by Alabama’s HB 56, the nation’s most virulently aggressive anti-immigrant state law.
Under its terms, police officers are required to ascertain the immigration status of any person stopped for any reason, including traffic offenses. In that regard it is similar to punitive legislation in Georgia, Indiana, Utah, South Carolina and Arizona.
But Alabama goes one cruel step further than its sister states. HB 56 requires public schools to determine the immigration status of all enrolled students; the same goes for patients in public hospitals and victims reporting alleged crimes to the police.
Since federal District Court Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn upheld these noxious provisions of the law, panic has rippled through the state’s long-entrenched Hispanic migrant community.
Despite that fact that many of their children are actually born in the U.S.A., many of their parents and older siblings were not. Lacking documentation, families are keeping their children out of school for fear the kids will lead authorities to their homes.
Almost 2,000 Latino kids stayed home on the day the judge’s ruling was handed down. There are also reports of pregnant women delivering at home rather than risk problems with immigration officials summoned to public hospitals.
Immigrant workers are not showing up at their jobs in the kitchens, fields and poultry processing plants for fear of renewed raids or escalated police stops. Families are selling or abandoning their modest homes and trailers in a rush to get across state lines before they are stopped.
What’s new, Alabama?
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.