An Open Letter to Southern Historians on the Alabama Immigration Law
T.R.C. Hutton is a lecturer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
An anti-HB56 rally in Alabama on August 11. Credit: Flickr/Steven Ross Photography.
In early November historians and historians-in-training will gather in Mobile, Alabama for the seventy-ninth annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association (SHA). A lot of regular attendees call it, “the Southern.” The SHA’s members look forward to their annual meeting not only for the diverse array of panels but also for the conviviality that most academic conferences don’t have. Since I first attended in 2003 I’ve found the Southern to be an unmatched combination of professional development and recreation. Many of us consider it one of our favorite annual holidays.
This year a pall hangs over our holiday. In 2011 the state of Alabama passed into law "Alabama House Bill 56" (HB56), officially titled the “Hammon-Beason Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.” Its euphemistic name aside, HB56 is the most extreme of the recent slew of anti-immigrant laws in various states. Like its predecessor Arizona’s SB 1070, it gives state and local law enforcement unprecedented power and discretion in enforcing immigration policy. HB56 takes its immigrant-hunting further by including provisions against allowing undocumented students into public schools, and prosecuting landlords and employers who rent to or hire their parents. Alabama is currently the only state in the Union where children are denied an education because of their national origins.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Republican state senator Scott Beason, suggested in early 2011 that his party “empty the clip [on immigration], and do what has to be done.” The substance of the bill, and its spirit suggested by Senator Beason’s tone, are things that many SHA members do not wish to support.
Beason’s violent imagery aside, the law has caused a lot of trouble for Alabama’s citizenry, to say nothing of the undocumented residents who do some of the state’s most difficult and underpaid jobs. For that matter, people of Latino origin live in fear of harassment because of the law’s social side effects. Countless Alabamians have condemned the law for denying due process to its residents. Auburn University’s Wayne Flynt, former SHA president and dean of Alabama historians, has called the law “the most mean-spirited, hateful thing I’ve ever read.” Flynt and others have expressed doubt that expelling or excluding undocumented immigrants would help Alabama’s continuing unemployment problem, and suggest that it may discourage potential employers from coming to the state. So far, two of HB56’s unintended victims have been foreign-born employees of Mercedes-Benz and Honda, each of whom was unable to satisfy police officers as to their legal status. Alabama depends heavily upon the corporations who enjoy the state’s business-friendly atmosphere. HB56 may bring this to a premature end.
As one version of what some critics have called “Juan Crow,” HB56 draws intuitive comparisons to Alabama’s past. We hope it also summons memories of the role Alabamians played in defeating Jim Crow. From the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956 to the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, with many iconic moments in between, Alabama was ground zero for the civil rights movement. Alabamians were always a driving force behind spreading democracy; the state was host to some of the greatest triumphs of American grass-roots activism. The prejudice and oppression HB56 represents does not match their achievements. Perhaps it does reflect recent trends in American politics; but that does not mean it reflects something inherent to the state of Alabama, even though some would prefer to write it off as such.
The civil rights era is a major benchmark in the history of our organization just as it is in Alabama’s history. In recent years the SHA has not been in the habit of addressing politics (at least not in the manner of the American Historical Association’s periodic resolutions), and many of its more complacent members have preferred it as such. This actually belies the organization’s past, when its members stood up for integration. The 1955 annual meeting was held in Memphis’s then-segregated Peabody Hotel where novelist William Faulkner, Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays and attorney Cecil Sims addressed what was probably the first “mixed audience” ever assembled in the hotel. The SHA was once peopled by an almost exclusively white male old guard that obstinately stood for racial hierarchy and the state machineries that enforced it, but, reflecting the changes of the mid-1950s, the SHA’s organizational model was about to change. In Memphis, as Professor Fred A. Bailey put it, historians “confronted the racial ethos of southern society in general and their Association in particular.” Ten years later a past SHA president, C. Vann Woodward, and a future one, John Hope Franklin, joined a contingent of other historians in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s aforementioned Alabama march. The SHA may well be nonpartisan, but it has never been a “neutral” organization, because its members are not neutral.
As historians and (for many of us) as southerners, we deem HB56 harmful not only to the Alabama’s image, but also to the American Republic’s core principles. Perhaps it is not as overtly racist as policies Alabama once espoused; that’s not the point. Even if Juan Crow is not a mirror image of Jim Crow, this does not mean that it is not a product of xenophobia and racial hierarchy. Even if it does not pass the litmus test for racial bigotry in some people’s estimation, the evidence is clear that HB56 is, if nothing else, bad for business (indeed, some historians have demonstrated that the forced segregation of old was defeated, in part, because southern white collars came to realize racism’s lack of profit).
We will not boycott the state or its businesses and utilities. However, we would like to make clear that our attendance at the conference, and enjoyment of Mobile, must not be taken as acceptance of, or acquiescence to, HB56. Indeed, we hope that our presence in the state can be a "teachable moment" in the interest of Alabama repealing this harmful law. We are coming to Mobile. But we strongly oppose HB56.
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