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Summer Of '63: Old Lessons For A New Movement

Immigration reform advocates hold signs of young immigrant "dreamers" during a protest outside a fundraising event for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on May 29.
John Moore
Getty Images
Immigration reform advocates hold signs of young immigrant "dreamers" during a protest outside a fundraising event for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on May 29.

All this summer, NPR is looking back to civil rights activism of 1963, marking the 50th anniversary of a number of events that changed our society. From the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi to the March on Washington; NPR is remembering the past and examining how our society has changed. The nonviolent struggle for civil rights has inspired many other movements, among them, the current campaign advocating for the DREAM Act and immigration reform.

I met Edna Monroy — a young, undocumented activist from Mexico — at her neighborhood park in South Los Angeles. It's a historically black part of LA that has seen a huge demographic shift over the past several years. It's now mostly Latino. Monroy is one of the newer arrivals.

She chose Jesse Owens Park for our interview because, she says, it's symbolic. "it's on the borderline," says Monroy. "Since we're talking about borders, this park is on the borderline between South Los Angeles and Inglewood." The park is named after an African-American Olympian, but most of the visitors on this day are Hispanic. And it's situated directly under the flight path for Los Angeles International Airport — LAX to most Angelenos — a place that plays a role in Monroy's journey from Guerrero, Mexico, to South LA.

Monroy's brother took a plane into LAX, her mother crossed through the desert, her baby sister was taken across the border by another family, and she crossed through Tijuana, alone. All four were trying to reunite with her father, who had a maintenance job at an LA hotel.

Monroy was 12 when she made her first attempt to cross the border — and she got caught. "And it was my very first time seeing people handcuffed from head to toe," says Monroy. "Literally, in chains." She says the experience freaked her out. But it wasn't until she went to high school in South LA that she realized how that moment had shaped her political views.

"Seventy percent of my teachers were black and I am very much thankful for that, because they broke it down for us," says Monroy, clapping her hands for emphasis. She credits one of her high school teachers, Ms. Lee, for her African-American history education from slavery to civil rights. "She made us watch many documentaries. And Roots, that got me. That got me! And it's when I kind of made that connection, right? Those undocumented adults that were chained and the slaves from Roots."

Monroy clarifies that she's aware that 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. "Something that we are definitely acknowledging from the civil rights movement is that we are humans, we are people," Monroy says about her work as an undocumented activist. "If they want to take away our dignity, our humanity, we have to fight for it."

Monroy is 24, a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and a deferred action recipient (the immigration policy President Obama signed off on a year ago that allows young undocumented immigrants to apply for the right to stay here temporarily and work). 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. And she's fighting for her parents, too, because they're also undocumented. She says she's seen them work long hours for low wages and with little chance to get a green card.

Monroy went straight from our interview to go plan a sit-in across town.

"The DREAM Act people are probably the best illustration in the last 10 to 15 years of the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle," says the Rev. James Lawson, a veteran civil rights activist who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come up with successful protest techniques. He says young undocumented activists, like Monroy, have embraced the main thrust of the civil rights movement.

"The creating of power in themselves," says Lawson. " '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 in their family."

Lawson left the South for South Los Angeles in the mid-'70s after he accepted the position of pastor at a prominent black Methodist church here. In addition to preaching, he's helped immigrant activists organize by extending old civil rights strategies into the 21st century. Ten years ago, he worked with labor unions to train activists for an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a modern tribute to the original Freedom Rides of the early 1960s.

At the send-off rally in Los Angeles, Lawson spoke about how the civil rights movement and the struggle for immigrant rights are connected, to a cheering crowd of Latino immigrant and African-American activists.

Eighteen buses full of immigrant workers made a cross-country journey through the South to get blessings from more civil rights leaders. One of the buses that left LA, filled mostly with domestic workers from Mexico, was stopped in El Paso, Texas, by immigration officials. The passengers were asked for their papers. Instead of complying many sang "We Shall Overcome" in accented English.

Also on that bus was Donte Lamar Woods. The then-26-year-old was one of a handful of African-Americans on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. "I felt like that was a watershed moment for me to say, 'Hey, these folks are a part of the human race and everyone should have as much freedom as anyone else.' "

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 says, he doesn't like hearing it called the "new" civil rights movement or even the civil rights movement of the 21st century. "No, I ... I ... no ... here's the thing," says Woods, choosing his words carefully. "I fall back to this, there are other races that assimilate much easier [into America] than African-Americans."

Woods lives in the Nickerson Gardens housing projects in South LA, a poor 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.

"So what does that translate for an average black man that doesn't have bilingual skills?" asks Woods. "That's not for me because there are going to be a whole lot of applicants, a whole lot of Latinos who are bilingual, who have been here, which is not a problem, but it excludes us."

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.

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Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.