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2003 Freedom Ride Ends With a New York Rally

Thousands, including some who traveled on three buses from Los Angeles, demonstrate to highlight the plight of immigrant workers.

October 05, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in New York on Saturday to urge stronger rights for immigrants, the culmination of bus journeys from throughout the United States modeled on the 1960s Freedom Rides that fought segregation in the South.

The demonstration in Flushing Meadows Park was designed to heighten awareness of the plight of immigrants who are seeking a clear path to citizenship, greater protection in the workplace and to reunite with their families.

"When I was 21 years old, I got on a bus in Washington, D.C. There were 13 of us. We traveled to the South to bring down those signs that say 'white man' and 'colored man,' 'white women' and 'colored women,' " Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) told a cheering crowd. "... In 1961, 42 years ago, we won.

"Forty-two years later, the Freedom Riders of 2003, you are going to win because you are right. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be very proud of every one of you for being here today."

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D.-N.Y.) told the crowd it was making history and "making our country better."

The gathering, under a gray sky that threatened rain, was sponsored by a broad coalition of labor unions, immigrant rights organizations and church groups. They have said a key goal has been to draw more immigrants into the labor movement and gain legal status for millions of undocumented workers.

"We cannot go on simply ignoring or tolerating the plight of those brothers and sisters of ours," said Cardinal Edward Egan, leader of the New York Archdiocese.

Many of the speakers urged the defeat of President Bush in the 2004 election. At one entrance, an organizer for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, passed out literature pledging greater support for immigrant workers.

Demonstrators held signs that said "Justice, Amnesty, Liberty" and "Stand for the American Dream."

"No human being in the sight of God is illegal," the Rev. James Lawson, a 1961 Freedom Rider and a colleague of King, told the crowd. "No human being in the sight of God is undocumented."

Lawson, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the closing speaker.

"Every boy and every girl and every man and every woman, no matter from what country, what creed, what language, what culture, what color -- every man and every woman has a right for jobs with dignity, for safety at work, for families being united and able to support themselves and sustain themselves in a living and meaningful fashion," he said as a large American flag on the stage blew in a brisk breeze.

Three buses from Los Angeles crossed the country as part of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Many at the rally who held up the flags of their native countries were members of New York labor unions.

For some gathered in the park, within sight of Shea Stadium, the home of the New York Mets baseball team, it was a time for memories of events more than four decades past.

"Freedom Summer, I was in Jackson, Miss., and I remember riding through towns in the Delta and seeing all of the vestiges of the racism that existed and seeing people whom I knew get locked up, be put in jail, be brutalized," said Oliver Gray, 62, a New York City municipal union official. "People died that summer."

Gray also attended the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his memorable and emotional "I Have a Dream" speech.

"You know what was important about that march?" he asked. "When I stood there and saw the people from all across the country coming into the city of Washington, and after they assembled on the mall I realized that we were not alone, that it was a real movement, there was a fight and people had been at it for a long time.

"To see that build over the years to result in legislation was great," Gray said. "But part of the problem that was never addressed was the economic part, and that's what we're beginning to look at, I hope."

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