How Today’s Dreamers Carry on Ella Baker’s Legacy

“Those kids are crazy. Brave, but crazy.”

That was, more or less, my reaction when I first heard about the Dreamers, a movement of young people brought to this country as children and now facing adulthood without legal immigration status.

In the past few years, I’ve been shocked to see how quickly the Dreamers managed to change the discussion on immigration in this country, create new hope for real reform, and pressure President Obama into creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants such young adults protection from deportation for the time being.

A lot of people have shared my initial bafflement at the Dreamers’ success—but I doubt it would have taken Ella Baker by surprise.

Dreaming Big

The “crazy” kids who first got my attention had made the news for civil disobedience. Fed up with the glacial pace of immigration reform, they marched on Washington and got themselves arrested by sitting in politicians’ offices.

Sit-ins and mass arrests were key tactics of the Civil Rights movement in the South, but they couldn’t work here, I was sure. President Obama had been deporting more immigrants than any president before him; these gutsy young people were just going to get themselves deported, too, and that would be the end of it.

Well, some Dreamers have been deported, and that sure hasn’t been the end of it.

For a long time, we didn’t have a special term for people like the Dreamers. At best, the news media might refer to them as “the children of illegals”—a label with none of the respect and admiration implied by the word “Dreamers.”  They’ve been here all along, yet it was nearly impossible, just a few years ago, to predict they would win a victory as big as DACA.

Attending a public high school in Chicago in the late 1990s, I knew at least a few kids who fit the Dreamer description—but not one who expected the President to give them reprieve from deportation and a shot at citizenship. It was beyond imagining.

Echoes of SNCC

It was beyond imagining, too, that some crazy, brave kids could desegregate the American South.

In the 1960s, Ms. Baker—no longer young herself—helped a number of young African-Americans to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

Through spectacular acts of civil disobedience, SNCC injected new life into the Civil Rights movement and proved that young adults had an essential role to play in the struggle for their own freedom. Its members put themselves at tremendous risk by participating in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, taking “freedom rides” on integrated buses traveling to segregated cities, and organizing black voters in rural Mississippi at a time when there was a real chance of being murdered for this.

Ms. Baker did not make herself the leader of this movement, but instead stood back and supported young activists in building the skills they needed to implement their own vision for change. “Don’t let anyone else, especially the older folks, tell you what to do,” she advised.

Like SNCC before them, the Dreamers have shocked the country into paying attention through sheer gutsiness, and their actions get gutsier all the time.

The tide started turning when undocumented young adults started “coming out” with their status, putting their hopes above their fears. Soon came the marches and sit-ins mentioned above, but they didn’t stop there. In the past few years, Dreamers have turned themselves in to the Border Patrol and then been arrested reentering the country in broad daylight.  They’ve launched hunger strikes. They’ve gone undercover in detention facilities to help other immigrants exercise their rights. They’ve blocked bus-loads of deportees from reaching the airport.

A People-powered Movement Ms. Baker Would've Cheered On

I suspect Ms. Baker would approve not just of these tactics, but of the people-powered approach that is the secret core of the Dreamer movement’s strength:

  • Like SNCC, the Dreamers have produced few media darlings; they’re known as a movement, not as a handful of telegenic faces.
  • They clearly haven’t been taken over by a small group of leaders; the brilliant diversity of their ever-changing tactics proves there’s democracy at work within their ranks.
  • They’re receiving guidance from more experienced activists, but not marching orders; no one turns themselves over to Border Patrol or interrupts the President at a fundraiser just because some adult told them to.

Ms. Baker knew that oppressed people are at their strongest when they take the lead in their own struggles.  She knew that hope and courage can survive jail cells and deserts, beatings and barbed wire fences. And she knew that the conscience of this country, so indifferent to injustice so much of the time, can still be shocked into awakening by the heroism of some brave, crazy kids.

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