02-19-2017  8:42 am      •     

Editor's note: The following is the text of a speech delivered by state Sen. Avel Gordly, D-Portland, at a March 4 rally in support of immigrant workers at Portland State University.

Friends and neighbors, the first thing that I want to say to you today is that no human being is illegal.
I want to tell you something about being "illegal." We all need to study our history — know your history. I want to tell you something about the history of this state, of the ground we are standing on today.

When Oregon's Constitution was enacted in 1857, it declared all African Americans within the state's boundaries "illegal."
The Oregon Constitution stated that no Black person could live anywhere in this state. Such is the power of bigotry and hate.

The native people, who had inhabited these lands for 10,000 years, had it even worse. They were made "illegal" in their own homes. They were starved, decimated by diseases brought by the White settlers and their ancestral lands stolen. This is the power of bigotry and hate.

In 1906 and 1910, Oregon voters — all White men — voted to continue to deny women the right to vote. Women voters were "illegal" in the state of Oregon. In 1910, these privileged White men specifically denied women taxpayers the right to vote. Oregon women did not win the right to vote until 1912.

During World War II, people of Japanese ancestry were declared "illegal" and entire families were sent to internment camps. The power of bigotry and hate … .

A Black person could not live in this state legally. Those that did, did so at the risk of imprisonment and worse. That was only about 150 years ago. That law stood until 1926, just 80 years ago. But even then, Black people were not completely legal in Oregon — some members of the state Legislature were openly members of the Ku Klux Klan.

We stand here today next to Broadway Avenue. Before 1952, there was no restaurant on that street that would serve Black people. There was no department store that would allow Black customers to try on clothing. The hotels would not rent rooms to Black people. The Public Accommodations Law of 1953 forced them to open their doors to people who look like me. Such is the power of the law.

A few good people from Portland and other places went to Salem for 18 consecutive legislative sessions — 36 years — before racial and ethnic discrimination in public places became illegal in this state.

My father was a Pullman porter on the Union Pacific railroad. My mother was active in church and in women's organizations. Born American citizens, but in those not-so-long-ago days of redlining, entire neighborhoods were off-limits to Black homeownership.

Around 1949, my parents wanted to purchase a home on North Williams Avenue in Portland, but Black homeowners were "illegal" in that neighborhood. My parents were able to buy the home only through a friend who was not Black, but Jewish.
History tells us that our oppressors will try to divide us. Black people know something about being "illegal" human beings.

In 1996, I became the first Black woman to serve in the Oregon Senate, following the late Bill McCoy, who broke the color barrier in the 1970s. In 2002, I moved legislation and was the chief petitioner for Measure 14, a constitutional amendment that at long last removed the remaining racist language from the Oregon Constitution. The voters overwhelmingly supported the amendment, but note this: 352,027 Oregonians voted to keep the language in. That was less than four years ago.

Does history sound a little more relevant to you? You must know your history, and the history of this state. Remember that number: 352,027 voted to keep dehumanizing language in the state constitution.

You should know that in 2005 the voters in Alabama went to the polls to decide whether to remove outdated racist language in their state constitution. These laws required segregated schools and enacted poll taxes designed to keep African Americans from voting. More than 600,000 Alabama voters voted to keep the language in, and it is still there today.
Just between these two states, then, Oregon and Alabama, we can count nearly a million voters — actual voters — people who will turn out and vote—who have no qualms about dehumanizing other human beings.

And those million voters will find someone to represent them in Congress and in their respective state Legislatures. Their representatives will be working in every state capitol in the nation — you know they already are. Will you be working in your state Capitol?

Does it surprise you to know that until recently, farm workers in Oregon not only did not have the right to meal and rest breaks, but Oregon law specifically excluded them alone, among all the different categories of employment, from these rights that we all take for granted.

An Oregon farm worker denied meal and rest breaks by an employer had no legal right even to complain, because the law specifically excluded farm workers, and farm workers only.

I introduced a bill in 2003 that would have removed that exclusion, but partisanship kept that bill from even getting a vote. Farm workers are human beings, too — and no human being is illegal.

Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry Commissioner Dan Gardner took a personal, principled look at this injustice and in February 2004, through the authority of his office, wrote a new chapter in Oregon history. Farm workers living and working in Oregon now have the right to meal and rest breaks, just like everyone else.

We are talking about justice today, and simple human decency. That is fundamentally why we are here today, exercising our God-given rights as human beings to assemble in public, to speak freely, to petition our government for redress. These are our rights as Oregonians, as Americans and as human beings, and these rights were won by hard struggle, by great sacrifice, and by people just like all of you gathered today.

Now there is another movement in the U.S. Congress that would further dehumanize people who are born in other countries, particularly people of color and people who speak languages other than English.

Today's news becomes tomorrow's history — that is how human events are recorded — but history should never be news.

Know your history and you know those who would dehumanize and oppress — know this and you know how hard you have to work; you know how long you will have to struggle; you know what depth of sacrifice will be required.
Less than four years ago, 352,027 Oregon voters wanted to keep racist, dehumanizing language in the Oregon Constitution. Fifty years after the Public Accommodations Law passed, 80 years after the law prohibiting Black people from living in Oregon was removed, 150 years after the Oregon Constitution was enacted, it is a sad thing to ponder the number of people who one can expect will support laws that seek to dehumanize human beings and render them "illegal" in some regard.

On the other side of this issue, opposing you here in this state is a large group of people, well-financed and entrenched in power, with their hate radio shows and a long history of support for causes that seek to marginalize and dehumanize and criminalize people of color and poor people no matter how long they have inhabited this place, and no matter how great, how honorable have been their contributions to our nation.

Know your history, know your oppressor — 352,027 Oregon voters.

I serve in the Oregon Legislature. The Sensenbrenner Bill and others like it are in the U.S. Congress. Understand that these are two different places, two different institutions and two different processes. Along with many of my colleagues in the Oregon House and Senate, I can voice my opposition to this legislation, but I have no vote in Congress.

Next January … the Oregon Legislature will convene, and we can anticipate that some legislators will draft bills like the Sensenbrenner Bill, and that those bills will be heard in committee and possibly on the House and Senate floors.

Some legislators will reflect the will of those 352,027 voters, and they will draft those bills, some openly and some less so. Some will use these divisive issues and their open access to hate radio to solicit the support of those same voters. They will use essentially the same arguments that were used to condone slavery, that were used to deny free Blacks the right to live in the state of Oregon; that were used to imprison innocent Japanese families during World War II; that were used to prohibit Chinese people from emigrating to America; that were used to prohibit women from voting; that were used to deny Native Americans the right to speak their own languages, to live in their own homes, even to survive as human beings.

That is the nature of the opposition we face today, that we will face tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. We will never give up!

They will attempt to deny basic medical care to immigrants; they will attempt to deprive impoverished people striving to build a better life for their families of opportunities for education and employment, and of every basic human dignity.
But we will meet that opposition with organization, and commitment, and dedication, and voices raised in support of justice. No human being is illegal.

I want to close with an African prayer, a traditional prayer:
"Let us take care of the children,
For they have a long way to go.
Let us take care of the elders,
For they have come a long way.
Let us take care of those in between,
For they are doing the work."

Avel Gordly represents Northeast Portland in the Oregon Senate.

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