The Soul of Our Nation

As I write this my heart aches.

I am pained by the news stories of thousands of children from Central America who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence and journey to the U.S. alone.

There are 10, 11, 12 year olds or younger, trekking thousands of miles on their own to escape the escalating violence and drug wars in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They are risking heat exhaustion, dehydration, rape, kidnapping and a number of other horrific possibilities to find safety. But that is how dangerous the conditions have become in their own homes.

Often times in the heated rhetoric of the immigration debate, African Americans and immigrants are pitted against one another. But once again, I see more commonality than difference.

I grew up in South Central, Los Angeles, at the epicenter of the crack epidemic and the height of the U.S. drug war on urban communities in the 1980s.

The hemorrhaging of middle class manufacturing jobs and the flooding in of crack-cocaine turned my community into a war zone. Gangs with semi-automatics and police with battering rams controlled our streets and neighborhoods. Violence and death were regular occurrences in the lives of many of us who grew up in that time.

Similar to the children who are currently fleeing Central America, my family and I fled South Central when I was 12 years old. My parents feared that their two young boys would end up dead or in jail. And we were not the only ones. Thousands of African Americans who could, fled the inner cities in the 1990s to escape violence, poverty and joblessness.

Of course, I was far luckier than the children crossing the U.S. border today. We fled to the suburbs of Los Angeles. While we may not have always been welcome as one of the few African American families in the neighborhood, I had my parents to protect me and to help me start over.

When I see the anger and rage-filled faces of protesters in Murrieta, California blocking a busload of immigrant children, it reminds me of another piece of my history as an African American. It brings to mind images of the white Southerners who stood for segregation and blocked the integrated buses of Freedom Riders driving through the South in the 1960s.

I believe today, like back then, we are wrestling for the soul of our nation. What we do with these children crossing our border seeking safe haven - and the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live and work alongside us - will reflect what kind of country we are and will be.

Back then, the Freedom Rides and the Civil Rights Movement were the catalyst to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This year as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this landmark legislation, I hope that this will be a moment where we affirm the best of what this country stands for. Equality. Justice. Compassion.

I hope that this is another moment when our laws align with the rhetoric of what we say and believe about ourselves as a nation:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.