Many Americans, African Americans in particular remember 1965 as the 50th Anniversary of the voting rights act. The movie “Selma” brought to the millennial generation, one of the most important moments in American history that helped push the legislations passing by the Congress of the United States. But there is another little known or remembered act that was also passed the same year that had as much if not more impact on America and would improve the lives of scores of people beyond the shores of the United States. It was the Hart-Celler Immigration bill signed by President Lyndon Johnson on October 3, 1965 and it would forever change the course history for immigration in America.
Before its signing, 70% of all immigrant slots were allotted to natives from just three countries, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Germany. Most of those slots went unused and what remained were long waiting lists for the small number of visas available to those born in Italy, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and elsewhere in eastern and southern Europe. The Hart-Celler bill removed all nationality criteria in allowing individuals immigration into the United States and placed all people on equal footing. But what is most important to remember is that it was the Civil Rights Movement that brought about this historic legislation. At the time of its signing, the historic act was seen as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1957 Congress passed its first Civil Rights law since Reconstruction, another was passed in 1960 and then two more important bills in 1964 and 1965. During that same era the Supreme Court had made major civil rights decisions striking down legal segregation at the state and local level. This immigration bill was seen as another step in the process of ending all discrimination in America.
Representative Robert Sweeney, Democrat of Ohio said, “Mr. Chairman, I would consider the amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act to be as important as the landmark legislation of this Congress relating to the Civil Rights Act. The central purpose of the administration’s immigration bill is to once again undo discrimination and to revise the standards by which we choose potential Americans in order to be fairer to them and which will certainly be more beneficial to us.” (Congressional Record, Aug. 25, 1965, p. 21765.)
Representative Philip Burton, Democrat from California said, “Just as we sought to eliminate discrimination in our land through the Civil Rights Act, today we seek by phasing out the national origins quota system to eliminate discrimination in immigration to this nation composed of the descendants of immigrants.” (Congressional Record, Aug. 25, 1965, p. 21783.)
The bill would be responsible for the mass entrance of immigrants from the nations of the Pacific, the Caribbean Islands, South America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, etc. who now reside in the United States. It essentially opened the doors to all non-European immigrant groups who once were denied access and opportunity to apply for entrance as immigrants.
So what does this mean? It means that many immigrants now residing in the United States owe a great debt to African Americans, and others that were apart of the Civil Right Movement, who struggled for the place they now enjoy. Many who now reside in this country and enjoy the freedoms and benefits of America, the education, the employment, the residency and eventual citizenship through naturalization, etc., etc., etc., did not just receive those opportunities by accident or chance. Someone DID make tremendous sacrifices to open the doors that allowed them entrance into America and that fact should always be appreciated, celebrated and remembered.
Why is this so important? As I sat at the last General Conference session in July 2015, I watched while the only African American male vice president was ceremoniously dismissed from his position. I would not suggest that any person owns any position in the church. Everyone serves for the term of office he or she is elected and when that term ends, their tenure has concluded and the people have every right to select someone else. But what was disturbing is that his position was eliminated from among the vice presidential slots. It was quite poignant to hear one delegate, just before the final vote was take, mention that reality. Her lone voice was penetrating and piercing for me. It arrested my attention, if no one else’s. She pointed out the omission of an African American male among the vice presidents selected to serve the world church. She was the final speaker at the microphone just before the votes were registered. After her observation, the previous question was called, the cards were raised, the voted was taken, the omission was ignored and without missing a beat the church rolled on. A familiar pattern it seems, in the church.
I wonder, if my brothers and sisters from nations south of the equator, had remembered that some of them would have never entered the United States, were it not for the Civil Rights Movement and the Hart-Celler act, then perhaps her impassioned speech would have resonated more forcefully with them. If they were aware that 2015 was the 50th Anniversary of Hart-Cellar, maybe they would have made a different decision concerning the leadership representation of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Perhaps they would have remembered to include an African American male among the Vice Presidents of the General Conference World Church. Do you think…perhaps…maybe…they might have…Just a thought.