The American Immigration Council and its partners want to change the hard tone and tenor of the rhetoric directed toward immigrants, to bend it toward understanding and human kindness.
To do that, they have reached back 50 years to a musical plea for tolerance — gone from the charts but not from your hearts — and retrieved “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” from a bell-bottomed, late-1960s era of war and protest, making it a centerpiece of a new campaign to encourage Americans to accept immigrants as their neighbors, friends, and coworkers.
A new cover of the Joe South hit, performed by Boston-based Lake Street Dive, is the soundtrack of 60-second public-service announcements, propelling the effort to reverse Trump-administration insistence that newcomers are bad for the country. An ad campaign website, BelongingBeginsWithUs.org, features dozens of personal stories of trial and belonging. Billboards are rising too.
“As a 15-year immigration-law practitioner, it’s the first effort that I am aware of to try to show that immigrants are just people like the rest of us, and to do so on a national scale, with major financial backing,” said Philadelphia lawyer Alex Isbell, the area ambassador for the American Immigration Council.
Philadelphia-based agencies that support and defend immigrants, battered by the four-year onslaught of nationalist Trump administration directives, policies, and rules, say the toughest thing to change will be the one not written on an executive order — the belief that immigration equates to criminality.
“‘Belonging Begins With Us’ reminds us that we all have the power to make others feel safe and welcome in our communities,” said Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council, which undertook the campaign with the Immigration Council and Welcoming America.
The groups want people to undertake “micro-compassions,” starting with the simplest gestures — a hello, a wave, a smile, sharing a meal, or helping to shovel a snowy walk. That goes for immigrants and for others who may feel left out or ignored in society.
“We’re asking them not to choose a political side, but to choose the side of being welcoming and kind toward their neighbors,” said Wendy Feliz, who directs the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the Immigration Council, which works toward a more fair immigration system. “We want to give people a more human way to think about what’s become a polarized issue.”
Philadelphia has been an epicenter of the angry debate over immigration, a sanctuary city where the local government won a major 2018 lawsuit over its right to treat documented and undocumented people equally when they come into contact with the justice system.
The voices have been loud. Amnesty International USA put up a billboard near the Philadelphia ICE office to demand freedom for immigrants held in family detention centers. In October, shortly before the presidential election, the agency launched its own billboard campaign, putting up signs in Pennsylvania that it said would educate the public about the dangers of sanctuary policies.
South released “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” in 1969, the year of Woodstock and Nixon, a time when the government’s conduct of the Vietnam War fueled convulsive protests. In an era when Top-40 radio ruled the AM dial, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” seemed to be everywhere.
“We call it our sonic logo,” Feliz said. “It’s sticky.”
The Atlanta-born-and-bred South was as much writer as performer, his “Down in the Boondocks” a 1965 hit for Billy Joe Royal and “Hush” climbing the charts for hard-rock legends Deep Purple.
He won two Grammys, including song of the year, for his guitar-driven performance of his “Games People Play,” and Lynn Anderson’s rendition of South’s “Rose Garden” was a worldwide smash in 1970-71.
South died of heart failure at age 72 in 2012, four decades after “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” rode the airwaves.
It reached No. 12 on the Billboard Top 100 in early 1970. Elvis Presley quickly recorded the song. Today it’s been recorded or sung by at least 47 other artists, from Bryan Ferry to Coldcut to Kentucky Headhunters to Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne.
South’s paean to empathy seemed familiar even when it arrived, many people already acquainted with the poet’s line “Walk a mile in his moccasins.”
That was not a Native American expression. It comes from a poem titled “Judge Softly,” written in 1895 by Mary Torrans Lathrap, a Michigan suffragist, temperance supporter, and preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. She wrote:
Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.
“Being an immigrant myself,” said PJ Pereira — who came from Brazil and cofounded the ad agency Pereira O’Dell, which worked on the campaign for free — “I speak firsthand when I say the introduction into this country can be really overwhelming. Every gesture of kindness and inclusion can make a meaningful and lasting impact.”
The Ford Foundation, Walmart, the Carnegie Corporation, and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are among the backers.
“The last four years, there’s been an effort to bring the concept of ‘the other’ into the immigration debate in the United States, and that’s scary to me,” said Isbell, a partner in the Center City immigration firm of Palladino, Isbell & Casazza. “Any time you can turn a person into a nonperson, you get to a place where that person doesn’t deserve the same things you deserve.”