Immigrant Youth Movement Takes a Civil Rights Lesson

Recently, commentators and congressional witnesses have debated whether the immigrant rights movement is today?s civil rights movement. Some contend that immigrant activists, leading arguably the largest U.S. grassroots movement since the 1960s, carry Dr. King?s torch. Others respond that the civil rights movement, which emerged from slavery and segregation, was a different animal. But, whatever your position, it?s really the wrong question.

The real issue is whether and how people fighting for inclusion and equal rights learn from those who fought for similar things in the past.

No doubt, each movement is different. As recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have shown, even struggles that look quite similar possess distinctive internal logics and elicit divergent responses from the state.

But the civil rights movement does undoubtedly offer one of our nation?s most powerful example of widespread direct action to achieve a more inclusive and equal union.

And, earlier this month in Memphis, over 200 activists for the DREAM Act?a proposed piece of legislation to offer undocumented youths who grew up in the United States an earned path to citizenship?came together to glean lessons from past civil rights struggles. These students, who suffered devastating defeat when DREAM came up five Senate votes short in December, gathered to plot strategy and continue building their national network, United We Dream (UWD).

Memphis was not an accidental choice for this gathering. The first stop: a visit to the Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King?s assassination and home of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Inside the museum, the mostly Latino activists huddled around portraits of a mostly African-American struggle. Their awe proved especially poignant given recent efforts from restrictionists?notably, witnesses called by Republicans in a recent House of Representatives hearing?to pit African-Americans against Latinos by arguing that African-American workers are immigration?s big losers.

At the Lorraine, a young Latina activist scrutinized a Norman Rockwell portrait, ?The Problem We All Live With,? which depicts an African-American girl in a pearl white dress relying on four marshals to help her enter a school. In the next room, two fellow Latino students watched video footage of the dogs and the fire hoses that Sheriff Eugene ?Bull? Connor unleashed on Birmingham?s youth in 1963.

Then, as now, young people provide a mirror for our best and our worst selves.

When we think of the civil rights movement, we tend to think of figures like Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph. But when we remember these heroes, it?s easy to forget that theirs was principally a youth movement. As Hollis Watkins, a civil rights veteran who addressed UWD?s congress, remarked, ?The vast majority of the people involved in the civil rights movement were young people.?

Mr. Watkins recounted being drawn into activism as a teenager, when he joined the NAACP and then the SNCC. He recalled being jailed and receiving death threats, but, above all, he remembered how young people drove a movement that generated enormous political change.

Encouraging youth activists to continue fighting today, Mr. Watkins explained, ?Young people are our future, but they are also a part of our present. And, since they are part of the present, they need to be involved in the issues that need to be straightened out in the here and now.?

The immigrant rights movement is no carbon copy of the civil rights movement, but Mr. Watkins? speech and the UWD congress revealed several lessons that immigrant rights activists can learn from the history encapsulated in a Memphis museum.

First, youth can, and often do, lead grassroots struggle. Students have breathed new life into the immigrant rights movement in the past two years; for DREAM and other pro-immigrant efforts to succeed, they must continue fighting.

Second, movements rely on grassroots organizations and effective coalitions. Unbridled energy and activism are critical, but activists must also build organizations capable of sustained, strategic action. UWD?s Memphis congress aimed at precisely such organizational capacity building.

Third, struggles for inclusion and rights center on collective action, including civil disobedience. Civil rights activists? nonviolent resistance?whether the Montgomery bus boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, or the Selma march?advanced the moral case against segregation. Similarly, pray-ins, marches, and vigils have been?and will continue to be?critical to growing immigrant power.

Finally, struggle requires risk. When DREAM students come out publicly as undocumented, they risk being deported to countries that they scarcely know. One DREAM student recalled meeting members of the Clinton Twelve, who risked their lives to integrate the schools in Clinton, Tennessee in 1956. Her lesson? ?I?m afraid sometimes, and that?s OK. I act despite that fear.?

In short, irrespective of whether this movement is analogous to the civil rights movement, young immigrant activists know they have a lot to learn from African Americans? landmark struggle.

Walking away from the museum, one DREAM student mused to a friend, ?Years from now, if we do our job right, there?ll be a museum about us, too.?

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.