Thoughts on Civil Rights Icons

In the days between remembering two vital civil rights icons, MLK Jr. and Fred Korematsu some members of the Advancing Justice-Chicago staff weigh in on what these remembrances mean to them:

I was reminded after SOUL and IIRON’s inspiring rally at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church on Sunday that the struggle for civil rights is the bedrock on which we struggle for immigrant rights, and that deeper work needs to be done in all communities of color to reject a zero-sum mentality and pitting us against each other, and instead challenge us all to change institutionalized forms of racism so we can all work better, together.

Kathleen   Advancing Justice-Chicago Policy & Program Director

Does the fight for humane immigration reform trigger one’s brain as a racial justice issue?

Does the fight against poverty and growing income and wealthy inequality resonate as a racial justice issue?

When I traveled to Memphis last summer to visit the National Civil Rights Museum and the site of Dr. King’s assassination, I was reminded that Dr. King was there to stand alongside striking sanitation workers, often known more for their “I Am A Man” protest signs. Economic justice and workers’ rights were clearly a racial justice issue for Dr. King.

It’s not enough for us to honor Dr. King, it’s essential that we use his story and his vision, which was shared by so many other faithful and brave people, to remember what we as a nation are striving for and actively trying to achieve here and now. In the same way, it’s important to remember Fred Korematsu’s stand against racial injustice. In response to FDR’s executive order to intern thousands of Japanese American citizens, Korematsu along with other Japanese Americans stood up for their civil rights and challenged the constitutionality of interning citizens without any proof of wrong-doing.

Andy  Advancing Justice—Chicago Legal Director

Thinking about the convergence of two major markers in civil rights history, MLK Jr. and Fred Korematsu generate a lot of ideas about building coalitions, the erasing of histories, and how to imagine a broad movement for social justice. Chicago is an interesting corner of the world to think about this from given MLK Jr.’s history in the city and the ongoing economic and race struggles of African Americans against the backdrop of a rapidly growing Asian American, immigrant-heavy population. What unites these seemingly fragmented interests and what role can we, as an Asian American advocacy organization, play in it?  Beyond serving as embodiments of values that the social justice movement holds dear both figures represent an unwillingness to be satisfied by the terms they were given. There is no easy way to fathom a movement that responds to every injustice, but I think about how we can develop a shared Chicago history and build an expansive future that is informed by all of them.

Rekha  Advancing Justice—Chicago Communications Coordinator

I want to live in a world where we learn not only about Japanese American internment, but also about the history of Fred Korematsu challenging internment.  I want our textbooks to tell us about the contributions of Malcolm X AND Yuri Kochiyama.  When classrooms teach about the United Farm Workers of America, I want the Filipino American students in class to feel proud that the histories of their ancestors are recognized alongside those of Cesar Chavez. I do not want the whitewashed version of MLK Jr. to grace the airwaves on the day we honor his life’s work – instead I want listeners to be challenged by his radical message of racial and economic justice, his vision of liberation and unity, and the public and controversial stance he took against the Vietnam War.  I want to read the news and hear about the work that South Asian communities are doing to challenge racial profiling in New York and across the United States.  I want us to uplift the legacy of resistance that radiates through our movements and remind all communities that Asian Americans are not solely allies to others communities of color, but champions of civil and human rights ourselves.

Viveka  Advancing Justice—Chicago Youth Organizer

The incarceration of Japanese Americans needs to enter our classrooms.  When I was younger, I vaguely remember even hearing about this, and as we approach Korematsu Day I think about how to honor his vital legacy.  We need to highlight Asian American leaders throughout history, learn about the Asian American experience, the injustices and social movements.  The incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII created many leaders and activists who fought for civil rights, but are left out of our history books.  The lessons learned during this time, where the rights of Americans were blatantly taken away; need to be remembered so our country, and the rights it holds dear, is not stolen again.

Bryan  Advancing Justice—Chicago Programs Manager

Growing up, I always looked at MLK Day and the legacy of this great civil rights leader with an enormous amount of pride. Yet, as I have grown into adulthood and a greater sense of awareness of the world and particularly ethnic, religious, and economically disadvantaged communities I have started to look at this day with a cynical eye. Here we are, celebrating an incredible leader; taking tidbits from speeches he gave, when we as a country go on accepting the blatant injustices and inequalities that are perpetuated by and in the name of the USA. We accept the mass surveillance of communities of color as just another means to ensure our security, we believe that profiling is justified if you look a certain way, dress differently, or have ancestors from specific parts of the world. We have created one narrative of what America was and what it now is – from a country struggling to overcome deep-rooted hate and prejudice to one with a black president.

I’m reminded of all these things on MLK Day, and it angers me – yes – but it also motivates me to keep working for the beloved community that MLK truly believed we could one day create.

Reema Advancing Justice—Chicago Field Operations & Civic Engagement Manager