A deep look into the civil rights movement


I still remember when I encountered the civil rights movement for the first time back in 4th grade, reading a history book for kids. Skimming through a twenty page long text about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, I learned that the civil rights movement in the 1960s was an enthusiastic social movement lead by a few African American civil rights activists who voiced out for equality for all. What I learned a few years later as a high school student in the United States is no different from what I read back then  as a ten year old. My history textbook still portrays the civil rights movement as a predominantly Southern, youth, male oriented mobilizing event that helped galvanize support for ending legalized racial discrimination with its primary focus on integrating blacks to the mainstream whites. However, such vague coverage of the movement ultimately misses much of the organizing base at the heart of the movement. Not only does it misrepresent the ultimate goal of the movement, but it also fails to address the unrepresented groups who greatly contributed to the freedom of blacks.

Through textbooks and media, a majority of historians have claimed that the ultimate goal of the blacks was to achieve equality and integrate to the white community. This means that the blacks urged to go to desegregated schools with white kids and gain suffrage to simply participate in the white politics. Such account fails to show the essential goal of the movement that millions of blacks craved for decades. The ultimate goal of African Americans was to get their identities and cultures acknowledged in the country, not to simply assimilate to the mainstream whites as second class citizens. A deep look into African American education in the 1960s shows such effort to preserve their cultures. In 1963, a number of African American cultural pluralists requested secondary schools in New York City to include African American studies in their curriculum. As the schools did not accept their request for change, they decided to boycott public schools for their failure to recognize blacks as a distinctive group whose history and cultures should be fully recognized and taught. They, instead, created Freedom Schools in which black students could learn about the history of the African Americans. Such educational change suggests that blacks endeavored to develop understanding in their identities and history, resisting to assimilate to the whites, losing their cultures.

Recent accounts of the civil rights movement also fails to address the involvement of unrepresented groups such as women and elders. Most historical texts illustrate youth and men as the main force of the freedom movement in the 1960s, especially in the black power movement. Popularly misunderstood as a spontaneous rejection of nonviolence, the ‘Black Power’ movement rose in the late 1950s was in fact a self-defense act by all ranges of people mostly in the South. While the civil rights activists took nonviolent actions to protest against the inequality imposed on the, those involved in efforts to register to vote were occasionally attacked at home, while they mostly relied on guns to protect themselves. Since the legal system failed to work for African Americans in the country controlled by White supremacy, they were the ones who had to defend themselves. Unlike the common misconception that self-defense was the province of men, and that women were naturally nonviolent, women and elders were also highly involved under such harsh circumstances.

Self-determination, liberation, and justice: values of the civil rights movement have been championed through decades as the core of American liberation movement. There is no doubt that such movement greatly challenged the devastated situation of African Americans and developed freedom and democracy in the United States. However, there needs to be a clarification about the misconception of the ultimate purpose of such movement and the groups of people actively engaged to enact a change. The civil rights movement was not a sole freedom act created by for integration of blacks but rather a large scale of revolution for true recognition of people regardless or races.

Two years after Sewol ferry disaster

I still remember what happened on April 16, 2014 in my home country, Korea. Two years from now, millions of the population heard the news of Sewol Ferry capsized while carrying over 400 passengers in the Yellow Sea. Most of them were 18 year old students from Danwon High School who faced death beneath the ocean. Media was soon flooded with the reports of divers pulling body after body from the watery wreckage and stories of families bringing the dead back home. Throughout the following days, weeks, and months, the entire nation had to wait to find the truth of what really caused the disastrous death of hundreds of young souls, relying on the government’s reports.

The story of the sinking ferry was way beyond mere disaster. On the day the ferry started to sink after taking a sharp turn off the Southern coast of Korea, passengers were repeatedly told by the crew members to stay inside the ferry. Hoping rescuers to arrive soon, students followed the instructions and remained in place, waiting for someone to come. However, it was soon found that there was absolutely no attempt by the captain or rescuers to save the passengers. In fact, the captain of the ferry was the only one who tried to run away from the ferry alone with the help from the Korean Coast Guard, leaving hundreds of passengers in the sinking ferry. Soon, as the ferry tilted sideways, water seeped in and objects toppled over, injuring people and blocking their way out. When the government reached out to save the victims, it was too late-only 174 of them could be saved with 295 dead and 9 missing.

What really stirred public outcry was the government’s attempt to easily get away with the incident, without any sincere apology or serious attempt to make a change in the national security system. Many criticized that the Sewol disaster was not just a single accident, but rather a wider malaise in the country that reflects the defect of security system and the lack of the government’s ability to handle such a large scale accident. The public condemned the government for disregarding public and worker safety and cutting corners for cost reduction that resulted in such a catastrophic result. Moreover, the government’s compensation plans for the victims’ families evoked an uproar. Instead of creating major reforms to dismantle the coast guard and conduct further investigations, the government opted to pass several bills that only create short-term effects. Some of the legislation was to give advantages in college admissions for Danwon high school graduates, to provide financial aid to the victims’ families, and to ban field trips in secondary schools. Such policies were yet another way for the government to ignore the fundamental problems that essentially caused the disaster.

Back when hundreds of passengers faced death, I was almost in the same age with the students who fought between life and dead in the ocean. I can still recall the moment I first heard the heartbreaking news and wondered how it would have been if I were one of them. What if I were one of the ordinary teenagers who left home as usual in the morning, excited for a field trip, and got on the boat without knowing what was heading toward me? What if I were one of them who were extremely frustrated but had to calm down and wait until someone reached out as the instructions said? Such endless chains of questions frustrated me and let me deeply connect to the victims. I was not the only one who did; thousands of teenagers all across the country reacted to the incident, showing solidarity with the victims. A number of youth started a worldwide movement with yellow ribbons that offers hopeful messages to the Korean public that the missing passengers can still found alive. Such movement went viral online, especially through Facebook and Instagram, spreading the idea that the youth should be actively engaged in politics to prevent any further accident and voice out to the government. By then, I was deeply impressed at how the young generation can induce such a positive effect on the society.

However, two years passed the incident, I notice that the response of the youth shifted from one extreme end to the other. Despite of such empowerment young generation of Korea brought to the country two years ago, they totally turned against the victims of Sewol after the compensation policies were enacted. Most of it was due to the advantages given to Danwon High School graduates during college admissions. As Korea is infamous for its academic elitism, most students view getting in to prestigious colleges as their ultimate goal of high school. Getting in to ‘SKY’ is considered as the main factor that predetermines their future careers and lives. Under such extreme circumstances, Korean students were outraged by the fact that Danwon graduates are given an extremely high chance to get accepted to top schools regardless of their grades and backgrounds. Although there is no doubt that the graduates should be compensated for their loss of friends, they claim that college admission has nothing to do with such trauma, and it is extremely unfair for other applicants.

The problem is, such conflict has created an animosity against the victims in the society. People came to condemn the victims for taking advantage out of the tragic event for their own goods. I just read an article this morning about a survivor who has been trying to overcome his trauma and move on with life after graduating high school last year. He told his first hand account of living as a Sewol survivor. Despite of his mental instability, he has tried to get over the past since he moved on to college. However, when he unintentionally revealed the fact that he was one of the survivors of Sewol, students at his college started to judge him for exploiting his situation to get into good colleges. Since then, he became afraid of being a victim of the disaster, concealed the fact, and started to work even harder to prove that he did not make it to college just because of the advantages given to him. Such hostility against the survivors is prevalent in the society overall, and this is just a prime example that shows the public response.

It doesn’t make sense that the victims of the tragedy are mistreated when the society has the responsibility to embrace them. Yes, I agree that the government chose the wrong ways to reimburse the victims. Providing money to the families, giving out extra points for college admissions, and creating a bunch of useless organizations under the name of ‘supporting the survivors’ that actually has no function at all can never be the right solution for what happened to four hundreds of young lives because of the government’s defective security system. However, that doesn’t justify that we have the right to alienate the victims and ignore their voices, especially when they are young adults who would suffer throughout their whole lives for losing their friends in such a dreadful event. Guilt of being the only survivors in the ferry will imprison them for lives. If you take a look at the interviews with the victims and articles about their march to Gwanghwamoon to show their solidarity, you could easily tell their endeavor to raise awareness on the government’s misconduct and to voice out for concern. Shouldn’t we stop judging the victims for being sacrificed again for the government’s wrong decisions and bring the morale back together. We should never forget what happened to four hundred young future of our country, and we should keep working on to create a place where such tragedy will not be repeated ever again.

yellow ribbons
Yellow ribbons became the symbol of hope and solidarity #prayforsouthkorea

Is there racism in Korea?

Earlier this year, the sophomore class at Episcopal had a group discussion on one of our summer reading books called ‘A Lesson Before Dying’ by Ernest J. Gaines. We had an in-depth discussion on the heartbreaking novel about a young, uneducated African American who was wrongfully convicted of rubbery because of mere color of his skin. In the middle of the hour-long talk, someone in my table threw out a question that asked us if we could relate the extreme discrimination the man experienced in the book to the reality of the societies we come from. People started to talk about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, campus racism protests at Mizzou, and a number of others that have been heatedly debated across the world. Soon, one of my classmates looked towards me and asked, “Is there racism in Korea?” People might have thought that my answer would be obviously no, as Korea is known to have a single racial group. However, my answer was different, “Yes, racism is quite serious in Korea.”

Korea, along with most other Asian nations, is known to have a homogeneous population with a single racial group. However, the country has experienced an unprecedented demographic change since the late 20th century due to the influx of foreign immigrants, mostly from Southeast Asia. This rapid change was caused by serious social problems of gender imbalance and shortage of labor that have been built up since the late 1990s. Such problems deeply entrenched in Korean society triggered massive increases of labor migration and international marriages. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to have a neighbor from Bangladesh who came to Korea for work and a classmate whose mother is from Vietnam. This massive increase of foreigners challenged the notion of homogeneity that Korea has hold as its national identity for centuries.

Korea has faced a backlash over influx of the new population in recent years. Just as how immigrants from racial minority groups such as African Americans and Asians were not welcomed in the early 20th century in the United States, evoking nationwide nativism, the new population is now harshly discriminated throughout Korea. Surrounded by anti-foreign sentiment, especially towards the Southeast Asians, people often tend to mistreat immigrants, judging them by their skin colors, appearances, and social backgrounds. Three years ago, I had an opportunity to interview two women from Vietnam at a damunhwa (다문화, referred as multiculturalism) family support center as a student reporter. I asked them what has been the greatest challenge to live in Korea. The two women burst out into tears when they started to talk about how they have been mistreated in Korea. Teachers and students judging their children by their backgrounds, patriarchal husbands suppressing them at home, and people treating them as second-class citizens made them almost impossible to survive in Korean society.

It is true that the Korean government and grassroots organizations have put an effort to improve the situation of the new population. Not only have the Korean government increased government spending for welfare programs for foreign residents, but also public and private schools have created afternoon activities that encourage the damunhwa students to be integrated in class. However, such effort has been headed to the wrong direction. Such programs have been focused on assimilating the new population to the mainstream Koreans without understanding and respecting their cultural identities. By simply ‘forcing’ them to absorb Korean cultures, the government has failed to reduce the prejudices towards foreign immigrants. In order to truly integrate the new group to Korean society, an effort to learn and respect their identities and backgrounds should take place.

It pretty much seems that the endless conflicts of prejudices have created a serious imbalance. Such desperate situation of ethnic minorities in Korea is no different than that of more diverse countries such as the United States, where racial discrimination has been constantly addressed throughout history. The only difference is that such serious social problems appeared only in recent years in Korea, unlike in the United States where the entire population is well aware of the discrimination that has developed since the ancient times. Although xenophobia in Korea has started to be exposed to the public through media recently, it has not risen awareness to all generations of people. Unlike the stories of Michael Brown who was victimized by the police brutality in Ferguson and college students at Mizzou, the detailed first-hand accounts of people suffering from prejudices prevalent in Korea are yet to be exposed to the public. More effort and should be put to spark a serious change in order to re-educate all generations about the importance of accepting the cultures of the new population and trying not to hold prejudices against them. The first step would be to raise awareness on the challenges Korea is facing regarding multiculturalism and to persuade people to be open-minded.

“It’s not the Sea of Japan. It’s the East Sea.”

“As you guys can see on the map, the Korean peninsula here was divided between a Soviet-blacked government in the North and an American-blacked government in the South…” It was another typical day at Episcopal, and I was sitting in my AP US History class, gazing at the map on the screen. Mr. Reynolds was pointing at a map that shows the Korean peninsula, the place where I come from, while explaining the containment policy during the Cold War. I was a bit zoning out at first, but something caught up my attention right away. The map on the screen said the body of water besides the Korean peninsula is the ‘Sea of Japan’, not the ‘East Sea’. It is one of the ongoing geopolitical disputes between Korea and Japan that has been continued since the world wars in the 20th century in the wake of Japanese imperialism. I clearly knew that the map was misrepresenting the name of the hotly disputed region. Soon followed the moment I raised my hand and shouted out loud in the middle of the class, “It’s not the Sea of Japan. It’s the East Sea.”

There is a decades-long history behind the high-stake struggle between the two Asian powers over the names of the body of water located between Korea and Japan. The Korean government has asserted that Koreans have used the name ‘East Sea’ for over two thousand years, even 700 years before Japan was officially adopted as a country name. It is also claimed that the body of water was started to be referred to the ‘Sea of Japan’ since the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early 20th century. Despite of the Korean government’s claim that its name has a greater historical legitimacy than that of Japan, the region has been known internationally as the Sea of Japan since the 17th century with most international bodies, including the United Nations, using the name today. The government and grassroots organizations, aiming for redressing misrepresentation of history, have endeavored to persuade the international community to recognize the name ‘East Sea’ as the official nomenclature of the sea area. The effort did make a change in some places, such as Virginia. In April 2014, the Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation that requires textbooks to include both names by a wide margin. This change was finally made due to the endless effort of Korean Americans in the state to push state legislatures to rename the sea. Yet, official publications produced by a number of  international communities are still in need of reform.

I started to wonder how many more times I would encounter such misrepresentation of Korean territory and history and how many of those I could redress. It has only been a few years since the Smithsonian museum started to indicate ‘East Sea’ and ‘Dokdo’ in its map, and prep schools in America still teach Asian history according to the imperialism ideology that rose in the 20th century. I’m sure there still are hundreds of schools that use the wrong map in class, hundreds of museums that misname the sea, and probably hundreds of people in the world who know the Sea of Japan, but not the East Sea. The problem is, not all of those would be accepting like my history teacher who gladly corrected the map after I gave him my opinion. Most of them may be like, “Well, why don’t you go by what everyone else in the world says?” Would I be able to bravely voice out even when surrounded by a hundred of people who have been taught the inaccurate version of history?

I soon realized that it is my responsibility to stand up and correct the sanitized version of history with sufficient historical evidence that backs up my argument. It is not because of the mere fact that I’m Korean. In fact, I’m a person who has dual backgrounds of both Korea and Japan as a quarter-Japanese Korean who grew up in both Tokyo and Seoul, and I definitely understand the stances of both countries. This is a problem that should not be viewed in a simplistic nationalism framework, but rather a larger issue that all of us are supposed to care about with the responsibility to resolve geopolitical disputes that have been deeply rooted in human history. What we have to do is to reach out to spread the truth, listen to others who try to correct the misconception, and try to be aware of disputes that are still ongoing around the world.

After what happened in my history class, two new files of documents were placed on my laptop: articles about the East Sea and geopolitical disputes present in and out of Asia. I came to realize that I should be fully aware of the historical evidence of why the East Sea is a legitimate name of the sea region and of information about a variety of issues regarding territorial conflicts all across the world. Yes, it is not easy at all to resolve the centuries-long conflicts that our predecessors have passed down to later generations. But if every one of us tries to take a step forward and spread the truth, there will be a change.