How Does the Civil Rights Movement Relate to the Plight of Refugees? (Worksheet)

"Black people must recognize these people for what they are: brothers and sisters, not enemies and competitors."

Small boat with 162 Vietnamese refugees sinks just a few meters off the Malaysian coast. Most of the refugees were rescued.
CREDIT: UNHCR/ K.Gaugler December 1978

Bayard Rustin was a leading American civil rights strategist during the 1950s and 1960s, who was best known for organizing the March on Washington in 1963. In the article attached on the top right sidebar and published in WORLDVIEW magazine in 1978, Rustin reports on meeting with refugees from recent wars in Southeast Asia. He exhorts America to open its doors, and makes a special appeal to his fellow African-Americans, declaring: "Black people must recognize these people for what they are: brothers and sisters, not enemies and competitors."

The article has been chosen to use in the classroom as its arguments are timeless. Refugees today can still be considered "invisible people," just as they were in the 1970s. Why do we choose to ignore their suffering? What can we do to help? Why do we choose to help some but not others? When should we prioritize domestic problems over those more desperate abroad?  All of these questions can be considered while reading this article as well as more specific discussion and critical thinking questions found at the bottom of the page. For the original document, please click here.


Background:

In Southeast Asia, 1975 was a watershed year. The Vietnam War finally came to an end, the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia, and communist governments were established in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Over the next 25 years (with a peak exodus from Vietnam in 1978 and 1979), over 3 million desperate refugees fled these countries, many of them in overcrowded, small, dangerous boats. Thousands died at sea. The survivors were housed in camps in neighboring countries. This caused an international humanitarian crisis. Which countries would give these refugees permanent homes?  

The attached article was published in WORLDVIEW magazine, which ran from 1958-85 and featured articles by political philosophers, scholars, churchmen, statesmen, and writers from across the political spectrum. Find the entire archive online here.


Questions:

1. How does the Civil Rights Movement (either today, at the time of the article, or pre-1978) relate to the plight of refugees?

2. Do you see any parallels between the conditions and response to Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s and Syrian refugees today? Explain.

3. Can society grow and become more humane after acknowledging the hardships of refugees? Or are their conditions an intractable problem?

4. How practical is the following assertion by Rustin? "How can we help these people? They do not want handouts or a 'free ride.' Instead, they want a fair opportunity to rebuild their shattered lives and earn a decent living. And there is only one way we can help—we must open the doors of America."

This activity works well in an American history class.