Roma and the American Civil Rights Movement

The comparison has frequently been made between the experience of Roma in East-Central Europe and African Americans in the United States. Roma have likewise suffered from slavery, segregation, rampant discrimination, forced assimilation. They have also campaigned for their civil rights in nearly every country where they live. So far, however, these campaigns have had only limited effect. Although some Roma have achieved social, economic, or political success, the community as a whole remains on the margins.

In 1995, I participated in an exchange between Roma activists and African American veterans of the civil rights movement in Szentendre, a town outside of Budapest. The two groups shared many stories about their experiences and their respective histories. Often the stories moved in parallel though at a distance of some years. One African American participant, for instance, described the Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins at Woolworth’s in 1960. A Roma participant from the Czech Republic told a story about his recent efforts to organize a sit-in in his hometown where several restaurants had put up signs near the entrances barring Roma.

“When I first proposed this sit-in, many friends told me that there isn’t any point in doing that,” he remembered. Indeed, only ten people showed up for the first protest to sit down at the tables and ask for service. Word spread quickly of the action. More people showed up for the second protest. “By the time of the third protest, even my father showed up,” the Roma activist continued. “And some white people came out to show solidarity as well.”

The organizer of the Szentendre exchange was Michael Simmons, who headed up the East-West program of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). A veteran of the U.S. civil rights movements, Simmons was also a draft resister who went to prison for his stance. There, he became acquainted with Quakers and eventually began working for the AFSC on U.S.-Soviet relations. Gradually, the scope of the program expanded to include East-Central Europe.

He was also the first person to hire me out of college, and I worked as his administrative assistant in 1987. Later, in 1990, I travelled through East-Central Europe specifically to interview people and see what the East-West program should be doing in the region. On the top of my list of recommendations was work on Roma issues. The 1995 exchange in Szentendre was only one of a series of initiatives that AFSC did to foster a civil rights approach to organizing in Roma communities.

After leaving AFSC, Michael Simmons decided to stay in Budapest and continue to do human rights work. I caught up with him in Philadelphia where he had returned to take care of various personal matters. We talked about a wide range of issues, but I was particularly interested in his views on working with Roma 20 years later. He had grown rather pessimistic over the years.

For one, the situation of Roma had not significantly improved. “The situation of Roma is worse than that of African-Americans—not in terms of slavery or sharecropping, but in terms of the current reality,” he pointed out. “There are a couple reasons. One is that in this country, African-Americans were able to build an alternative society. It was possible to go from first grade to Ph.D. in the African-American community and never really have much contact with White people. You could meet all of your needs within the African-American community. Roma have nothing like that.”

For another, political organizing has not really penetrated Roma society. “People have Roma trainings, conferences and seminars, just as I was doing because I hadn’t known any better. But it means nothing,” he said. “And then Roma—I don’t want to say that they’re opportunist, because they don’t have any employment options—their goal is to get to some NGO in Budapest, or in Brussels, or now in Poland, the OSCE, Geneva, New York, or to get a scholarship to Cambridge or whatever. But there’s no indigenous organizing effort. There is no sense of a democratic community organization. There is no change on the ground. The condition of Roma today is the condition of Roma in 1989, regardless of the amount of money that’s been spent.”

We talked about his first visits to the Soviet Union, the rise of right-wing extremism, and why he moved to Budapest after telling me long ago that he would never live anywhere other than Philadelphia.

The Interview

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed, how do you feel about what’s happened in Eastern Europe since 1989?

To answer that I think it’s important to qualify the prism I look at things through, and that is human rights and progressive social activity, particularly at the grassroots. So if I look at it from that point of view, it’s between 1 and 2, believe it or not. I’m very disappointed quantitatively. What’s going on in the region is very depressing. And it seems to be getting worse,

In looking at the future, with 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic, what do you think of the prospects in the short term?

Let me qualify a couple of things before I give my assessment.  One, I don’t know what impact this Euro-crisis has had on the societies in general. I tend to think they’ve moved to the Right, but that’s really more anecdotal than any kind of analysis on my part. Having said that, I think that in the short run it’s going to continue along the path that it’s gone. Again, I’m looking at this through my prism of human rights issues and progressive social movements.

Was there any point after 1989 when you were more optimistic?

Oh yes! The antiwar activity related to the war in Yugoslavia was to me a very dynamic movement, made up significantly of women, I might add. The issue of women and feminism was a very dynamic movement. If I look at the early 1990s, the beginning of the Roma movement, that was really optimistic and hopeful.

Now, tell me a little bit about how you got involved in Eastern Europe.

I was working with the American Friends Service Committee for what became the European program. I was the director. When I first started that job in the mid-1980s, it was mainly a bilateral, Soviet-U.S. intellectual exchange around issues of human rights and nuclear weapons. Then I began to turn that into a tripartite exchange, looking at the impact of East-West tensions on the Third World and including other actors.

I began to anticipate the end of the Cold War and was moving into Eastern Europe around 1989-90. I spent a significant amount of time in the GDR during that time and was doing things with the German social movement. I organized a trip of German peace activists from East and West to the United States. Then I began to move further into the region: Czechoslovakia, Poland. We developed ideas for the program coming out of your research. Then the war in Yugoslavia just aborted almost everything we planned on doing. And that became our work for a few years.

Your first trip to East-Central Europe was the GDR?

Yes. It was probably 1988. I was building on Quaker contacts that I had, people who were involved in anti-Cold War activities.

Can you remember back to that first trip you made, was there anything that stands out now as being a really important moment when you thought, “This this is changing the way I’m thinking about things”?

The GDR was much different than other parts of the former communist world in the sense that people in the GDR were not as prepared to repudiate their past as others were. In fact, people in the GDR felt that in the 50 years of communism, they built some things that the West could learn from. They were very much more conscious about subsidized housing, healthcare, education—issues like that. Because I started out there in Eastern Europe, I really thought there was going to be a much more dynamic movement that could actually impact Western Europe and even influence the United States. But the other thing about the GDR that really shocked me was how fast the skinhead movement just popped up. It just came out of nowhere. I can recall incidents of Africans on trains telling me to be careful. Random people I didn’t know were telling me horror stories.

Do you remember the first time you went to another country in the region and you thought, “Hmm, this is not the GDR, this is a very different kind of experience”?

It was probably 1990 when I went to Poland. That was at the tail end of communism and the whole Solidarity phenomenon. Poland was clearly the opposite of the GDR as it related to looking at the past. In Poland, I was struck by the power of the Catholic Church. The really strong anti-abortion campaign there blew my mind. I was just amazed at how ubiquitous it was: you saw these fetus posters everywhere.

A lot of people didn’t get involved in Eastern Europe until after the fall of the Wall. You have a somewhat unusual perspective having worked there beforehand. I’m curious what your feelings were leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and when you saw the other governments topple in quick succession.

I first went to the Soviet Union in 1986, and then I went back about a year later. In 1987, I wrote a staff report saying that the Cold War—at least ideologically—was over. I’m always going to take pride in the fact that I predicted that phenomenon.

In the late 1980s, the GDR government hosted this huge international anti-nuclear conference. There were literally people from all over the world: Wole Soyinka, Yasser Arafat, you name it, everybody was there. So, it seemed to me that these governments could in fact hold on. And then all of a sudden they just disappeared. And I realized that I really didn’t understand all the factors that were operating. I clearly didn’t understand that without the Soviet Union, it was impossible for Eastern European Communism to maintain itself.

This was pretty dramatic stuff, and you were in the middle of it. How did you feel?

Oh gosh, I felt like John Reed must’ve felt. I mean, it was just exciting. Some of the people that I’d brought from the GDR to the United States, based on their experience here, went back and helped to form a group called New Forum, which was one of the key groups that led to the dismantling of the GDR. I was thoroughly excited by the phenomenon. The Yeltsin phenomenon, that second coup attempt in the Soviet Union: that was one of the most thrilling things that I have ever witnessed. I wasn’t a part of it, that would be an exaggeration, but to be a witness to it…! I remember the night of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and you and I talking about it even as I was watching it on television. I call myself Forrest Gump for just having passed through that period of history. It was very sobering also, because I realized that Americans like myself, who either self-identified as Marxist-Leninist or tended to support the Soviet Union, I saw how politically immature we had been about events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Was there a point during the work, or even before you started AFSC, when you saw the difference between the ideology and the reality of Communism over there?

Yes, from my first trip to the Soviet Union. It was so disappointing. I went there clearly thinking of myself as a Marxist-Leninist who definitely supported the Soviet experiment, if you will. While I did not make any public criticsm of the Soviet Union, after my trip I would raise issues in discussions with my African American friends on the Left.  My friends accused me of becoming an anti-communist—it was that bad. Which is not to say that I flip-flopped. But I just was unwilling to ignore what I saw, and the shortcomings were glaring.

The Soviet Union had a long history of “solidarity trips” for African Americans and other people of color in the US. They had various solidarity organizations that sponsored these trips. However, the American Friends Service Committee had always had the USA-USSR Friendship Association as its partner organization. Moreover I think that I was the first African American participant in an AFSC delegation to the Soviet Union. It became clear to me that the Friendship Association had not engaged African Americans in a non-racial political context. For example, on an overnight train ride to Vilnius we broke into small mixed groups, and I was the only American in my group. While the other groups were talking about human rights, glasnost, nuclear weapons, my Soviet group was asking me about jazz and basketball. I virtually had to fight against this intellectual racism every time I was in the Soviet Union. I often say that I came with visions of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, and I left with visions of Stepin Fetchit.

Another disappointing part of my experience was that because conversations on Communism were clearly being de-emphasized, solidarity with the Third World became less significant. I had conversations with them about why they were supporting Ethiopia in the struggle with Eritrea. The responses I received indicated a lack of morality with a pure geopolitical rationale.  Overall I found their attitude about solidarity with the Third World very cynical.

I remember trying to go to the Patrice Lumumba Institute, and it was such an effort because my hosts did not view it as important. Yet every single African American I knew that had been to the Soviet Union had  been taken to the Institute. But since I was not in a “colored” delegation they were befuddled. In fact they had to check with their colleagues in other Soviet organizations to find out where the Institute was located.

The other thing that surprised me was the level of anti-Semitism I found. I had always felt that the U.S. charges of anti-Semitism were propaganda. But, again, I befuddled my hosts when in Minsk, Belarus, I asked to see a synagogue. After two days they “found” one. The place that they took me to was a small flat with about three men who appeared to be in their nineties. My host had no idea how much of an indictment this was.. They would have done better by not showing me anything.

Did you feel that attitudes about race changed in a significant

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