Through protests and punches, an Assyrian activist fought discrimination during the civil rights movement

June 2020 | Photos contributed | By Joe Snell

WASHINGTON — Dr. Lincoln Malik was among hundreds of foreign students that arrived to Kansas State University in the early 1960s.

To increase the school’s prestige, the university president aimed to put the small city of Manhattan, Kansas on the map by admitting leading young minds from around the world. And as one of Iraq’s top students, Malik fit the bill. 

But the ambitious plan, Malik said, came at the expense of the newly enrolled students.

“We had to go and deal with the racism that existed at that time among the people in Manhattan, Kansas,” Malik said. “They made it very clear that they did not want to have anything to do with us. So very quickly for me, it was us that were foreign students versus them that were the white American students.”

DISCRIMINATION AGAINST FOREIGN STUDENTS

Growing up as an Assyrian in the 1940s and 1950s in the town of Bataween inside the city of Baghdad, Malik said he was familiar with the “us versus them” mentality because in Iraq, the sentiment existed between his Christian community and the neighboring Muslims. 

But the discrimination looked different at Kansas State, he recalled.

“In Iraq, although there was discrimination, the Arabs and Kurds and Muslims didn’t look down upon us,” Malik said. “But when I came to Kansas State, these people really looked down upon us as though we were inferior.” 

Malik’s first battle with discrimination on campus came early in the fall semester of 1960 when he had difficulty finding student housing. 

At the time, students were required to live in university-approved housing. But a survey conducted by the school showed that nearly 70% of homeowners would not rent to non-American students and less than 10% would rent to any race.

That left Malik with few choices. He recalls his first room was in the basement of a building and it was not healthy. 

“The mildew on the walls was as tall as my head,” he said. 

In another house that Malik shared with foreign students, he recalled when the electricity and water was shut off by white students.

The discrimination extended to the classroom. For projects, Malik said it was difficult to find white students who agreed to work with him. 

GROWING ACTIVIST ON CAMPUS

Outspoken against injustice, even in his young days in Iraq advocating for Assyrian rights, Malik established himself as a leading activist on campus. He began speaking up for the rights of foreign, Black and Native American students, protested the Vietnam war and defended the Palestinian cause. 

His advocacy flourished during his writing for the student newspaper. In response to white writers referring to foreign students as GDFS, or “God-Damn Foreign Students”, Malik began referring to white students as natives.

When white students approached him about removing the word from his articles, Malik responded, “You come to our countries and you call us natives, so if that’s the proper word for you to use when you come to our countries, why can’t I use it when I come to your country?” 

His advocacy on campus culminated one day at the university’s student union. Malik and a crowd of students gathered to listen to the co-chairman of the university’s Black organization. When the speech finished, a white student yelled to the co-chairman to shut up and called him a derogatory word. So Malik walked through the students and punched the agitator in the face. 

That incident, among Malik’s criticism of racism on campus through attending rallies and his work in the student newspaper, propelled him to larger recognition on campus, he said. A few days after the event, another co-chairman of the Black Student Union met with Malik and asked him to become a member of their organization. Malik became the group’s only non-Black member. 

Discouraged by his outspoken nature, an American student invited Malik to join a fraternity. The group had taken a vote and would allow him to rush the house under conditions that he quit the organization of Arab Students and stop sitting at the Black table at the student union. 

When Malik refused, the student reminded him that joining the fraternity would allow him access to parties and he could even go on dates with sorority girls. Malik still refused.

FUTURE SOCIAL JUSTICE WORK 

Malik would go on to advocate while studying at UC Berkeley and Stanford. In 1991, Malik co-founded the Assyrian Aid Society of America in response to Saddam Hussein’s policies on the Assyrians in Iraq and the effects of the Gulf War. 

Recent protests are similar to the situation Assyrians are facing in the homeland, Malik said.

“Since our homeland was taken over from us by others, they have historically and are currently claiming that our lives do not matter and we have been oppressed and denied rights,” he said. “If we do not believe in their movement, then we are denying our own movement.”

Advocating is important for Malik because he thinks many students don’t know about history outside of the white experience and because of this, non-white students may be seen as inferior. 

“The people who understand our situation best are people that they themselves are living in oppression of one kind or another,” Malik said. “They might not have a lot to give to us but friendship and understanding. But that means a lot more to me than trying to get understanding or pity from an oppressor who oppresses other people.”


Listen to Dr. Lincoln Malik’s full story on The Assyrian Podcast, hosted by Peter Ibrahim

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