Ralph Fertig: Cog of justice


Since he was in elementary school more than seven decades ago, Ralph Fertig has been, by history’s long calculus, one of the good guys -- a civil rights Freedom Rider, a fighter for the down-and-out and disenfranchised from Washington to Los Angeles, and more recently on behalf of the Kurdish minority in Turkey.

But a dozen or so years ago, the Feds may have made the latter activity illegal -- a 1996 anti-terrorism law deems it a crime to give “material support” to any group that the U.S. considers to be terrorist. The Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the main representative of Kurdish minority rights, was classified as one of those groups.

Fertig has pressed the courts to clarify the right to advocate for a beleaguered people, even if its interests are also represented by a designated terrorist group. Now the Supreme Court will decide. Fertig went to Washington last month to hear his case argued: Is it the language of the law that needs clarifying, or does Fertig’s work for a nonviolent resolution of the Kurds’ conflicts make him an outlaw?


The 1st Amendment is in play here, because as the law stands, even an Op-Ed essay or a sympathetic legal brief could be defined as aid and assistance to a terrorist group. Fertig is 80 years old; he was not quite 30 when he had every one of his ribs broken in a beating by white prisoners in a Selma, Ala., jail. This is an altogether different kind of pain.

How did you come to advise Kurdish nationalists in the first place?

I’m part of a nonprofit organization called the Humanitarian Law Project, involved in national liberation struggles. We were asked to look at this situation. The Kurdish population has lived in the same area for more than 6,000 years. They’re the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland. Following World War I, it was divided up among Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and in the part controlled by Turkey, they were told, “We’re all Turks now, so no use for your language, no right to name your kids Kurdish names.” It got to be enforced very strictly. The mayor of Diyarbakir, which is 98% Kurdish, was put in jail with a 25-year sentence because he spoke Kurdish. His wife was elected to the Grand National Assembly, and when she went on the floor wearing Kurdish colors, her legislative immunity was revoked and she was thrown in prison. Those are just sort of the glamour stories. At the grass roots, the Turkish government has made it a policy to eliminate the ethnicity.

Are these nationalists terrorists?

In the 1980s I set out to discover, is it a terrorist group or a national liberation group? To be a national liberation group you have to occupy some territory and have a chain of command and be able to exchange prisoners and follow a truce. I went to Kurdistan and found all those things applied to the PKK. So I submitted a paper to the U.N., where the Humanitarian Law Project has permanent consultative status to the human rights commission of the U.N. Then I started bringing people from Kurdistan to speak at the commission. The designation as a terrorist group took place, I believe, before any terrorist activity had taken place. Terrorist activity is basically if you go after any innocent third-party civilians for purposes of terror, and some of that has taken place in recent years, unfortunately.

My purpose is to try to build on what good relationship I have had with the Kurdish people and to try to steer them toward making their case to the U.N. and engaging in nonviolent protest and action, to file petitions for human rights abuses rather than engage in violence.


The government’s argument is that any kind of aid gives a group something it would have to pay for otherwise.

That might be true if I were giving them anything that technically could be put on a world market to buy munitions with. What I’m giving them is merely advice and guidance, trying to persuade them to use nonviolent means.

This is a test case for international aid groups and human rights groups. What happens when a tsunami hits Sri Lanka, the parts that are controlled by the Tamil? That conflict has been settled, but until it was, [the law] would have chilled human rights workers because they were providing material aid to people who might end up being members of the Tamil Tigers, which is a terrorist group. What happens if there’s an earthquake in the Middle East and you end up giving assistance to members of Hamas or Hezbollah? Our posture in the world should be building understanding with people who really want to pursue the American dream -- equal rights and justice.

Maybe the law was never meant to apply to such circumstances.

I have no doubt there were some members of Congress who intended to chill actions such as mine, but I think they were a distinct minority. I think most members of Congress just didn’t think of it.

Have you worked with members of the PKK?

I’ve worked with Kurdish leadership, with people who’ve spoken out for the Kurdish cause. I have no way of knowing whether they’re affiliated with the PKK, because to admit that is almost a death sentence. They’re not going to tell me whether they’re with the PKK, and I’m not going to ask.


The 1996 law, revised in 2004, makes it a crime to provide any help, including expert advice, to designated terrorist organizations. What do you hope the Supreme Court will rule?

I’m hoping that the court will find that the term “material support” needs to be better defined than just through the words “service, expert witness, training and personnel.” As Justice Sotomayor hypothesized, “training” could be playing the harmonica. And “service” could include my trying to convince them to use nonviolent means to resolve conflicts with the Turkish armed forces. I used to work with gangs on the south side of Chicago. I’ve been committed to nonviolence all my life.

You were a Freedom Rider too.

[He begins singing a song he wrote, to the tune of“Dixie”:] I was riding South to be integrated/new South power to be created/look ahead, look ahead, look ahead Dixie land.

This was late May 1961. I was secretary/treasurer of the Chicago Freedom Action Committee when the buses were firebombed in Anniston [Ala.]. I was [with black riders] on the bus in Atlanta. We were to have gone to Jackson, but we got to a town I’d never heard of, called Selma. The white citizens always assembled at whatever station we pulled into. The sheriff came aboard the bus and grabbed me by the throat and said, “Are you a nigger lover, son?” I lied and said I love all people. I’m not sure I loved him at that moment.

I was thrown into jail, in the white bullpen -- everything was segregated, especially the jails. The other inmates broke every rib in my body. They were egged on by the warden and by two men who said they had to save the South. I was floating in and out of consciousness. [My lawyers arrived] and they carried me out of the place. There was a huge white mob waiting for me. I don’t know what would have happened. But the FBI and three really brave lawyers carried me out and into a convoy of cars and they drove me back to Montgomery. Then I was flown north to a hospital in Chicago.


You met Martin Luther King Jr. a number of times. What’s his reputation now compared to back then?

It’s ennobled now. He was under attack when he was alive, and by people in his own community, and his own Baptist church. There was a lot more dissent.

You support President Obama, and it’s his Justice Department that’s staying on the case against you.

They have to enforce the law. They can’t pick out the laws they like and say we’re only going to enforce these and not others. I think they’ve been very gentle with me. They haven’t charged me yet with violating the law. I have an injunction, but there are ways they could have made my life miserable.

You grew up in a home that hosted refugees from Hitler’s Germany.

Our apartment was sort of a way-station. I’d lie on the floor and read the comics to them, helping them to learn English. I grew up sharing my bed with whoever the refugee of the week was, and I grew up exposed to an awareness of the atrocities. I swore at an early age I would devote my life to fighting that.


I was so imbued with America as the great savior. [The end of the war] was one of the greatest moments in my life. We were going to bring peace and democracy and justice to the world. Then we moved, and I landed in an all-white school, and when I went to register for class, there was a picket line protesting the admission of a black family who had moved into the neighborhood. And there collapsed my dreams of America. I demanded that I be registered along with this African American kid sitting on the principal’s bench. I was registered -- he wasn’t.

You just became a full professor of social work. Your late wife, Madeleine, was engaged in homeless issues, as are you now.

That’s been my focus for several years. I try to impress on students studying social work the need to be committed to finding a solution to this homelessness. It’s been wonderful what [some students] have gone on to do. They’re so committed -- who would become a social worker? You’ve got to have a deep compassion for people [to do that job].

Your patriotism has been questioned. How would you define patriotism?

Commitment to the principles of the nation. Our founding principles are wonderful: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And we add women. I do believe in the basic goodness of most people. It’s been proven that when we bring the realities of justice to the American public, they respond with a conscientious commitment. That’s how we’ve brought about change in the last 50, 60 years. We just need to keep on.

Do you think your case can exemplify that?


I wouldn’t be so glorious as all that. I’m just another . . .

Cog in the wheel?

Hopefully the wheel of justice. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at