During Black History Month this year, the disgraceful Executive Order 9066, which permitted the incarceration of Japanese Americans, marked its 75th anniversary. As the month comes to an end, I have been reflecting on how much we, as Americans, owe to the African American and Japanese American communities. Their resilience in the face of adversity and overwhelming odds helped forge and define civil rights advocacy for generations. We’ve come a long way, but recent discriminatory rhetoric and policies targeting refugees, immigrants, Muslims and other minorities by the Trump administration have reminded us of the important legacy of our country’s civil rights struggle.
The civil rights we take for granted today were achieved through sheer sacrifice by countless activists and leaders. I am deeply indebted to the hard work and sacrifice that civil rights advocates made, because it allowed me, a Muslim and Syrian-Lebanese immigrant, to migrate to America, almost 30 years ago, and enjoy freedom and equality. When Rosa Parks sat on that bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama and refused to give up her seat to a white commuter, she had no idea that her simple act of defiance in the face of discrimination was going to trigger a monumental butterfly effect. In response to this incident, black civil rights and community leaders, including a young reverend by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized the Montgomery bus boycott, which eventually led to the desegregation of the bus line and subsequently sparked the civil rights movement in the South.
Although slavery was abolished in 1865, it took Congress another hundred years before it secured citizenship for African Americans as mandated by the Constitution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed segregation across the country, banned discrimination in hiring processes, and banned discrimination against voters at the local, state, and federal levels of government. The gains made by these landmark civil rights bills were hard-earned through peaceful mass protests and coordinated civil disobedience. The civil rights bills of the 1960s did not benefit African Americans alone; these acts have been used to challenge discrimination and harassment based on ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, and sexual orientation.
Unless we start treating fellow Americans and fellow human beings as we would want to be treated ourselves, America will cease to be great.
February is also the month of another unfortunate anniversary, the assassination of American civil rights hero Malcolm X. As a civil and human rights activist, my commitment to freedom and justice has been shaped and remains inspired by the courage, resolve, and commitment of Malcom X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, who was assassinated on February 21, 1965. As an American Muslim, I am deeply grateful for the struggle of the African American community who fought not only for the rights of African Americans, but for the civil liberties of all Americans. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights organization, would not have been able to defend the rights of American Muslims successfully without these sacrifices and victories.
I am equally grateful for the struggle of the Japanese American community whose members had their civil rights violated during WWII. On February 19, 1942, almost two months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which incarcerated 110,000 Japanese American citizens and Japanese legal residents based on the justification that they posed a threat to national security. The order effectively criminalized people based on their ethnicity and national origin.
They were detained in concentration camps throughout the country. Two of those camps were right here in California: Tule Lake and Manzanar. Today, Camp Manzanar is a National Historic Site visited by thousands of people each year. I have visited Manzanar several times over the past 12 years through my organization. CAIR-CA organizes bus trips to the historic site to educate the Muslim community and raise awareness about the Japanese American experience. I have also taken my children to visit in order to remind them that even in a democratic country like ours, civil rights can be violated; and that without sustained civic engagement, history may repeat itself. CAIR will participate in the annual pilgrimage to Manzanar on April 29, 2017. We encourage the public to join us.
If there is anything that we must learn from the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans and the abuse inflicted on the African American community, it is that xenophobia, racism, ignorance, and failed political leadership will almost always lead to injustice and the abuse of the civil rights of fellow Americans whose only guilt is ethnic or religious otherness. Unless we start treating fellow Americans and fellow human beings as we would want to be treated ourselves, America will cease to be great. America’s very greatness lies in its diversity; the equality of all its citizens before the law; and its commitment to advancing liberty, justice, and dignity for all people. Rosa Parks understood that truth the day she refused to give up her seat. We, members of all minority groups, will not give up our seats either. We will fight to preserve and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and all Japanese Americans who suffered unjustly in those internment camps.