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Published in the 16-28 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Black History Month: Lessons for the American Muslims

Abdus Sattar Ghazali

The Milli Gazette Online

February marks the Black History Month - an annual celebration that has existed since 1926. But what are the origins of Black History Month and why it is important? Much of the credit can go to Harvard Scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who was determined to bring Black History into the mainstream public arena. Woodson devoted his life to making "the world see the Negro as a participant rather than as a lay figure in history." African-American historian Dr. Charles Finch is right when he says: "No nation, no race can face the future unless it knows what it is capable of. This is the function of history." No doubt history is a light that illuminates the past and a key that unlocks the door to the future. 

Forgetting past is obliterating the future. It was in this spirit that Dr. Woodson originally started a Negro History week in 1926 that in 1972 became Black History week, and then in1976 it was extended to an entire month. The month of February was chosen by Woodson to coincide with the birthdays of Fredrick Douglass (One of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War.) and President Abraham Lincoln who issued the Emancipation Proclamation which laid the groundwork for the total abolition of slavery in the United States that was accomplished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

Black history is mostly a struggle for civil rights. Since the Civil War, much of the concern over civil rights has focused on efforts to extend these rights fully to African Americans. The first legislative attempts to assure African Americans an equal political and legal status were the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871, and 1875.

Throughout the twentieth century, African-Americans have waged an ongoing struggle for full economic, political, and cultural participation in American life. The 20th-century struggle to expand civil rights for African Americans has involved the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and others. The civil-rights movement, led especially by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the late 1950s and 60s, and the executive leadership provided by President Lyndon B. Johnson, encouraged the passage of the most comprehensive civil-rights legislation to date, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, Roy Kaplan, USF professor for the Africana studies department argues that the segregation has taken a subtle shape: "Some of the struggles that have waged have succeeded. You don't have the kind of overt blatant segregation where you can't eat in this place or visit this place. It is more subtle. Now we have to get into the attitudes and beliefs." Behavior may be controlled by laws, national and international, but attitudes can only change through education and the elimination of ignorance. The Black History Month should be the reaffirmation of struggle and determination to change attitudes and heighten the understanding of the African experience.

The American Muslim community faces two challenges, legal and of attitude. Even though the American Muslim community was under pressure before 9/11 with the introduction of the so-called Secret Evidence Act but after 9/11 the civil liberties of the 7-million strong Muslim community were abridged and discrimination against Arabs and Muslims has been institutionalized and legalized. At the same time there has been a persistent campaign by media and political as well as religious leaders against the Islamic belief that sparked hate crimes. 

Just few examples of legalized discrimination and stereotyping: American Muslims are fingerprinted, told that "they have no rights," when they return after attending an Islamic gathering in Canada. Not only Muslim men but now Muslim women are called by the FBI for 'interviews.' Muslim charities remain target of the administration and the latest victim is the Dallas-based KinderUSA that has suspended operations, because it unfairly become the target of an investigation by the U. S. government. And one asks, what message the American people will get when a Marine commander says that it is fun to kill people (read Muslims) in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The American Muslim community has another daunting task of maintaining its unity and cohesion amid schemes to divide the community horizontally and vertically on the pretext of race, country of origin or branding some as Islamists and others as progressives and modernists. 

Reverting to the lessons of the black history. The American Muslims should remember the fight and dream for freedom of African Americans. Martin Luther King Jr., is a symbol of this struggle, made his case through an appeal to values and tradition. King's achievements reflected his courage and character and he succeeded despite racism, with little physical or political power. The American Muslims must remember that, as with Dr. King, the answer lies within ourselves. We must adhere to the value of justice for all.

Civil rights laws and celebrations such as Black History Month have exposed the legal consequences of overt discriminatory practices and racial harassment. In the words of columnist, Bob Ray Sanders, until America is ready to embrace all of its people - of many different hues, cultures and religions - we will continue to commemorate the tragic, triumphant and glorious history of blacks.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine,
American Muslim Perspective

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