By Imam Michael Saahir
May 11, 2017
The civil rights movement in America is a very important and continuing epoch in American history. The shapers of history often influence our perceptions and remembrance of history — even our own African-American history — by repeatedly highlighting the faces, characters and institutions the shapers desire for us to remember, cherish and honour.
No single ethnic, religious or racial group should allow another group to tell their respective history. One’s perception of their history greatly impacts the trajectory of their lives as they seek their destiny as a people. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Muslims, particularly indigenous Muslim Americans, to independently tell our story — our American story, in this case, surrounding the topic of American civil rights.
First, let’s address the image problem that has been saddled upon African-American Muslims as “outsiders,” a group disassociated from the general African-American struggle for human and civil rights. Albeit the early Muslim methodology under the leadership of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad spoke of racial separation, nonetheless, his focus was solely on improving the lives of African-Americans.
Often the Hon. Elijah Muhammad is cited for building a “nation within a nation,” but few know of the June 22, 1964, Supreme Court ruling the Nation of Islam (NOI) won via Thomas X Cooper pursuing his religious rights that, at that time, no religions enjoyed. This NOI civil rights success opened the door for non-Muslim inmates to begin enjoying religious freedoms previously unknown to them. Please find more by searching online for “Cooper v. Pate and the Origins of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement.”
Another Muslim American who championed civil rights is boxing champ Muhammad Ali, who stood for his religious rights not to serve in the U.S. military. Again, it would take another watershed U.S. Supreme Court ruling after many years of vigorous and tiring legal battles. As Father Frederick eloquently and truthfully stated, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Ali essentially lost all of his material accomplishments, but he was never robbed of his convictions and determination to stand for his civil and religious rights while improving the lives of, namely, African-Americans, but the lives of all Americans. Ali’s stance was directly in accord with the Qur’an’s encouragement that we all be ambassadors for justice despite the odds.
The majority of African-American Muslims, while still honouring the great achievements of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, have embraced the universal teaching of Islam that accepts all races as natural creations of Allah. Collectively the very presence of African-American Muslims — individuals who very often change their family names and observe different holidays, among other changes —serves as a catalyst for moving civil rights in America forward. Islam in the African-American community has proven itself to be an option that is just as “American” as any other religion we uphold.
American Muslims and Christians both have paid a serious price in our pursuit for human and civil rights, sacrifices that included surveillance, loss of jobs, murders and unjust time in jail. The methodologies may have been diverse, but the objective was one and the same — freedom and justice.
To borrow an excerpt from my book, The Honourable Elijah Muhammad: The Man Behind the Men, Page 309 illustrates one of the similarities and dissimilarities of African-American Muslims and the civil rights movement. Imam Yusuf Abdullah of the Nashville Masjid of Al-Islam summarized the point this way: “There are some similarities and some dissimilarity; there were some dissimilarity in that we would stand up by our (individual) selves sometimes, or one or two of us and do what we thought we had to do whereas in the Civil Rights Movement there tend to be a large crowd. We didn’t always have a large crowd and we would go out and do our job of seeing to it that the words of The Hon. Elijah Muhammad reached the African-American people.
“The similarities are that we had a call, and I think all of us would say … the call was similar even though they were articulated differently. I think all of it was for social justice and equality for the African American people … the similarities is that we were all after the same thing. We just couldn’t see another generation of living under the same conditions that were existing before the movement started.”
There are other excellent examples and testimonies of Islam’s contribution to the civil rights movement in America. Often, Elijah Muhammad quietly posted bail for non-Muslim civil rights marchers in the South, along with giving charitably in other ways.
As people of faith, the Muslim American involvement in civil rights has increased exponentially with the immigration of Muslims from abroad who, too, are seeking their share of America by standing upon the wisdom of the Qur’an …“Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.”