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6 Ways Arab Americans Can Honor Civil Rights Activism on MLK Day

posted on: Jan 16, 2017

BY: Nisreen Eadeh/Staff Writer

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the country into racial equality five decades ago, inspiring Americans to peacefully fight for equality in all areas of life from gender to religion to age. Today, the words and philosophies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remain entirely significant. Americans must always strive to move forward and combat injustice wherever it is seen.

The Arab American community is no stranger to stories of hate and oppression. Since migrating to the U.S., Arab Americans have faced gross stereotyping and harassment, violent hate crimes, and discriminatory surveillance programs. Arab Americans have used the words of Dr. King to mobilize the community in combatting bigotry and dismantling government programs that violate our civil rights.

In 2017, Americans enjoy equal rights, but continue to live amongst intolerance. There are many small acts everyone can do in order to keep the Dr. King’s messages of freedom and justice alive.

1. Share the story of Ralph Johns

Although not spoken about often, Arab Americans have been integrated into the civil rights movement since the 1950s. Ralph Johns, the son of Syrian immigrants, moved to Greensboro, South Carolina in 1944 after being discharged from the Army. In Greensboro, he opened a clothing store, where he defied the norm by frequently hiring black employees.

Johns never understood why certain people were not allowed to eat at a local diner simply because of their skin color. He was the first non-black member of his local NAACP chapter, which he joined in 1948 and became vice president of in 1951. As early as 1948, Johns was encouraging African Americans to sit-in at Woolworth retailers in Greensboro, but no one was willing to do so until 1960.

On February 1, 1960, four African American students from North Carolina A&T, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond, boldly sat at the whites-only counter at a Woolworth location. They were declined service and asked to leave, but they refused. The students became known as the Greensboro Four. Johns is credited with encouraging the sit-ins and helping the students walk into the first Woolworth and sit down at a whites-only lunch counter.

Johns also helped write the letter calling for Woolworth to desegregate. After five months of Woolsworth sit-ins, the chain finally desegregated in July of 1960, inspiring African Americans to do the same at diners across America.

As a result of his actions, Johns lost his business, his wife, and communication with his daughters for 13 years. However, he is honored today by African Americans as one of the founders of the civil rights movement.

2. Watch the documentary film “Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine”

This documentary film is about a play that was performed in Palestine and the lessons learned from the experience. In the play, an African-American gospel choir is excited to perform in the Holy Land and visit its sites, but they are fearful of Palestinians who are portrayed as angry, violent terrorists in the American media. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are also unhappy with their guests, whom they assume are pro-Israel supporters.

After visiting the occupied territories, however, both groups are transformed in their beliefs about the other. The film emphasizes non-violence and the utilization of art as alternatives to violence in the quest for justice. It compares the situations between Palestinians and African Americans, as well.

The film is accessible online for the low price of $5. Find it here on Vimeo.

3. Offer financial contributions to activist organizations working to combat civil rights abuses and discrimination

CAIR says it tries to focus on outreach and education as ways to combat rising Islamophobia across the United States. Above, Tessa Riley (right) chants along with other students at a rally against lslamophobia at San Diego State University in California, Nov. 23, 2015. Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Reuters

Groups working towards inclusion and combatting bigotry rely solely on the donations of those who believe in their work. In order to continue helping victims of hate, promoting accurate images of minority communities, and empowering groups to fight for their rights, financial contributions are needed.

Consider supporting any number of organizations whose purpose is to encourage diversity and combat discrimination, including Arab America, the Arab American Civil Right League, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Council on American–Islamic Relations and Dream Defenders.

4. Support the Black Lives Matter Movement, just as they do for Arab Americans

Palestinians welcome Movement for Black Lives platform. Image Credit: Electronic Intifada

Standing behind the Arab American community during tough times of targeted violence and hate are Black Lives Matter activists. If there is anyone in the country who can relate to Arab Americans experiencing racism, Islamophobia, or crude gestures, it’s the African American community. Show African Americans your support by sharing their news and accomplishments, just as you would for fellow Arab Americans.

Since its founding, Black Lives Matter has supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. It has called on the U.S. to stop funding Israel and has stood side-by-side with Palestinians living under illegal occupation.

5. Join a campaign to end bigotry

There are already countless opportunities in existence to join campaigns that work to fight bigotry in schools, the workplace, and society in general. Singing up for a movement is a way of helping it grow in numbers, which in turn gives it greater exposure and assistance to complete its mission.

ACCESS, the Arab American social services organization founded in Dearborn, Michigan, has the TAKE ON HATE campaign to stop hate and misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims.

The Arab American Institute offers a pledge that anyone can sign, which commits to combatting bigotry “in all its forms.” Sign their Combat Bigotry petition and lend them support in their fight against hate-filled rhetoric.

6. Serve as a role model for younger generations

The actions that have the longest lasting effects on your immediate community are those who teach to children. Use MLK Day as an opportunity to strongly emphasize the importance of inclusion, diversity, civil rights, and freedom with the children in your family. This can be done in a number of ways:

  • Read Dr. King’s most famous quotes and explain their importance.
  • Watch a film about the life and legacy of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.
  • Visit the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn to learn about the Arab migrants and their struggles for freedom. Also visit and African American museum to learn about the long history of African Americans in this country.
  • Share fun facts about America’s demographics to help explain just how vastly diverse America is – and why that’s a good thing.