*When my church in Pasadena, California celebrated its 120th anniversary two years ago, I was amazed to learn that the church’s founders had been forced to literally fight for their right to worship. When the original sanctuary was being built, men of the congregation had to stand guard with shotguns to prevent white racists from torching the site!
Of course, countless black churches, schools, businesses and homes across America faced similar threats during the bad old days of segregation. Because of that history, African-Americans should vigorously defy the bigots who seek to trample the rights of all racial and ethnic minorities – including the right to worship.
Sadly, two of our nation’s most important black elected officials have lost sight of this. By making concessions to the fanatics who want to stop a Muslim cultural center from being built near Ground Zero, President Barack Obama and New York Gov. David Paterson have failed in their moral responsibility as black men with political power.
President Obama started off in the right direction when he first spoke about the Cordoba House Islamic center project. Unfortunately, the President started backpedaling almost immediately. On Friday, August 13, Mr. Obama made an uncompromising statement about the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom declaring: “…Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan…This is America and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
But a day later President Obama tweaked his statement, lending implied credence to the anti-mosque movement. While reiterating the need for Americans to “stay focused on who we are as a people and what our values are all about,” Mr. Obama stressed that he would not “comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.” As if there is something inherently unwise or improper about the proposed Islamic center (which there is not). As if the fanatics trying to block the project have a legitimate point (which they do not).
As disappointing as President Obama’s statement was, Gov. Paterson’s actions have been much worse. In a bid to appease the anti-mosque extremists, Mr. Paterson wants the Islamic center to relocate away from Ground Zero. The governor has even offered to scrounge funds from New York’s over-stretched state budget to place the project on state land. Paterson used deceptively high-sounding language when he pitched his separate-but-equal idea at a news conference last Friday (August 20). After acknowledging that the planned Islamic center has “every right to be there,” Paterson said he wanted to “promote some kind of ethnic and cultural understanding” by setting up “a dialogue with myself and others who might have some ideas on how to bring about a solution that’s favorable to everyone.” That sounds nice on the surface, but since Paterson’s “solution” is to move the Islamic center rather than defend the Constitution and put the protesters in check, the governor’s suggestion is deeply offensive.
Gov. Paterson sounds disgracefully similar to Karl Lindner, the deceptively-gentle white racist in Lorraine Hansberry’s great American plan “A Raisin in the Sun” who offers a black family a large sum of money to not move into the house they’d bought in an all-white neighborhood. When the play’s tortured protagonist, Walter Lee Younger, decides to accept Lindner’s degrading offer, his wise and proud mother, Lena, admonishes him: “Son, I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers – but ain’t nobody in my family never let nobody pay ’em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn’t fit to walk the earth. We ain’t never been that poor. We ain’t never been that – dead inside.”
That’s the answer that I hope the planners of the Islamic cultural center will give to Gov. Paterson and everyone else who is trying to pressure them into accepting second-class citizenship.
As government officials, Gov. Paterson and President Obama have a responsibility to uphold the U.S. Constitution. As black men, they have a responsibility to maintain an uncompromising stand for racial and justice. History and the bloody sacrifices of our forebears demands this. Our black heritage anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” reminds us with graphic eloquence that “we have come over a way that with tears has been watered…treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” No black leader – indeed, no black individual -has a right to sell out our ancestors by giving in to the demands of ignorant, arrogant, hateful and politically-motivated people who are committed to restricting the Constitutionally-guaranteed, God-given freedoms of others.
There is no moral middle ground on the issues of equality and freedom. Either you are in favor of “liberty and justice for all” or you are not. The people fighting the Islamic cultural center that is set to go up near Ground Zero (and fighting mosques in cities across the nation) are bigots at worst or hypocrites at best. They must be opposed – forcefully, unyieldingly and to without ceasing. For African-Americans – especially African-Americans with political power — any other position is indefensible.
Thanks for listening. I’m Cameron Turner and that’s my two cents.