What would Martin Luther King Say? Mosques and the New Jim Crow in America

The demonstration held on Sunday against the Park 51 Muslim community center in lower Manhattan was an attempt by the right wing to strike at first amendment freedoms, but at the same time, it was simply a revival of urban policies of discrimination that were routine in the last century.

That the demonstration had racist overtones is clear from this video of the event at YouTube, which caught the crowd’s harassment of and near attack on an African-American carpenter the rightwingers perceived as a Park 51 supporter. He is caught on audio pointing out that the mob actually did not have the slightest idea what he thought about anything.

The opposition to the Muslim center contravenes the ideals of the US constitution, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The 18th century English can throw us now, or seem obscure. Under British colonialism, the Established Church in, e.g. Virginia, was Anglicanism, the branch of Protestant Christianity of which King George III was the head. The Anglican Church received state funding (Virginians who did not like it were taxed to pay the salaries of corrupt clergymen sent out from London anyway). It was also arrogant and oppressive. Its officials had Quakers who declined to be baptized tossed in prison. That was what an Establishment of a religion was, which the Constitution seeks to prevent in the new Republic. It was an imposition by the Government of an official religion, supported monetarily by the state, and the punishment of those groups that offended the Established one.

We could translate the Clause: “The US Congress is forbidden from trying to make one religion more special than another, and from stopping people from worshiping as they please.” Originally, this principle applied mainly to the Federal government, but over time the states gradually adopted it into their constitutions, as well.

The rightwingers in Manhattan yesterday were attempting to assert that the site of the destroyed World Trade Center is Christian or perhaps ‘Judeo-Christian,’ and that those traditions have a special prerogative in that area. In contrast, they identify Islam with the attackers (even though Usama Bin Laden openly said of the hijackers that ‘those young men had no fiqh [Islamic law]’– i.e. they were lawless secret operatives rather than proper Muslims.) Al-Qaeda is a vicious cult, as little connected to mainstream Islam as Timothy McVeigh was to Christianity.

The demonstrators want to get around the Constitution by creating a sacred geography of sentiment that is outside ordinary legal reality. It consists of a space of white American Judeo-Christian victimhood and of another realm, of a brown, foreign, hostile Islam that must be excluded from lower Manhattan (never mind that these characterizations of American Muslims are pure falsehood). It is an attempt to create a space within which one religious tradition is favored over another, and an attempt to deny members of a religion the opportunity to practice it wherever they like. They grant the technical ‘right’ to the Muslims to worship there, but then seek to withdraw that right on the ground of hurt feelings or inappropriate geography. We saw this sort of thinking in the Jim Crow era, when African Americans, though full American citizens, were prevented from living, shopping, working, and inevitably from worshiping, in certain geographical areas, on the grounds that their doing so would offend and hurt the feelings of the White majority.

Of course, the abstract ideal of the Establishment and Practice Clauses of the Constitution has not suddenly been achieved in American history with no struggle. The early understanding of the Establishment Clause was less expansive than our current approach. But on the way to our current understanding of the First Amendment, urban America made a very big and unfortunate detour.

The controversy of the siting of the Muslim community center in lower Manhattan is nothing new in American history. Although we now forget previous decades of residential and religious discrimination, telling people where they can live and worship within a city was common in the first half of the twentieth century. “Protective Associations” agitated to keep Buddhist temples or even Japanese churches from being built. In Los Angeles, African-Americans and Japanese were only allowed to live in certain neighborhoods. Synagogues were also carefully policed. Limitations on where places of worship could be built were central to this effort to create and and preserve privileges for people who thought of themselves as white Christians.

Some historians assume that residential segregation was economic, that minorities could not afford to live in the white areas. But as historians have gotten into the municipal archives, they have found that city councils made rules about where people could live and worship, and that urban young people formed race-based gangs to harass minority members who tried to move out of the areas formally designated for them. Where those rules were struck down by the courts, people turned to private ‘covenants,’ written into real estate sale deeds, which performed the same function. While the Supreme Court found the latter unconstitutional in 1949, the covenants continued being used in the 1950s and 1960s.

See, e.g., Michael E. Engh, “A Multiplicity and Diversity of Faiths”: Religion’s Impact on Los Angeles and the Urban West, 1890-1940,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 463-492:

Residential segregation through restrictive policies [and real estate covenants] dramatically affected the religious geography of Los Angeles and led to an identifiable spatial distribution of worship sites for denominations throughout the city. Many areas of Los Angeles were effectively closed to churches such as the AME Church, congregations of the National Baptist Convention, and the Church of God in Christ, as well as to all synagogues and Buddhist temples, to cite the most obvious examples. Furthermore, mainline Christian denominations encountered virulent opposition to efforts to construct churches in certain neighborhoods. Two examples are the Methodist Episcopal mission to the Japanese in the Pico Heights district in 1919 and the Japanese Presbyterian Church of Hollywood in 1923.19 Non-Asian “protective associations” pressured the sponsoring churches and publicized opposition to the establishment of religious institutions for the benefit of the Japanese.

By excluding certain religious groups from particular neighborhoods, racially restrictive covenants circumscribed the locus of religious observance by people of color and by Jews in Los Angeles and infringed upon their free expression of religion. This exclusionary practice indirectly but powerfully promoted religious mistrust and ignorance by denying to minorities the ordinary human interaction possible in integrated neighborhoods. The consequences of such prejudice plague the city to the present day and have contributed to the 1965 and 1992 outbreaks of violence. Recognizing this legacy of discrimination, pastors and other religious leaders in recent years formed the “Heal LA” coalition to counteract these long-standing divisions. The legacy of thecovenants, however, poses serious challenges to their efforts.20

19 Modell, Economics and Politics of Racial Accommodation, 60 -65.

20 For a further description of Heal LA, see John B. Err, Donald E. Miller, Wade Clarke Roof, and J. Gordon Melton, Politics of the Spirit: Religion and Multiethnicity in Los Angeles( Los Angeles, 1994).

Those who say that not everyone who opposes the Cordoba community center is a racist may be right, but everyone who opposes it is supporting a practice that has in the American past been deeply connected to racism, which is the dictation to minorities of where they may live and worship within American cities. Just as today’s protesters said that they don’t challenge the right of Muslims to build mosques and worship, “just not here,” so the ‘protective councils’ in early twentieth century Los Angeles said exactly the same thing to Jews about their synagogues and Japanese Buddhists about their temples. Moreover, the fact is that the building of mosques is being widely opposed and interfered with throughout the country and not just in lower Manhattan. This generalized bigotry is clearly racist, and looks exactly like the prejudice implemented against other minorities in the age of ‘separate but equal.’

Just as the rights of African-Americans were recognized under Jim Crow, but it was simply insisted that they practice their rights somewhere else than in white department stores and build their churches somewhere else than in white bastions, so too in today’s America Muslims’ requests to local councils for permission to build a mosque is too often being denied on grounds that all Muslims are dangerous (just as it was thought by many whites in the early twentieth century that all African-Americans, all Jews, etc., were dangerous in one way or another).

As for those who counsel the Park 51 Muslims that now is not the time, that Manhattan is not the place, that they should not hurt feelings, they are taking exactly the same line as the clergymen who wrote Martin Luther King to urge him to desist from his direct action campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, as a result of which he had been jailed. King wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” . He says that they called his campaign “unwise and untimely,” characterized it as “outsiders coming in,” and asserted that negotiations would be better than direct action. They implicitly accused him of impatience, of rocking the boat, of hurting the feelings of white folk who were not ready for his message.

King replied, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

‘We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” ‘

Muslim Americans are Americans. There can be no government Establishment of Judeo-Christian traditions, and no prohibition on how and where Muslim Americans worship. We are seeing attempts to foment a new Jim Crow, centered on mosques, which involves all the same fear-mongering, segregation, and special pleading for the majority that characterized the old one. It is important that this campaign against a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan not succeed, or it will be only the first in a long series of discriminatory policies throughout the country, as opportunistic politicians jump on the Islamophobic bandwagon. Those who believe that giving the Lazios and Palins and Gingriches this one will deflate the tension are misreading the historical moment. These are ravenous beasts, and giving them red meat will only send them into a greater frenzy, not satiate them. Asking people to give up their rights for too long will undermine those rights, just as justice too long delayed is justice denied.

33 Responses

  1. A very well written opinion, except for the unnecessary and vitiating phrase “too long,” wherever it occurs. NO ONE has the constitutional authority to deny guaranteed rights AT ALL. EVER. UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. NOT FOR ONE DAMN SECOND. Justification of any compromise whatsoever validates the nullification of rights by nothing more than one faction’s frenzied fiat. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

  2. This is a great post, and perfectly true.

    It’s important to keep in mind that Jim Crow generally meant subordination and oppression in the South, with local housing segregation and separate schools and services. But up north, whole counties were ethnically cleansed. Idaho Territory was 30% black in 1870. What happened to them? Whole counties in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota were wiped clean of black people between 1890 and 1954, the Ozarks in the 1920s, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in which balck people were lynched in Duluth in 1921.

    That this history is not even generally acknowledged, much less dealt with, is not encouraging for Muslims. The fact is that the polls find a large majority of the American people in favor of keeping the Muslim community center from being built. That’s why so many politicians are shouting “Muslim!” now the way politicians like Theodore Bilbo used to shout, “Nigger!” 80-100 years ago, and that’s why people like Harry Reid are abetting it..

    In

  3. “These are ravenous beasts, and giving them red meat will only send them into a greater frenzy, not satiate them. ”

    What these beasts will do is feed an Islamophobia that makes us all less safe, maybe even raising the likelihood that whatever is built at Ground Zero will become a prime target again.

  4. Also “misreading the historical moment” are cable TV’s talking heads who say the “ground zero mosque” controversy is a dog days filler bound to be forgotten next month or next year like last August’s “death panel” (health care reform) dust-up.
    It is, as Juan eloquently says, bigger than that. Toss one hunk of meat to a ravening beast and you invite a worse attack later on — a hate binge as void of reason as the current one.

    This assault on human rights started with three lies: that the cultural center is a “mosque” (it isn’t but if it were, so what?), that is is located at “911 ground zero” (it isn’t), that local decision-makers somehow hadn’t thought things through months ago (they had). To yield would be to concede some truth or reason where none exists.
    Opportunistic politicians who jump on the “Islamophobic bandwagon” (as Juan aptly describes it) should end up embarrassed. If they don’t, this country’s tolerance index has returned to the level Dr. King so deplored a half-century ago.

  5. Very well said Professor. I am so disappointed and yes, alarmed, at the increasing hatred and intolerance that is rising in our country. Please continue to speak out.

  6. A great post Professor Cole. It never ceases to amaze me how so many people swallow this propaganda. And that is what it is; the powers that be are pushing this issue to distract the general populace from the things that really matter. The economy that the government has managed to screw up and the needless wars that they want to keep fighting.

  7. I think we’ve crossed an important and dangerous turning point where vilification of Muslims–American or otherwise–en mass is now acceptable to voice out loud. Previously many who harbored prejudice were compelled by good manners, peer pressure, common sense etc from giving public voice to their hate. Now we have every probable GOP candidate for president in 2012 articulating varying degrees of Islamaphobia and the media not calling them on it at all; among the common person it’s even worse.

    I was born in rural Indiana and am American as can be; I’m also a Muslim. At prayers last Friday I couldn’t shake a feeling of foreboding that things are going to become very uncomfortable for Muslims in America. I hope and pray that I’m wrong but I think one can look at how previous episodes of ethnic/racial/religious violence began–Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, anywhere–there’s something like this at the start. One doesn’t begin with ovens or with killing one’s long time neighbors without a campaign of alienation and marginalization to lay the groundwork. At some point there’s a critical mass where public support–and I don’t think it needs to be a majority of the public–opens the doors to atrocities. Never think that it can’t happen here; I’m sure that’s what people all over thought before it did.

  8. Another aspect of this is the Japanese internment during World War II. The mosque opposition likens its construction to a hypothetical Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor. That analogy is inflammatory and not informative. A more informative analogy is between anti-Islam fervor now and anti-Japanese fervor following the Pearl Harbor bombing. There were Japanese American casualties at Pearl Harbor, and Japanese Americans serving in the Hawaii National Guard were among the first responders, and the government was willing to use Japanese American troops to fight the war in Europe. But their American identity was stripped from them at home. Bush avoided repeating the mistake of federally sanctioned persecution, but there’s no guarantee that a Republican president in 2013 wouldn’t establish Muslim relocation camps.

  9. Great post Professor, but I suspect that even you might be shocked by how far anti-Japanese sentiment went during World War 2. US propaganda routinely depicted Japanese as subhuman apes and baboons, fully matching Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda in depths of depravity.

    A Gallup survey taken towards the end of the war showed that something like 20% of the US populace wanted to exterminate the entire Japanese race even if Japan surrendered.

    Let us hope that the current anti-Moslem hysteria never approaches the genocidal depths of anti-Japanese fanaticism during World War 2.

  10. Very good, Professor Cole.

    I would only add that this Islamophobia is but one aspect of a rising tide of right-wing hatred and vilification. Things that would have been unacceptable to say even 5 years ago, and now said openly by mainstream GOP politicians.

    As a 99er, I have been subjected to some of this myself. No doubt you saw Glenn Beck’s hateful comments recently, in which he said of us, “you’d be ashamed to call them Americans. They’re not regular folks like you and me”. The mind boggles at millionaire Beck calling himself regular folks, but I agree I’m not like him.

  11. […] Muslim Americans are Americans. There can be no government Establishment of Judeo-Christian traditions, and no prohibition on how and where Muslim Americans worship. We are seeing attempts to foment a new Jim Crow, centered on mosques, which involves all the same fear-mongering, segregation, and special pleading for the majority that characterized the old one. It is important that this campaign against a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan not succeed, or it will be only the first in a long series of discriminatory policies throughout the country, as opportunistic politicians jump on the Islamophobic bandwagon. Those who believe that giving the Lazios and Palins and Gingriches this one will deflate the tension are misreading the historical moment. These are ravenous beasts, and giving them red meat will only send them into a greater frenzy, not satiate them. Asking people to give up their rights for too long will undermine those rights, just as justice too long delayed is justice denied.” link to juancole.com… […]

  12. (Re: MM and Chris)

    In fact, Juan Cole’s quote from the “Letter from the Birmingham jail” is exactly what Dr. King wrote: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied”.

    And King was quoting Thurgood Marshall.

    I favor the exact quote, handed down to us today… Justice Marshall… to Dr King …to Juan Cole… to me and thee. (and so on, all through the gyre of history ’til it bends back and even moves fluidly from “Tinker…to Evans… to Chance”.

  13. You have captured exactly what I have been thinking. What’s more, given that there is already a mosque in proximity to “ground zero,” pressuring Park 51 to move would not only be tantamount to creating a “no-go” zone for Muslims, but would effectively be “running them out of town” from where they already are. This is shameful.

  14. ” It consists of a space of white American Judeo-Christian victimhood and of another realm, of a brown, foreign, hostile Islam that must be excluded from lower Manhattan ”

    Of course this kind of thing is done, not just in America, but in many places around the world, by other organized religions/ethnic groups/tribes, etc.

    I won’t mention any examples, but anyone reading this blog can think of a few of them, immediately.

    And People around the world want America, as it often has, to lead the way forward to something better.

  15. This is an interesting history that I was unaware of. Another possible comparison could be with the attitudes of the British toward the Irish when the IRA was active.

  16. The freedom to build a Mosque does not seem to be the point for the vast majority of Americans. By the way, how many mosque were build after 9/11?

    The main point, that the author carefully avoids, is the location of the Mosque. And as any real estate knows it is, location, location, location. (common sense… no?).

    One should obviously be vigilant, complacency is always a possibility, however things must be kept in perspective. Muslims are being treated far more humanly in America than in 95% of the Arab league and other Muslim countries.

  17. yes, yes and yes. the scapegoating & fear-mongering is absurd. i can almost understand the common folks and their fears -most people are simply ignorant of anyone outside their small circle. so when the manipulators enter the fray, they find it all to easy to push certain buttons.

    what’s truly revolting is the cynicism of the politicians who are playing this filthy game. they should be ashamed of themselves. but they aren’t. there’s an election this fall.

  18. Hunter Thompson did an excellent expose of the housing situation in a city, Louisville Kentucky, in the late 1950s or early 1960s when he worked as a journalist in the decadent areas surrounding the Kentucky Derby in Kentucky. Having grown up in the South in South Carolina, the state was much more moderate on these issues than Alabama or Mississippi, but that isn’t saying a whole lot.

    This is profiled on page 39 of the Great White Shark Hunt, parts of which are available in “The Great White Shark Hunt”. Thompson had a particular flair for writing about these issues, and parts of the book are available on Google Books if one does a search for – Hunter Thompson, racially discriminatory housing, Louisville Kentucky. The whole article appeared in one of Thompson relatively recent compilation, around the 90s more or less perhaps I am wrong on the date by ten years or more, but perhaps one of your other readers may point us to the whole article to get a sense of how those racially discriminatory housing laws were practiced and kept in place and an outline of the slow, slow process of making progress on these issues. Perhaps another reader can point us to the correct book in which this appeared although it very well may be in “The Great White Shark Hunt” or perhaps, another of those compilations of his early stories. I read it some time ago and my dog eared copy is around here somewhere but I can’t locate it handily. But Thompson does give some important background on how these laws were practiced.

    Thank you for this post. You posted an xcellent analogy which I have not seen made elsewhere.

  19. Should Iraqis ban all Churches? Almost every town and neighborhood in vast parts of Iraq has suffered loss of life and devastation that is comparable to 9/11. If a similar logic is applied to Iraq, wouldn’t that entail the banning of Churches in most of the country? I suspect, though, that Iraqis will not stoop to such lows.

  20. “We could translate the Clause: ‘The US Congress is forbidden from trying to make one religion more special than another, and from stopping people from worshiping as they please.’ Originally, this principle applied mainly to the Federal government, but over time the states gradually adopted it into their constitutions, as well.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it wasn’t that states gradually adopted the Federal law. The Fourteenth Amendment says that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” and the courts eventually interpreted this to mean that the restrictions on Congress in the Bill of Rights also applied to the states: they could not establish a religion, restrict freedom of speech or of the press, etc.

  21. “Usama Bin Laden openly said of the hijackers that ‘those young men had no fiqh [Islamic law]‘– i.e. they were lawless secret operatives rather than proper Muslims.) Al-Qaeda is a vicious cult, as little connected to mainstream Islam as Timothy McVeigh was to Christianity.”

    I’m getting a bit confused here. Doesn’t bin Laden run al Qaeda, and didn’t al Qaeda train, finance, and send the hijackers? Or does he recognize that he and it are operating outside what Islam permits, i.e., the comment applies to himself as much as to the hijackers?

    • Bin Laden gave the operatives dispensation to act as non-Muslims would. For several reasons, I think. It would throw surveillance off their trail. And, it would make them guilty and feel they had ruined their lives as pious Muslims (those that began that way) and so make it more likely they would follow through with the suicide mission; ordinary life was over for them anyway. But yes, Bin Laden openly admitted that al-Qaeda operatives are not Muslims.

  22. 9/11 was a tactical operation by al-Qaeda that leveraged meager resources and apparatus, plus design peculiarities of the WTC, to cause a stunning loss of American life. This was an act initiated by Bin Ladin as an expression of his personal geo-politics. At the time, as I recall, the pejorative emphasis on the bad guys was that they were radical Arabs, not that they were Muslims.

    But our responses to 9/11 have been so broad and so encompassing, that we are at war with large populations that are Muslim, but not necessarily Arab. And we can hardly wait to start up with Iran, Muslim but not Arab. In WWII we fought Germans and Japanese, not “radical” Germans and “radical” Japanese. So the notion that there is no such thing as a good Muslim, is quite supportive of our agenda for war without end in the Middle East.

    Of course that notion is also quite supportive of Bin Ladin’s desire set the Muslim world against the US. It is simply amazing what he has done with a few clever operatives, some flying lessons, and an armory of box cutters.

    But, what an opportunity it is for us to leverage some building permits into a swift kick in Osama’s groin, if we just let the Islamic center be built as planned.

  23. Outstanding post, Juan.

    Such quality and expertise is hard to find, unfortunately. Thank you for continuing to maintain this blog effort.

  24. All points are very well articulated here. How ironic that some white guy and his fellow racists are gathering at the Lincoln Memorial to disrespect and belittle the legacy of Dr. King on the anniversary of his most famous speech. It is truly sickening.

  25. A great post. That video is frightening, and sad. It’s appalling to see someone saying “I’m not Muslim” in self-defense against an angry mob.

  26. The bin Laden psychological strategy, over the years, has been designed to capitalize upon hateful instincts in American culture. He capitalized upon the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld-Blair invasion of Iraq by using it as a recruiting tool for Muslims everywhere, to keep Iraquis disputatious and build capacity for recovery of a Taliban Afghanistan. He issued a public declaration shortly before the 2004 U.S. election to scare more voters into supporting ‘W’. Now, he’s reaping pleasure and renewing recruitment as pseudo-christian religious bigotry explodes in the USA and Republican extremists seek equally to capitalize upon it, in the face of an Islamic community/faith center proposal designed to be a cultural/religious healing force.

    It’s hard to know which to be most depressed about: The bigotry expressed by those opposing the lower Manhattan community center, or the total disregard for facts that underlies it.

  27. […] Cole, in his excellent diary What would Martin Luther King Say? Mosques and the New Jim Crow in America, begins by citing the First Amendment–“Congress shall make no law respecting an […]

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