I am an American Muslim, too
Why would a mid-west guy like me, who grew up in the church and who is a Friend by convincement, say, “I am an American Muslim, too” in these times?
To explain that, let me tell you a story about a dear departed friend and colleague, Bill Sutherland.
Bill Sutherland, an African American, was among the founders of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality. His conscientious objection to war led him to refuse to fight the “good war,” World War II. He did time in a federal penitentiary. Through active nonviolence, he resisted injustice, inequality, religious bigotry, and killing for political or any other purpose. He was also an accomplished tennis player.
Bill was doing time in the federal penitentiary about the time I was born. Therefore, I felt deeply honored to work with him as a colleague in the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). In the late 1970’s, I got an assignment to arrange meetings for Bill to talk with officials of Region 1A of the UAW, a predominately African American arm of the union. We wanted the UAW to take a public stand against apartheid in South Africa. I didn’t know anyone at the UAW, but my resourceful fundraising buddy, Bill Hayden, did, and he used his contacts to set up meetings with the labor leaders in Detroit at a famous Chop House.
I remember Buddy Battles, the director of region 1-A, calling me. He was a very large man with a big personality. “What kind of car are you driving you and Bill to the restaurant in?” he asked. “I hope its not a VW!” I said, “Right, not a VW.” As soon as I hung up, I ditched my VW and called a friend to borrow her Detroit made auto.
After a friendly and very political discussion over supper at the Chop House, I felt that maybe Bill had persuaded the union leadership to endorse his recommendation. We would find out later that night, after a very big meeting of autoworkers — I imagine they were the union shop stewards.
The dais was a foot or two off the huge room’s floor but it was small. Buddy squeezed everyone in, but I took a seat in the front row down on the floor. That wouldn’t do. Buddy made me squeeze onto the dais too. White guy that I am, I stuck out among the predominately African American labor leaders and shop stewards.
Perhaps I need to belabor that point. Buddy and the shop stewards could well have seen me as a alien presence because of how I looked. If they had seen me a the spitting image of evil, that would have been understandable. White guys had defined blacks as less than human, with precision our white founders penned a constitution that said blacks were 2/3s of a person. Guys who looked like me had only recently been beating civil rights advocates, turning dogs on them, blowing up churches with children inside, and had assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. Whites in South Africa imposed a brutal apartheid regime on indigenous Africans. Yet, Buddy made a point of bringing me, a white guy, up on that dais, saying with his action, “he’s one of us.” He made me feel at home.
Buddy started to introduce Bill to what seemed a few hundred in the audience. He said that Bill wanted to talk with them about the oppression of apartheid in South Africa. He explained that Bill knew all the liberation leaders in Africa, had visited many of them in jail, that Bill helped to found CORE, that Bill had done hard time in prison for conscience sake, and he closed saying, “Bill Sutherland is a man who has paid his dues!” The audience leaped to its feet and applauded and whistled and yelled.
Bill Sutherland walked quietly to the microphone, which was hard to do given how tightly we were squeezed together on that platform. He waved the audience back into their seats. He nodded to Buddy and said, “Thank you, Buddy, for your kind introduction. You said that I’ve paid my dues, but nobody has paid his dues until the last oppressed person on this planet is liberated to be free from the scourge of injustice and inequality. I haven’t yet finished paying my dues.” The union hall settled into a deep silence for several seconds, and Bill let the truth he had just spoken sink in.
Bill Sutherland’s witness sank deeply into me. When one of us human beings is oppressed, we are all oppressed. I can’t be free, if my brother or sister is not free. I can’t exercise freedom of religion to be a Quaker unless my American Muslim brothers and sisters can exercise their freedom to be Muslims. Curb their freedom, tell them no they can’t build an Islamic community center there, and you’ve done the same to me. So, to those fearful people who have lost their way off the freedom path and who want to isolate and denigrate my American Muslim brothers and sisters, I have to stand up to say proudly, “I am an American Muslim, too.” — JV