Multi-racial Gathering to Protect Civil Liberties

Multi-racial Gathering to Protect Civil Liberties

Donna Lamb

by Donna Lamb
February/March 2002

Saturday, January 19th, close to 1,000 people of diverse races, religions and backgrounds gathered at the Convention Center in Washington, DC for a rally and town hall discussion titled, “Dr. King’s Legacy: Protecting Civil Liberties in the Wake of September 11th.”

It was moderated by Laura Murphy, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of over 50 organizations that joined the National Action Network and Arab American Institute in sponsoring this important event.

It opened with a greeting from the mayor, followed by interfaith reflections by clerics from the Muslim, Sikh, Christian and Jewish faiths, and two stirring musical renditions by Ayanna Gregory and Yvette Benjamin.


Rep. John Conyers
Photo Credit: Donna Lamb
Rep. John Conyers

The first of nine speakers was the Honorable John Conyers, Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee and Dean of the Black Caucus. He set the tone for the day with a strong call to action: “This is a remembrance, but we leave here to do something,” he said. We must “honor Dr. King with action” and fight now for something he fought for then: the right of every person to vote and to have their vote counted. Conyers urged people to exert pressure on their Congresspersons to pass Christopher Dodd’s Senate Bill 565–the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act.


Gay McDougall
Photo Credit: Donna Lamb
Gay McDougall

Next to speak was Gay McDougall, Executive Director of the International Human Rights Law Group. “Perhaps the most profound message that Dr. King taught was our moral responsibility to see the connection between our condition here at home and those of other people around the world,” she stated. “He helped us understand that we must take responsibly for what our government does abroad–and that world leadership begins with the example we set here at home. We cannot condemn the use of military trials and the abuses of due process in other countries and yet have President Bush issuing orders that whoever he decides to call a suspected terrorist can be arrested, tried, convicted and even executed without a public trial, without a lawyer of their choice, without presumption of innocence, without seeing all the evidence, and with no right to appeal.”


Her message was backed up by Dr. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute, who told of the calls to their office from families who don’t know where family members are because they’ve been taken away. “And this is America!” he said. “We have to own up to the fact that we no longer set a standard; we have lowered the bar. When an American pilot can say with impunity, ‘I’m not flying with this Mohammed on my plane; he’s got to go,’ and get away with it; when they can drag off three Hispanic men and say, ‘Prove you’re not Arab;’ when just because a Muslim man has a beard he gets treated differently–there is something terribly wrong, and it must be stopped!”


Zogby & Romero
Photo Credit: Donna Lamb
Anthony Romero and Dr. James Zogby

Anthony Romero, the first Latino and the first openly gay man to take the helm of the ACLU, spoke of the over 700 Arab and Muslim men who are currently being detained by the US government for reasons that appear to have nothing to do with the Sept. 11th attack. “When we ask are their rights being defended,” he said, “all we get back is a stone wall and an assurance that we should trust them because they are the government. Well, unfortunately America’s past shows us that trust in the government, especially during periods of national crisis, is often misplaced. During World War II, 140,000 Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and denied their basic rights under the law because at that time the country was gripped in a similar fear and hysteria.”


Karen K. Narasaki, Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, said that many things happening today are, for her, a Japanese American, eerily reminiscent of World War II. Her family had personal experience with people, included respected community leaders, being rounded up by law enforcement and held in secret for months and even years, presumed to be dangerous solely based on their ethnicity. “Now,” she continued, “our political leaders are failing us again. Americans must not let fear overtake us. We must work to protect the democratic system and our constitution, and challenge people like Attorney General Ashcroft who question the patriotism of those who protest what is going on and try to advance instead principles of freedom and justice for all.”


Damu Smith
Photo Credit: Donna Lamb
Damu Smith

Damu Smith, head of Black Voices for Peace, laid out what he believes people must do to oppose this so-called PATRIOT bill, which is clearly “an assault on the constitution and on our liberties.” We must flood the White House and our members of Congress with letters, show our faces in Washington and in other capitals around the country, call the editorial boards of newspapers, contact the media, organize our young people and the women’s organizations, and we’ve got to go into the churches and mobilize.

Explained Smith, “It’s simple–and hard at the same time. If you put the pressure on, if you organize and mobilize, if you stay in their faces they will respond. If you stay home and do nothing, and complain, then you deserve what you get. We cannot allow these people to do what they’re doing!”


Cecilia Munoz, Vice-President of the National Council of La Raza, stated, “It goes without saying that terrorism is indefensible, and that there is no cause that justifies it. But it must also be said that racial profiling–the targeting of people not on the basis of how they act, but on the basis of what they look like–is unacceptable. And when it’s used as a tactic in the name of national security, we undermine the security of the very thing we are defending.”


Imam Mahdi Bray
Photo Credit: Donna Lamb
Imam Mahdi Bray

The next speaker, Imam Mahdi Bray, Political Director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, brought his point home dramatically when he said, “Terrorism is indeed a terrible thing. But as a Black man, I didn’t wake up on Sept. 11 and discover terrorism. I discovered terrorism in 1955 when my grandmother threw herself over my body trying to protect me from the bullets and the glass flying and the fire the Klan set because my grandfather was registering people to vote in the South. I knew terrorism in 1957 when they took my great uncle in North Carolina and laid him out on the railroad tracks and bled him to death simply because he was trying to organize for the NAACP. Oh, terrorism is a terrible thing. That’s why we must speak up.”

He went on to state, “Martin Luther King said that there’s a time when silence is betrayal.” He related the story of a man who was traveling overseas and saw this beautiful bird that spoke nine languages. He paid an exorbitant price for the bird and shipped it home to his mother. When he returned home, as he embraced his mother, he asked her, “What do you think of that wonderful bird?” “Oh,” she said, “that bird was delicious!” “Mother,” he cried, “you ate the bird? That bird could speak nine languages!” “Well,” she answered, “he didn’t say anything!

“And that,” concluded Bray, “is what will happen to us. We’ll be eaten just like that bird if we don’t speak up and stand up for liberty, justice and freedom in this country.”


The highpoint of the afternoon was the powerful message of solidarity delivered by Rev. Al Sharpton, President of the National Action Network.

Rev. Al Sharpton
Photo Credit: Donna Lamb
Rev. Al Sharpton

He noted that the people taking part in the rally were from different places and represented different ideologies and politics. “We are not required to agree on every issue,” he said. “But we are required to protect each other’s right to survive and sustain our families and communities. This coalition of Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, Jews, Arabs and others, gays and straights, Republicans and Democrats–everybody is threatened if we sit silently and allow civil liberties and civil rights to be cancelled by this present administration. All of us are threatened if any of us are threatened.”

Sharpton was very critical of anyone who condones it when someone outside their own race or religion comes under unfair attack. “There are some Blacks who say they can understand the need for racial profiling in this case,” he said. “That is an absolute disgrace! Just like when we went to Washington about racial profiling of African Americans, the racial profiling of anyone is wrong. We are pro-human rights for everyone.”

He continued, “We’ve come to Washington today to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to fight against terrorism, yes, we’re going to stand up for our country. But Mr. Ashcroft, we’re not giving up our rights, we’re not giving up our liberty, we’re not giving up our neighbors, we’re not going to let you profile our friends!”

Sharpton spoke too of people questioning his right to address foreign policy issues, just as Dr. King was challenged when he dealt with the Vietnam War. “They told him to stay in his place,” he said. “And they tell us today to stay in our place. Well, thank God for Martin Luther King, because we know our place. Our place is to speak truth to power. Our place is to make the unheard heard. Our place is to make the invisible seen. We know our place. And we’re going to stay in our place until we change this place!”

Throughout the rally, each speaker’s unique vantage point added mightily to the others. And it’s to be hoped that every listener was inspired to return to their own community with an even stronger resolve, as expressed by Damu Smith, “We’re going to educate, educate, educate, we’re going to agitate, and we’re going to do everything necessary to wield power so that we can win on this issue!”


Donna Lamb is a feature writer for The African Sun Times and a weekly columnist for the San Antonio Register. Articles by her on issues of social and economic justice have appeared in newspapers nationwide. She can be contacted at

Also by Donna Lamb

  • The Multiracial Activist – December 2001/January 2002: The “Be-You-Tiful Hairitage” of Locks Celebrated in Brooklyn
  • The Multiracial Activist – February/March 2002: Institutional Racism: This Nation Was Built On It!

    Copyright © 2002 Donna Lamb and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.

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