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Religious leaders were prominent in the black civil rights movement

 Civil Rights and Religion

When the term civil rights is mentioned, many people think of the contentious and often violent movement of the 1950s and 1960s. These were the decades of numerous legal battles against racial segregation and discrimination in U.S. southern states. Many barriers to civil rights for blacks and other minorities fell due to the leadership of religious leaders like the Reverends Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt T. Walker, Joseph Lowery, Jesse Jackson, and others.

In many instances black clergy became the spokespeople for campaigns articulating the grievances of black people, and they became the strategists who shaped the objectives and methods of the movement that sought to redress those grievances. Furthermore, they were able to win the allegiance of a large number of people and convince them to make great sacrifices for racial justice. Along with black clergy, numerous white Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, as well as concerned citizens of various faiths took part in campaigns to overturn obstructions to equality in the nation. However, discrimination against people of color certainly has not disappeared. Social media and news reports make that very clear.


The two decades from 1950 through 1960 also saw the rise of battles for the civil rights of Americans of Mexican heritage. People fought for job opportunities and political power while facing discriminatory practices because of the color of their skin, their native language and religion (primarily Catholic). A prime example was César Chávez of California, leader of the fight for migrant farmworkers, who were primarily from Mexico. They worked in agricultural fields for low pay, faced health and safety hazards on the job–inadequate toilets, drinking water, and hand-washing facilities in the fields. Without sufficient drinking water, workers become dehydrated or suffered from other heat-related problems.

Chávez, along with his family, knew firsthand about the grueling work in the California agricultural fields, and he began talking to farmworkers about organizing. Chávez was encouraged and assisted by Father Donald McDonnell, who had set up a small church in a dilapidated building near the Chávez home. McDonnell convinced Chávez that the church could help in the struggle for social change and the right to organize labor unions. The priest also advocated nonviolence and gave Chávez books by Gandhi and Saint Francis of Assisi, a Roman Catholic friar who lived in poverty and dedicated his life to helping the downtrodden. The teachings of Gandhi and St. Francis had a great influence on Chávez. As he organized farmworkers he vowed to be a “servant of the people,” to empower workers by nonviolent means.

César and his wife, Dolores, and numerous volunteers traveled from town to town in the central valleys of California to convince farmworkers to organize to protest low pay and deplorable living conditions. After countless meetings with workers, the National Farmworkers Association of America became a reality in 1962. Chávez did not want to call the organization a union, because he objected to the corruption of some unions. Besides that, he hoped to improve the lives of all Mexican Americans as well as those working in agriculture.

In March 1966, Chávez’s association joined Filipino union members who were striking against vineyard owners in the Delano, California area. Filipino grape pickers were protesting low pay and slovenly living conditions. Together the Mexican Americans and Filipinos began a month-long march, traveling more than 300 miles (482 km) from Delano to the state capitol building in Sacramento, California. The marchers hoped to call nationwide attention to the plight of farmworkers. Some marchers held up posters of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. They sang “We Shall Overcome,” the civil rights anthem. Although the march was widely publicized, no state legislation was passed to protect farmworkers.

After the march, Filipino leaders were able to convince Chávez to merge with their union under the AFL-CIO umbrella. In 1966, the NWFA became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) or simply UFW.

In February 1968, Chávez began a fast. He told the union that the fast was a rededication to nonviolence. It would be spiritual, like a prayer. He fasted for twenty-five days and came close to death. When César ended the fast, a crowd gathered. To symbolize the spiritual nature of Chávez’s fast, aides passed around loaves of bread and people broke off individual portions, somewhat like breaking bread in a Christian communion.

When Chávez gained his strength again, he and the UFW continued their campaigning, protests, and strikes. By the 1970s, UFW actions had triggered passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which was enacted in 1975. The legislation guaranteed that California farmworkers had the right to unionize and vote by secret ballot for union representation. Other labor rights were spelled out in the Act.

Yet, as most of us are aware, Mexican immigrants hoping to work in the United States still face major barriers, especially since the election of Donald J. Trump who during his presidential campaign in 2016 disparaged Mexican immigrants with these damning words: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He repeated that claim in 2018: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Trump ordered a partial shutdown of the government in order to get the billions of dollars for a wall on the southern border between Mexico and the United States—a wall to prevent immigration. But that shutdown has had an ironic twist. It “has paralyzed the nation’s immigration courts, shuttering many of them and allowing several hundred undocumented immigrants to dodge deportation orders each day the shutdown continues. They are among many hundreds of others whose cases will be postponed for years — or, in effect, indefinitely — for every day the closure lasts,” the editors of the Washington Post wrote on January 2, 2019.


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Muslims Americans have long been subjected to violation of their civil rights—the right to worship according to their beliefs.  Discrimination and destructive attacks on mosques have become all too common since the September 11, 2001 attacks by Islamic extremists. Over the following years, protests against Muslims have erupted periodically. In early July 2017, for example, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Tennessee was vandalized. Hateful graffiti was scribbled on walls and a basketball court. Even before construction began on the mosque, arsonists had poured gas on the equipment at the building site and set it on fire. That same year (2017) a mosque in Ypsilanti, Michigan was set fire and destroyed. In another incident, vandals broke into a mosque in Tucson, Arizona and tore up copies of the Quran.

Since the presidential campaign and election of Donald J. Trump, attacks have continued. Trump has called for “A complete ban on Muslims entering the United States.” Over and over that mantra has been stated in rallies, broadcasts, TV news reports, and social media.

Muslims themselves have been and are often subject to intense and/or invasive questioning at U.S. borders or by local police. Women wearing hijabs are sometimes harassed or treated as suspected terrorists. As one young woman put it: “When I started wearing the hijab a few months ago, I put my faith on display for everyone to see. I’m lucky to go to a university where there are many Muslims, but it still doesn’t change the fact that we get treated differently at airports, or that our religion is constantly put on blast by the media.”

The ACLU has strongly defended the civil rights of Muslims in the United States. “Preventing Muslims or any other group from freely practicing their faith is unconstitutional and goes against the very core of American freedom,” the ACLU stated. The organization has filed lawsuits on behalf of Muslims who have been closely surveilled by law enforcement for no reason except their Islamic religious beliefs

Republican politicians generally support Trump’s ban on immigrants from Muslim countries, but at least one Republican senator has been straightforward about Muslim Americans: Senator Marco Rubio. He once pointed out: “If you go to any national cemetery, especially Arlington, you’re going to see crescent moons there. If you go anywhere in the world, you’re going see American men and women serving us in uniform that are Muslims.”


The civil rights and safety of Jewish people have been under attack for decades if not centuries. Year after year, “anti-Semitism proves to be among the most entrenched and pervasive forms of hatred and bigotry in the United States,” according to a PBS News Hour report. “Jews make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, but in annual FBI data they repeatedly account for more than half of the Americans targeted by hate crimes committed due to religious bias.”

The 2016 presidential campaign intensified anti-Semitism. There were 34 incidents linked to the election. For example, in Denver, graffiti posted in May 2016 said “Kill the Jews, Vote Trump.” In November, a St. Petersburg, Florida man was accosted by someone who told him “Trump is going to finish what Hitler started.”

In its most recent annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) “found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017–the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979. The sharp rise was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.” The annual audit tracks incidents of vandalism, harassment or assault reported to the ADL by law enforcement, media and victims. All reported incidents are assessed by ADL staff members for credibility by seeking independent verification.

The anti-Semitic incidents continued well past 2017. A tragic attack took place on October 27, 2018 when a gunman entered a Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue where Sabbath services were underway. The shooter killed at least 11 people and wounded several police officers before he was taken into custody. The mass murder has been called the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

The ADL along with the Southern Poverty Law Center are two organizations that steadily track civil rights attacks and hate crimes against Jews and provide that information to law enforcement. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) is a Jewish organization that helps the federal government resettle refugees in U.S. homes. Along with such organizations, everyday citizens gather to protest anti-Semitic acts when they occur. These Americans understand that when the rights of one religious group are trampled, anyone’s right to religious freedom also could be assaulted.





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