21 May, 2016
By Jimmy E. Jones
05/20/16 New Haven Register – “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning terror, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
In spite of these eloquent words uttered during his first inauguration in March 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the same president who signed an order in February 1942 forcibly relocating and detaining more than 100,000 people simply because they were of Japanese ancestry. The 1933 speech was a fearless effort to rally U.S. citizens in the face of a cataclysmic Great Depression. In 1942, FDR’s Executive Order 9066 was a fear-mongering reaction to the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
We are now in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, where almost daily fear-mongering seems to be a winning strategy. Therefore, people of faith and the rest of America should be especially concerned about the possibility of our 1942 history repeating itself. Thankfully, we have the words and actions of people like Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. to draw upon.
Aside from being the new face of the $20 bill, Harriet Tubman exemplified fearlessness in the face of great adversity. Who needs a fictional “Wonder Woman” when we have a real person who, in spite of being born in captivity, took on several distinguished careers as Underground Railroad “conductor,” abolitionist, armed scout and spy for the Union Army, suffragist and humanitarian? Additionally, she was known as a “God-fearing woman” who was nicknamed “Black Moses.”
Fearlessness also epitomized the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He not only believed that “God is Love” — he actualized that belief through his ministry of preaching, teaching and marching in spite of being demonized by many. His fearlessness was exemplified by his famous April 3, 1967, sermon at New York’s Riverside Church titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” wherein he fearlessly stepped out of his role as “Negro civil rights leader” and spoke as a person of faith determined to support justice everywhere, no matter the cost.
This past May 19 marked the 91st anniversary of the birth of yet another fearless American leader. Eulogized as “Our Shining Black Prince” by actor Ossie Davis in February 1965, Malcolm X epitomized a person who “spoke truth to power.” Yet he was not afraid to admit major errors as he did with his views on race relations that changed shortly before his assassination.
America desperately needs people of faith who emulate Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. We must step up to fight the fear-mongering with a justice-seeking fearlessness. As the Asad translation of the Quran points out:
Oh, verily, those who are close to God — no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve (10:62).
Jimmy E. Jones is a Manhattanville College professor of world religions and African studies, president of Islamic Seminary Foundation and secretary of the National Board of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.