Don’t confuse Civil Rights Movement with Arab uprising

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By Rabbi Ben Kamin

Rabbi Ben Kamin

SAN DIEGO — The new president of Egypt has himself acknowledged that the military tyranny is still in charge, even as the good people of Egypt swallow the bitter truth of their brief, vanishing dream. Libya teeters; the Palestinians still smolder with the Hamas-Fatah blood conflict; Syria kills its own children and is gamely pursuing a veritable internal genocide. Iran is built on Holocaust denial and is rabidly pursuing a nuclear extermination program that will make the Syrians blush.
 
All kinds of Arabs annually encroach upon Israel’s borders upon its Independence Day. Crowds rushing another nation’s boundary with malicious intent and with screams of “Death to the Jews!” are not an echo of the Gandhi-inspired US Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Firing missiles ceaselessly into Israeli towns and schoolyards from Gaza while swearing the bloody destruction of Israel is not a refrain from the nonviolent civil disobedience with which folks like Martin Luther King, Jr., James Lawson, and Maxine Smith eventually and painfully changed the social fabric of the American South.
 
It is infuriating how the Arab world, which has shamelessly ignored and/or manipulated the Palestinian issue for six decades while transferring the onus of its neglect to its hateful treatment of Israel, has lately been co-opting the American freedom movement for its hollow symbols and buzzwords.

Even the usually cogent Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times fell into the pit not long ago.
 
Friedman’s wrote a generally thoughtful Op-ed piece declaring his misgivings about the Arab upheavals. He shared his appreciation for a placard-wielding protestor in Benghazi, Libya whose sign read: “I am a Man!” (In Arabic, the sign said, “Ana rajul”).
 
But Friedman failed to attribute the actual origins of that landmark phrase. Friedman declared, “If there is one sign that sums up the whole Arab uprising, it’s that one.”
 
That may be so, but the phrase is hardly of Arab provenance. The original and historic use of the declaration comes from Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 and remains a clarion call of the US Civil Rights Movement.
 
In February of that year, following the tragic deaths of two African American sanitation workers who were crushed to death in one of the “pork-barrel” garbage trucks while seeking shelter from an electrical storm, 1100 of their colleagues went out on a wildcat strike. Desperate for a fair wage, for humane working conditions, and for a sense of collective dignity, they began a campaign of civil disobedience and labor protest. The city of Memphis yielded to their demands, though sparingly, and to the recognition of their union, only after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on April 4.
 
Early on in the strike, the sanitation workers began marching with signs that proclaimed “I AM A MAN!” In the words of local NAACP leader Maxine Smith, the succinct, powerful, and poignant cri de ceour of those grizzled, poor, but determined heroes of Memphis completely captured their dignity and pain. The phrase looms high over the human rights movement worldwide, including those aspirants for freedom in the Arab world who are also “sick and tired.”
 
But that fellow in Benghazi owes something to a group of anonymous black men in Memphis, Tennessee. And Hezbollah and Hamas are not a bunch of Freedom Riders.

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Rabbi Kamin is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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