How We Should Understand Juneteenth

Last Sunday, Americans observed the newly commemorated holiday known as Juneteenth. Recognizing Juneteenth is only a small step in the right direction for this country, and as Muslims, we have to go further and understand the importance that African Americans have had in introducing Islam to America.

Residents in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia regions celebrating Juneteenth this past Sunday. (7News)

Muslims and the Making of America

Contrary to common knowledge, Islam played a role in the founding of America, as many enslaved populations that were brought from Africa were Muslim. An estimated 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved population were of Islamic heritage. Although they were not allowed to practice Islam, they still managed to influence many aspects of America. For instance, Islamic values and moral virtues were used as models for social justice in the nation’s early years. Members of the founding fathers enacted policy that directly engaged with Muslim values. Benjamin Franklin invoked a story about Prophet Muhammad that advocated for the humane treatment of Native Americans. One African American named Job Ben Solomon became an Imam in colonial Maryland, which is one of the first documented locations of worship for Muslims in America. Many African Americans like Job set the groundwork for Islam in America and created a distinguished identity for Muslims in America. This identity influenced the framework of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which stated the importance of religious freedom.

Civil Rights Movement

African Americans have been fighting for equal and fair treatment for all non-white citizens since the end of the Civil War. Without figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and black liberation movements during Jim Crowe and the Civil Rights movement, there would have been no influx of Muslim immigration. Months after the Voting Rights Act was passed, Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1965. This act replaced the race-based quota system with a system that prioritized more immigrant communities, including Muslim communities.

Furthermore, during the Civil Rights movement, African Americans made attempts to get back to their African roots many turned to Islam as a result. Key figures such as Mohammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar openly practiced Islam. This trend continues into the current day, as we saw this April when Jaylen Brown and Kyrie Irving fasted for Ramadan during their NBA playoff series.

Part of our job at MPAC is to highlight the important role that African Americans have played for us. According to a Pew study, African American Muslims currently make up around 20% of the Muslim population in America. Despite this percentage, African American Muslims are still victims of tropes and stereotypes that may marginalize and separate them. This is why MPAC is committed to addressing these complex social issues and further enlightening our own communities. Celebrating Juneteenth is only a small step towards increasing awareness of the struggles African Americans have endured and are still enduring. As a result of this, we can better educate our community on voting decisions that result in the making of a more inclusive America.

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The Muslim Public Affairs Council improves public understanding and policies that impact American Muslims by engaging our government, media and communities.