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Jeh Johnson tells American Muslims, ‘Your story is the quintessential American story’

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson speaks to the Islamic Society of North America during its annual convention in Chicago. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson delivered an impassioned speech Saturday night at the annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference in Chicago, holding forth on the subject of Muslim empowerment in America.

Many American Muslims have been critical of his department and federal law enforcement agencies for what they view as discriminatory surveillance and prosecution of American Muslims. In his speech, Johnson did not speak to surveillance practices directly but acknowledged a common experience of discrimination and disrespect among American Muslims.

Johnson was the first sitting Cabinet secretary and the highest-ranking U.S. official to address an ISNA conference. He told the crowd of hundreds of Muslim religious and political leaders, activists and professionals that he hoped his appearance at the conference serves as a precedent for future appearances by officials of his rank. And he compared the Muslim American struggle for recognition, respect and equal rights to that of other American religious, racial and ethnic communities. He spoke of his grandfather, an accomplished African American sociologist who lived and died in the Jim Crow South but whose grandson is now the secretary of homeland security in the administration of a black president.

“Do not despair,” Johnson told the crowd. “If you know American history, take comfort in learning from it.”

Here is the text of Johnson’s speech in full:

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening….

I want to thank you for inviting me to be here today.

As Barack Obama’s presidency and our administration draw to a close, I am proud to have been part of it.

I have been on an incredible journey with Barack Obama, not just since he became President in 2009, but over the last 10 years — as part of his campaign, his transition team, his administration, and, now, his cabinet.

History will record not only the transformational changes President Obama brought about, but also that in 2008, he was elected president with 69 million votes — the largest popular vote for any one person in the history of this country, based on a campaign of hope and inspiration. With that came a new generation of voters, and an unprecedented period of inclusiveness and diversity in our political process.

As part of that, it is a privilege for me to be present in person here today, to speak to you, this full convention of the Islamic Society of North America. I’m told that I am the highest ranking U.S. government official and the first sitting cabinet officer to ever speak in person before this convention. I welcome that, as you have welcomed me. I am proud to have broken that glass ceiling, and to have created the expectation, in the future, that government officials of my rank will attend your annual convention.

President Obama has made it a priority for his administration to build bridges to American Muslim communities.

In 33 months as your Secretary of Homeland Security, I have personally visited American Muslim communities in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Detroit, Dearborn, Chicago, Columbus, Houston, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. I have come to know many of you, and I hope you know me.

You have heard President Obama and me call out the discrimination and vilification you face in the current climate.

You have heard us say that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is neither Islam nor a state; you have heard us say that it is a group of terrorists attempting to hijack your religion.

You have heard us, before multiple audiences of different political stripes, refuse to bend to the political pressure to call terrorism “Islamic” extremism. We know that ISIL, though it claims the banner of Islam, occupies no part of your religion, a religion founded on peace.

After I am gone as Secretary, I hope you will always regard your Department of Homeland Security aligned in interest with you for peace, the safety of your family, and the protection of your homeland. I hope you will always regard our new Office for Community Partnerships as your partner.

Tonight, in this last and biggest opportunity I will have as your Secretary of Homeland Security to address an audience this large, all at once, I want to take our conversation to a new level.

A leader of this organization reminded me that we spend a lot of time telling young Muslims in this country what you should not become. A more effective message is to tell you what, in this great country, you can become. We must not simply curse the darkness, but offer a candle.

Tonight I will not look at this large group of Muslims before me in this room through a homeland security lens.

Tonight I will not talk about counterterrorism. Tonight I will simply address you as who you are, “my fellow Americans.”

Tonight I speak especially to the young people in this audience, and to the parents worried about your future.
Many of the young people in this room worry that, because of the current climate, your religion, your skin color, and your attire, because of that you will never win full acceptance in this country.

I come before you tonight to assure you this is not true. Your struggle for full acceptance in this country is one you will win.

How do I know this? Because my African American ancestors and I have traveled a similar road.

I hear your stories of discrimination, vilification, and of the efforts to tar you with the broad brush of suspicion.
I hear about the bullying and physical attacks that Muslims are experiencing nationwide. They are familiar to me. I recognize them. I look out on this room of American Muslims and I see myself. I see a similar struggle that my African American ancestors have fought to win acceptance in this country.

Realize it or not, your story is the quintessential American story.

Your story is an American story, told over and over again, generation after generation, of waves of people who struggle for, seek, and will eventually win your share of the American dream. Know the history of this country and you will know that — whether it’s Catholic Americans, Jewish Americans, Mormon Americans, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Japanese Americas, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, or Muslim Americans — this will be true.

The arc of the American story is long, it is bumpy and uncertain, but it always bends toward a more perfect union.
Some of you are frustrated that you have been publicly denouncing violent extremism for years, sometimes at your own peril, and have not been recognized for it.

Some of you are discouraged that you must continually point to the patriotism of American Muslims, by pointing to your military service, to those American Muslims who have died in combat for your country.

I have another story for you. It’s about a man black named Charles S. Johnson, who lived in the segregated South years ago.

Dr. Johnson was born in Virginia in 1893, the son of an emancipated slave. Dr. Johnson fought in combat in World War One, became a prominent sociologist and president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and a public champion for civil rights for the African American.

Despite his academic degrees, his honorary degrees, his reputation, and his many achievements, in 1949 Dr. Johnson was called to testify in Congress before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Historians in this room know about the House Un-American Activities Committee. Part of its mission was to ferret out Communists in this country in the late 1940s and 1950s, during the Red Square, McCarthyism, and a great fear that Communists where hiding among us. Some of that suspicion was focused on African Americans who dared publicly challenge the government to deliver equal protection of the laws for all people.

Dr. Johnson appeared before this Committee and had to deny he was a member of the Communist Party, and to defend the patriotism of all African Americans. Of this he testified: “[It’s] like asking if Tennesseans, or Presbyterians, or foreign-born citizens, or American women, or persons with freckles, are loyal.” As the prime example of the African American’s patriotism, he noted that “in time of war they have pleaded for combat service, for the supreme hazards of military service. . . They have offered and risked their lives freely for their country even while bitterly resenting, at times, the conditions under which they were permitted to die in honor.”

Charles Johnson died 60 years ago, in 1956, just as the civil rights movement he championed was about to take flight. At the time, Jim Crow still existed in the South. Charles Johnson knew nothing else in the South. But, one month before he died, Dr. Johnson wrote this about the segregated South, in which, at the time, we were not allowed to vote, or live with, travel with, eat with or marry anyone of the white race:

“It is expected that Negro Southerners, as a result of [our] limited status in the racial system, would be bitter or hostile. . . Bitterness grows out of hopelessness, and there is no . . . hopelessness in the situation. . . . Faith in the ultimate strength of the democratic philosophy and code of the nation . . . has always been stronger than the impulse to despair.”

I believe that too. I believe that because Charles S. Johnson was my grandfather. He died a second class citizen, in fact and in law. But he had faith in this country.

Perhaps he imagined the unimaginable in 1956: that his own grandson would one day become the person in charge of the homeland security for this entire Nation, or, even more incredible, that I would serve in the cabinet of a black president. This is something, as recently as 10 years ago, I thought would never happen in my lifetime.

The House Un-American Activities Committee was abolished many years ago. I’m told it used to hold its hearings in Room 311 of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington. This is the same room in which the House Homeland Security Committee holds its hearings today. Therefore, sixty-seven years ago, my grandfather likely testified in that hearing room to defend his patriotism; now his grandson testifies in that same room to explain what the U.S. government is doing to defend our Nation.

This is the promise and the wonder of this country.

Follow the example of many people in this room, the leaders of this organization, and become full participants in our great democratic society. Continue to prod us toward a more perfect union. Aspire, excel, contribute, engage, and vote. Channel your energy in a way such that Muslim Americans too become recognized as a full part of the fabric of this diverse society, like others who have done before you.

This is your moment of opportunity.

For role models and inspiration, you can look to Muslims who are already shining examples of great Americans.

Muhammed Ali was not just a hero, he is a great American.

Dalilah Muhammad, who last month brought home from the Olympics the Gold Medal for the 400-meter hurdles, is a great American.

Captain Humayun Khan, who gave his life for our country in Iraq, is an American hero.

His Gold Star mother and his Gold Star father, who carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket, are American heroes.

Like those who came before you, do not lose hope. Do not despair. Have faith in the code of this Nation. We will continue on the path toward a more perfect union.

If you know American history, take comfort in learning from it.

Yes, it is frustrating to listen to those who foment fear, suspicion and intolerance, who don’t know the mistakes of history, and are in the midst of repeating them. Have faith that the character of the American people as a whole is such that, in the end, we will choose not to drink this brand of soiled milk.

Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Americans: public officials in this country are often reluctant to ask the public we serve for your help. On behalf of myself and the President, I ask for your help. Hear this message and share it with others in your communities.

Light a candle. Show others the promise and the wonder of this country.

Thank you for listening.