Forty years ago, I was at an Arab-American dinner event with Rev Jesse Jackson when he leaned over and said to me, “I’m running for president and I want you to join my campaign staff.” My immediate reaction was to be honoured, yet conflicted.
I was in my fourth year as executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a group I had co-founded in 1980 with former senator James Abourezk. And so, I responded, “I have to think about this. I’ve spent the last four years organising my community and I’m not sure I can give it up right now.” His reply, which I’ll never forget, was simple and direct: “We’ll do more for your community in the next four months than you have been able to do in the last four years.”
The community’s relationship with Rev Jackson began in the 1970s, when he, like so many other black civil rights leaders, embraced the cause of Palestinian rights and defended Arab-American participation in political coalitions that had tried to exclude them. Our 1979 Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) convention featured two prominent leaders of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They had just returned from Lebanon where they had met Yasser Arafat, who was protesting against America’s “no talk” policy with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. The convention also featured Rev Jackson, who was leaving the next day to visit Arafat.
Although the PHRC and ADC had been successful in building coalitions with black, Latino and US peace organisations to seek justice for Palestinians, our path to political empowerment had been blocked — principally by pro-Israel groups who saw us as a threat.
Political candidates who had held Arab-American fundraising events, returned the contributions when challenged for taking “Arab money”. Some campaigns were pressured to fire Arab-American staff. Other candidates and some political coalitions and parties rejected Arab-American endorsements and involvement in their efforts.
After much with discussion with my wife and Abourezk (who was supporting former senator George McGovern), I decided to take the position as deputy manager of Rev Jackson’s 1984 campaign. I was able to hire a young Arab American to work in the campaign office, and travelled the country organising events and raising funds.
Because Rev Jackson’s 1984 race was the first-ever major presidential campaign to welcome Arab Americans by name, it generated tremendous excitement in the community. Rallies were huge and enthusiastic, and the fundraising was significant.
I remember speaking with Rev Jackson in California, just before the state’s primary contest. He had just finished a multi-city campaign swing that featured events with Arab Americans in each location. He said to me: “I think your community has crossed the threshold of acceptance. After every fundraiser up until recently, the press would report ‘Jackson raises Arab money.’ But after the last few, there were no stories at all. It was just another fundraiser.”
We elected four Arab-American delegates to the 1984 San Francisco convention, and I was asked to deliver one of the speeches putting Rev Jackson’s name forward for nomination. It was an honour to be the first Arab American to speak at a convention and I used the opportunity to discuss the history, diversity, and contributions of my community to the United States.
Months later, a small group of us launched the Arab American Institute to build on the lessons we learnt during the 1984 campaign. We decided to focus our work on voter registration and mobilisation, supporting Arab Americans who ran for office, and bringing Arab-American concerns into the political arena.
By 1988, when Rev Jackson ran a second time, the fruits of our labour were already in evidence. We elected 55 delegates to that year’s convention, passed resolutions supporting a balanced US policy recognising Palestinian rights in 10 states, succeeded in raising Lebanon and condemning negative bias against Arabs and Arab Americans in the Democratic Party. We also held the first national debate on Palestinian rights from the podium of the convention.
In the decades since then, Arab Americans have seen an even more profound transformation in our community’s empowerment and capacity to make change. In cities where they were once shunned or ignored, people have elected Arab-American mayors who have joined hundreds of others elected to local, state and federal posts. Arab Americans now see public service as a career and while some still face challenges because of their ethnicity, or even their political views, these challenges are almost always rejected out of hand.
What we have also discovered is that political empowerment opens other doors. We have learned, for example, that when you are weak, others are able to define you and cause you to be shunned. But as you gain strength, you are respected and can define yourself. As a result, Arab Americans have come to play a leading role in civil rights, multi-ethnic, and peace and justice coalitions that once rejected us. Likewise, our input is now sought in how to portray Arabs in the media and how to teach Arab history and culture.
Challenges, of course, remain, but our path to progress has been crowned this year with President Joe Biden’s issuance of a first-ever formal proclamation of Arab American Heritage Month and with events that will celebrate the 80 Arab Americans who serve in this administration, an evening celebrating Arab culture, and a White House-hosted policy forum with Arab-American leaders.
It is without exaggeration to say that the path to Arab-American political empowerment began with Rev Jackson’s improbable but momentous 1984 presidential campaign. His slogan that year was: “Our time has come.” It was interpreted by some as being directed at African Americans but Arab Americans embraced it as their own call to empowerment. Four decades later, in communities across the country, we see a new generation building on the progress that has been made — still growing and prospering, and making it clear that “our time is now.”