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The Civil Rights Journey to Our Election: Dinner with Dr. Mahmoud El-Kati

November 9, 2012

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Dr. Mahmoud El-Kati returned to South High tonight for a dinner with over 70 community members, including high school and college students.  The event was co-hosted with the community group Discussions that Encounter and included coffee services by Brotherhood Brew (see:  http://brotherhoodmn.org/brotherhood_brew).

To emphasize the history that brought us to today, Dr. El-Kati began by reciting Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

“History is based on myth,” he said, “but myths are grounded in truth.  It’s all a matter of interpretation.”  He went on to say that from the moment the Constitution was approved “to form a more perfect Union” in 1787 until 1865 at Appomattox, all but two American presidents were slaveholders (John Adams and John Quincy Adams–see:  http://home.nas.com/lopresti/ps.htm).  “Washington was probably a good man,” Dr. El-Kati said, “and yet he held 200 people in bondage and was responsible for the deaths of 600 black people.”

He urged us to look again at history–to truly get to know the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation.  “And know,” he said, “that there were 209,000 black people who fought in the Civil War.  My great great grandfather was one of them.” (For info about the Civil War Museum exhibit, see:  http://www.blackmoney.com/11994.)

Dr. El-Kati reminded us of Frederick Douglass’ quote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”  He suggested that a role of black people in America has been to highlight that struggle for citizen’s rights and the search for truth.  While slavery has been present in many countries, Dr. El-Kati suggested that America has had its own “unique brand of slavery.”

He encouraged students to read Mark Twain, even as the “n” word is used 38 times in Huckleberry Finn.  He said it was the language of the day, but Mark Twain was a “monster” with polemics, the art of ideas and opinions.  “Read King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” he said about King Leopold’s rule over the Congo Free State. Twain also wrote an essay entitled, “The United States of Lyncherdom” in 1901, nine years before his death, blaming lynching on the herd mentaility that prevails among Americans.

Dr. El-Kati used his extensive knowledge of history to highlight the nuances of this week’s election.  “Obama is carrying on the work begun at Appomattox and in the Civil Right’s Movement,” El-Kati suggested.  “He speaks often about the importance of forming a more perfect Union.  The people–all of us–have let him down.  We did not come to his defense as much as we could have.”  He concluded by saying that there are many Americans who deny our true history.  By refusing to look at the gray areas of history that seep into who we are as a people, such people form “a conspiracy against knowledge.”

To change that, we must organize, he said.  We must educate ourselves and one another about the ebbs and flows of the “eternal struggle for democracy.”

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