Keith Ellison: I Have Fought Against Hate My Entire Career

This story was originally published on Medium and was reprinted with permission.

I ran for Congress more than a decade ago because I imagined a more inclusive, tolerant, and welcoming America and I’ve used my seat in Congress to try to make that vision a reality. I’ve voted to strengthen hate crime laws. I’ve introduced legislation to ensure that refugees fleeing war and persecution are safe and welcome in the United States. I’ve spoken out against bigotry and discrimination in all its forms. Fighting for inclusion is what my service in politics is all about. I was born in Detroit in 1963. When I was five, Martin Luther King was assassinated. The year before that, riots broke out in the streets. I remember my mom hid my brothers and me under the bed, fearing the riots might be spreading after we watched National Guard carriers roll down the street. Over the next few years, the civil rights movement brought the vote, and more, but it hasn’t equalized opportunity in work, housing, health care or any aspect of American life.

Like many Black youth, I was anxious and frustrated. I read voraciously to try to understand it. I educated myself. I listened to a variety of speakers. Some voices purporting to improve the quality of life for all Americans, including people of color, stood the test of time. Others have been proven to have no answers. I went to law school and spent 17 years as a criminal defense attorney in North Minneapolis, defending people ensnared by the War on Drugs and other folks caught up in the system. I never planned on a career in politics, but I came to the conclusion that making the law more equitable was a quicker route to social justice than fighting for it in court, one person at a time. I ran for office and was first elected to the Minnesota state legislature, where in 2003 I worked with the ethics committee to censure a colleague who promoted Holocaust denial.

Over the last few weeks, some political opponents have been pushing the narrative that I am somehow connected to a man named Louis Farrakhan. It’s not true. Mr. Farrakhan leads a group called the Nation of Islam and is best known for organizing the 1995 Million Man March. He’s also well-known for his anti-Semitism.

If you are a Black man from my generation, you remember the march. A huge number of Black men from all across America came to Washington to alert lawmakers to the social and economic problems facing our communities. I helped organize the march in my local community in Minneapolis. And I marched in it, along with civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Jesse Jackson. After the march, Mr. Farrakhan’s disparaging views on Jewish people, women and the LGBT community became clearer to me. I’ve since spoken about why I believe Mr. Farrakhan’s views ultimately divide our society. I wrote an open letter expressing my opinion of Mr. Farrakhan’s views, and I wrote about it in my book, My Country ’Tis of Thee. In a speech just last month he again attacked Jewish people with intolerant and divisive language.

I do not have and have never had a relationship with Mr. Farrakhan, but I have been in the same room as him. About a decade ago, he and I had a brief, chance encounter in Washington, D.C. In 2013, I attended a meeting in New York City with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and nearly 50 others where I advocated for the release of an American political prisoner. I didn’t know Mr. Farrakhan would be there and did not speak to him at the event. Contrary to recent reports, I have not been in any meeting with him since then, and he and I have no communication of any kind.

But as the attacks on me and my fellow Black representatives in Congress intensify, I want to be clear: this is a smear by factions on the right who want to pit the Jewish community and the Black community against each other, and distract from the hatred and bigotry on display by the president and the white supremacists who stormed Charlottesville this summer with their anti-Semitic chants and Confederate flags. I declined to dignify questions raised about Mr. Farrakhan because I know they are inherently political, and are designed to separate me from people who I work with every day on issues of importance for Americans of all backgrounds.

The critics will not be satisfied. They won’t be satisfied any more than President Obama’s production of his birth documents satisfied his critics, or Hillary Clinton’s eleven-hour testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi sated her detractors. It’s all part of a larger strategy perfected by a man named Lee Atwater, known as the Babe Ruth of negative politics. “Republicans in the South could not win elections by talking about issues,” Atwater explained. “You had to make the case that the other guy, the other candidate, is a bad guy.” Political smear isn’t personal; it’s a strategy for gaining power. It’s frustrating and tedious, but once understood, it should be dismissed, not indulged.

I believe my long record of fighting and condemning all prejudice, including anti-Semitism from whatever source, should speak for itself. But those who aim to make me guilty by false association have made themselves hard to ignore.

The right’s attempt to split the Jewish and Black communities is not going to work. Martin Luther King demonstrated this when he invited Rabbi Abraham Heschel to march with him in Selma, Alabama. And now more than ever, when the right-wing is working to divide us by skin color, faith traditions and by our place of birth, human solidarity is critical to seeing us through this perilous time. In this moment, our solidarity is our resistance. It is for certain that our democracy and our society are stronger when we unite, not when we divide. That’s why I ran for Congress. That’s what I’ve worked towards every single day since I got to Washington. And that’s what I’m planning to do when I wake up tomorrow.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Keith Ellison Has Fought Against Hate His Entire Career

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