Last September, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson took the stage at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. “Your story,” he told the audience, “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.”
Those words sound different today than they did last fall. Maybe, in the long run, the arc of American history does bend toward justice. But for Japanese Americans, 1903 was a lot better than 1943, when war empowered the advocates of denationalization. That’s the danger for American Muslims today. The more frustrated Americans have grown by the “war on terror,” the more they have taken out those frustrations on American Muslims. In the Trump era, that war will be waged as much domestically as overseas. And it has no end in sight.
What Johnson didn’t say is that while there’s a venerable American tradition of immigrant groups overcoming persecution, there’s an equally venerable American tradition of formerly persecuted groups visiting that persecution on their successors. Take the family story of Frank Gaffney.
Gaffney’s grandfather, Joseph Gaffney, served as city solicitor in Philadelphia in the 1920s. At the time, notes West Chester University historian Charles Hardy, Philadelphia boasted the largest Irish Catholic population of any city besides New York, a fact that many local Protestants found unnerving. Prohibition divided the city along religious lines. And the Ku Klux Klan, which in the ‘20s was as anti-Catholic as it was anti-black, drew its strength in Western Pennsylvania in part from the fears that heavily Catholic Philadelphia aroused.
As Bruce Evenson details in his book, When Dempsey Fought Tunney, anti-Catholic sentiment peaked in 1926 when Philadelphia announced plans to host a grand, weeklong, sesquicentennial celebration of America’s birth. To recoup the large financial investment they had made in the event, city leaders decided to open on July 4th, a Sunday. Conservative Protestants howled in protest. For decades, Pennsylvania’s blue laws had outlawed playing professional sports on the Christian Sabbath. Opening the sesquicentennial on God’s day of rest symbolized America’s transformation into something sinister and unrecognizable. When Philadelphia’s mayor allowed the Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus, but not the Klan, to march at the commemoration, it confirmed Protestant fears that “European forces”—a euphemism for Catholics—were “gaining control of America’s institutions.”