Zach Banner

When a fellow NFL player posted an antisemitic quote, Zach Banner publicly denounced hate and encouraged all communities to uplift one another instead of being divided by hate.

Zach Banner, offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the National Football League, woke early on July 8, 2020, and began scrolling social media. Stunned, Zach read about a controversy surrounding a post by fellow NFL player DeSean Jackson who promoted a quote about Jews extorting America and inaccurately attributed the words to Hitler. The post was already several days old and in the process of being revoked by Jackson. While Jackson’s team denounced his remarks, the League and others in Zach’s online network and community failed to react to the hateful message. Zach knew if someone had spoken about the Black community in that way, the backlash from his network would have been instantaneous. Why should this situation be different? Zach’s initial reaction that the post was hurtful became an urgent desire to speak out.

In a two-minute emotional video and written introduction posted across his social media accounts, Zach explained, “This video is to… help us move forward as a community. Not to harp on [DeSean Jackson’s] mistake, but to progress by educating ourselves. We can’t move forward while allowing ourselves to leave another minority race in the dark. #Equality.” 

Zach credits his parents and cross-cultural upbringing with instilling a strong sense of empathy for others. His mother is Chamorro and immigrated from Guam when she was sixteen, and his father is African American. Still, growing up outside of Tacoma, Washington, he didn't know any Jewish people and admittedly lacked knowledge about antisemitism in America.

Zach’s empathy compelled him to speak to his community from the heart at this moment, pleading with people to recognize the embedded hate in Jackson’s words. He says, “There’s a common misbelief amongst Black and brown people – I know this from growing up, and I’ve heard it, and I’ve listened to it – that Jewish people are like any other white race… you don’t understand that they are a minority as well…”

Zach challenged his community and social network to consider why these messages of hate were acceptable. He implored people to think bigger in ways that make us all better, concluding, “Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let us all uplift each other.” 

The need for this change in hearts is urgent. In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 2,100 antisemitic acts, the highest number of incidents in the forty years since ADL began tracking hate. By 2020, 62% of Americans — and 88% of Jewish Americans — report antisemitism is a problem. In the weeks leading up to Jackson’s controversial statements, several pop culture icons and public officials used similar antisemitic language to little rebuke. The indifference that followed Jackson’s and others’ antisemitic remarks was terrifying and all too common for many in the Jewish community.

Amid the rise of antisemitism, Zach’s experience informed his words. On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a tragedy took place that challenged him as a human. As he left his Steelers team meeting, where he and his teammates had been preparing for their game the next day, he heard helicopters. A familiar sound from his youth, Zach recalled the helicopters were out of place in Pittsburgh. Then he learned the news: a man walked into a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that morning, intending to kill Jews. He opened fire on the small group of worshippers, murdering eleven people and injuring six.

Zach reacted immediately with a sense of familiar horror. It reminded him of a book he cherished as a child, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham." In the book, a family moves from Michigan to Birmingham, AL, and witnesses the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, resulting in the deaths of four black girls by members of a Ku Klux Klan splinter group. "That's that same gut-wrenching hurt that you feel when you hear such things; you can't support that. You just can't support anything like that," Zach said.

However, antisemitic attacks have not exclusively come from white supremacists, such as the Tree of Life massacre. A study of antisemitic attitudes uncovered high rates among Black and Latino respondents, and recent attacks in the New York area have come primarily from African Americans.

Zach knew he had to act to share his empathy when he posted his video, although he was nervous. He had never responded publicly to antisemitism. In college at the University of Southern California, his teammates discouraged him from speaking out for fear that it might jeopardize his position on the team. As a professional athlete with a large following, he felt he had to use his platform for good, but he understood there are risks in speaking out.

One risk, Zach felt, was that he wasn’t an expert on antisemitism. Even though he knew what Jackson said was wrong, he was still nervous. Banner says, “It's hard when you talk about race, especially when you're defending somebody who is not you, who is getting insulted by someone like you. I had to get my facts straight. I had to explain, why is that wrong? And how do we move forward?”

Zach’s video message was not universally well-received; some chided him for focusing on other communities. However, Zach felt inspired by his experience using his platform to open minds. He saw further opportunities to educate people. “How many times have you seen that happen in history?” he asks. “Just to be able to see change, that is what being human means."

Zach’s message called attention to unchecked hate and shattered the silence often following antisemitism. Because of his action, he has grown new connections to the Jewish community. For Zach, this is another opportunity to teach people empathy and learn together. During a panel discussion in Pittsburgh on antisemitism, Rabbi Jeffery Myers acknowledged that the racism experienced by communities of color was different from that experienced by white Jews, who can hide their minority status. This allyship is what Banner sought in standing up against antisemitism – tapping into empathy to build alliances.

Zach Banner’s commitment to speaking out against antisemitism stems from the values his parents instilled in him as a child and his desire to see the best in people. Zach’s willingness to leverage his influential position helped to usher in new forms of allyship and understanding.

"When it comes to this fight against hate, this moment against antisemitism and hate is very, very minimal in the overall picture of a fight," Banner recently said. "It's a blessing to be able to get hugged by Jewish families saying thank you. It's a blessing to get hugged by Black and Brown families, saying thank you and whites and anybody. That feels great. But the best feeling in the world is to go through a whole year, a whole lifetime of not experiencing hate or racism or any forms of it."

Kym Worthy & Kim Trent

When 11,314 untested rape kits were discovered in a police storage unit in Detroit in 2009, Kym Worthy and Kim Trent mobilized Black women and men to demand justice for the survivors.

Kim Trent, a career public servant in Michigan, and Kym Worthy, the Wayne County, Michigan Prosecutor, went to lunch one afternoon at a small pizza shop in Eastern Market. A woman working there seemed to want to speak to them but didn’t approach. Finally, one of the woman’s co-workers nudged her over, and the woman said, “I just wanted to come over and say, 'Thank you… I feel like you gave me my life back."

The pizza shop employee was one of over 11,000 people – primarily Black women and girls – whose rape kit had stagnated, sealed and untested, in a forgotten police evidence storage facility for years until Kym Worthy and Kim Trent got involved.

In 2009, Kym Worthy and the prosecutor’s office focused on a crisis brewing in Detroit’s crime lab. The lab had failed to meet “essential standards.” In response, Worthy ordered an audit of all forensic evidence stored in police custody, anticipating her staff would spend long hours in the major property room of the Detroit Police Department, sifting through evidence collected, catalogued, and tested. She would soon learn that she was incorrect.

A member of Worthy’s team, an expert in handling evidence, was given a tour of an old, annexed overflow storage warehouse. As he walked with a group of police officers, he noticed stacks and stacks of what appeared to be banker’s boxes. He asked what was in them.

Rape kits, came the offhand answer.

Curious, he left the tour and opened a box. The rape kits inside were sealed, meaning no one had ever tested them. He opened box after box, only to find the same result: although every victim had been subjected to an invasive test to collect evidence, not one kit had been tested. A full accounting later revealed 11,314 untested kits spanning three decades. Nearly 90% of the kits represented Black women and girls.

“I was surprised, but not surprised,” Worthy said about her reaction to the discovery of the untested rape kits. “Thinking, ‘Only in Detroit.’ I knew that all of those kits were attached to a woman or a man or a child, mostly women, obviously, and each and every one of them had not had any justice. And so, I knew that I wanted to get them all tested.”

Detroit, however, was in economic turmoil. “We had a money issue, so I didn't know how that was going to happen,” Worthy lamented. The auto industry had collapsed and was bailed out by the federal government. The city’s finances, in dire straits, would lead to the first municipal bankruptcy in US history. At first, Worthy couldn’t find anyone willing to help. In some cases, the people she asked for help even tried to dissuade her—Detroit, they argued, had more significant issues than untested rape kits.

After a year of unsuccessful fundraising to test the kits, an associate of Worthy’s took up the cause and reached out to the US Attorney General. As a result, a random sampling of 400 kits was tested using funding from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. Based on those results, the National Institute of Justice paid to test another 1600 kits.

A National Institute of Justice study sought answers as to why the Detroit kits were left untested. The study revealed profoundly ingrained misogyny in law enforcement led to victim-blaming and disbelieving the victim.

“If you were talking about a homicide or another violent crime that didn't involve mostly women, we wouldn't have an issue,” Worthy notes, “but it's the great disrespect that the police, at the time, had for the sexual assault victim. ‘She must be lying; we don't believe her.’ No one would walk into a police station and talk to a police officer when they've been the subject of a carjacking, and the officer wouldn't believe them before anything ever came out of their mouth.”

The Detroit Free Press further confirmed the disbelief of victims in a report about a 14-year-old girl who was abducted, taken to an abandoned home, and raped. When her mother took her to the police station to report the crime, the officer and desk sergeant convinced them not to press charges. The desk sergeant wrote in her report, "This heifer is tripping. She doesn't even smell like a rape victim." That happened over and over again.

The initial 2,000 rape kits tested led to 670 hits in the national DNA database, the identification of 188 serial rapists, and 15 convictions, as well as the study’s findings. But it also left 9,341 kits untested. Again, almost ten thousand people—primarily Black women—were left without justice.

Over the next few years, Worthy persevered and raised $8 million to test additional kits. But five years into her efforts, she seemed to have exhausted private, state, and county resources, and too many kits remained sealed in their boxes. However, Worthy’s early success and the public acknowledgement of the underlying hate experienced by the victims would prove to be a call to action for the women of Detroit. Emboldened by Worthy’s courage, the Michigan Women’s Foundation partnered with her office to raise funds needed to test all the kits and pursue convictions with the evidence uncovered. Then Kim Trent began empowering other Black women (and men) to stand for justice.

The remaining 1,340  kits cost $490 each to test. Under Trent’s leadership, the African American 490 Challenge at the Michigan Women’s Foundation pledged to raise $657,000. Trent said the story about the desk sergeant and an online argument with an acquaintance about sexual assault motivated her to become involved.

“Rape culture is pervasive in every facet of our society,” she says, “but for the people who are really charged with protecting us to be so immersed in rape culture was shocking to me. Now I feel like I was incredibly naïve, but I was. [My friend] was defending the celebrity [acused of sexual assault] to the point that she said something horrible about me. I said, ‘I'm not going to fight with you anymore. I'm going to call Kym Worthy tomorrow, and I'm going to start working on this rape kit issue personally, in a meaningful way, because I'm so angry right now. I have to do something with my energy.’

Four days later, Trent, Worthy, and the leaders of the Michigan Women’s Foundation stood on the steps in front of the Detroit Association of Women Club along with almost every prominent Black woman in Detroit, as well as every central Black women's organization, including sororities and business groups, as well as elected officials, and individual business leaders. There were also fraternities and groups of friends. All committed to bringing justice to the rape and sexual assault victims, even though some of the kits were decades old.

“It was so powerful,” Trent says. “Everybody who was there was so overwhelmed.”

The people assembled on the steps used multiple strategies to raise the remaining funds. Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities hosted a fundraising competition. They used the rivalry between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan to raise funds from football fans. Businesses, restaurants, and shops dedicated profits from special sales promotions to cover the cost of testing rape kits. The First Ladies of Wayne County, a group of pastor's wives, pledged to raise $50,000.

A parallel effort, the African American Men’s 490 Challenge, brought the support of Black men to the women’s actions. During Men’s Month, organizations and businesses garnered at least $125,000 to test the rape kits.

In just 18 months, Trent’s efforts yielded over $450,000. The final piece of the puzzle came through Law & Order: SVU actress Mariska Hargitay. Her documentary, “I Am Evidence,” shed additional light on the issue when it appeared on HBO in 2018.

Because Kym Worthy and Kim Trent refused to back down, all 11,314 rape kits were tested, but their impact reached further. The Sexual Assault Kit Evidence Submission Act - requiring rape kits to be tested within four months of being collected - was signed into law in Michigan in 2014 as the women worked furiously to test the backlog of kits.  “This is not going to happen again,” Trent says. Worthy also worked with UPS to develop a tracking system to code and scan each kit in every process stage. The victim can track her kit as it moves through the system.

The years that Worthy and Trent poured into empowering women to bring justice to their sisters were often frustrating and disappointing. However, their courageous commitment echoed throughout Detroit, inspiring others to join the fight to ensure the victims would see their kits tested and their cases investigated. Together, Worthy, Trent, and the people of Detroit shifted culture so victims wouldn’t be pushed aside again. “We continue to fight, continue to work,” Worthy said. “Someone said it's like turning around an ocean liner, you can turn it, but it takes a long time."

Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins

Disability rights activist Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins abandoned her wheelchair at the age of eight to crawl up the Capitol steps, compelling Congress to pass a landmark civil rights law that removed barriers and increased access for those with disabilities.

“Doing the Capitol Crawl—it wasn't just to proclaim my rights, but it was also to proclaim [the rights of] my generation and future generations of kids with disabilities.”

Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, an eight-year-old disability rights activist, joined Wheels of Justice March on an unusually humid day in March 1990. Activists from 30 states traveled to Washington DC to demand Congress immediately pass the stalled Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with no weakened amendments. Nearly 500 activists marched from the White House to the Capitol, with another 250 activists joining at the Capitol steps marking the largest demonstration ever by people with different abilities.

At the base of the Capitol, the activists discarded their mobility aids and lifted themselves onto the Capitol steps to begin what history would remember as the “Capitol Crawl.”

“We were united, and we spoke with one voice as to why it was so important to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act and why this was a civil rights issue,” Jennifer reflected. “That's where our strength came from.”

In a strategy meeting held before the march, several organizers, including Jennifer, committed to abandoning their wheelchairs and climbing the Capitol steps to demonstrate the daily struggles of disabled people.

But some of the adult organizers discouraged her participation. She recalls: “One [reason] was because it was 84 steps, and they thought it would be too difficult for me because I was a child. Two, they were concerned that having a child do the Capitol Crawl would actually portray disabled people as children and pity-like.”

As Jennifer watched her fellow activists begin their climb without her, she grew visibly upset. Rev. Wade Blank from the grassroots disability rights group ADAPT approached her. Wade founded ADAPT in 1975 to call attention to the difficulty that those with disabilities encountered, employing strategies like the crawl tactic Jennifer eagerly hoped to join that day at the Capitol.

“He and I had a heart-to-heart discussion,” said Jennifer. “I told him: ‘Wade, I really want to crawl up the steps because I want to make sure that not only am I going to do this for myself, but I want to do it for others. I want to do it for all the other kids that aren't here. I want to be able to speak up for them and speak up for future generations.’ He turned to me, and he said, ‘Well, then you need to do what's in your heart.’”

And she did. Jennifer joined the 60 other protestors who pulled themselves up the steps of the west Capitol entrance.

Despite the challenges Jennifer faced, she climbed, pausing only for sips of water; puffs from her inhaler to relieve her asthma; and wiped her bleeding lip, which she hit on a step during the journey.

“For an eight-year-old, climbing 84 steps, that's like doing Mount Everest,” said Jennifer. 

But she never thought about stopping, and neither did her family, “We began fighting probably from the time she was diagnosed,” said Cynthia Keelan, Jennifer’s mother.

Born into a world that refused to accommodate her needs, Jennifer and her family tirelessly fought against unrelenting discrimination. In 1982, when Cynthia received Jennifer’s diagnosis, doctors counseled them to give Jennifer up for adoption or place her in a facility, claiming that was the only place that could meet all her needs. But Jennifer and her family refused to accept a world that separated Jennifer from her family and denied her equal rights. So they outfitted their home and the community to support Jennifer’s needs.

Jennifer’s grandfather, Chuck, even involved the community in removing barriers, like when he grabbed a few of his friends and went to the Elk’s Club in downtown Wickenburg, Arizona—a frequent haunt of his—to build a wheelchair-accessible ramp, today known as “Jennifer’s Ramp.” They worked through the night to ensure that Chuck, Jennifer, and Jennifer’s sister Kailee could spend time together at the Elk’s Club.

Though Jennifer’s family was incredibly supportive, the rest of the world was not. Driven by the knowledge that 30.6 million disabled people lacked services and support to participate in life, Jennifer and her family became active members of the disability rights movement. They attended protests with ADAPT, wrote to politicians, and worked to educate their community.

ADAPT succeeded in getting local laws passed to prohibit discrimination; however, the laws were often not enforceable nor expansive enough. Nearly every day, Jennifer and her fellow activists were reminded why they fought for the rights of those with disabilities. Following one protest in Phoenix, Arizona, Jennifer, and her fellow activists decided to eat at a restaurant.

“We were denied service because they said that we would make the other patrons uncomfortable, and nobody wanted to watch us eat,” reflects Jennifer.

Even public transportation was off-limits to people with disabilities. Jennifer remembers attempting to board a bus as a child: “The bus driver said, "Lady, I'm sorry, but you're going to have to carry both your kids in the stroller up the bus because the lift is bolted down, it's only there to look like we're complying.’”

“As I was doing the Capitol Crawl, I remembered all those things that I had experienced,” Jennifer reflected. “The denial of getting on the bus, the denial of service for eating at a restaurant, being separated from my sister both on the bus and at school. I remembered all those things.”

As eight-year-old Jennifer pulled herself up each step, she declared she would climb all night if she had to. Surrounded by fellow activists cheering her along, Jennifer felt supported, and attendants were on hand to help disabled activists throughout the crawl.

Jennifer reached the top of the steps that day and her courageous act induced Congress to act. The Senate passed the ADA less than four months later and signed it into law shortly after that.

The expansive law, modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, grants people with disabilities equal access to fundamental rights, including employment, education, transportation, communications, participation in state and local government programs and services, and more.

Now nearly 40, Jennifer continues to be an advocate and activist driven by her words to the press that day at the Capitol Crawl: "I just want to be treated like a human being."

Helen Zia

After a race-motivated attack takes the life of Vincent Chin, Helen Zia and Detroit activists spark a pan-Asian American movement to seek justice.

“It was as though he had been killed again,” Lily Chin, the grieving mother of a young Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin, said to a group of soon-to-be activists in 1983 Detroit.

It was March 20, 1983, and a disparate group of Asian American citizens had come together at the Golden Star restaurant to discuss a community response to Vincent’s death. Approximately nine months earlier, two white strangers had brutally bludgeoned Vincent, a 27-year-old local draftsman, while hurling racial slurs at him. The attack, which began at Vincent’s bachelor party at the Fancy Pants Lounge in Highland Park, Michigan, culminated with the brutal beating in a McDonald’s parking lot several blocks away.

Vincent, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had succumbed to his injuries on June 23, 1982. His killers, “who had beaten a man to death with a baseball bat on the main street of Detroit,” received probation, plus $3,780 in fines, after being convicted of manslaughter. The judge had rationalized this sentence by saying, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.”

After reading about the myriad injustices surrounding Vincent’s case, Helen Zia—then a Detroit-based Asian American “baby journalist”—wanted to help prevent what had happened to him from befalling other local Asian Americans. She joined Lily and Chinese-American experts, local attorneys, and concerned citizens at the Golden Star to strategize. “We [asked,] ‘how do we get the judge to reconsider his sentence,’ [and] various lawyers said [that almost] never, never, never happens,” Helen says.

That frustrating moment was when Helen—who did not know the Chin family, nor anyone else in the room—felt compelled to speak up.

“When people were all sort of like, ‘No, there's nothing we can do ... to change the sentence,’ I raised my hand. I said, ‘We might not be able to change the sentence, but we have to let people know that the Asian community is not okay with this, that we think this is wrong.’"

Vincent’s mother was “very firm that she wanted to see justice for her son,” Helen recalls. Crying throughout the meeting, Lily Chin also stood up and said, “‘That's right. We have to let people know.’ That was the beginning,” Helen says today.


Days after Vincent’s death, Helen was reading a Detroit newspaper on a typical June morning in 1982. She stopped in her tracks when she first spotted a large, color image of Vincent Chin and his bride-to-be.  They’d planned to marry soon, in a large wedding surrounded by hundreds of friends and relatives.

Helen was taken aback to see Vincent’s photo because she recalls, “It was a time when people of Asian descent were completely invisible in America. To see an Asian face in the news was shocking.”

The story didn’t reveal any details behind Vincent’s killing; it just said he’d passed away. She clipped the story out of the newspaper and vowed to follow it closely.

Nine months later, an update about Vincent’s story appeared in the news. When Helen read the truth about Vincent’s death -- that it was no accident, and he’d been killed in a race-based attack -- she was incensed. Especially when she read the judge’s outrageous comments from the two killers’ sentencing: “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. We are talking here about a man who’s held down a responsible job for 17 or 18 years and his son... You don’t make the punishment fit the crime. You make the punishment fit the criminal.”

Helen says, “If these white men are not the kind of men you send to jail for beating somebody to death with a baseball bat and having it witnessed by dozens and dozens of people, then who goes to jail in a city that was 60 to 70% black at the time?”

Another thing that disturbed Helen was that no prosecutor was present at the perpetrators’ sentencing; in fact, the court never notified Vincent’s family that sentencing would occur. Hence, no one was in court to speak on Vincent’s behalf.

This failure of justice sparked outrage among Detroit’s varied Asian-American communities, which were already subjected to torrents of racist hatred. In the early ‘80s, America was still in the throes of a deep recession, as well as an oil crisis. Detroit’s auto industry was previously considered a stable bastion of high-paying jobs with great benefits. But thousands of local auto workers had recently lost their jobs or had their hours cut. Detroit's unemployment rate hung at 17 percent, and half of the city’s residents were on some type of government assistance. The city’s mayor had even declared a hunger emergency.

Japan, a significant player in the international auto market due to the country’s success in manufacturing fuel-efficient cars, became an easy enemy in many Americans’ eyes. With its successful imports of foreign vehicles, Japan was seen not only as a competitor to Detroit’s “big three” automakers but as a hostile entity threatening the American dream.

Vincent’s murder came in a cultural climate in which “people who looked Japanese all became a moving target in Detroit,” and “people who drove Japanese-made cars, whether they were Asian or not, were shot at on the freeway,” Helen says.

Though they had support from Black civil rights leaders in Detroit, bringing advocates together from local Asian American communities proved challenging because of the heightened threats. The individuals involved had a lot to lose: their jobs, safety, and standing in the community. Helen acknowledges that she was more privileged, with a bigger platform and less at stake than some of her fellow citizens at that first meeting. “The idea that we could be targeted and punished for simply existing was something that was fresh in people's minds. There was a lot of community dynamic about, ‘Should we speak up about racism in America?’—something that, at that time, was viewed as entirely a dialogue about Black and white.”

With Helen’s help, the momentum sparked by that initial meeting at the Golden Star became a new pan-Asian American civil rights organization: American Citizens for Justice, or ACJ. Until that point, U.S. law failed to recognize the civil rights of Asian Americans. When major organizations like the Michigan chapter of the ACLU told ACJ that Asian Americans were not protected by federal civil rights law, the group began petitioning for the Department of Justice to re-try Vincent’s murder as a civil rights violation.

The AJC organized public rallies to demand justice, attracting press attention. Helen and Lily launched an awareness-raising campaign in the media, which sparked investigative journalists to report on details surrounding Vincent’s murder overlooked by the police and not presented at trial. Then Helen and the activists reached out to Congress. With the support of sympathetic congresspeople and mounting public pressure, the Department of Justice began an investigation into Vincent’s death and the violation of his civil rights.

By November 1983, the Department of Justice indicted Vincent’s attackers on federal civil rights charges. Despite the national movement and push for justice, neither man served jail time for the slaying. However, the civil rights landscape had widened—it now included Asian Americans.

Reflecting on the lasting impact of her—and other activists’—work in Vincent’s case, Helen says, “We had no thought that this might be talked about in the future. ... We just knew it was the right thing to do.” Helen’s actions home the idea that, as citizens, it falls on each of us to speak up in the face of hate—even when the legal system doesn’t work in our favor. At times, the simple act of fighting back can set a powerful example for others to do the same.

Though the legal system failed to punish Vincent’s killers effectively, the high-profile case pushed Michigan to change its policy allowing prosecutors to be absent from the courtroom during sentencing. “After the Vincent Chin case, the state of Michigan changed that immediately, [declaring] that a prosecutor had to be present at sentencing,” Helen says. The case also contributed to the widespread use of victim impact statements in court, giving crime victims and their families a chance to share their stories.

Helen, who carried Vincent’s legacy on by entering the speaker circuit and continuing to talk, write, and mobilize about Asian American issues, acknowledges that she and her community were brave to fight the way they did. Her decision to raise her hand at the Golden Star came from a sense of personal responsibility to stand up for what was right. “There's nothing mysterious about it. [The other activists] were all people just like every one of us. I was a young activist and writer ... who raised my hand and said, ‘We might not be able to accomplish everything, but at least we can let people know that this was wrong.’ I think that's something that any one of us can do.”

Joseph Eichler

A prominent developer, who quietly integrated the suburbs of Los Angeles & San Francisco, showed that racially desegregated housing could be morally right and profitable—which built a foundation for 1960’s fair housing policies.

In 1958, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) publicly sided with racial discrimination.

Joseph "Joe" Eichler, a prolific West Coast real estate developer, fumed at a meeting of the San Francisco chapter of the NAHB. "I wish to state emphatically that Eichler Homes in no way practices any kind of discrimination," said Joe in response to the NAHB's public opposition to a court ruling that struck down racial discrimination in specific housing practices. As the largest and most prominent member of the association, he did not want anyone to conflate the association's position with his own.

"It is a generally accepted theory that minority races depreciate property values," said Richard Doyle, Executive Vice President of NAHB, explaining the association's position on the ruling. "There may be no statistics to prove it, but as the representative of home builders, it is the theory under which I operate."

NAHB's position incensed Joe, who generally avoided the spotlight and never sought attention for his company's policy to sell homes to anyone who qualified. In Joe's opinion, gaining a reputation as a crusader for fair housing would distract from his long-term plan—to prove the profitability of integrated housing.

Unfortunately, Doyle's opinion—that minority races depreciate property values—reflected both common beliefs and business practices. Housing and lending policies of the time actively deterred integration by denying credit to people of color and neighborhoods deemed to be high risk.

But Joe believed that integration was morally right and a good business opportunity. So, Eichler Homes did not discriminate based on race. The company began actively integrating home sales in Palo Alto as early as 1950. 

By 1958, when Doyle and the NAHB came out publicly against integration, Joe felt this was an affront to his business model and the resulting economic success he experienced building over 11,000 homes in California. When NAHB refused to retract its statement, Joe came out swinging. He ultimately resigned from the NAHB and took the association to task in the press, sending letters to several Bay Area papers.

"I think that builders cannot evade the fact that what they are doing is going to have an impact on the whole community, even the nation, for a long time, and they can not simply say, 'Well, I'm just a businessman, I'm here to make a buck," Joe penned in his letter to the paper. 

As his resignation made national news, Joe avoided alienating or shaming builders themselves, giving them the benefit of the doubt. He chose instead to reveal his economic success as a way to convince his peers to embrace desegregation. "I am sure that most [builders] are as much against discrimination as I am, but I think they are either bound by custom or fear of financial experience has in no way resulted in financial loss."

Joe felt strongly that racial discrimination had no place in America and would not stand the test of time. Real estate leaders like Joe could create a more inclusive America—and Joe knew it. He believed that statements and actions against desegregation, like the one from NAHB, "add years to the day that I am sure will arrive when racial discrimination will be unheard of."

Joe was a major player in the construction industry because he took advantage of the need for housing in the post-war economic boom, providing well-designed homes that middle-class families could afford. He aimed to build comfortable, modern homes at a reasonable price point, and he sought to make a profit.

Over time, Joe actively invested in racial integration as a critical component of his business model. His efforts around integration began in 1950 when Joe sold homes to Asian American families. But he did not fully embrace integration until a few years later. At first, Joe proposed a segregationist solution when NAACP leader Franklin "Frank" Williams voiced interest in purchasing an Eichler home in the early 1950s. Joe offered to build a "colored tract development" for Black families. Frank warned Joe his plan was ridiculous and perpetuated a "separate but equal" philosophy. Undeterred, Joe moved forward with the development but experienced backlash from white landowners when they discovered Joe's purpose in buying the land. Seeing potential business opportunities evaporate before his eyes due to discrimination compelled Joe to ultimately champion integration and an open sales policy.

By 1954, Black families were moving into Eichler communities. That same year, Joe demonstrated his resolve when confronted by an angry group of white homeowners who didn't want Black families to purchase houses in their neighborhood. Joe restated his anti-discrimination position, telling them, "I would be glad to buy anyone's house back. We sold it too cheap anyway." No one took him up on his offer.

These experiences set Joe's resolve. His public admonishment of and resignation from the NAHB was the culmination of hard lessons learned and push back from those around him. He acutely knew that the real estate industry wielded strong influence and could be a force for anti-discrimination in America. And he knew that developing a model of success could prove the profitability of integration and shift the conversation around fair housing in the US.

Around the Eichler Homes office, the staff grew accustomed to Joe's gruff demeanor. But his honesty and fierce ethical integrity—along with his courageous stance in opposition to racial discrimination—made him popular among his mostly liberal staff. Joe once plainly told employees that selling without prejudice was the policy and those who opposed it would no longer have a job at his company. He eventually won respect across the real estate community—even from his critics.

Joe testified in front of Congress in 1963 to demonstrate the profitability of his business model and provide a counterpoint to the perception that integrated racial housing lowered home values. It had an impact: members of Congress and experts referenced his model repeatedly in crucial deliberations. Joe's steadfast belief in integration ultimately shaped the thinking of the day and played a contributing role in the design of fair housing legislation, which would affect communities for generations to come.

Dallas Morning News

When the Ku Klux Klan proclaimed itself the law and marched through downtown Dallas in 1921, the Dallas Morning News editorial staff launched a war against the powerful organization that lasted three years, leading to a boycott that almost destroyed the newspaper.

The evening of Saturday, May 21, 1921, began like any other Saturday night on Main Street in Dallas, TX. People milled through the streets, the men wore suits with sometimes loosened ties or bowties, women strolled in short-sleeved dresses, and children in sailor suits with short pants walked alongside their parents. But at 9 pm on this Saturday night, the streetlights were suddenly extinguished. A man stepped out of the Majestic Theater building carrying an American flag in the flicker of the relit lamps. He also wore the garments of the Ku Klux Klan.

The streetlights signalled hundreds of others in the tell-tale garments to appear. The Klan march began in silence except for the signs they held, which shouted “All Pure White,” “All Native Born,” and “We Stand for White Supremacy.”

For forty-five minutes, the police stood at intersections holding back traffic to ensure that nearly the 800 Klasman could continue their march uninterrupted in front of thousands of onlookers. The message was clear: the Ku Klux Klan ruled Dallas.

The next day, Alonzo Wasson, chief of the Dallas Morning News editorial page, read the reports about the parade and examined photographs from the night before. Then he penned an editorial that denounced the marchers as exemplars of lawlessness. Wasson may have doubted the editor and owners of the News would support excoriating the Klan. Less than a year removed from the Red Summer of 1919, racial terror permeated the country, including approximately 25 riots, 97 lynchings at the hands of the Klan. The News never spoke out despite the violence, lawlessness, and national support for the Klan, whose membership swelled to over 1 million. Without consulting anyone, Wasson’s editorial “Dallas Slandered” appeared in the paper on Tuesday.

“Their sense of superior righteousness…” Wasson wrote, “has a serious significance on the minds of men who cherish the community’s good name and have the intelligence to understand how well-designed that exhibition was to bring it under reproach. It was a slander on Dallas.”

George Dealy, president and general manager of the News had not read “Dallas Slandered” before printing. When Dealy read Wasson’s surprise editorial, he admonished Wasson, telling him to never again start a new editorial stance before conferring with him. However, the Klan’s actions that Saturday night was a step too far for Dealy. Under his leadership, the News had long advocated civic planning in Dallas. The News’ 1899 campaign led to the formation of the Dallas Civic Improvement League. Dealy’s commitment to making Dallas a model city included refusing ads he considered dishonest or immoral, even though the newspaper lost revenue. Despite his admonishment of Wasson’s surprise, Dealy launched an editorial war against the Klan that almost destroyed the paper.

It was not that Dealy or even Wasson voiced objections to the Klan’s belief in white supremacy. Previously, Dealy, Wasson, and the News remained silent as Dallas instituted poll taxes for Black citizens, revised electoral law that paved the way for white-only voting, and amended the city charter to enforce segregation. Even Wasson’s editorial confirmed that white supremacy was not at risk. However, the Klan’s appointment as the law was so egregiously offensive to the Dallas Morning News team that it could not stand. As Wasson wrote, “…the men who marched the streets of Dallas Saturday night made themselves exemplars of lawlessness. They seek to initiate a reign of terror. They will not succeed, except over the minds of the humble and the ignorant.” Dealy agreed: the Klan was terrible for business, and its violent acts would harm Dallas’s growth and reputation.

Despite Wasson’s assertion that only the ignorant would join the Klan, many professionals were Klan members or supporters. Businessmen in prominent Klan leadership roles sat on the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, and membership counted judges, lawyers, ministers, doctors, bankers, journalists, and public utility executives among their ranks. By 1923, Klan members or Klan-supported candidates controlled the courthouse, law enforcement, and City Hall. Dealy’s early fears for Dallas came true: the Klan was the heart of the business community and the law.

Despite the potential consequences, Dealy and staff continued to report local and national Klan violence. The News dug into their stance that the Klan taking the law into their own hands – in Dallas or anywhere – was unacceptable in a modern democracy. 

The paper went a step further in March 1922, condemning religious leaders who embraced the Klan’s lawlessness and defended their actions from the pulpit. Protestant ministers reacted angrily, with public letters objecting to the News’ coverage of the Klan, furious that the paper didn’t give them credit for the Klan’s “good” work.

In response, the Klan used its strength against the newspaper. The organization spread rumors that Catholics and Jews controlled the News, groups of people they viewed as degenerate. Dealy defended the paper with a series of advertorials explaining that the News was there to promote the image of Texas, encourage economic growth, and be a prominent voice of journalism in the nation. One advertorial reassured readers that, “The men and women who work on the News are persons of substantial character and ability. . .”

The News refused to accept that the Klan could break the law with impunity. They covered kidnappings, beatings, and other violent acts committed by the Klan that police refused to investigate. An editorial in April 1922 declared, “The News is but stating an indisputable fact in saying that the community has lost faith in the integrity of its police department due to the feeling that many members of the department are under a secret constraint which deprives them of their freedom in developing clews [sic] which may lead to the exposure of members of the Ku Klux Klan.”

In the 1922 Democratic primary, the News opposed every Klan candidate. The day before the election, the News issued editorials attacking candidates who “work in darkness rather than in light because their deeds are evil” and encouraged readers to vote against anyone with “a masked loyalty to a secret aim.” When the Klan candidates won almost across the board, the News was forced to concede that the election was “striking evidence of the political strength of the Ku Klux Klan in Dallas County.”

The campaign against the newspaper intensified. The Klan wanted to bankrupt the News. Newsagents reported threats against them if they carried the paper. Klan supporters cancelled their subscriptions, and Klan sympathizers withdrew their advertising. Those businesses that continued to advertise in the News faced boycotts.

The cumulative effect was devastating: Within two years, circulation declined by 3,000. The News struggled to pay the expected 8 percent dividends to the major shareholders. By the end of 1922, shareholders complained about the loss of more than $200,000 and demanded greater oversight and new editorial leadership. They also insisted that Dealy and the staff end their negative coverage of the Klan.

Dealy ignored the shareholders’ demands and continued to expose the Klan’s activities while bleeding readership and cash. In 1923, the paper was sold, bringing an infusion of money, allowing the News to continue its coverage of the Klan.

The battle between the News and the Klan came to a head in the summer of 1924 during the Democratic primary runoff between the Klan candidate, Felix Roberston, and the former governor’s wife, Miriam Ferguson. Dealy’s son Ted sent a memo to his father urging further courage. “Now is the time for us to REAP THE BENEFITS of the seeds we planted two or three years ago,” he wrote.

Dealy agreed. The News launched a vigorous editorial campaign against Roberston. Ferguson won the statewide race and served as governor (although Dallas voters chose Robertson by a two-to-one ratio). Robertson’s loss was a blow to the power structure of the Klan. Also wounded by the tenacious coverage of the Klan’s extreme violence and lawlessness, support for the Klan declined. Over the next several years, membership dropped so dramatically that only 1,200 of the 13,000 members of Dallas Klan No. 66 remained.

Ultimately, George Dealy, Alonzo Wasson, and Dallas Morning News staff helped create an environment where it was more difficult to commit egregious acts of hate without consequences. As Wasson wrote in 1921, “This is the twentieth century, not the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century, those who call themselves a Ku Klux Klan [will not be tolerated by] men who understand what is the cornerstone of democracy.”

Darnella Frazier

Content Warning: violence

On May 25, 2020, seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier filmed a video showing Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, suffocating him for nearly ten minutes. The video sparked thousands of protests and focused attention on racism and police brutality. 

The most common way that teenagers use their smartphones these days is idly: to pass the time and to avoid interacting with others in real life. So when seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier followed the instinct to use her iPhone 11 to record George Floyd’s deadly encounter with police, she was acting against the impulse many kids her age have to simply do nothing.

Darnella had more reasons to look away than to pay attention. After all, history has not been kind to those who have documented police brutality with smartphones. Ramsey Orta recorded New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo killing his friend Eric Garner with a chokehold in July 2014; police responded by punishing Orta with arrest and imprisonment on unrelated charges. In 2016, Diamond Reynolds captured the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile—witnessed both by Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter—in a Facebook livestream. Both she and her daughter were taken into police custody at the scene. (Reynolds later settled out of court due to the false arrest.)

Black teenagers are also aware that police all too often see them as threats, regardless of their innocence. And Darnella had another priority at the time: She was walking with her nine-year-old cousin, Judeah Reynolds, to the store.

But as they passed a police SUV, she heard a man crying, sobbing weakly as a small crowd lingered nearby: “Please, I can’t breathe!  Please man . . .” That was when she decided to start filming, so that the world could see what she was seeing.

Of all the videos that would surface in the following days and weeks, Darnella’s was the only one that clearly captured the officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. In her video, as Darnella moves closer for a better vantage point, the officer responds to the crowd, quickly unholstering something from his belt. “He’s got mace,” Darnella is heard saying, backing away quickly. For all she knew, it could have been his gun.

About three minutes into the video, the man moaned his last words, “I can’t breathe. . .” Before she stopped recording, Darnella zoomed in on the badge of one of the officers and on the number of the police SUV.

Later that night, Darnella posted on Facebook Live about witnessing Floyd’s death in the streets of Minneapolis. Early the next morning, just after midnight, Darnella posted the video to her Facebook page. In the 24 hours that followed, the video was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The video documented one man’s death—and also held up a mirror reflecting entrenched racism and injustice in American policing.

Filming the incident was not without dangers to Darnella—not just from the armed police officers at the scene of Floyd’s death, who insulted and berated the bystanders, but from the trauma that arose for her in the aftermath of witnessing a death in the street. Research has shown that people—and especially Black women—can experience PTSD-like symptoms from witnessing police brutality online; seeing it up close would certainly have a similar impact. But Darnella was also targeted by a wave of backlash online by some who felt she should have done more to save Floyd.

The backlash greatly obscures and underestimates the power of her video, which crystallized an important moment in the history of social change, while drawing attention to unequal policing practices for a much larger segment of the country.  Perhaps the lack of overt violence or the cold, casual cruelty on display in her video were part of what galvanized so many. Darnella’s video moved thousands to gather at the site of Floyd’s death, which the night after he died, was filled with people, flowers and signs.

Darnella responded to a question from a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter about why she took the video with a simple answer: “It was like a natural instinct, honestly. The world needed to see what I was seeing. Stuff like this happens in silence too many times.”

Thanks to her, there would be no silence around George Floyd’s death. With her action, she joined the lineage of the dozens of people who have captured anti-Black police brutality on film—from George Holliday’s 1991 recording of Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles to Ramsey Orta’s 2014 video of Eric Garner’s asphyxiation. In response to these videos finding larger audiences, local protests ensued, some reforms were discussed or enacted, but the status quo always appeared to remain unchanged.

However, Darnella’s video had a farther reaching impact in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact around the globe, requiring most people to stay home and keep up with world developments on their phones. .

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation after watching Darnella’s video, and within twenty-four hours, he fired the four officers involved in Floyd’s death.

Protests in Minneapolis continued to grow, night after night, with chants of  “Say his name—George Floyd” ringing out across the city.  The police began using tear gas to try to control the crowds. Mike Griffin, a community organizer in Minneapolis, put words to the overwhelming response: “George Floyd’s death represents every fight, every battle for Black progress . . .We want justice for George Floyd, but this is also about Black dignity. We have had to fight tooth and nail for even the most basic standards of living.”

A week after Floyd’s death, people were demonstrating in almost every state in the country.

What made these protests distinct from their predecessors is that they extended far beyond the Black community—people from all neighborhoods, cultures, and backgrounds were leaving the safety and comfort of their homes to take to the streets and speak out against injustice.

By July, the New York Times was reporting that “Across the United States, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, since the first protests began in Minneapolis on May 26 . . . Turnout has ranged from dozens to tens of thousands in about 2,500 small towns and large cities.”

Some polls indicate that more than 23 million people are estimated to have participated in protests in the four months after George Floyd’s death. If true, these protests would constitute the largest and most extensive in modern history.

Within two weeks of Floyd’s death, legislation was being introduced across the country: two different police reform bills were introduced into Congress, and within a month, State Legislatures across the country passed over 150 bills and resolutions related to policing.

Darnella’s courageous action helped change a nation.

Shahid Shafi and Texas Republicans

When a group in Tarrant County, Texas, tried to oust a local Republican party official solely because he was Muslim, Republicans in Texas stood alongside him to defend the principles of equality and religious freedom.

“The real power of America is the power of its ideas and ideals,” Dr. Shahid Shafi explains, “Knowing that we are not perfect, but we continue to strive for that perfection.”

Dr. Shafi, born in India and raised in Pakistan, is a trauma surgeon, a naturalized American citizen, and a Muslim. Growing up under a brutal military dictatorship in Pakistan where free speech was forbidden and habeus corpus ignored, he says, “I grew up with America as the land of opportunity, a cradle of knowledge and education, a haven for free speech and democracy, and a beacon of hope for those oppressed across the world. I came to America for all these reasons.”

After becoming a citizen in 2009, Dr. Shafi served his community first as a volunteer on local boards and committees, and then by running for councilman for the City of Southlake, Texas. Along each step of his journey, although he was welcomed by many, he also encountered those who felt distrust and animosity toward all Muslims.

In July of 2018, Dr. Shafi’s experience with religious discrimination was amplified when he was appointed vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party.

When Chairman Darl Easton first approached Dr. Shafi about accepting the position, they had several conversations about the possible pushback they might face because of Dr. Shafi’s faith. Easton, a retired Air Force pilot, was undeterred. To him, Dr. Shafi was the right person for the job and that was all that mattered. Tarrant County Republicans seemed to concur—out of all the votes cast to approve Dr. Shafi’s appointment, only one opposed.

However, soon after the July vote, these fears were realized: that lone dissenting voter, a Tarrant County precinct chair, put forth a motion to remove Dr. Shafi as vice chair.

She outlined her reasoning in one of many public Facebook posts:

We don’t think he’s suitable as a practicing Muslim to be vice chair because he’d be the representative for ALL Republicans in Tarrant County, and not ALL Republicans in Tarrant County think Islam is safe or acceptable in the U.S. . . . and there are big questions surrounding exactly where Dr. Shafi’s loyalties lie, vis a vis Democrat and Republican policies.

Dr. Shafi’s reaction to this was stoic but unwavering. Nearly a decade of experience in local Texas politics had taught him that an overwhelming majority believed in freedom of religion and would strive to live up to the ideals of America’s founding principles. 

At first, Chairman Easton and the Republican leadership of both Tarrant County and the State of Texas, dealt with the situation as an internal party issue, and, at its core, one of religious freedom. They gave Dr. Shafi their complete support.

But as the Facebook posts began going viral, agitation to oust Dr. Shafi based on his religion grew. By November 2018, the national news had picked up the story. At this point, Dr. Shafi felt the time was right to speak up. He released a statement in which he described the movement to remove him as one designed to foment fear and distrust, generated by a group of small-minded, uninformed people. He spoke of his belief in the decency of Texans, noting that they had elected him twice to his council position in Southlake.

He expanded on his statement in a video interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on December 12, 2018:

“I’m a Muslim and I’m an American, and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive . . . Religious discrimination is wrong on so many levels. . . [This] is not about me retaining the position of vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party. It is not even about me as a person. A higher principal is at stake here. The reason I’m standing and fighting is for that principal of equality and for non-discrimination based on religion.”

Dr. Shafi was invited to the December meeting of the Texas State Republican Party in Austin to speak with the executive committee there. He prepared by making a list of all the accusations against him and wrote a response to each one. The document was ten single-spaced pages. But, throughout the day and a half meeting, he never once was asked to defend himself.

Instead, party officials from all across the state stood up for Dr. Shafi. The actions of the fringe group were seen as a fundamental attack on the core values protected by the Constitution. A part of the discussion also revolved around how one member was able to put forth a motion so at odds with the Constitution’s edict on religious freedom. However, since the party rules did not explicitly prohibit such a motion, it had to be permitted to proceed. (Dr. Shafi notes that the State Republican Party is working on amending their by-laws to prevent such a thing from happening again.)

Though they couldn’t stop the discriminatory vote from taking place, the executive committee passed a resolution strongly supporting Dr. Shafi saying, in part, that he “demonstrates through deed and voice his dedication and servant leadership to Republicans in this community and beyond.”

For Dr. Shafi, this response “was just absolutely heartwarming. It reaffirmed my faith in our country and our party. It was really a testament that we continue to believe in our founding principles, in our Constitution, and that everything that we actually say are not empty words.”

As the January 2019 vote on the motion approached, Republicans from Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Joe Straus, to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, spoke out in support of Dr. Shafi. To Republican representatives across the state, the efforts to cast out a party official because of his faith were “disgraceful and un-American.” Freedom of religion, these politicians all noted, is a bedrock belief upon which this nation was founded.

On January 10, 2019, the vote took place as required. Dr. Shafi went, accompanied by his wife, his mother-in-law and his three children. They made their way through the throng of cameras, media, and police outside, into the packed committee room, where the majority of Tarrant County Republicans stood against fear and hatred. The final vote was 139–49 in favor of Dr. Shafi retaining his vice-chairmanship.

Many of Dr. Shafi's supporters were frustrated he did not have unanimous support. But he takes the long view of a scientist, acknowledging that America's progress isn't linear, but proceeds in fits and starts. The leadership demonstrated by the party, and the support Dr. Shafi received, ensured another step toward a more perfect union.

Dr. Shafi’s humility and trust in his fellow Republicans comes from his deep belief in the founding principles of America. He never thought the issue was about him, or even about his religion. He was simply standing up for America’s core values of equality, liberty, and justice for all.

“To me, the story was how much support I got from every corner of the Republican Party and every corner of society,”  Dr. Shafi said later. “I'm not an activist . . . An issue was thrust upon me, and I did the best that I could. That's pretty much it.”

Pittsburgh's Faith Community

Amid rising anti-Semitism across the country, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and committed the deadliest anti-Semitic act in American history. In its wake, the city of Pittsburgh’s religious community provided courageous leadership that inspired acts of solidarity, offering comfort and support to the victims, their families, and to Pittsburgh’s entire Jewish community. This solidarity has continued, crossing faith boundaries, in ongoing stands against acts of hate.

Together, the eleven victims of the October 27, 2018, attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood were the beating heart of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community. They were all elders over the age of 50 who often rose early to make breakfast for the ones who slept in or otherwise came late to worship on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. They greeted worshipers with jokes or a program.

Squirrel Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods make up some 57 percent of Jewish families in the Pittsburgh area. One report refers to Squirrel Hill as the “geographic and institutional center of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community,” and includes the large synagogue Tree of Life, where congregations from Dor Hadash and New Light also worship. The attack that targeted Tree of Life—a rampage that lasted over an hour, killing eleven and injuring six, including four police officers—struck not only at the communal sense of safety but also the tight-knit togetherness that was the way of life in the area.

The drumbeat of anti-Semitism has been growing louder in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been tracking anti-Semitic incidents for decades and noted that 2017 had shown a 57 percent increase in harassment, vandalism, and assault specifically directed against Jewish Americans. The Tree of Life synagogue massacre was one tragic consequence of this increasing hate.

Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a federally funded community wellness center created to respond to community needs after the attack, described the legacy of the eleven community paragons by referring to a saying in the Jewish tradition: “May your memory be a blessing.” She added that one way to make people’s memories a blessing is to continue to tell their story.

“I think a lot about the people who we lost that day as people who woke up early to make sure the service could start,” Feinstein added. “I think a lot about how to honor their memory. . . (they) deserve to be remembered as the people who make services happen, who make community happen.”

Feinstein, like others in Pittsburgh’s religious communities, quickly moved from simply reflecting on the legacy of the eleven slain to acting. Instead of mourning in the isolation and shock brought on by understandable fear and grief, the very next day, residents gathered at a swiftly organized vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. Thousands crowded into the hall for an interfaith, inter-community gathering of love, unity, and resolve. Every seat was filled; people stood in the back, and others spilled out onto the lawn.

As Reverend Liddy Barlow remembers: “People were standing out in the rain where they couldn't even really properly hear what was going on inside, sharing umbrellas with each other, just as that act of solidarity. So very, very powerful.”

A banner hung solemnly from a podium that read: “Stronger together.” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders spoke at the vigil, condemning the attack on the three congregations as an attack on all of Pittsburgh. Wasi Mohamed, former executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, announced to the group that the Muslim community had raised $70,000 to help victims’ families.

But their work was far from done, he said. “We just want to know what you need. If it is more money, just let us know. If it's people outside your next service, protecting you, let us know [and] we will be there.” He added that Pittsburgh Muslims were grateful to repay the community generosity extended to them after both 9/11 and the 2016 election, events that resulted in a spike in hate speech against Muslims.

Other parts of the greater Pittsburgh community followed the leadership of the area’s religious through their own courageous acts, large and small, in a repudiation of hate. During their first game after the Tree of Life attack, the city’s major league hockey team, The Pittsburgh Penguins, held an eleven-second moment of silence in honor of the lives taken. The team wore patches combining their logo with the Star of David that read, “Stronger Than Hate.” Then the Penguins auctioned those jerseys as part of a fundraiser to benefit the victims. Area blood banks, responding to a need for donations to assist those injured in the shooting, stayed open longer in the weekend that followed the attack. Elsewhere, more than 10,000 donors contributed to an online fundraiser, which ultimately raised more than $1 million for Tree of Life victims’ families.

Less than a year later, after the March 15, 2019 attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, many Muslims in the United States were afraid for their lives. The Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light congregations responded by raising funds for security at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. “They stood with us, sang with us, prayed with us, grieved with us,” Donna Coufal, president of the Dor Hadash congregation told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Now, we hope to provide that same support for the Muslim community.”

Once again, the city gathered at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, this time to offer consolation and aid to their Muslim brothers and sisters. Months later, in June 2019, the FBI thwarted a bomb attack on a small Black church on Pittsburgh’s north side. Channeling its outrage at the targeting of yet another holy place, the community again chose love and solidarity as a practice of courage rather than allowing the shared traumas of the past to weaken or demoralize. The next Sunday, people from all faiths filled that church—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Latter-day Saints—creating a congregation of fellowship and communion. The crowd was so big that there were more supporters present that day than members of the congregation itself.

As Wasi Mohammed said at the Tree of Life vigil: “When I look back on this day, I will refuse to remember one individual filled with darkness. I’m going to remember the light. The thousands of people who showed up today . . . .thousands of people filled with love and hope.”

Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, and Micah Fletcher

Content Warning: violence

When two teenagers on a Portland train were threatened with racist, Islamophobic abuse, three of their fellow passengers stood up to protect them. 

“We weren’t even supposed to be on the train that day,” Destinee Mangum would later remember in an interview.

That day was May 16, 2017. Destinee and her friend Walia Mohamed were lost, and when they boarded a Portland light rail train to get back to where they were going, a stranger began shouting at them. “Muslims should die!,” he yelled. “Go back to Saudi Arabia!”

“It’s like our faces were a trigger,” Walia said. She and Destinee are both Black, and Walia, a Muslim Somali immigrant, was wearing a hijab. The two teenagers were terrified, and the man’s abuse began to escalate.

“I’m just trying to live life,” said Destinee, who recognized that the stranger focused his hatred toward her and Walia “because of our religion or because of our color.” Through his hateful tirade and threatening demeanor, Destinee received the message that this man she had never met believed “that we don’t deserve to be here and we don’t deserve to live.”

“While he yelled, he was staring right at us,” Destinee explained. “His eyes were blank.” The teenagers fled to the back of the train as the yelling became louder and more aggressive. “That’s when Ricky, Taliesin, and Micah stepped in.”

Twenty-three-year-old Taliesin Namkai-Meche took out his cell phone and began recording, showing the attacker that he was being filmed. When the man moved closer, threatening Taliesin, twenty-one-year-old Micah Fletcher stood with Taliesin. Micah told the attacker to get off the train. Instead, the attacker pulled out a knife. He lunged at them, stabbing Taliesin and Micah, both in the neck. When fifty-three-year-old Ricky John Best tried to intervene, the attacker stabbed him, too.

Taliesin, Micah, and Ricky didn’t know each other or the teenagers they were defending. “They just wanted to help,” Walia said later. These three men, in fact, were known for standing up and showing up, motivated by a sense of responsibility and love for others. Their courage may very well have saved Destinee’s and Walia’s lives that day.

Though critically injured, Micah survived and recovered from his wounds. Tragically, Ricky and Taliesin died that day despite the efforts of multiple passengers who came to their aid, trying to stem the bleeding. Other passengers followed the attacker when he fled from the station to ensure that Portland police could locate him and take him into custody.

When the attacker went on trial, evidence showed that he had long-held allegiances to hate groups and ideologies. Walia and Destinee were not the first victims of his threats and abuse; he’d exhibited violent racist behavior toward another woman just the week before. Because of Micah, Ricky, and Taliesin, the attacker was caught and sentenced to life in prison.

In the days after the attack, the families of these three courageous men shared details about them, illustrating how love and responsibility shaped their actions.

Ricky, a Portland city official and a father of four, had retired from the U.S. Army only a few years earlier after more than two decades of service. His family said standing up for strangers was part of his character.

Taliesin was a recent Reed College graduate. At a memorial vigil for Taliesin and Ricky, Taliesin’s mother spoke about the loving son that she had lost to hatred. “His heart was [as] big as the world,” she said. Taliesin’s sister penned a beautiful tribute to her brother, sharing how her “heart feels empty from the loss of [her] big brother, but also from the cruel awakening that hate and judgment can cause someone to do such a thing.” She went on to say: “I am so proud to be able to call someone so brave and strong my big brother. You have always and will always be my hero.”

Micah, a student at Portland State University, was on his way to his job at a pizza shop before the attack. While he sat wounded on the train platform, not knowing whether he would survive, a stranger helped him call his mom. Micah asked her to call his boss and let them know he couldn’t make it into work that day. “Then I told her I loved her,” Micah said later in court, “and that I’d see her soon.”

Like Taliesin and Ricky, Micah was known as a person who made a habit of standing up for what’s right and supporting others in the face of hate. Micah’s mother, Margie Fletcher, said her son has intervened for others before. "Micah's always done that. I'm proud of him for standing up. I'm grateful that he's here. It's hard for me to say I want people to stand up, but two girls might be alive because of them."

Micah remained incredibly humble despite floods of public praise. In a video he posted to Facebook, Micah said all this attention shouldn’t be directed at him. It was Walia and Destinee, he said, who “need to be reminded that this is about them...they are the real victims here.”

But Destinee’s mother, Dyjuana, still sees Micah as “one of the angels that saved my daughter’s life.” Destinee and her mother had the chance to meet Micah in June of 2017. The two young survivors held each other tight. Destinee brought a gift for Micah, a t-shirt that she had made for him: “I love you and you are my hero,” it reads.

In the years since, the walls of the Hollywood Transit Center, where the attack ended, have been transformed into a memorial mural. The mural shows sunset changing into night, with eight lines of poetry, each in a different language—including Somali, in Walia’s honor. Written in gold on the darkest walls are words commemorating the spirit of the men who stood up that day: “We choose love.”