( – I have conversations with hundreds of people on any given week.  I hear some complaining – often for the sake of complaining.  I hear some talking about what others should be doing.  I hear some saying, “I heard what was said; I saw what happened; I didn’t agree with it, but I said nothing.” When I hear that, I wonder what people are thinking.  Are they thinking there are designated communicators or designated spokespersons in our community who are expected to come out and take all the risks for everybody else? 

I wonder if they are thinking, “It’s their responsibility to speak for me while I stay safely on the sidelines observing.” Do they understand there are dangers inherent in speaking out, but there are also dangers inherent in remaining silent when we should be speaking out?  Aside from the silence of too many in our community, we also see those who throw rocks – even at the people who are speaking out on our behalf – while hiding their hands. Our challenges are not resolved by these actions or inactions.

What I don’t hear often enough is how we can go about making the changes together to improve our communities across the country.  When leaders speak out, too often there is not a reliable community team saying, “We’ve got your back.” 

I thought about how helpful such a team would be when I saw Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minn., almost singlehandedly taking on the issue of Congressman Steve King’s decision to hold a hearing called “The Radicalization of Islam in America.”  Don’t get me wrong; Congressman Ellison is very well equipped to handle the subject, and at the opening of the hearing, he gave very powerful testimony on the problem with such a hearing and the unfairness of singling out Muslim Americans.

It would have been great to see more of us supporting the case Congressman Ellison has been making against the gross erroneous generalizations about Islam.  The hearing was a public spectacle that proved nothing other than another way to harass people who believe as much in the American dream as any other Americans.  We have been this way before, a la the “McCarthy hearings.”  Too many people were afraid to speak out then. And too many are afraid to speak out against the King hearings now. 

Free speech isn’t just on the side of Mr. King.  More of us need to tell him he was wrong to paint with such a broad brush a whole group of people without reason.  It’s Islam today, but the way things are going – with all the radicalism by non-Muslims against our president, against liberals, against progressive women’s groups – such hearings could be just around the corner for those of us who fall into those groups.

Congressman Ellison’s colleagues, who left him hanging on the issue addressed in the King hearings, should make their own statements in support of him. Those who believe he was right to defend the right of Muslim Americans to exist without fear of being subjected to the type of treatment intended by the King hearings, should publically say so. 

I pray that we do not allow ourselves to be silenced from defending basic human rights for others unless our personal rights are at stake.  Let us not turn a blind eye to the consequences of preying upon the fears of others.  We need to engage our community in conversations about many subjects but not frighten them into acting irrationally.  We should be joining hands to develop trust in one another by working together to eliminate problems—not create them. Saying nothing is not the answer.

Dr. E. Faye Williams is chair of the National Congress of Black Women and chairman of the board of the Black Leadership Forum.  She can be reached at or 202-678-6788.