Houston Progress

The first lunch counter sit-ins west of the Mississippi took place in Houston in 1960, where activist students from Texas Southern University, one of the stateís designated "colored" universities in the era of segregation, took the initiative and protested, prompting the cityís white power brokers to quickly work on compromises that led to the quiet integration of the cityís restaurants, movie theatres, night clubs, arenas, stadiums, and other public facilities without violence. The first lunch counter sit-ins west of the Mississippi took place in Houston in 1960, where activist students from Texas Southern University, one of the stateís designated "colored" universities in the era of segregation, took the initiative and protested, prompting the cityís white power brokers to quickly work on compromises that led to the quiet integration of the cityís restaurants, movie theatres, night clubs, arenas, stadiums, and other public facilities without violence.

Today Houston is a glorious melting pot of colors, cultures, languages, cuisines and religions, a point of pride that can be traced back to those lunch counter sit-ins and how the cityís leaders reacted. District F, a seventies-vintage slice of suburbia which includes Sharpstown Mall, where the Voices of Civil Rights bus stopped one hot and steamy day in August, is the most diverse council district in Texas and possibly the United States. Over 150 countries from around the world are represented within its ten square mile boundaries.

Perhaps the most vivid example is M.J. Khan, who represents District F on the Houston City Council. He is the first Pakistani to ever serve on the Houston council as well as the first Muslim. He is also the Districtís first rep who is not a white male. And he was elected after 9/11.

It helps, he makes clear, that his parents in Karachi stressed the importance of helping other people and going to school. "We were not a wealthy family," he explains. "The only hope for success was education." Both his wife Attiya and him came to American for higher education. He got his masterís in engineering at Illinois and later his MBA at Rice. They moved to Houston after she got a fellowship in cardiology at the Texas Heart Institute, the first female to receive such honors. "American offers tremendous opportunity," Khan says. "I feel very sad when I see people not taking advantage of these opportunities in education."

Still, Khan recognizes much more needs to be done because heís had enough whiffs of the past to give pause. "One time when we were looking to buy a house in Memorial, I looked at the original deed of trust and it said very clearly in black and white, only people of Caucasian heritage should be able to buy property. Iím blinded to the history of this, but Iím very cognizant of it.

"To be honest, Iím more concerned with the things that are happening because of the policies of the federal government. Not that they donít mean well," he says diplomatically. "They want to protect us. We want to be protected.

"As Muslims, we face a double whammy. At the airports, there is a lack of understanding of our culture. In Islamic culture, since weíre required to pray 5 times a day, a dog cannot touch your clothes. If it does, youíre supposed to change your clothes, theyíre considered contaminated. In eastern culture, it is a sign of disrespect if you look someone in the eyes. So when somebodyís talking to you at the airport and youíre not looking in their eyes, youíre suspicious. If you shy away from a dog trained to sniff things out, youíre suspicious.

"I make a joke when I go to the airport, Iím Random Khan.

"Right now, for Muslims, there is talk in the community, we cannot be going around as tourists taking pictures. We cannot openly discuss whether or not we like certain government officials. That is very unfortunate. Most people came to America because of this very thing.

"Thatís why the Civil Rights movement is so important for the immigrant community. Because of the history, what happened to African-Americans. During the Second World War, Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps, and it was done legally. The Supreme Court backed it up. But just because something is legal does not mean it is right."

Khan deplores the fact there are still dwellings in some parts of Houston lacking proper sewage and potable water, that more young black men between the ages of 15 and 25 are in jails than in school. "That is a horrible testament to the society we are living in. We spend more money keeping people in prison than educating them. Government is supposed to treat people fairly, equally."

But he remains hopeful. "People here are preserving the good things about their cultures, and sharing the good things this society has to offer, and enjoy this great value system based on yourself and your own hard work, instead of inheritance or privilege."

The symbolism of Council Member Khan is one small sign that for all the evident shortcomings and disappointments, civil rights continues moving foreword, not back.

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