“It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again” in Mayfield

mosque rejectedMayfield, Kentucky, my hometown, is in the national news again, this time for banning a mosque.

The last time was 1986, for banning a book.

Some local Somali Muslims recently petitioned the city government to permit them to turn an empty store building into a mosque. The city board of planning and zoning said no, claiming the building didn’t have enough parking spaces.

To quote the great Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Mayfield, the Graves County seat, hasn’t suffered this much bad press since the county school board removed William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, from the county high school almost two dozen years ago.

Anyway, I’m taking the board at its word that parking, not prejudice, motivated its action. “We don’t want to discuss religion; that’s not what we’re here for,” the chairman warned about 250 people who crowded city hall when the board met to vote.

Owners of two businesses next to the building spoke against the mosque. They said they “feared the worshipers would take up limited parking in the area,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, the state’s largest newspaper.

A board member told the television reporter “he would welcome the Muslims applying for a permit in a different part of the city.” The city planner explained that the Somalis, whose African homeland is one of the poorest countries on earth, could “appeal to circuit court or could petition to open a mosque at a shopping center with more parking,” the Courier-Journal also said.

The WPSD news broadcast about the meeting described it as “heated, very heated.” At least one spectator brought a Bible. A few wore t-shirts proclaiming, “”I’m an American, I believe in the Christian Church,” according to the reporter from WKMS radio at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky.

The crowd, which was all white, or close to it, applauded the unanimous board vote. But the WPSD reporter said people in the crowd told her “they are ready to come back here and fight this all over again.” Hence, she suggested “parking really isn’t the issue.”

No Somalis were present at the meeting. “The Paducah Sun and WPSD-TV reported they did come but initially were denied entrance because the room was full and [law enforcement] officers did not realize they were there to represent the project,” the Courier-Journal said. “When the mistake was recognized, officials searched for them outside the building but could not find them, according to the reports.”

Before the meeting, the reporter asked one of the business owners if he’d be against a Baptist church going in next door to him. “The way I see it, they would park where they are supposed to park,” he said on camera. “These people [Somalis] do not care.”

While the reporter was interviewing the businessman outside his store, a man shouted “Get ‘em out of here!” from a passing vehicle.

But at the meeting, the owner, according to WKMS, said of the Somalis, “These people are the best neighbors I’ve had. I don’t want to keep them from worshipping, wherever that is. Just so it’s not there.”

This lifelong Mayfield resident hopes the Somalis submit another petition and get a mosque. There are two shopping centers in town with several empty store buildings.

Meanwhile, I remember the county high school book flap. I helped cover it for the Sun, where I spent more than a dozen years as a reporter.

I wonder how many folks in the city hall crowd would have applauded – or maybe did applaud — the school board when it unanimously banned the famous Faulkner novel. The board and its supporters claimed the book was obscene and contrary to their Christian values. After a parent threatened to sue and the ACLU got involved, the board reinstated the book. (The ACLU is looking into the planning and zoning board’s action.)

Anyway, I have faith that the planning and zoning board would approve a petition to have a mosque where there is ample parking. I also believe a majority of my fellow citizens are more like Jeff Keith than like the people who don’t want a mosque in Mayfield, period.

Keith is youth pastor at the  First Baptist Church . The Courier-Journal said “he hoped a solution could be found because he did not want the Somalis to feel unwelcome.”

Back in ’86, the book banning gave Mayfield (the city has its own high school but the county high school is in the city limits) the same sort of unwelcome notoriety we’re getting now. The board was rightly ridiculed in editorials statewide and nationwide.

Mayfield “mosque battle” prompted editorial comment from the Courier-Journal:

“Recent headlines out of New York City might persuade the nation that the Big Apple is the only place where something rotten is happening to Muslims  who wish to fulfill the American promise of worshiping their God in their holy house, without interference. A different story, one very close to home, lies beyond those headlines. The Christian Science Monitor recently spotlighted four ‘mosque battles’ brewing across the country, including the one near Ground Zero in New York. To Kentucky’s shame, a Florence controversy was profiled along with those in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Temecula, California, and, of course, New York.

This is a test of our commitment to American values,’ Mayor Bloomberg said in New York the same day the Mayfield board took its action. ‘Let me declare that we in New York are Jews and Christians and Muslims, and we always have been. And above all that, we are Americans, each with an equal right to worship and pray where we choose.’

“In the shadows of the mosque battles brewing in their own state, Kentuckians should make the same declaration.”

A footnote: The day the board voted down the petition, a 23-year-old Somali man was arrested in Mayfield and charged with attempting to kidnap a 12-year-old girl. The man says he is innocent. His attorney is suspicious of the timing and the nature of the alleged incident.

Meanwhile, rumors are flying that the man in custody is on the national terrorist watch list, that some of the Somalis belong to al Qaeda, that Somalis have committed eight rapes at a chicken processing plant where they work, that Somalis have brought a new illegal drug to town, and that another Somali tried to abduct a child at Mayfield Middle School earlier this year.

It’s all baloney, according to authorities.So is the notion that all Muslims should be held culpable for 9/11. Sadly, some mosque battlers in Mayfield and other communities think along those lines.

Yet I’m sure none of them fault all Christians for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the bloodiest terrorist attack in American history before 9/11. The perpetrator was Timothy McVeigh, an American white guy who said he was a confirmed Catholic, according to Time magazine.

Too, it stands to reason that at one time or another, people who profess Christianity have been convicted of kidnapping, rape, drug dealing and other serious crimes in Mayfield and other communities. But I haven’t heard anybody condemn the Christian religion wholesale or demand the city disallow Christian houses of worship.

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on August 31, 2010
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.