As we reflect on the massacre of Sikh worshippers in Oak Creek, Wisconsin earlier this month, we are especially concerned about the effect it will have on Sikh morale, especially the desire among Sikhs to continue wearing turbans. For this, the Sikh communities of Milwaukee, the U.S., and all across the globe can derive inspiration from a national hero: Bill Baxley.
Between 1971 and 1979, Baxley served as Alabama’s Attorney General. During his tenure, Baxley famously prosecuted one of the men responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an act of domestic terrorism that resulted in the death of four girls between the ages of 11 and 14. This infuriated the Ku Klux Klan, which issued a written threat to Baxley. Not to be deterred, the Attorney General responded on official state letterhead as follows:
“My response to your letter of February 19, 1976, is—kiss my ass.”
Baxley’s response falls right in line with Sikh traditions.
Sikhs of the 18th century banded together to resist bigots who terrorized and oppressed minority communities. Because Sikhs staunchly insisted on standing up against injustice and inequalities, the rulers of the day focused on persecuting Sikhs such that their numbers dwindled into the low thousands. The regime literally put prices on the heads of Sikhs, offering to pay citizens who helped wipe out the whole community. In fact, Sikhs remember two particular periods in the 18th century as “The Lesser Holocaust” and “The Greater Holocaust.”
According to Sikh historians, the state issued an official declaration in 1739 that the entire Sikh population had been exterminated. In response, two Sikhs—Bota Singh and Garja Singh—emerged from hiding, occupied a major highway, and expressed Sikh sovereignty by collecting toll taxes from travelers. Although Bota Singh and Garja Singh were eventually arrested and executed by the state, their legacy is a thriving community of over 25 million Sikhs throughout the world.
Just as the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church could not suppress the American Civil Rights Movement or, later on, Bill Baxley’s pursuit of justice, the attack on the Oak Creek Gurdwara will embolden Sikh Americans to preserve their traditions and to continue to promote freedom and justice for all Americans. In recent years, for example, the Sikh American community spearheaded the passage of the first anti-bullying law in New York City; the repeal of an 87-year-old Oregon law that prohibited teachers from wearing religious dress in the public schools; and the introduction of a California bill that protects workers from religious discrimination.
Attacks like the one in Oak Creek will only encourage us to respond with the spirit of Bota Singh, Garja Singh, and Bill Baxley—we will stand up against all forms of discrimination and redouble our efforts to eradicate bigotry. As a community, we will put a tax on hate.