Keynote Address at the 12th Annual Jim McEntee Scholarship Fundraiser on April 27, 2023

April 27, 2023

Jim McEntee (1931-2004)

Remembering Jim McEntee

Author: Maha Elgenaidi

Tonight, we’re here to celebrate Jim McEntee’s legacy of struggle for human rights and of compassion for all that was deeply rooted in his religious faith.

Born in 1931, in the midst of the Depression, Jim served as a Roman Catholic priest for 16 years, bringing the Gospel’s message of peace and reconciliation to his parishioners and, among other things, working closely with Cesar Chavez to build the United Farm Workers union.

In 1973, he left the priesthood to marry Ann, a former nun, but his career as a faith-based activist for peace and justice was only beginning. Jim and Ann raised a family that ultimately comprised four Latinos, two African Americans, and two birth children of their own, living out through their diverse family their vision of inclusion.

In 1976, Jim took on the job as Director of the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations, tasked with the mission “to promote equality, justice and peace,” where he quickly gained a reputation that garnered him the title of “the Jimmy Carter of Santa Clara County.”

His skills at negotiating and conflict resolution served the people of this region well, bringing peace out of some sticky situations. For example, once, he talked a man out of shooting a neighbor whose dog’s barking kept the man up at night; Jim brokered a solution that had the dog and man move to the opposite sides of their respective homes, thereby allowing the dog to bark, and the man to sleep.

On another occasion, Jim faced a much larger-scale threat to peace as members of the San Jose Vietnamese community prepared to march on a fellow immigrant who had put up a flag of the Communist-ruled Republic of Vietnam on his shop. Jim managed to calm the community and keep the peace among them.

But Jim didn’t hesitate to ruffle the feathers of his fellow county officials when he felt it was warranted. In fact, he ruffled the feathers of many.

In 1979, as the San Jose Police Department was cracking down on low riders cruising through a San Jose neighborhood, Jim established an observer program to monitor arrests, and to ensure that no one’s civil rights were being violated; a move that earned a complaint from the San Jose police chief that Jim was “undermining police morale.”

Jim, who retired from the Human Relations office in 2003, left a legacy of important projects and organizations that he helped found, including, among others, the Network for a Hate-Free Community, the Confederation de la Raza Unida, Second Harvest Food Bank, the Interfaith Council on Religion, Race, Economic and Social Justice, and the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission.

As a fellow faith-based activist for social justice and peace, what I remember and value most about Jim was his deep religious faith that motivated all his efforts. On his retirement, he was remembered by the local Catholic leader Father Gene Boyle as “a man of the Book” whose work was “inspired by the spirit of God, speaking through the prophetic words of Isaiah and Jesus.”

Jim truly embodied the faith-based spirit of social activism that motivated such leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, and, to take just one contemporary example, Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Jim’s initiatives were ahead of his time, as he pushed for greater diversity, inclusion, and belonging with all the diverse members of our community, which reflect what we now refer to as DEIB initiatives.

I first met Jim in the late 1990s when I became a commissioner for the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission.

Back then, the HRC was very active under Jim’s leadership, so appointments to the Commission were highly competitive and greatly coveted. Seats were recommended by Jim who brought candidates to the attention of county supervisors who then made the appointments on the Commission.

Jim was someone who always sought to include representation of diverse community members, and I was certainly that person as the first Arab, and first Muslim on the Commission.

I came to Jim’s attention with the work that I was doing teaching about Muslims and their faith, which I still partly do. That work has since expanded to include teaching about people of other religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

Jim recommended me to Supervisor Beall, who appointed me to the Commission for two terms. So, I served during the heyday of the Commission between the late 1990s and early 2000s for six years with notable people such as Gertrude Welch and Wiggsy Sivertsen.

In 2000, before 9/11, he co-created with me and other commissioners, the Santa Clara County Network for a Hate-Free Community as a tool to provide a community response to hate crimes and hate incidents. It is comprised of members who represent community-based organizations, law enforcement, social services agencies, and other organizations.

This was an important and timely program since hate crimes were on the radar for many and we needed a network of organizations who worked together to combat hate. It was the first of such networks in the state of California.

While post-9/11, the impact on Muslim Americans was unprecedented in terms of the spike in hate crimes and hate incidences, Islamophobia was a problem long before 9/11, going back centuries in Europe and manifesting in the US as anti-Arab sentiments through the ‘70s during the Arab Oil Embargo and as anti-Muslim sentiment in the ‘80s after the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979, and in the ‘90s after the First Gulf War.

However, it was after the September 11, 2001 attacks that hate crimes against Muslims soared to their highest levels and the term Islamophobia became widely used to describe anti-Muslim bigotry or racism.

These hate crimes did not just target Muslims, but those assumed to be Muslims, especially Sikhs, who have continued to be victims of hate crimes till today.

While hate crimes declined in the years since that terrible day, they have spiked again in recent years, as has anti-Muslim sentiment.

According to polls on views about Muslims, only 15% of Americans have a favorable view of Islam, and 1 out of 2 Americans believe Islam is not a part of mainstream American society.

According to a 2021 UC Berkeley poll, 95% of Muslims feel that Islamophobia is a problem, and nearly 70% of Muslim Americans have experienced Islamophobia, with much higher rates for American born, young adults, and women.

Other polls consistently show that Muslims experience the highest level of religious discrimination of any religious group – 62% – both interpersonal discrimination from co-workers and on social media, as well as in institutional settings, such as the airport.

Half of Muslim families nationally say their child was bullied, nearly double the national average. Even in California, 47% of Muslim students report being bullied for their faith.

There have also been Islamophobic campaigns across the country that have opposed the building of new mosques, and hundreds of mosques nationwide have been vandalized, including in California, in addition to other types of anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Today, while, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes has dropped, according to a recent report by CAIR, we are witnessing a rise in antisemitic hate crimes and incidences as well as anti-Asian hate which spiked enormously during the pandemic.

We are also seeing a general rise in hate crimes, including against groups that have long been the targets of anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Indigenous bigotry and hate.

In fact, hate crimes rose dramatically in 2022 with African Americans remaining the most frequent target of hate crimes.[1] A recent study based on FBI reporting shows that hate crimes increased in several major US cities in 2022 from the previous year, including an 18% rise in New York City, a 13% rise in Los Angeles, and multidecade highs in reported hate crimes in Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Austin.[2]

So, the work of Jim McEntee is unfortunately, as, or more important today as when he began his efforts to stem hate decades ago.  

His memory reminds us that all of us are responsible for building the beloved community, and that none of us are safe unless the weakest among us is.

Today we honor his memory and build upon his efforts to build a more loving, kind, and inclusive community, locally, nationally, and globally.

I wanted to end my memorial with a prayer for Jim, our community, and nation.  Please join me in prayer:

O God, we give you thanks for the life and legacy of Jim McEntee, and we pray for his repose in the heavenly choir praising your Goodness and Love.

We pray above all for our community, that we may follow his example of striving for peace and justice under your inspiration and guidance.

And we pray for our nation, that we may follow the lead of prophets like Jim McEntee as we work towards a world of justice and peace.

God, You inspire us with the example of people like him; may we march on with persistence and determination as we strive to realize the highest aspirations of our nation and of all humanity here at home and throughout the world. 


To continue Jim McEntee’s legacy, donate to the Friends of Human Relations Foundation in his name: Donations – Friends of Human Relations