You may well remember Khizr Khan as the Gold Star father who gave a brief, but impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016 with his wife, Ghazala, standing by his side.
Those six minutes on a national stage cemented his place in history and in our hearts as a father, humanitarian and activist. Thoughtfully and emotionally delivering his allotted 260 words, he then famously held up his well-used, pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution and offered to lend it to the Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, so that he could read it, probably for the first time, he implied.
Since then, Khizr Khan has taken his message on the road, humbly and thoughtfully delivering lectures and speaking openly about his love for America and his profound belief in and advocacy for the human rights granted to all those protected by the Constitution. Recently, he delivered the 21st annual Jacoby-Lunin Humanitarian Lecture on the Fairfield University campus, “Defending Human Dignities.” He proudly proclaimed to the audience that it was his 236th public speaking engagement since he first addressed the nation, and the world, “in that big, bright and noisy place in Philadelphia.”
Prior to that night in July 2016, Khan, a devout Muslim, was living a purposeful life unknown to many — practicing law and privately grieving the loss of his second-born son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayan Khan. Having sacrificed his life to thwart the efforts of a suicide bomber while serving as a platoon leader in Iraq in 2004, Humayan Khan, then aged 27, acted bravely to save the lives of others. On the night of the Democratic convention, his memory and heroism had been honored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — his favorite basketball player — before the Khan parents took the stage.
Following the appearance at the convention, Khizr Khan received encouraging words and letters from so many thanking him for what he called, “the reminder about rights and humanities.” He had given the speech, he said, to “dignify and pay tribute,” not only to his son, but to generations of veterans who had sacrificed the greatest gift they had been given — their lives — for others freedom. The decision to speak at the convention had been an agonizing one, he told us. Many family members, friends and even his two other sons, Shaharyar and Omer, had cautioned him against it, telling him that his closely guarded privacy and family life would be forsaken.
Khan said that he frequently received attention in the media after speaking out about Trump’s perceived prejudice as early as December 2015. Sometimes when he was out in public, immigrant parents would ask Khan to speak with their children to allay their fears about deportation in the Trump era. It was the receipt of a letter — co-signed by four elementary school friends seeking his counsel on behalf of a fellow student they feared would be deported — that he viewed as a sign that his late son would want him to take up this cause. Up until its receipt he had planned to give the Democratic convention’s organizing committee a firm “no,” contrary to rumors of his payoff that had been circulating in the press.
Achieving this unsought fame at the convention for pointing us all to Amendment 14, Section One — which mandates equal protection under the law of all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. — was no stunt. Khan can adeptly quote, recite and share his knowledge of the Constitution as well as the Declaration of Independence. He spoke of making many trips to the monuments in Washington, D.C. with his wife and young sons during the 1980s, reading aloud the words from the walls of the Jefferson Memorial, attesting to our shared entitlement to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Khan has lived his life in the U.S. — as a lawyer and a parent — upholding those words every day.
The eldest of 10 children, Khan was raised modestly in rural Pakistan in a farming family that placed importance on the value of education. He pursued his studies in his native country, receiving a bachelor of arts degree from the University of the Punjab and a law degree from Punjab University Law College. He immigrated to the U.S. with his wife in 1979, but his love affair with the Constitution began in 1972, before he even dreamed of coming here, he told us at the outset. Then, came the acceptance by Harvard University, which he deferred initially, settling in Houston and working basic jobs to earn his keep while becoming established in his new country.
Resounding during the Fairfield University lecture in November was his reverence for democratic government. Khan credits the Founding Fathers with having tremendous foresight, particularly in bestowing the most power upon our nation’s Congress right in the first article of the Constitution. He takes umbrage with citizens who “have been given independence,” but do not fully understand or appreciate the enormous freedom to which they have been entitled.
As someone who lived under martial law and through authoritarian regimes in Pakistan, Khan said the notion of true freedom had been abstract to him. Referring to the Bill of Rights as the “bill of human dignities,” he spoke of his respect for the divine in each person — a belief that was instilled in him at an early age. He told us that when he was 11, his grandfather asked him where God lives. After offering his naïve answers, none of which seemed logical to his elder, his grandfather pointed to Khan’s heart and told him that God lives in each of us. “Therefore, we are of equal dignity.”
He quoted statistics obtained from the FBI about the rising percentages of hate crimes in our country and how troubling that should be to us. He said that he encourages fellow Muslims to assimilate with their neighbors and become active members of their communities. “Go out,” he advocated, “and speak with people of all faiths in an attempt to defuse the hatred and convey messages of belief in the common doctrines and rights that bind us all together.”
In 2017, Khan published two books. The first, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice” (Penguin Random House), recounts his journey and his family’s life in America. The other is “This is our Constitution: Discover America with a Gold Star Father” (Penguin Random House), an audio book for middle school children about the Constitution, the meaning behind its words and why they matter to all.
Khan asked if we knew that it had just celebrated its 231st birthday, making it the oldest governing document in the world. Julie Mughal, associate director of the Fairfield University Center for Faith and Public Life posed a question, asking for his opinion as a scholar of the Constitution. His answer began, “First, I am not a scholar of the constitution. I am a student of the Constitution.”
Of the time he first read the Constitution, he said, “I didn’t have the courage in my heart to think I would ever be a citizen.” Yet, he studied for the citizenship test, taking its oath in 1986. Its first mandate? To support the Constitution. When he is out lecturing, Khan told us, he is frequently asked if he could add one more amendment, what would it be? That all American citizens be required to read and uphold the oath of citizenship, he said.
He refers to our current administration as an anomaly — a storm we will weather. Khan received a question from a current university student asking how we are to have hope in this current political climate. He told her that she and others are “the candle bearers,” and they share a responsibility to do the hard work, make sacrifices and lead the way to further the enlightenment of others.
“I have seen the sun rise on the other side of the mountain,” he said directly to the students in the audience, “and I am humbled to be standing before our future leaders. You are the hope for this great nation.”