Khizr Khan, the father of an Army soldier killed in 2004 Iraq who rocketed to political fame after he criticized Donald Trump last summer at the Democratic National Convention, spoke at a rally in Towson on Wednesday about the need to uphold America's democratic values.
Khan was the headliner of a "unity rally" organized by the Baltimore County government at Patriot Plaza in downtown Towson.
He told the crowd of more than 100 that America is great because citizens' rights are guaranteed and they choose their leaders — as opposed to authoritarian countries where the leaders pick which rights citizens may enjoy.
"Of course we make mistakes. We have made a mistake," Khan said. "Be heartened that we have the power to change it."
Khan told the audience that he and his wife, Ghazala, had initially been unsure whether to attend and speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton was nominated as the Democrats' presidential candidate.
The Khans, citizens who emigrated from Pakistan, were invited to the convention with other Gold Star families, so named for the gold star flag that indicates the loss of a child while serving in the military.
The Khans' son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in Iraq in 2004.
Khan recalled that his friends warned him: "You will be maligned. Your reputation will be questioned." But he said he was moved to speak by two factors — the "bigoted words" against Muslims and immigrants by then-candidate Trump, and the fears of children who worried their immigrant parents would be deported.
"This is the time the nation needs us," Khan said. "These children need us. They have to have a voice."
At the convention, Khan criticized Trump and said, "Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution?" before pulling out a copy of the document.
Khan pulled out his Constitution again Wednesday and read from the 14th Amendment, noting the clause that guarantees equal treatment for all citizens.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz presented Khan with a citation and proclaimed Wednesday as Unity Day in the county.
Kamenetz, a Democrat considering a run for governor in 2018, pointed to anecdotal stories of people being harassed because of their race or religion as the need to promote unity.
He also promoted an executive order he issued this year stating that county employees, including police, should not ask about any individual's immigration or citizenship status and that the county jail will not hold individuals for immigration reasons unless there's a warrant signed by a judge.
The event also featured other speakers exhorting the crowd to remember that "our victory is in our unity." Audience members waved towels and shook cowbells to signal their agreement.
Representatives from county agencies including its Human Relations Commission, Commission for Women and health department attended, as well as members of groups including Amigos of Baltimore County, CASA of Maryland, the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Baltimore County NAACP, the Greater Baltimore Muslim Council and the Islamic Society of Baltimore.
Kamenetz's campaign sent an email to supporters this week criticizing Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who he said "refused to stand up to Donald Trump." The email highlighted the unity rally and Kamenetz's executive order.
One member of the Baltimore County Council, Republican David Marks, said this week he felt Kahn would bring a "partisan backdrop" to the county rally because of his role at the Democratic convention.
Kamenetz said in an interview before the rally that "Mr. Khan is here to protect and defend the Constitution and there is nothing partisan about that. This is what all Americans should be doing."
Khan, who lives in Virginia and has a relative in Baltimore County, said this was his 128th speaking engagement since last summer's convention. He said he is traveling next to California for a convention of young elected officials.