In changing the site’s design a couple of years ago, I somehow lost one of my important works, the series you are about read here. Published in the winter of 2007 and 2008, many consider it a classic study and its impact at the time unprecedented. I now post it again for those who did not get the opportunity to read it the first time. One important note: Apologies to Al Sharpton and the black radio hosts who we were a bit unkind to in this piece.
On Nov. 16th in Washington, DC, your and my favorite James Brown preacher, the right Reverend Al Sharpton, will be leading a protest demonstration on the steps of the Justice Department to highlight its gross negligence in enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws in a year that has witnessed scores of un-investigated racial incidents. From the Jena 6 trials in Louisiana, to noose sightings in a number of different cities, to the brutal rape, kid-napping and torture of a young, mentally challenged Black women in West Virginia, racism in America is once again rearing its ugly head. Taking the lead in a resurgence of civil rights activism is a tightly-knit coalition of Black radio personalities (Micheal Basden, Warren Ballentine, and Sharpton himself) and church leaders, who’ve been raising public awareness for the past year about these disturbing incidents.
And then a question occurred to me: How is it that pork chop, chittlin-eating preachers were able to corner the market on civil rights struggle, and how did a religion that teaches its followers to “turn the other cheek” and “love those who spitefully use you” become identified as a viable force for racial justice in this country? At the same time we the Muslims, inheritors of a pure scripture which commands the doing of justice in the here-and-now, are left totally out of the picture.
Mind you, I’m not talking about the innumerable demonstrations held in front of the White House for almost the past two decades ( you know, the ones that got everybody on tape saying they support this or that ”terror” group). Those demonstrations were intended to show support for our brothers and sisters in distant lands, as well as pressure the U.S. government to change its foreign policy. Alhumdulillah the Muslims came out in great numbers, and if the impact of those mass gatherings were somewhat minimal, at least they proved that American Muslims could organize around issues they really cared about.
But that’s the problem. What are the issues they really care about? I think I’m on safe ground when I say that most, if not all, of those demonstrations were organized to support international causes, i.e, those impacting the homelands of our immigrant brethren. However when it came to African American issues and the struggle to secure racial justice……well you know.
The sad part about it is that one can almost understand (not justify) immigrant Muslim behavior for its only natural for a people to fight for the things nearest and dearest to them. The question remains then how is it that in the year 2007, with all of the “pure Islam” we’ve acquired, that Black preachers and radio personalities still have a monopoly on social and racial justice issues, while the Muslims are not even worthy of mention?
And I am not the first to make this observation, but rather, Malcolm X himself came to conclude that Muslims (to the extend the NOI were perceived as Muslims in the public mind) talked a bad talk but didn’t walk the walk. As the 60’s civil rights leaders were making material progress in the form of federal legislation, the NOI came to be seen as a passive spectator on the sidelines, a criticism which continually dogged Malcolm in his final years in the organization. The impetus to break with the NOI was planted in his heart after Elijah Muhammad vetoed his plan to exact vengeance on the white police officers who gunned down Ronald Stokes, Los Angeles Temple Secretary, in 1962. It was this incident (contrary to the story about Elijah’s illegitimate babies) that spelled the beginning of the end of Malcolm’s connection with the group (even though the story is left out of the Autobiography”). Malcolm was incensed that he was denied the opportunity to “do something” to those “devils”, a final affirmation to him that the NOI was all talk and no action. In 1965, after being out of the NOI for almost a year and branded a “traitor”, he was gunned down before he was able to establish a workable program.
After Malcolm X came “Black Power”, and with it a number Black militant groups like the Black Panthers who took the fore of the struggle for racial justice, in some instances advocating arm conflict against the government. The late sixties also saw riots in almost all the urban centers, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It was during this time that one of the most important achievements of the civil rights era was realized, the passing of the civil rights bill of 1964. It was this act which became the most important single factor regulating the relationship between African American and immigrant Muslims. That’s because one of the purposes of the bill was to open up immigration to more non-European countries, making it possible for Arab and South Asian Muslims to enter the U.S. in numbers previously unimaginable, and ultimately come to out number African American Muslims.
By the time the seventies rolled around, Blacks were able to take advantage of the movement’s successes. Black militancy had burned out. The government went on a campaign to wipe out radicals, either by jailing them, promoting hated, enmity, and murder among them, and when all else failed, killing them outright. Black Studies programs began to appear on the campuses along with the election of Black Mayors and all other types of elected officials. Affirmative Action programs created a formidable Black middle class, and large segments of the movement’s activist were able to secure comfortable jobs overseeing federal and city programs. What I mean to say here is that civil rights activism was either persecuted or co-opted, and went into something of a decline. All this coincided with a radical change soon to take place in the NOI.
By 1975 Wallace Muhammad had ascended to the seat of his father as leader of the NOI. Inheriting what had essentially become a criminal enterprise, he began the long, excruciating process of directing the organization away from the polytheistic beliefs it formaly preached to the truth of Al Islam.
However, in order to accomplish this he believed it necessary to divest the organization of its militancy so as to assimilate its members into the mainstream of American society. His philosophy was one of emphasizing the positive aspects of American life and to take full advantage of our rights as citizens. All talk of the “fall of America” was summarily dropped. However in our judgement the pendulum swung too far in the other direction. The introduction of this policy produced many African American Muslim professionals (lawyers, teachers, even judges) which is of course beneficial to the Muslims, but it came at a high cost. It left the organization bereft of anything that could be called a protest tradition.