MAXWELL:  An angry voice of inequitable times

9/8/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Standing at Malcolm X Boulevard and 118th Street in Harlem during the controversial Million Youth March, I felt and heard the rumbling of the subway far below ground. Dozens of people _ black children and older adults, white journalists and tie-dyed revolutionaries, Rastafarian wannabes, wary NYPD cops, lawyers and nurses, American and foreign tourists _ milled or walked past me.

As the afternoon sun blazed and the subway shook the ground, I sensed a foreboding, something dangerous in the caverns beneath us, a thing that was pulling all of us down into a bottomless pit. When a dreadlocked black teenager walked in front of me carrying a sign reading “Cops Stop Murdering Black Men,” I recalled a sentence in James Baldwin’s 1985 book The Evidence of Things Not Seen: “A stranger to this planet might find the fact that there are any black people at all still alive in America something to write home about.”

These disquieting words came to mind because their meaning was a powerful subtext of Khallid Abdul Muhammad’s so-called “black power” message. Muhammad founded and directs the New Black Panther Party. If you remember, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan ousted Muhammad from the Black Muslim group several years ago for his anti-Semitic remarks on college campuses.

But Muhammad is back. America would be ill-advised to ignore him. For the last two years, he has gone to court, for example, and won the right to hold his youth rally after New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (whom Muhammad calls a “racist, cantankerous, constipated cracker”) refused to grant him permission. Last year, the event attracted more than 6,000 participants. This year, probably because of several weeks of negative press and the personal efforts of black politicians, newspaper columnists and Jewish leaders to kill it, about 2,000 of the faithful showed up.

As one indication of the event’s unpopularity in important offices, City Councilman Bill Perkins, a black Democrat representing Harlem, said, “We’re praying for peace. And rain.”

Well, the rally was peaceful, and rain did not dampen its controversial message: Blacks must endure one race-related atrocity after another. In aggressive, insult-laced rhetoric, speakers called for a black militia to protect them from the nation’s cops, especially those in Gotham City. Shaunette Daniels, the first speaker, said: “We have long been denied self-determination for black people. We must make sure there are no unarmed black men on these streets. . . . Let me hear you say black power.”

Wearing black from collar to toe, Muhammad, his bald head glistening with sweat, served up his usual fare of, among other things, Jew-baiting, Uncle Tom bashing and black self-reliance. Referring to the mayor as “Adolf” Giuliani, Muhammad said, “You can’t tell me to stop calling the white man a devil. It is my religion. Giuliani wants to keep us in line. These crackers crack the whip and the black politicians are buck-dancing and scratching.”

Here are more Muhammadisms:

“Black man, go back to your black woman. Rebuild the black family. Give the white man back his dope, his weed, his drugs, his alcohol.”

“From this day forward, wake up, clean up and stand up. We want to be the people looked upon as the light of the world again.”

“The so-called Jews are Johnny-come-lately Jews who climbed out of the caves of Europe. We are the real Jews.”

The foreboding I sensed _ the rumbling below ground _ is the cause of Muhammad’s madness. An old black woman next to me said: “These white bastards say Khallid is a hatemonger. He’s no hatemonger. He’s tired of white folks messing over black people. Whites are the hatemongers. White America produced Khallid. He’s right in your face, but he’s black and beautiful.”

During a speech in another part of Harlem shortly after the rally, the Rev. Jesse Jackson _ citing crumbling public schools, a Wall Street that refuses to invest in Harlem, widespread police brutality, do-nothing absentee landlords _ suggested that Muhammad is a “voice of alienation and despair.” Jackson added, “So long as there is alienation and pain, there will be voices of alienation and pain.”

No matter how offensive I and the rest of America find Muhammad’s message, demonizing him and the growing numbers following him will not eradicate the ugly institutionalized inequities that push black men like Muhammad outside the mainstream. A few days on the streets of Harlem would give any sensitive, honest person another view of Muhammad’s outrage.