Khalid Abdul Muhammad called himself a “truth terrorist” and a “knowledge gangsta,” and he was clearly at war with the status quo. A spokesman allied with the Nation of Islam, Muhammad ignited a storm of controversy through his dynamic, emotional speechmaking. Having attacked Jews, homosexuals, the Pope, and white South Africans, Muhammad was labeled a dangerous racist and anti-Semite. To his followers, however, he was a force for positive change, empowerment, and cultural pride in the African-American community who simply told the truth as he saw it. According to Rogers Worthington in the Chicago Tribune, Muhammad “can be entertaining one moment, and chilling the next. He’ll talk of the need for black self-love, self-help, discipline, and independence in one breath, and in the next, he’ll launch into a fiery anti-white, anti-Semitic diatribe assigning blame for all of black America’s ills.”
After 1992 Muhammad took his message all across the country, to colleges and lecture halls, attempting to reach troubled young African Americans. He has clashed— though not seriously—with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who noted in Emerge: “Brother Khallid is like a stallion, a beautiful black stallion. And it takes God to ride such a gifted horse. He will buck, that’s his spirit, he’s a warrior. His spirit is his love for his people.”
One of Muhammad’s favorite lecture topics was the “Black Holocaust,” the sufferings of black people over the centuries as a result of slavery, colonial domination, and discrimination. Muhammad claimed that the black holocaust was “100 times” worse than the atrocities Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis in World War II and that the problem was ongoing in America due to the racial climate. To make matters worse, he said, the black holocaust was ignored or glossed over by white historians, depriving blacks of full recognition of the forces that have shaped them. “The worst crime that can be committed is to be robbed of self-knowledge,” he asserted in the Washington Post.
While his theory was deplored by those who saw it as needlessly argumentative, Muhammad found a willing audience among the young, who sensed that they had been treated unfairly by the white majority. “Muhammad entered the public limelight at a time when there was a heightened sense of pessimism among blacks about their lot in America, and growing receptivity among young African-Americans for black nationalism,” contended Worthington. “Media coverage and the storm of protest over his remarks seem[ed] only to make him more popular among young blacks, old-guard black nationalists, Afro-centrists and border-line middle-class blacks who… turned out to hear him.”
Devoted To the Nation Of Islam
Muhammad was born Harold Moore Vann in Houston, Texas, in 1948 and spent his childhood there with an aunt. He was an honor student and quarterback of the football team at the all-black Phyllis Wheatley High School in Houston. Muhammad wanted to go into the ministry and was nicknamed “the preacher” by his classmates. So talented was he in his studies that he was placed in an accelerated learning program, one of only 27 students in the entire school to be given that opportunity.
After graduating from high school in 1966, Muhammad enrolled at Dillard University. Although some sources claim that he eventually earned a doctorate degree at that institution, the registrar’s office told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he dropped out of Dillard in 1970 without having earned a diploma. Muhammad himself refused to discuss his formal education, deeming it worthless since it was achieved at institutions catering to a white majority, yet he was referred to as “Dr. Muhammad,” and he claimed to have a Ph.D. in sociology.
Far more influential to Muhammad than his studies at Dillard was his introduction while on the campus to the Nation of Islam. A highly disciplined faith based on the teachings of Islam, the Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 by Elijah Muhammad. Members of Elijah Muhammad’s sect were encouraged to abstain from alcohol, practice sexual monogamy, eat sparingly, pray, meditate, and study. One of the secretive organization’s basic tenets was the belief that blacks were chosen by God to form their own nation separate from whites. This radical notion gained ground among some blacks as the fight for integration in America became violent and frustrating. Speakers like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan—both members of the Nation of Islam— offered blacks another solution to their problems with racism, a homeland free of the white oppressor.
Farrakhan first met Muhammad at Dillard University in 1967. The young student came to hear Farrakhan speak and enthusiastically embraced the tenets of the Nation of Islam sect. Farrakhan recalled in Emerge: “In my effort to rebuild the work of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, he was one of the first to come by my side. And when I had no security, just standing up teaching, I would see Brother Khallid standing beside me with a Bible in his hands. And I wondered why he was standing with the Bible. And once he opened the Bible and cut the Bible out and in the Bible was a pistol that he had to defend his brother. I had to say, ’No, Brother Khallid, we don’t need that.” Having taken the name of Khallid Abdul Muhammad in repudiation of his “slave name,” the young follower of Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad began to study the tenets of his new faith and embrace its notions of black empowerment and black nationalism.
The Nation of Islam faltered after the death of Elijah Muhammad. In the early 1970s, Khallid Muhammad journeyed to the East African nation of Uganda to help dictator Idi Amin form a plan to overthrow the white government in South Africa. While there he heard that Farrakhan was trying to restart the sect and return it to a more radical agenda. “I was in Kampala, Uganda, ready to kill some white folks when I put the call through,” Muhammad told an audience in Baltimore, as quoted in Newsday. “I thought the Nation of Islam was gone never to come back again. From that point on, I have been at the side of Minister Louis Farrakhan in the rebuilding of the Nation of Islam.”
A “New Malcolm X”
Invited to be among the original group that reinstated the Nation of Islam, Muhammad rose quickly to prominence within the sect. In the late 1970s, he was named minister of Mosque 27 in Los Angeles, and he set about doing what he could to end the gang warfare in the city. His chapter of the Fruit of Islam—a highly disciplined security force for the sect—won national honors at the organization’s conventions and, with their crisp white shirts and imposing demeanor, provided an enticing model for black pride.
Muhammad was transferred to a mosque in New York City and later to one in Atlanta, where he ran into trouble with the law. In 1988 he was convicted in federal court of using a false Social Security number to obtain a home mortgage in Atlanta. Farrakhan wrote a letter to the judge asking for leniency, promising the Nation of Islam would discipline him. Instead, the judge sentenced Muhammad to three years in federal prison. The Washington Post quoted the judge in question as having told Muhammad: “Unlike some of your supporters, I feel that there is another side to you—a side maybe the devil got to.” Muhammad served nine months in prison. When he was released, he returned to New York.
Soon thereafter, Muhammad was named “supreme captain” of the Fruits of Islam, in effect making him the leader of security for the Nation of Islam. In this role, he traveled with Farrakhan when the minister had speaking engagements. He was responsible for the discipline and bearing of the other security officers. By 1991 he had been promoted again, to national assistant to Farrakhan. In this position, he was for the first time given an opportunity to speak before national audiences. “Ironically, it was a position held by both Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan under Elijah Muhammad,” noted Emerge reporter Sylvester Monroe. “It also historically has been a post from which the holder has often gained a following and stature of his own, as both Malcolm X and Farrakhan did.”
Indeed, by virtue of his fiery oratory and his uncompromising message, Muhammad did become known as the “new Malcolm X.” He concentrated his message on the young and found a ready audience among rap musicians and gang members in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Bits of Muhammad’s speeches found their way onto the albums of Ice Cube, X-Clan, and Public Enemy. Professor Griff, a former member of Public Enemy, told Newsday that rappers responded to Muhammad because “the brother has a spirit… If you are about revolution and change you have to lend him your heart as well as your ear.” Some Los Angeles gang members seemed to have been positively influenced by the dynamic minister as well. Emerge reported that several ex-gang members who played leading roles in the Los Angeles truce of 1992 joined the sect in response to Muhammad’s calling.
Kean College Speech Caused Controversy
In November of 1993, Muhammad was invited by a student group to make an address at Kean College in Union, New Jersey. The quiet commuter campus with approximately 50 percent black enrollment hardly seemed a likely venue for a speech that would rock the nation. To quote Fred Bruning in Maclean’s Muhammad unleashed a speech “as remarkable for its grandiloquent goofiness as its incendiary spirit… Muhammad’s speech was a corker by any standard. Approximately 140 students and faculty heard Farrakhan’s man launch attacks on a variety of targets—whites, Jews, homosexuals, the Pope— during a meandering three-hour presentation.”
Among other assertions, Muhammad suggested murdering every white person remaining in South Africa and referred to the head of the Catholic Church as “the old no-good Pope,” adding, “somebody needs to raise that dress up and see what’s really under there.” The height of his vitriol was reserved for the Jews, however, whom he accused of participating in the slave trade and of hastening their own persecution by the Nazis. At one point he referred to Jews as “bloodsuckers of the black community.” Muhammad also criticized a variety of black American leaders, characterizing them as “house niggers” who had sold out their people to a white power structure.
In the wake of the speech, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith published a full-page advertisement in the New York Times with excerpts from the address under the headline: “Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam claim they are moving toward moderation…. you decide.” In fact, Farrakhan was trying to adopt a more moderate posture at the time, and he officially censured Muhammad and relieved him of his duties as a top aide. At a press conference, Farrakhan declared: “During the speech, Brother Khallid made remarks that were not consistent with the proper representation of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, his teachings and guidance, me, and the Nation of Islam. Therefore, in that instance, he was not representing us; he was representing himself.” Later, in a widely-quoted comment, Farrakhan admitted that he did not disagree with the “truths” in Muhammad’s speech, but only in the manner with which they were
The break between Farrakhan and Muhammad was never serious or formalized. Each man continued to speak respectfully about the other, but Monroe contended in Emerge that Muhammad’s continued diatribes were maybe “deliberately undermining the efforts of Minister Farrakhan to broaden his base” or may in fact have been “attempt[s] to ’sabotage’ Farrakhan’s apparent move toward moderation and his joining with mainstream Black civil rights leaders.”
For his part, Muhammad remained adamantly unapologetic for his remarks or his views. Newsday quoted him in 1994 on the subject of Jews: “Never will I say I am not an anti-Semite,” and on whites: “I don’t have any love for the other side. It’s not in me. I don’t want any integration. I want independence for a nation of my own.” On the other hand, Muhammad expressed nothing but respect and admiration for Farrakhan and would probably have been insulted by the notion that he was trying to undermine his mentor. “Minister Farrakhan is my spiritual father, leader, teacher, and guide,” Muhammad stated in Emerge. “And like any good son, I respect the discipline and judgment of my father, and I am not silly enough to run away from home…I am a soldier and I follow a divine chain of command, and I am going to complete my tour of duty.”
Muhammad’s “tour of duty” took him all across the country for speaking engagements that sometimes paid him as much as #10,000 per appearance. In May of 1994, he was shot in the foot by a former Nation of Islam minister but was not seriously injured. Muhammad was often accompanied to the podium by his son, Farrakhan, who occasionally introduced his father. Although not formally denounced by America’s black leaders, Muhammed was quietly considered something of a pariah who was speaking his own mind and not necessarily representing the views of others.
Muhammad moved to Texas and established the New Black Panther Party and the New Black Muslims. In June of 1998, James Byrd Jr. of Jasper, Texas, reportedly took a ride with three white men, who savagely beat him and tied him to the back of a truck before dragging him to his death. The nation was shocked and appalled. Muhammad led armed members of both of his groups in Jasper, Texas, to protest the murder. “We are here to say that violence and racism and hatred of the white man in America is just as American as apple and cherry pie,” Muhammad told The Associated Press, reprinted at ABCNews.com.
Tried To Incite Riot
Muhammad, along with Malik Zulu Shabazz and Erica Ford, began organizing a Million Youth March in Harlem in 1998. Many other local Black leaders denounced the march, including former U.S. representative Floyd Flake and Congressman Charles Rangel. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called it a “hate march” and refused to grant a permit. Muhammad sued in federal court and won. An appeals court limited the march to six blocks and to four hours.
Muhammad’s speech, which used his usual fiery rhetoric, also included an invitation to riot. According to Insight on the News, Muhammad told the marchers “and if you don’t have a gun, every one of them New York City cops has one gun, two guns, three guns…. In self-defense, if they attack you, take their guns from them and use their guns on them…. Don’t let nobody be arrested.” A few of the 6,000 in attendance attacked police with steel railings, and some pelted the police with stones and bottles. There were two arrests and 15 policemen were injured. Another march was held in 1999, but only a couple hundred people attended.
After giving the keynote speech at the Tubman School in Harlem, Muhammad reportedly had a stroke. It was later confirmed that he had a brain aneurysm. He died in an Atlanta hospital on February 19, 2001.
Muhammad considered himself a man with a mission, a “pit bull dog in your white behind,” to quote him in the Chicago Tribune. He saw no possibility of rapprochement between races as long as society continued to see whites as inherently superior. He felt blacks would be better served in an independent nation of their own. If his views offend people, he stated in the Los Angeles Times, so be it. “If you’re at war, you’re supposed to attack your enemies,” he concluded. “It’s arrogant to tell the aggrieved, to tell the victim, to tell the survivor of the African holocaust how to suffer or how to talk.” Muhammad never compromised his philosophy.