Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Farrakhan, Khallid Muhammad, find traction in attacks on Jews, media

May 8, 1994 

By Jonathan Tilove

WASHINGTON – Right between his imitation of “old boot-licking, buck-dancing, butt-scratching Jesse Jackson,” which made that night’s TV news, and his words of love and support for accused Long Island Railroad gunman Colin Ferguson, which made the next morning’s tabloid headlines Khallid Abdul Muhammad directed the fury of his frenzied audience in the hot, packed Howard University auditorium at reporters in attendance.

“We’ve got to give these bastards hell, every last one of them!” shouted Muhammad, all glistening menace, as the crowd shook its fists and roared at the reporters, “Go! Go! Go!”

“There’ll come a time,” Muhammad declared at the top of his lungs, “we won’t even allow you to come in the goddamn door!”

It may have been the most disingenuous moment in a long night of extraordinary rhetorical invention and invective hurled at Jews, whites and other blacks that proved yet again that, like his mentor, the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, Khallid Muhammad can simultaneously play to and against the cameras.

Somehow, Farrakhan and Muhammad are setting the tone for the discussion of American race relations in 1994. It is a testament not only to their charismatic appeal and the skillful diatribes against Jews and others, but also their symbiotic relationship with those they say are their greatest enemies – the news media.

As Farrakhan himself lectured reporters to the delight of an adoring “Men Only” audience at the D.C. Armory March 21, “Every time you vilify Farrakhan, he gets stronger and stronger and stronger.”

“So we thank the media,” Farrakhan said with a satisfied smile. “They have been very helpful.”

Indeed, with the media’s help, Farrakhan and Muhammad have the rest of America, black and white, reacting to them, in the process intensifying hard feelings and distrust between the races and insinuating into the public debate “facts” with no foundation in reality.

“The media have always been patsies for demagogues,” says longtime civil rights activist and journalist Roger Wilkins, who now teaches history at George Mason University.

And Wilkins believes the media are especially taken with “the flaring, crazy black person, the exotic.”

The recent controversy swirling around Howard University’s reaction to Muhammad is a case study of how the mottled grays that are the real story of race relations in America are easily supplanted by a story line that is simpler and scarier, by something that is more black and white.

In a speech in Harrisburg in March, Muhammad told a packed crowd of 500 at the Camp Curtin YMCA the Holocaust has been proven to be a lie.

“They claim they lost six million. When you talk to scientists and tour guides at the death camps they say it is a lie,” Muhammad said.

Following his statements, a coalition of 180 people, including Gov. Robert P. Casey and Harrisburg Mayor Stephen R. Reed, signed a statement denouncing Muhammad’s statements.

Last month the state House overwhelmingly voted to condemn Muhammad’s “bigotry, hatred and historical revisionism.”

Twice in recent months, Khallid Muhammad has been the headliner on programs at Howard at which Jews were rhetorically targeted as the special and historic enemy of blacks.

“The Oscars missed it. They shouldn’t have given Tom Hanks the Academy Award for Best Actor. Khallid Muhammad. That’s the man,” said a rueful Adiam Berhane, a Howard senior, two days after Muhammad’s latest appearance on campus.

Berhane, who plans to attend law school in the fall, was sad and angry about what she considers to be Muhammad-and-the-media’s success in making Howard, the most famous black university in the country, look like a backwater of small-minded haters.

“We’re trying to get into this society,” she said. “That’s not what Khallid Muhammad’s about. We wouldn’t be here if we thought like him.”

While perhaps half of the more than 1,000 who attended the first rally, Feb. 23 and, only a small minority of the nearly 2,000 at the second rally, April 20, were in fact Howard students, the events, and their coverage, left a stain on the university’s reputation.

In some ways, the campus community made it easy.

The rallies were sponsored by a small student group, Unity Nation, led by a law student named Malik Zulu Shabazz, who has emerged in the last two months as an angry young celebrity in his own right.

Student government president Terri Wade also lent an official imprimatur to the first rally, delivering some supportive words and even donating student government money to the cause.

Many, probably most students on campus, felt they should not have to stand up and censure other blacks for the benefit of the mainstream media. And there was also that secret, or not-so-secret pleasure, in seeing someone who gets whites, Jews, the media that upset and never has to hedge or apologize even if one does not consider what they say to be even nearly the gospel.

For example, in a poll that accompanied its Farrakhan cover story “Ministry of Rage” Time Magazine found that of those in the black community who knew of Farrakhan, 63 percent felt he spoke the truth and 70 percent felt he was someone who says things the country should hear.

And yet, a poll released about the same time by the National Conference of Christians and Jews found that 73 percent of black respondents a higher percentage than of white respondents favored total integration, an ideal inimical to everything Farrakhan stands for.

In other words, it is possible for someone to admire Farrakhan without swallowing him whole.

And there are further shadings.

Berhane, the Howard senior, for example, respects Farrakhan even as she views Muhammad as a fool.

Farrakhan himself, in February, removed Muhammad as a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam because of the “vile” and “malicious” tone of a speech he made at Kean College in New Jersey late last year, even though Farrakhan stood by the “truths that he spoke” and referred warmly to Muhammad as a “beautiful black stallion.”

Whatever the personal reactions of Howard students to Muhammad, as the campus was bombarded by criticism, there was as much anger toward the media and sometimes individual Jews within it for seeming to lump all Howard students together, as there was discomfort with what Muhammad and others had said and done.

In the end, the national media barrage left an image of Howard in the public mind as a redoubt of black anti-Semitism and resentment.

“I was furious,” says Corey Martin, a graduating senior majoring in finance. “I know from being around here that anti-Semitism is not something people on campus have time for. It’s not as if we sit around thinking, ‘if it wasn’t for the damn Jews I wouldn’t have a calculus exam.’ “

Nonetheless, Howard offers a perfect example of how self-fulfilling such reporting can be, with misunderstanding almost guaranteeing further anger and misunderstanding.

Here is how it worked as Howard’s image spun further out of control

In recent weeks it was reported that an appearance on campus by David Brion Davis, a renowned Yale University scholar of slavery, had been canceled as a consequence of the climate on campus.

Davis is white and a convert to Judaism.

To those already prepared to believe that Howard was open to scapegoating Jews, this latest news had the appearance of confirmation. An image jelled of Howard closing its mind.

But the truth is more complex and illustrates just how self-fulfilling the reportage can be.

It turns out it was Davis, after reading about Khallid Muhammad’s warm reception on campus, who originally told Howard’s associate dean for humanities, Paul Logan, that he did not believe it was the right time to visit.

Logan says he was hurt that Davis, who had visited Howard in the past, was accepting the stereotyping of Howard. He asked Davis to reconsider. Davis ultimately did and said he would come, but by then Logan, having talked to others on campus, said he could not guarantee Davis that he might not encounter some kind of negative reaction on campus. They agreed to postpone the visit to the fall.

Meanwhile, Davis, inundated with media calls, now refers reporters to a Yale spokeswoman, and through her suggests the names of some non-Jewish scholars of slavery who in his stead can discuss the Jewish role in the slave trade, a subject on which he has written.

In effect, Muhammad, through the media, has succeeded in creating new hard feelings on all sides as well as forcing a Jewish scholar to the sidelines of a debate over the Jewish role in the slave trade that the Nation of Islam has made the centerpiece of its historic case against the Jews.

This is particularly significant because, as Russell Adams, chair of Howard’s Afro-American studies program, notes, many seminal scholars of slavery are Jews.

The better able Muhammad and his allies are in silencing the informed academic voices on slavery and impeaching their credibility on the basis of their being white and Jewish the better able they will be in selling their incredible and politicized version unrebutted.

In trying to seize control of the public debate on slavery and refocus it on the role of Jews the key document has been the Nation’s book, “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” which details the Jewish involvement in slave-owning and slave-trading. It has been criticized as thoroughly lacking in historical and demographic context, as essentially transforming historical footnotes into the grand design. Jews were at the time only a fraction of a percent of the U.S. population

But, at the very Feb. 3 press conference at which Farrakhan disciplined Muhammad, Farrakhan, saying that he was citing “The Secret Relationship,” told the Washington press corps, their tape recorders running, that “75 percent of the slaves owned in the South were owned by Jewish slaveholders.”

In fact, the Nation’s book says no such thing.

But, for example, in a Washington Post story two days later, an NAACP spokesman was quoted as saying that while Farrakhan “may have exaggerated the historical fact,” that “is a matter for academics to debate.”

Suddenly, an incredible allegation without any basis in reality was in play in the public debate.

At his most recent Howard appearance, even Khallid Muhammad agreed that the assertion that most of the slaves were owned by Jews was patently ridiculous. But rather than acknowledge that the Nation of Islam had misrepresented the record, he charged that the Nation’s enemies in the Jewish community and the press had deliberately twisted their words to make them look foolish.

“I didn’t say that 75 percent of the slaves were owned by Jews. I said 75 percent of the Jews owned slaves,” Muhammad said at Howard, rhetorically scolding reporters and Jews. “But you put a spin on it, a twist on it to make it seem ridiculous because you’re just a liar and the truth is not in you.”

But, at the same time, Muhammad continued to make the equally incredible assertion that 600 million Africans lost their lives in the slave trade.

It is a figure that appears designed to prove Farrakhan to be mathematically precise when he asserts that the “Holocaust of the black people was 100 times worse than the Holocaust of the Jews.”

But according to Peter Kolchin, a leading historian of slavery at the University of Delaware, the academic consensus is that some 10 million to 11 million Africans were brought across the Atlantic as slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries, and that perhaps another 3 million to 4 million died in Africa or in the middle passage.

Of the slaves successfully imported, Kolchin says, about 600,000 to 650,000 were brought to the United States.

Adams, who teaches comparative slavery at Howard, says he has not found any of his students tempted by Muhammad’s alternative history. The real history, he says, is tragic enough.

To one such student, Quanda Allen, a freshman from Atlanta, it is unseemly to try to rate the relative horrors of the black and Jewish holocausts, like two people comparing who hurt worse when their mothers died.

But Allen says she is also troubled that so many people beyond the Howard campus would believe that her fellow students would so easily indulge in such a twisted exercise.

“No one would make such absurd assumptions about us if this were a white university,” she says.

Written by jonathantilove

July 25, 2022 at 7:16 pm

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