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Outside the Eulipions Cultural Center in Capitol Hill, a mostly black crowd is waiting to hear Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who's in the middle of a ninety-city tour of the United States. The scene out front is like a festival: Candidates for elected office pass out fliers alongside Nation of Islam barkers hawking T-shirts and stray pamphleteers selling other truths.
The men and women waiting to get in are separated into two lines so that they can be frisked--an activity the Nation takes seriously. Then everyone presses into the crowded, two story-room, whose wraparound balcony recalls the stately Southern courtroom from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Inside, Jamal Muhammad, in a smart burgundy suit and bowtie, makes the rounds with a magnetic smile and strong handshake. He appears to know everyone in the place. When Farrakhan emerges half an hour later, Muhammad, the preacher formerly known as Jamal X, the accused bigot who touched off a political firestorm with a speech at a Denver high school in which he accused white people of "eating their dead," takes up a silent post off in the wings. As a lieutenant in Farrakhan's army, this is where he belongs: near his leader.
A week later, though, a different version of Muhammad emerges: a man who has traded in his snazzy Nation of Islam minister's garb for the plain clothes of a book clerk. These days the Nation's onetime point man in Denver is just the latest hire at the Hue-Man Experience book store on Park Avenue West. Taking orders over the phone, helping customers pick out reading material, he is a paragon of politeness.
For the man who was once Jamal Elliot, then Jamal X and now Jamal Muhammad, the contradictions in personas go way back. While he embraced integrationist sentiments during his days as a guitarist in L.A. punk bands like J. and the Strays and the Screaming Cadavers, he also harbored a separatist distrust of the mainstream. And while he talks like an intellectual, quoting freely from literary classics, his fiery speeches are often steeped in raw emotion.
It's been more than a year and a half since Muhammad vaulted into Denver's consciousness with his February 1996 speech at Montbello High School, during which he told students that black people had been building pyramids while whites were living in caves.
More than seventy local newspaper articles were written about him in the following three months, including scathing editorials that questioned why the public schools would grant such a provocateur access to impressionable teenagers. He was widely referred to in the press as a "black leader." Then, just as quickly as he'd showed up, he disappeared. It was even rumored that he'd left town.
But during a recent interview at a restaurant a block away from the Hue-Man Experience, the 37-year-old Muhammad makes it clear that he hasn't gone anywhere. He's given up his leadership gig with the Nation, and his views have been leavened somewhat by the weight of the last two years' experience. But he hasn't softened his outlook on racial politics.
Muhammad feigns a great reluctance to deal with the press. He's not seeking publicity, he says, though he was recently featured on the cover of the Urban Spectrum with his twelve-year-old son. The boy, Kaliq, the product of a ten-year marriage that ended in divorce in 1994, accompanies Muhammad to several recent interviews. He seems to serve as a sort of talisman to ward off negative perceptions that have followed Muhammad since the Montbello appearance. "He watches my back," Muhammad says of his son.
Being "catapulted" into the limelight was a mixed blessing, Muhammad says, his tone switching between one of caustic intellect and one of good-natured humor. "I wasn't seeking it [publicity]," he says. "It's not my mission to go after the media; they come to me."
Yet, still eager to get the Nation's message out, he rarely says no.
Now that the dust has settled from the Montbello speech, the weight of Jamal Muhammad's accomplishments seems far out of proportion to the attention he received.
Just before the Montbello speech and a repeat performance a month later at East High School, Muhammad was involved in a successful community effort to ferret out the killer of three-year-old Casson Evans, who was killed in a 1995 drive-by shooting while he sat in a car seat. A month after that he helped organize a well-attended All Black Men's Conference, a roundtable discussion designed to call black men to "unity and action."
But Muhammad was also part of an embarrassing schism between several Million Man March organizations in Denver. Partly as a result of their infighting, a rally at Mile High Stadium that was supposed to bring in 80,000 people and Farra-khan himself withered to a mere 300 souls at Stapleton Airport and no Farrakhan.
Muhammad, however, says he hasn't claimed to have done great things. "I'm just addressing the issue," he says. "I pricked the consciousness of the city, like you prick a boil and let that stuff ooze out."
Although the Reverend Gill Ford, minister of Salem Baptist Church and a former member of the city's Public Safety Review Commission, doesn't agree with the message of the Nation, he says Muhammad has "tapped into a vein that's a problem across the country for many African-Americans." Many other local black leaders decline to comment at all about Muhammad. "He hasn't hurt the black community," says one activist. "Whether he's helped the black community, that's a consciousness question."