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Muhammad got his first taste of publicity in 1995, when black students at the University of Colorado at Boulder held protests asking the school to bring in controversial Muslim speaker Khallid Muhammad, who was on the so-called "Goddamn White Man's Tour."
"They asked me to come be a part of the community, even though Khallid's position with the Nation was strained," Jamal says. "But we still supported him."
Jamal says he and others met with CU officials, who were prepared to okay the visit but backed down when Khallid Muhammad demanded $5,000. "They said they wouldn't pay $5,000 to let a racist bigot spew hatred," he recalls.
The reaction from the Nation's new spokesman made it clear the group was abandoning its low profile in Denver. "Welcome to the 21st century, white America," Muhammad was quoted as saying. It was a mere prelude to his speech at Montbello High School, which came fourteen months later.
He had been asked by principal Ida Jones to give a talk to the boys at the school, Muhammad says, because there had been instances of boys pulling up the skirts of girls, pinching them and calling them "ho's." "I was gonna talk a little rough," he admits. There were a few girls in the auditorium when he showed up, he remembers. He asked them to leave.
Then he gave his listeners the Nation's unique take on history:
"When black people in Africa were building pyramids, the Greeks were [fighting each other] all over Greece. The Romans, killing each other. And German tribes, and the British tribes, and Anglo tribes, were killing each other all over Europe. Cannibalism was practiced in Europe. They lived in caves while black people were building pyramids. We're not knocking white folks, but that's part of their history."
While the racial history lesson got most of the media coverage, the speech also encouraged black youth to get their priorities straight. "I'm tired of hearing brothers talking about basketball," Muhammad told the students. "Black people don't get respect for that. We have put sports above the intellectual pursuits. Teachers should get paid more than Michael Jordan. What is Michael Jordan teaching you?"
Few people realized that Muhammad had been making similar presentations for months at local high schools and colleges. At Montbello, though, he ran into a teacher who wouldn't stand for it.
"Jamal Muhammad was being Jamal Muhammad," recalls Alan Chimento, the social-studies teacher who blew the whistle by complaining to the American Civil Liberties Union. "He was pretty much proselytizing at times to the students," Chimento says. "Some of the things I thought could be construed as anti-white."
In retrospect, Muhammad claims the whole thing was blown out of proportion. "White Denver overreacted and then said, 'He's a media hound,'" he claims. "I didn't go there to bash whites. I can be very hard, merciless, caustic, but I was not. I was stern, but respectful to whites and Mexicans there. Whites lived in caves just like we lived in a backward state. We can come up and do the same thing and become world leaders."
Controversy erupted again a month later when Muhammad sought permission to give another speech, this time to a crowd of both boys and girls, at East High School. Several school-board officials were against it, but the board finally okayed the presentation.
The East High speech was less incendiary, though Muhammad still got his jibes in. "I ain't got no apologies until you apologize for putting my people in slavery," he was quoted as saying.
Though some black leaders came to his defense, the white-hot media glare following the speeches did little to help the Nation's cause. At the same time, his efforts to organize a Million Man March rally in Denver, aided by city neighborhood-watch coordinator Alvertis Simmons, were undermined by infighting among various black organizations. Though Jeff X, a local Muslim businessman who runs an art store called the Black Market, was credited with putting together the coalition that went to Farrakhan's march in Washington, D.C., Simmons broke off prior to the Denver rally and formed his own group. Muhammad allied himself with Simmons, and the apparent outcome was that the two organizations canceled each other out.
"Brother Jamal and I, our relationship had become fractured due to the lack of experience on both our parts," says Jeff X. "The energy created after the Million Man March was so intense, people didn't have the experience to harness that kind of energy. Mistakes were made. Issues that affected us as a people--jealousy, greed, people doubting each other's motives--came up."
But both Muhammad and Jeff X say the bickering is in the past. At a rally last week for Farrakhan's latest cause--a "Day of Atonement" during which he asked black people to stay home from work--leaders from all of Denver's Million Man March organizations stood on the podium together, and Muhammad delivered an almost self-consciously mild speech.
"I'm not here to teach or preach," he told the crowd of about sixty people. "I'm just here to bear witness that we need to atone. I'm not gonna say anything controversial. I'm not gonna blast anyone today."