Longform

The X Files

Page 4 of 6

The death of another spiritual mentor, Malcolm X, is one example. Despite his respect for the slain leader, Muhammad seems to gloss over Malcolm's much-publicized split with the Nation in 1964, spurred in part by allegations that its leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, was committing adultery. "That never registered with me," he says. "Getting older and wiser, Malcolm is a history lesson. Don't speak out against your teacher in public. He did it the wrong way. Don't walk away from the man and blast him. Go directly to the man."

Similarly, he finds the notion that Malcolm X was murdered by Nation members--or by Farrakhan himself, as has often been rumored--preposterous. His allegiance to the Nation was reaffirmed in February 1996, shortly after the Montbello speech, when Farrakhan awarded him the name Muhammad, which means "elegant and praiseworthy." Muhammad says he doesn't mind it when people accuse him of being the minister's "mouthpiece." "That's good," he says. "I can't speak for him, but as someone who defends his position, that's good. He's the one blowing, not me."

Farrakhan ordered Muhammad to take over Denver's Mosque 51 in 1994. Given Denver's relatively small black population, a non-confrontational approach was recommended by Nation leaders in the Mile High City. With Muhammad at the helm, though, that policy didn't last long. "When you're a public person dealing with an issue like race," he says, "it's like kicking dirt in someone's eye."

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."

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T.R. Witcher