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A Call to Let Go of Hatred

COLUMN ONE

The Nation of Islam's Tony Muhammad talks of healing and reaches out to law enforcement as he reshapes the group's image in L.A.

February 13, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Farrakhan, at a speech in Los Angeles 18 months ago, said his near-fatal bout of prostate cancer had added further impetus to seek healing not only for blacks but all people.

At least in Los Angeles, Nation members no longer overtly call for a separatist state, although that demand remains in their national newspaper, Final Call. Muhammad said a separatist state was only desired if America remained intolerably unjust but, because of improvements, "We can coexist."

The Nation now has Latino members--such as Albert X., 25, who said he never even knew the organization was mostly black, because it was portrayed as a movement of unity, discipline and social justice by the African American friend who brought him in. Some practices remain overtly racist: Whites are still barred from attending the Nation's Sunday services, although Muhammad said they will eventually be admitted after blacks overcome their lingering, deep-seated feelings of inferiority.

Despite such practices, Muhammad manages to disarm outsiders with deference, Southern charm and an ability to talk gangspeak one moment and high finance the next. He asks longtime social activists how he can serve and support their community work, calls gang leaders "giants" and "heads of state," respects elders with "yes sirs" and "no ma'ams." He tells prisoners that "the white man is not your greatest enemy. Your greatest enemy is sitting on top of your neck, and that's ignorance."

Getting Involved in Local Politics

Under his leadership, Nation members who once rejected the U.S. electoral system as corrupt and racist are now walking precincts for local candidates. Last year, they turned out more than 140 volunteers for San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. They provided similar help to Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa--rejecting, like many younger African Americans, the traditional black support for then-City Atty. James K. Hahn and his legendary father, the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

During one campaign day last fall, for instance, Muhammad and Villaraigosa gave each other the thumb's up before the minister headed out to troll for votes. At a barber shop on Crenshaw Boulevard, Muhammad told voters that Villaraigosa had championed the poor and worked to improve family health care while Hahn had flopped trying to fight street crime with injunctions against gang members.

Muhammad himself ran--and, without campaigning, nearly won--a seat as a delegate to the last Democratic National Convention, initially urged on by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

In a demonstration of their new mainstream political strength, Muhammad's troops managed to beat back a recent effort by the Anti-Defamation League to overturn the Los Angeles City Council's waiver of the $30,000 Convention Center fee for the Nation of Islam.

The Nation of Islam was historically insular, separatist and overtly hostile to outsiders. Today, when community volunteer Cynthia "Sister" Mendenhall needs to feed someone, Muhammad brings by fish and vegetables. When she needs security at a funeral or football game, Muhammad sends his Fruit of Islam forces.

"Every time I call him, he comes," said Mendenhall, a black Christian who said she had no relations with the Nation of Islam before Muhammad arrived and was taught growing up not to socialize with its members.

Nation members are finally reconciling with followers of Imam W.D. Muhammad, son of the founder of the Black Muslims, Elijah Muhammad. After Elijah Muhammad's death in 1975, the son rejected the movement's belief that his father's teacher, W. Fard Muhammad, was the messiah and moved the organization into mainstream Sunni Islam. Farrakhan broke away and reestablished the Nation of Islam with its original beliefs in Los Angeles in 1977: This week's convention will mark the 25th anniversary of that event.

The two Muslim leaders publicly reconciled two years ago. Although they have not bridged their theological differences, Imam Muhammad will lead the convention's Friday prayer. The two movements have cooperated on prison ministry efforts and took a joint tour through seven state prisons last year. At Solano prison in Vacaville, for instance, Tony Muhammad urged the mostly black inmates at his meeting to reconcile with their brown brothers, join the peace movement breaking out among gangs and hit the books for a better future.

Reaching Out to Other Communities

Muhammad has also forged ties beyond the black community. He has participated in sweat lodges with Native Americans. He has celebrated Cinco de Mayo with Latinos and the Lunar New Year with Chinese. He said, "I love a lot of young whites" he meets because they feel remorse for the sins of their fathers against blacks.

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