The After Malcolm: Islam and the Black Freedom Struggle project is a unique digital archive initiative housed at Georgia State University in Atlanta. By documenting and digitizing a range papers, records, audio and visual material, and oral histories, the project aims to increase the awareness of the role of Islam in the Black freedom struggle. We have invited the principal investigators, Professors Abbas Barzegar (Georgia State University) and Mansa Bilal Mark King (Morehouse College) to discuss the project with us. Thank you both very much for joining us.
Lindsey Stephenson (LS): The project aims to “recapture and preserve the forgotten legacy of African American Muslims.” Is there a time when African American Muslims were given due credit for their participation in the Black Freedom Struggle?
Bilal Mark King (BK): Yes, yes there was. I think that period, and you see it even in academic works, but it is certainly well preserved in media, the period in the late 50s and especially in the 1960s, probably peaking with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, during that period there was pretty widespread recognition that African American Muslims were central to the Black Freedom Struggle actively. And not always conflated with civil rights. Today I hear people talking about civil rights, but I think there is a big distinction in that the civil rights movement is a part of the black freedom struggle. Muslims were often much more associated with the Black Power movement and Black Nationalism.
LS: Can you elaborate on what you think has caused the forgetting or diminishing of their involvement?
Abbas Barzegar (AB): I think it is a conflation of various forces but one of them is clearly linked to the demonization of Islam in American popular culture and the idea that Islam has to necessarily be something foreign, something other. So although African American Muslims are a vital fabric of American society, the “otherness” of Islam, even before 9/11 but especially now afterwards has sort of made this an impossible idea; that Islam is a part of American history and that the indigenous African American movement and movements are really a part of this nation’s history. It becomes a kind of psychological impossibility of sorts.
LS: With that can we return to the question of distinguishing between the Black Freedom Struggle and the Civil Rights Movement?
BK: So the Civil Rights Movement you could say starts activities laying the groundwork in the early 1900s in NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) form and begins efforts to literally gain recognition. And the right to citizenship for African Americans in this country becomes more and more the focus of organizations and activities.
But when you talk about Black Power and Black Nationalism you begin to find the roots of those really beginning during slavery. A lot of people will look at slave rebellions as the precursors to modern Black Nationalism. The term Black Power was actually popularized by Stokely Carmichael (it had been coined earlier, though, and I do not know the exact first usage of the phrase). After he used it during a 1966 speech in Meredith, Mississippi, the crowd was electrified and the popularity of the phrase grew rapidly. Later, after a name change to Kwame Toure, and with his comrade Charles Hamilton, he would publish the book entitled Black Power. The activities associated with this term combined political agitation with less a concern to get the government to acknowledge our rights as they are already legally written, if you will, than demanding that people respect our rights as we define them. In some ways that is still the goal.
There is a kind of natural extension of the Black Power Movement/Black Nationalist movement towards Pan-Africanism or third-world solidarity, a global perspective. The perspective becomes global much more easily and naturally, versus the civil rights movement and its narrative and discourse. It takes a little more work. It can still be done, but it then becomes especially about how every country should offer the same rights and then every citizenry should have their rights civilly recognized. But it becomes a little more difficult to do it and it also gets caught up in the issues of looking at a global picture of talking about multiculturalism and allowing people’s cultural history and their own trajectories to be acknowledged in law and how they live. Then you run into this issue of trying to make people live as they do in the United States and Europe.
AB: If I could add a quick note, I think that civil rights frameworks in the United States have always been a legal conversation about citizenship within a particular nation state. On the other hand, communitarian ideologies, whether it be Pan-Africanism or the Black Power movement or other kinds of nationalisms and ethnic solidarity that you will find forming without the twentieth century, those are not legal ideologies. They are not concerned with law as much as they are concerned with a larger almost metaphysical project about who we are in this world as a community, and as a community in history.
And I think that the African American Muslim project really strikes at that nerve in that it exceeds civil rights and it makes recourse to a much larger transcendental, even metaphysical, an overtly theological calling. The Civil Rights Movement relied upon a lot of that rhetoric as well, especially in the work of theologians like Dr. King. However the Islamic project went even further than the legal framework provided by the constitution of the United States.
BK: That was a very important point.
LS: So is the project trying to create a portrait of African American Muslims as they were involved politically, or is it more general than that?
AB: It is very important to realize that this project has many educational outlets and cultural products that are available for teaching and remembering this past. However, as a research project, first and foremost what it is concerned with is trying to explain “how is it that if you were to land in the United States in the early 1960s in the African American community and you were to say the word ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslim’, the only game in town so to speak would be the Nation of Islam. However, exactly thirty years later if you were to do the same thing in the same communities, the Nation of Islam would be simply one small piece of a myriad of different African American Muslim expressions. So the period between 1970 and lets say the late 80s, we identify as a very significant transition period for the flowering of African American Muslim cultures.
We have some estimates that say we have around three million African American Muslims in this country. It is very hard to get an accurate number, but the fact is that African American Muslims now represent every strand of Islamic thought there is. It is not one organization. It is not one cultural movement. Instead it is fully weaved into a global Islamic culture and legacy. So how did that happen? That really is what the project today is answering. It is interviewing elders, folks that are in their 70s and 80s, people who can speak about those years and can provide documentary evidence of what has transpired in the 70s and 80s.
BK: In sociology we say that, “the personal is political.” There is this understanding that there are so many seemingly mundane things that have political repercussions. We are allowing for the broader inclusive perspective. For example, we interview people who are doing independent schooling. The Nation of Islam is well known for building its groups but there are other African American self-education efforts. Those may not seem overtly political, but in our project it makes sense to talk about the political ramifications of that. When you talk about Black Freedom, you find a lot of activists, really everyday lay people who recognize that freeing the mind is an important part of freeing the body. There are certainly people involved in the food security movement, a lot of Muslims in Atlanta today are involved in that, recognizing that it is very relevant to freedom: the pursuit of freeing oneself from control of other people or multinational corporations.
LS: What does it mean to be after Malcolm?
AB: That is precisely it. When one thinks of African American Islam, the imagination only goes towards Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. However, we show that the story is much larger than that. What happens exactly after Malcolm? Frankly a lot of research has been done and continues to be done on the Nation of Islam itself, on Malcolm X’s life and legacy and that is a very rich research landscape. I do not make any pretentions to enter into that area. It is very vibrant and dynamic, but we are concerned precisely what happens after Malcolm chronologically and before 9/11. Those things are important to me for the foundation of American Islam as we know it today.
BK: I would add that it is chronological but also we know that there were African American Muslims groups, besides the Nation of Islam, that started operating at essentially the same time as the Nation of Islam. In fact, the Moorish Science Temple precedes the Nation of Islam by over a decade. But these groups were never the focus of attention. So Malcolm and the Nation of Islam were really the focus. In this post-1965 period, we begin to see attention going beyond the Nation of Islam. So that is also part of what we are talking about when we talk about “after Malcolm”–the acknowledgement of these other African American Muslim groups.
LS: You have begun the project in Atlanta, where you are both based. We all know that Atlanta is the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy there runs deep. What was Malcolm X’s relationship to Atlanta?
AB: Well Malcolm X himself only visited Atlanta once, as far as we know. It was in relationship to a visit that Elijah Muhammad was making. What is more important is what Malcolm’s legacy represents in Atlanta. Atlanta is an epicenter of civil rights and the American civil rights narrative, and Malcolm X’s legacy disrupts that simple narrative because it offers an alternative reading of America. So the African American Muslim community here in Atlanta has been a vibrant part of a different kind of conversation about civil rights. And they have always been at the center of a larger conversation about Black Freedom, but if you talk to the elders as many of our oral histories reveal now, they personally feel that that narrative that has been promoted has left them out deliberately.
In the 1970s when Maynard Jackson becomes the first black mayor of Atlanta and Atlanta seemed, ironically in this sense the “Black Mecca.” It becomes something of a center for Black cultural revival. African American Muslims from around the country in that period begin to move to Atlanta. So what we find is people and actors who were essential to the larger history of African American Islam, those networks and families moving to and residing in Atlanta. This is a very nice way to paint a local, national and global history through the lives of the families and individuals that are here.
BK: To add to that, when you look beyond Malcolm within the Nation of Islam it is interesting that after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, when his son WD Muhammad takes over, the community that seems to be the jewel of the belt of the Nation of Islam network is Atlanta. I listened to leaders from the community and students of WD Muhammad from different parts of America say, “We look at Atlanta as a model.” People look at Atlanta as a way to go forward and do good things. So it is interesting that when you look at the whole country, Atlanta has this place. And that is something that does not show up in the history books.
AB: So to ensure that this is not a conversation about some organizations on the margins of the civil rights discussions, it is important to understand that these individuals and these family networks these groups that were active in the 60s and 70s that may seem in retrospect to have been radical or strident in their politics, these groups have been fully integrated into the social and cultural life of metropolitan areas around the country and in Atlanta in particular. You find these groups and individuals entering their school board, working on levels of culture, local politics, state politics and you see them fully integrated into the civil life in the United States. In that sense, the integration of these otherwise polarized groups, that story is a really important American story of how society keeps going on and people who have different strategies end up having the same goals and working towards them over a lifetime.
LS: Is there an Atlanta-specific story to be told?
AB: I think one of the most poignant examples is that in 1961 Elijah Muhammad visits Atlanta and it nearly causes chaos in the city. The KKK is rallying, no hotel in the city wants to host Mr. Muhammad, and it becomes obviously something that the entire city and the state is concerned with. It is ironic because its Elijah Muhammad’s home–he comes from Georgia. And then thirty years later exactly, his son delivers an opening address to the state legislature. How is it in the course of thirty years that not only has an organization changed and a cultural group changed its tactics and rhetoric, but how has a society changed to accept that as well? To me, that whole movement represents the story of After Malcolm. There is a rich legacy we can actually learn from this at a time when society in the United States is polarized along political, religious and cultural lines.
BK: Again there are untold stories from around that time about African American Muslims in higher education. It is like a blank slate. We were just interviewing people and it started to come out that “this person was a Morehouse, that person was at Morehouse, this person was at Clark-Atlanta University.” So with the Atlanta University Center being here, I think it will mirror the story of some other leading black colleges around the country. And that will raise questions about “well what were the parallels and differences with folks who were at predominately white institutions at the same time?” And then it will be an interesting thing to follow, how their experiences and activities change from the 1970s to the late eightees, early ninetees.
LS: How receptive has the community in Atlanta been to the project? Do you have an estimate of the breakdown of the different kinds of materials you have collected?
AB: As far as the oral histories side is concerned, we spent the first year coordinating with individuals that we were close to, and in that sense the community has been essential. This project would not work if it was not for complete cooperation from various levels of community institutions and individuals. We are completely beholden to that element of cooperation. I have to say that a lot of people have tried to do similar kinds of work, and ours is only successful because of that relationship.
We have collected about twenty oral histories in the past year. Now we have begun hosting “tell your story” days at local centers every month. So this weekend we will collect about six recordings and every month we will be collecting them. We also have people in other cities that would like to participate. We anticipate collecting about ten interviews a month for the rest of the year if we continue at the current momentum. We also have people donating photos, original documents, newspapers and pamphlets from various organizations.
LS: I understand that you have probably not gone through all of the material, but has there been a particularly interesting story that has been unearthed by this project?
AB: There is an organization that is mentioned on every history book on Islam in America but little is known about it. It is called the Islamic Party of North America. It was established in the very early 1970s. It was active around the area of Howard University in Washington DC. The nexus of individuals who were involved in that organization end up being very important people in the American Muslim community today. That organization’s newspapers have been donated to the digital archives, and as far was we know, that is the only complete run of the organization’s publications. What is interesting is that organization was also involved in Black Power movements here in the United States, but its members also were able to set up chapters throughout the Caribbean and have relationships with some of the most prominent Muslim intellectuals in the twentieth century in Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran. That is one of the gems that has come out.
BK: Something else that is more forward looking and is a part of contemporary history, is the elaboration of relationships between what I will call the “old” African American community or the “racialized” African American community and the “new” African American community which is the more ethnically diverse immigrant communities from Africa. There is an unfolding story there. The study of ethnic diversity within the African American population is very recent. To get into the nuances of talking about ethnicity and religious differences and the building of relationships, that is an interesting story because there is a differentiation going on but there are inter-linkages and new relationships at the same time. This obviously has ramifications on a larger scale and gives something of a new definition to Pan-African relationships.
LS: I can see that you are both really interested in the networks and how the Atlanta community is connected to the rest of the country and the world. While it is clear that you are not limiting yourself to Atlanta-based material, do you envision expanding the focus of project to other cities? Where would you like to go next?
BK: It is just a question of resources!
AB: We are actually opening a relationship with colleagues in Chicago now. Our oral history director, Zaynab Ansari will be in Chicago this month interviewing some individuals there and developing a relationship there with various colleagues from both institutions of higher education and some community-based organizations. Chicago seems to be naturally opening up and the relationship between the Chicago and Midwest community and Atlanta is a very organic one as well.
Chicago will be somewhere that we visit and will try to conduct a “tell your story” weekend probably in the summer. But really it is not about us owning this project in any way, but what can we do as far as institutional collaboration and resource sharing. There are a lot of people already doing this sort of work. And that is why this has gained so much momentum. We try to provide simply a platform to organize and arrange this material in a central location for educators and researchers.
LS: I want to ask you both to think big here for a second. If funding was not an issue, what else would you do with this project?
BK: I could see this following those networks and the interplay on a global scale. Not long ago I found out that there were African American Muslim children studying in Senegal in schools for African American Muslim children. Just this past weekend I found out that the annual report of Atlanta Masjid Al-Islam that the community has been invited to open a school in Bangladesh. And they are planning to open it this month if political events remain stable. So this story is really global.
AB: I would hope to replicate our working model, because I believe we have built something solid. I would like to do run community-based model in a number of different metropolitan areas throughout the country. I would try very quickly to interview as many people as possibly because frankly people are passing away and the history is passing away with them. The second you start to engage them in their own histories, photographs, newspapers and material items becomes easy to collect. If I could take a year off and hire a staff, this is what I would do
BK: If resources were not an issue, and Abbas would agree with me, we would be able to duly pay people for their participation and donations. There are some people who have tremendous resources and you do not want to pass them by without somehow compensating them.
AB: One thing that we are doing is producing a small documentary and we hope to be able to produce a proper documentary suitable for national screening. Within the next six months we will have a mini documentary of twenty-five minutes that covers what we have done so far and will be screened in Atlanta.
LS: Finally, what kind of an impact do you want After Malcolm to have and where?
BK: My immediate response is that discourse on Islam in America should shift from this emphasis on Muslims as “scary”, as a “threat”, as “culturally backwards” to the work that Muslims have done to help make America a better version of itself.
AB: I am extremely invested in engaging with mainstream audiences in the United States and mainstream media and discourses. Especially towards the end of President Obama’s legacy as the first African American president and as we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we would hope that this project intervenes in a national conversation about what it means to reconcile radical differences. We have extreme polarity and extreme social discord and I think that understanding the human faces behind the history of a fractured past and how that has reconciled itself over the course of a generation can provide roadmaps for us to think about how we get past our own cultural divides and social divides that we face in the country today.
LS: Thank you both for your time. We are excited about your project and looking forward to seeing where it takes you.
After Malcolm Project Video