[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal, Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai. The initial question posed to the roundtable participants was: African American Muslims have been involved in the black freedom struggle for over a century, however their participation is often overlooked or generalized. How have they engaged with some of the important questions of the movement such as: the extent to which the black freedom struggle was a national or an international one; whether the struggle is ultimately about civil or human rights; and the means by which freedom was to be achieved? Is religion in fact a relevant cleavage within the black freedom struggle? Have African American Muslims represented a unified block? Finally, what African American Muslim experiences contribute to the ongoing debate about civil rights and human rights in the United States and abroad?]
I think that the question needs some reframing. The African American struggle for freedom continues and thus, while the Civil Rights Era is continuously singled out as the only event by which all others are to be measured, it was a movement of limited and sometimes recoil effects. Since this era is definitely not a post-racial society and is one that has regressed, the struggle continues or perhaps has been abandoned. Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Movement was definitely, at its heart, an accommodationist model of social reform. It sought to get whites to accommodate blacks in some social and political arenas – persuade the man who can kill you on a whim to let you eat next to him in a diner. This reeks of a power play, which permits the perpetrator of violence to remain firmly in control and outside of the borders of justice. It also fits nicely into another theme, that of America’s story of self-redemption and self-reform against the odds.
Since the first slave ship left the shores of West Africa, Muslims and others committed suicide in order to not be enslaved. Others found themselves engaged in life long struggles for freedom. Black assistance in back to Africa movements in numbers demonstrated that freedom was thought of as something that could only be found at home in the motherland. Slaves who refused plantation life founded life underground as maroons with the help of those enslaved, preferable with the freedom it conferred. By the 19th century, these strategies were joined by ‘self-help’ stratagems, the most famous of which are the fraternal twin thoughts of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Back to Africa notions continued for over two hundred years and made the history books with the biographies of Marcus Garvey. At the turn of the 20th century, White America dealt deathblows to black self-help programs on large scales with the burning of Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921) and Rosewood, Florida (1923). Not yet finished, the idea of self-help whether to be accepted by whites or more reasonably to get a taste of the American Dream, did then and does now command favor in the black community.
African American Muslim leaders such as Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Wali Akram, Daoud Faisal, Nasir Ahmed, all had financial schemes for family and communal savings (banks did not serve blacks) and community co-ops for foods and other goods in their communities to facilitate the notion of self-help. Later in the 20th century, though self-help was not abandoned, it was assisted by protection as the Deacons of Defense and the Black Panther Party added their voices and guns to the picture. As Fannie Lou Hammer famously asserted, ‘you can pray until you faint but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.’
Degrees of participation in and thoughts about the Civil Rights era are divided. Some, of course older, Muslims participated in the Civil Rights Movement in its major venue under Martin Luther King as college students and have since raised their children to believe in the ‘Dream.’ Others joined a Civil Rights Movement offshoot, SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) which under the guidance of Ella Baker was more about getting black people the political rights they were entitled to, such as voting rights. Still others, more international in outlook, saw and continue to see, the oppression and repression of people of color around the world in the socialist sense as an imperialist, capitalist venture. For them the freedom struggle could not and will not achieve any success unless there is an assessment of the academic, economic, social and political contributors around the world. Some others were attracted to various streams of thought mentioned at various times or made a soup of all to suit what they thought they could underwrite. Lastly, many, if not most went about just surviving.
Any struggle must be a reciprocal struggle. Just as this prompt speaks of a black freedom struggle, where is the white struggle to freedom and how has that struggle been framed? Civil Rights leadership has always been, for the benefit of commemoration, male and this is a real problem since some of women are rarely mentioned such as Fannie Lou Hammer, Eslanda Robeson and Ella Baker. Additionally, leaders such as Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael or Charles V. Hamilton are neglected because of the ‘radical’ challenges they presented for change.
African American Muslims thought that they could both embrace change and make that change a model for communities. Various quietist influences from the Muslim world caused a veritable silence from those whose voices had been loud and clear. Prior to these influences, Muslims who were activists were activists who were Muslim. Blackness was the controlling factor. Being religious, as Muslims did not carry an ethical weight beyond what they could not participate in such as parties or conferences with alcohol, drugs or pork products as entrees. At the same time, some Muslims continued with food programs, teaching literacy and about surveillance issues but found their co-religionists disdainful and they then largely disconnected with the black community for a while. I think many have recently reconnected with their activist roots as they engage on an international level in human rights forums.
Most African American Muslims have found their co-religionist focused on the trappings of class and improving their status by whatever means with ethnic intensives on their ‘homelands’. The issues of civil rights in the Muslim community are limited to discriminations mainly of immigrant Muslims under the umbrella of Islamophobia, not the concerns of civil rights for Americans of color. This is definitely a result of the onslaught against immigrant Muslims and their children. All immigrant groups have had to ‘seat themselves’ in this society first before they can really take on societal issues beyond those that are centered on them. African Americans had hoped to find a ‘color-blind’ Muslim community acting as a model for the whole society regarding issues of race and class.
Needless to say, the Civil Rights Movement just like the anti-apartheid movements have become over-arching symbols for strategies and rhetoric for many social and political movements across the world. Putting women and children in front of white police with dogs is captivating as is nonviolence in the face of brutal unrelenting violence. As one scholar put it, ‘tell them it does not work. They have to hate you, in order to exist.’
These responses to questions asked are quite insightful and indeed provocative. There has always been the question of why Martin and not Malcolm as representative of black leadership. One answer is clearly in resources. Malcolm had few to none. Most Muslims as we know did not want any association with him and quite a few hold that position today.
I continue to be perplexed by the concept of ‘radical’ as a description applied to black leaders who recognize their humanity and act on it. Perhaps that is radical in America! But not in Malcolm’s and many other’s lives. We have not discussed his spiritual understandings as a framework for his activism. Perhaps the various lenses used in these responses will change the way Malcolm is viewed in his annual appearance.
Malcolm’s legacy has only been superficially researched. Most young people know the name but are not sure what he did while they can recite the many achievements of Martin because it is taught and memorialized in video. The number of texts around the theme of protest in Malcolm’s life continues to grow.
I love the placement of the black freedom struggles, on the global stage with other Islamic political (and spiritual) movements and within the framework of an alternative universal humanism. This is where it should be rather than limited to just black protest with radicalism as its main feature.
[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal,Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai.]