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Forward Looking March

Nation of Islam tries to broaden its appeal, and the local minister is on the bus

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Crowded into a small room in the huge brick mosque on South Avenue in Wilkinsburg is a group of 50 -- men seated on one side, women on the other. They are mostly Nation of Islam members, but on this July day they are joined by community leaders such as William Anderson, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Young Democrats, and local spoken word artist Ezra.

 

 

Among the youngest in the group is Jasiri X, 32, the presiding minister of Muhammad Mosque #22, the only Nation of Islam mosque in southwest Pennsylvania. Except for a small tuft of hair above his lip, the manila-complexioned X could easily pass for a late teenager. His mission is to bring people to his minister, Louis Farrakhan, leader of this mid-20th century adaptation of Islam centered on black nationalistic thought. 

 

On a 27" television perched above a computer, Farrakhan delivers a speech live via Webcast. He's addressing concerns about the upcoming Millions More Movement, a 10th anniversary re-convening of the Million Man March in Washington D.C. Any suspicions about whether Farrakhan still has the same coarse discourse that made him infamous in the '80s are confirmed -- but his harshest words aren't about whites, Jews or gays. Farrakhan's harshest words are for black people.

 

"If your spirit is in rebellion to the will of God then you are a made devil," he shouts, pointing at the congregants in his Chicago mosque. Although that references a Koran passage, metaphorically Farrakhan is speaking about those who've questioned his call for another MMM.

 

X isn't around for much of Farrakhan's speech. Instead, he's tending to other mosque business. But as the newest face of NOI leadership in this region, he knows the challenges he'll face in mobilizing for a march that attempts to rally black men, Muslims and groups who were previously excluded. The 40th anniversary of the Martin Luther King-led March on Washington two years ago drew disappointing numbers, as did other Million March efforts the NOI has attempted in the last decade. An increasingly cynical black populace questions the value of the 1995 MMM, and of marches in general.

 

Still, says X, the movement is needed. "Our youth understand the power of unity," he says. "They're getting together in what's called gangs." 

X worked at the East Liberty "E-Fest" on July 9 as one of the more respected hip-hop acts on the billing. After his performance, a dozen middle-school-aged kids with blue and red bandanas faced off. It looked like a riot was about to break out until police intervened, ultimately shutting down the entire festival. X wishes the intervention would've come from a different source.

 

"There wasn't enough of us there as concerned black men," says X, the shadow of his gray wool cap covering his eyes. "There were just three of us on hand."

"Us" are X's brethren from the Nation of Islam. But as the kind of racial discrimination that triggered Black Nationalism has become more covert, so too has the "whites are devils" messages that once emanated from NOI. The NOI still concentrates its rallying efforts on black communities. However, they've recently begun opening doors to others to participate in the Millions More Movement, scheduled for October 14-16, in Washington D.C.

"It's not just blacks this time," says X. "It's also Latinos, Arabs, Asians and even poor whites who've been oppressed."

 

 

Joe Smith didn't attend the Million Man March in 1995. While Farrakhan was giving a blunt speech on how black men needed to get it together, Smith was at his apartment getting together with a blunt. He was a student at the University of Pittsburgh, preparing to drop out -- more concerned with the ladies on campus than with marching alongside a bunch of men.

 

Three years later, the Nation of Islam drew him in with its message of responsibility and service to the hardest-put segments of the black community. He dropped his "government name" and became Jasiri X (the "X" symbolizes an unknown lineage). His parents were not Muslim, nor even religious, says X. 

A lot has changed since 1995, however, including the public profile of the NOI. The highly disciplined organization was noted in the '80s and the '90s for confronting black crime where it was most prevalent: the ghetto. Since the millennium, however, the NOI's visibility has shrunk, especially in Pittsburgh: Today, X can't even tell you how many members they have.

The Million Man March was called amidst rising crime in black communities. According to the Justice Department, there were 31.6 per 100,000 African American victims of homicide in 1995 nationally, which was lower than 1991's record 39.3 per 100,000, but still astronomically higher than the '95 rate for Hispanics (15 per 100,000) or whites (4.8 per 100,000). In nearly 44 percent of black homicides, the killer was black as well. Farrakhan called the MMM a "Day of Atonement" for black men.

Many of those murders came as gang violence reached its apex during the mid-'90s, but as the new millennium approached, numbers for homicide and violent crime declined. In recent years, however, some of those numbers have begun to rise again. The number of black male juveniles and adults arrested for murder and non-negligent manslaughter in Pittsburgh has climbed from 24 in 2000 to 64 in 2004.

With smaller numbers than years past to deal with such problems, it's clear that the local NOI will need more strength than it can muster on its own. "We've come to the conclusion that no one organization has all the answers," says X. 

 

"I've always appreciated the NOI's grassroots approach to enhancing the quality of life for black communities," says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University in North Carolina. "But at this moment we are really in need of more sophisticated organizational and institution-building, and I'm not convinced that the NOI can do that on a national scale. That is one of the lasting criticisms of the 1995 march -- when all of the feel-good energy was gone, the NOI could not really develop the political and cultural infrastructure to transform that energy into a sustained political movement."

 

Other critiques have been sharper. Prominent black historian John Henrike Clarke denounced the MMM as "showbiz politics." Norman Kelly writes in his book The Head Negro in Charge Syndrome that "the Million Man March, actually a rally, represented a shift away from results-oriented politics. ... What has Farrakhan done with his HNICship since that day in Washington? ... [H]e has done nothing."

 

"I think that's a valid criticism," says Khalid Raheem, a local black Muslim who was one of the chief organizers of the '95 MMM. "On a local level we went back to our cities and came up with programs that were reflective of the manifestos we agreed upon, ... but on a national level there was a lack of firm programmatic development."

 

Raheem had already been active in black, gang-afflicted Pittsburgh communities before attending the '95 march. He helped form the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice, which had its original chapter in Pittsburgh, and he was part of a delegation that attended the National Gang Peace Summit in Kansas City where truces were drawn between Bloods and Crips. He is one of a few local black men who came back from the '95 march to create institutions that would address the growing problems in their communities. Others include Rashaad Byrdsong, who heads the Community Empowerment Association, a social services agency in Homewood, and Richard Garland, who heads anti-violence initiatives for Allegheny County.

 

The biggest surprise about this year's Millions More Movement comes is its invitation for homosexuals to participate. In black gay columnist Keith Boykin's article, "The Day I Hugged Louis Farrakhan," he recalls thanking the minister for this move. Farrakhan responded with "a long, warm embrace," Boykin writes, telling the columnist, "Brother, I love you. We are all part of the family." Many apparently gay blacks who responded to the column on Boykin's Web site, however, wrote that they weren't buying it: "Why the hell do we care about Farrakhan? His group HATES us," wrote one.

Keith Freeman, a gay black man who lives in the Mexican War Streets, says he would attend the march but has reservations -- "not because of the invitation itself," says Freeman, "but just: Why are you calling for the homosexual community's support now? It should have never been just a black man's march to begin with."

 

It's been only four months since Jasiri X took office. He presides over not only this region's NOI activity but is also responsible for making sure that Pittsburghers of all walks will get on the bus in October. While he may not agree with what he terms the "lifestyle" of homosexuals, like Farrakhan he still considers them family and people who've been unfairly discriminated against. He's heard the challenges and believes that "95 percent" of all of these problems will be resolved when blacks from all religious and political persuasions simply unite.

 

Concludes X: "If we think this is some kind of vacation to D.C., to say, 'I'm going down there to buy some t-shirts or a button or pin that says I was there,' take some pictures and come back -- if you think it's about that, then stay here."

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