'I've Seen the Sniper's Kind Before'

The Nation of Islam has a culture of violence embedded in it. But it's far more than that.

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Thirty-four years ago, when I first got involved with the Black Muslim movement, the Nation of Islam was well-known for attracting ex-convicts to its ranks. Like Malcolm X, many of those men converted while they were incarcerated. For the first time in their lives, they heard a message that they had God-given dignity, that they had intrinsic worth in the eyes of the creator, and a hallowed place not only in his creation, but also in his prophecies about today and his later judgment of this world.

The Nation enforced discipline on these men. The Nation's influence caused most of them to strive for higher achievements than they ever had before, and to leave the criminal lifestyle behind. But sometimes their previously acquired thug-life habits died hard. And because new converts are accepted almost as "newborns" in the faith, the slate wiped clean of any mention of their previous wicked lives, it's easy for those whose "transformation" is not complete to conceal the bad things they may still be doing from other Nation members who are striving to do good.

When I was a student minister at Muhammad Mosque No. 26 in San Francisco in the early 1970s, we referred to our region as "the wild, wild West." We were unregulated, because we felt we knew better than anyone anywhere how to interpret and how to live out the strict teaching given by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.

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Although most of the members I knew were (as they are now) God-fearing men and women, striving, praying to be "...upright to Him Who originated the Heavens and the earth...," I still remember many kooks and rogues. Brother Harlan X was one. I walked the streets of Salinas, Calif. with Harlan one day, selling Muhammad Speaks newspapers during a rally for United Farm Workers Union organizer Cesar Chavez. In 1970 he was accused of murdering another Muslim, supposedly over a drug deal that went bad.

Lt. Jervis X was another. He taught me karate when I first became a Muslim and first began attending Fruit of Islam (F.O.I.) classes. I thought he was as decent a man as I had ever known. He was a washing machine salesman at Sears. But then he was charged with attempted murder in 1971. Elements of the F.O.I. had been whispering among themselves that prostitutes should be doused with gasoline and then have lighted matches thrown on them. Jervis and a woman were both found in flames in the San Francisco Tenderloin district one Saturday night.

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