A few of the members of this rogue's gallery I met in college; I met one or two others at church. And I've met others in the Nation of Islam.
I'm glad that law enforcement has apprehended two suspects that they are fairly certain are responsible for the Washington area sniping. Last week I made the word "sniper" synonymous with the vilest word in my personal vocabulary. I used the epithets: "You look like a sniper!" and "You smell like a sniper!" in the same way the invective "yo' mama" is hurled in the ghetto vernacular. But I'm neither surprised nor really disappointed that one of the suspects in custody had ties to the Nation of Islam.As peaceful as is the true teaching of Islam in its simple instruction to surrender one's will to Allah (God), when that teaching is filtered through the African-American experience of brutal slavery and Jim Crow--with three lynchings per week at its peak--it is easy to understand how some black converts to Islam might want to hasten that "great and dreadful day" when the Almighty will see to it that white America reaps the havoc it has sown on so many non-whites during its brief but bloody history.
It's never difficult assembling a quorum in any black barbershop to forgive the most gruesome acts committed by any black person-even a deranged person-against the larger white society. The Tuskeegee syphilis experiment, the Scottsboro Boys and the riots in Tulsa, Okla., are still fresh memories.
And if the anger is there, so is the connection to violence. Is it possible the Nation of Islam ignores it in its midst? There is no question that Minister Louis Farrakhan's sermons are often bitterly angry, and that such an atmosphere often permeates the Nation of Islam's meetings. But in reality, one of the things the Nation stresses most is self-control. So while it's true that the Nation does not eradicate the violent nature from all the people like John Muhammad who profess belief, I also don't think it fuels it.
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.
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.
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.
The most frightening case I knew about at that time was the arrest of several members of the San Francisco Mosque who were all former inmates. They were converted in prison, some of them served together at the same time, and they were all recruited to work for a Nation member who operated a moving and storage business. They were charged with systematically snatching white people off the streets and brutally murdering them in 1972. They were San Francisco's notorious "Zebra" killers. Fortunately for me that summer, I was taken away to Chicago, where I worked under Mr. Muhammad's direct supervision--eventually as editor-in-chief of Muhammad Speaks newspaper.