As Minnesota Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison seeks to take on the leadership of the Democratic National Committee, the Washington Post has published Ellison’s column whitewashing his past in the Nation of Islam as part of its Acts of Faith series bearing on religion. There is a certain logic in this. To enjoy Ellison’s column, you must suspend your disbelief and ignore the evidence that starkly contradicts it. You must take Ellison on faith.
The Star Tribune, unfortunately, runs the column on its opinion page, though the Star Tribune has steadily promulgated the faith in Ellison since 2006. Over at the Star Tribune, you just can’t have too much of this:
My mom, Clida, taught my four brothers and me about her father’s work to organize black voters in rural Louisiana in the 1950s. We carried her dad’s legacy of activism with us. The civil rights movement was present in the daily life of my family in Detroit in the 1970s.
I’ll never forget working to get my college, Wayne State University, to divest from the government in South Africa. This was the beginning of my activism, and the fight for social and economic justice has been a constant thread in my life. My activism led me to toss my hat in the ring for chair of the Democratic National Committee, where I will work to reclaim our history as the party that stands with working people.
Unfortunately, some political opponents continue to distort my record based on an old right-wing smear campaign — not my work in Congress, or my vision for the future of the Democratic Party.
Go back 25 years to 1991. Cameras recorded the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police. Unemployment for African-Americans was 13 percent, and the war on drugs was driving up incarceration rates.
I was working with young people in my neighborhood of north Minneapolis and saw the challenges they experienced while looking for a job or trying to rent an apartment. I was a young lawyer hoping to bring more fairness to the criminal justice system. And I was trying to help folks in the community organize for a better quality of life.
I saw the Million Man March as a positive effort, and I helped to organize a group from Minneapolis to attend. Like many young African-American men at the time, including President Obama, I hoped the march would promote change in our communities, and I was proud to be part of it. Civil rights leaders, from Rosa Parks to Jesse Jackson, and artists such as Stevie Wonder and Maya Angelou supported and spoke at the event. Of course, a huge number of black men — some counts as high as 1 million — showed up as well.
My values — going back to my childhood — were always based on respect for all people and rejection of bigotry and racism. When I first heard criticism about Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Million Man March, I felt the march’s message of empowering young African-Americans was being attacked.
But I clearly didn’t go deep enough. I defended the organizer of the march in writing, but I glossed over the hurtful and divisive language he directed at other communities.
In my effort to pursue justice for the African-American community, I neglected to scrutinize the words of those such as Khalid Muhammad and Farrakhan who mixed a message of African-American empowerment with scapegoating of other communities. These men organize by sowing hatred and division, including anti-Semitism, homophobia and a chauvinistic model of manhood. I disavowed them long ago, condemned their views and apologized.
After the march I remembered something my father said to me. He said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
He was right. I should have listened more and talked less.
I have always lived a politics defined by respecting differences, rejecting all forms of racism and anti-Semitism, a politics based on inclusion, and diverse communities organizing together for economic justice for everyone.
I started listening a lot more. Throughout my work since 2002 as a state legislator and a member of Congress, I have tried as hard as I could to build bridges. I’ve worked to combat anti-Semitism and confront Holocaust denial. I’ve organized dozens of meetings to promote interfaith dialogue and joint projects. I’ve stood up for religious freedom and human rights for people of all faiths. I have built coalitions to increase accountability for hate crimes against all communities.
If we are going to move the country forward, we need an agenda that brings working Americans together — not one that scapegoats our neighbors because they pray to a different God or their skin is a different color.
The column promulgates Ellison’s traditional evasions and denials. His work with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam was centered on the Million Man March in 1995. He was unfamiliar with the tenets of the Nation of Islam. He had no knowledge of what the speakers whom he sponsored and appeared with had to say. He wasn’t paying attention. He didn’t know what he was doing.
This is Ellison’s big lie. Ellison agitated on behalf of the Nation of Islam for at least 10 years. He peddled the requisite hate and conspiracy theories that are essential elements of its attraction. As Ellison himself wrote in his 2014 memoir: “In the NOI, if you’re not angry in opposition to some group of people (whites, Jews, so-called ‘sellout’ blacks), you don’t have religion.”
Ellison was in the NOI. He had the religion, big time. Ellison’s involvement with the NOI extended from his days as a student at the University of Minnesota Law School until some time before his first successful run for public office in 2002. Ellison’s involvement with the Nation of Islam was long and intense.
Ellison’s allusion to the wildly anti-Semitic Khalid Abdul Muhammad is obscure. Ellison appeared onstage at the 1995 organizing rally with Muhammad at the University of Minnesota. Muhammad ran true to form during his appearance in Minneapolis. According to a contemporaneous Star Tribune article, “If words were swords, the chests of Jews, gays and whites would be pierced.” Ellison implies that he wasn’t listening, or that he didn’t even read the Star Tribune’s account of the event.
In 2006 I posted Jeffrey Goldenberg’s unpublished 2006 letter to the Star Tribune about the event at which Muhammad spoke. Goldenberg wrote the letter in response to the false apologetics that Ellison offered then and offers now. This is a long excerpt of the letter. Please take in Goldenberg’s account next to Ellison’s apologetics:
Due in part to my involvement in the African-American community, I was asked to attend this meeting, make notes of what I heard and saw and report my findings back to [Stephen Silberfarb,] the Executive Director [of the Jewish Community Relations Council]. I accepted the assignment. It is a matter of public record that Mr. Ellison was a leading local participant in that meeting.
In the heart of his [2006 exculpatory] letter to Mr. Silberfarb, Mr. Ellison states “I did not adequately scrutinize the positions and statements of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Muhammad. I wrongly dismissed concerns that they were anti-Semitic.”
Let me explain a bit about the meeting where Mr. Ellison stood with former Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad. After he was introduced, Mr. Muhammad let loose with a vitriolic rant attacking gays, Jews, whites and others. But that was just the warm-up.
Next, Mr. Muhammed intentionally embarrassed, intimidated and personally attacked members of the audience in the University of Minnesota lecture hall that evening.
First he came after me. Out of a crowd of perhaps a couple of hundred, I was among a small handful of Caucasian attendees. “Hey, cracker taking notes there, what’s your name?” Mr. Muhammed demanded as he pointed his finger at me where I sat in the middle of the hall. “What’s a cracker doing here taking notes?” I smiled to mask my fear, turned beet red and said nothing as Mr. Muhammad continued to aim his racial intimidation tactics at me for another minute or so.
Then things really turned ugly. Towards the front of the hall sat an African American man and a Caucasian woman. Mr. Muhammad turned his attack on them. Upon confirming they were boyfriend and girlfriend, he attacked the man for having a white girlfriend. He attacked the man for bringing his white girlfriend to this public event. He asked personal and inappropriate rhetorical questions about why this African American man would choose a white girlfriend. He brought the young woman to tears in front of hundreds of people. Mr. Muhammad relentlessly attacked, embarrassed and intimidated this innocent pair because they were a bi-racial couple.
From his place by Mr. Muhammad’s side in 1995 what exactly was there for Mr. Ellison to scrutinize? With the racism, hatred and anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam laid bare for him that day, Mr. Ellison turned a blind eye in pursuit of his own personal objectives. Now he attempts to paper over his ugly past apparently for the same reason.
Ten years later, absolutely nothing has changed. Ellison’s lies remain the same.
In his 2014 memoir, Ellison simply suppressed his long affiliation with the Nation of Islam. I wrote about his memoir in the Weekly Standard article “The Ellison elision” and in the Star Tribune column “Ellison remembers to forget.”