Keith Ellison’s back pages

I’ve been writing about Keith Ellison since he was endorsed by the DFL Fifth District convention to succeed Rep. Martin Sabo in the spring of 2006. I wrote some 20 Power Line posts under the heading “Who is Keith Ellison?” I summarized my findings in the Weekly Standard article “Louis Farrakhan’s first congressman” and in the companion Power Line post “Keith Ellison for dummies.”

When Ellison published his 2014, memoir cum manifesto My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, I wrote about it in the Weekly Standard article “The Ellison elision” and the Star Tribune column “Keith Ellison remembers to forget.” I still had enough left over for the Power Line post “The Ellison elision: A sidebar.”

My work on Ellison has been driven by the oversights and misrepresentations and laziness of the political reporters at Minneapolis’s Star Tribune. They have left the story of Ellison’s back pages to others. They apparently lack the professional pride necessary to keep themselves from being scooped on a big story in their own back yard, despite the fact that much of it could be told from their own archives.

Ellison’s run to chair the DNC has made him a national story all over again. I’ve told my friends at the Star Tribune it’s not too late! They have another reason to dig in and tell the story. I took another whack at the story myself for the Weekly Standard in “The trouble with Keith Ellison.”

Now I have to take that back. The bimonthly left-wing magazine Mother Jones shows what the Star Tribune could have done any time in the past 10 years in the deeply reported investigative piece by Tim Murphy, “Keith Ellison Is Everything Republicans Thought Obama Was. Maybe He’s Just What Democrats Need.”

Murphy’s is an extraordinary piece of journalism. Although it is written from a radical perspective, it provides sufficient information for readers to make up their own minds about him. It shows what the Star Tribune could have done if they were driven by professional pride and if their reporters cared to detach themselves from their political passions. One more conditional observation. If anyone at the Star Tribune has professional pride, he is embarrassed by Murphy’s piece.

Murphy covers the story of Ellison’s participation as a University of Minnesota Law School student in the infamous speech given by the late anti-Semitic raver Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) the law school’s Room 22. He even digs up and posts the video below with Ellison’s introduction of Ture. Ellison appears in the video introducing Ture under one of his Nation of Islam pseudonyms, Keith Hakim.

Poring over my Ellison file this year, I found an email message and notes of my interview with 1989-1990 University of Minnesota Daily opinion editor Michael Olenick. Olenick recalled his resistance to publishing Ellison’s Daily opinion columns under the stupid pseudonym Keith Hakim. Ellison told him that he was in the process of legally changing his name to Hakim. He noted that it might just have been one of those things that Ellison forgot to get around to, like paying his taxes.

Murphy also tracked Olenick down. Murphy quotes Olenick:

Olenick told Mother Jones that in their conversations Ellison argued that blacks and other oppressed groups “could not be racist toward Jews” because “Jews were themselves oppressors.”

“‘European white Jews are trying to oppress minorities all over the world,’” Olenick said Ellison would tell him. “Keith would go on all the time about ‘Jewish slave traders.’”

That’s our man.

Ellison has staked his career on the assertion that his involvement with the Nation of Islam was limited to a period of 18 months around the time of the Million Man March. Ellison claims ignorance of Farrakhan’s and the Nation’s anti-Semitism based on his limited involvement with the cult. Based on my own reporting, I find this claim to be demonstrably false. Given his false claim of ignorance despite his long involvement with the Nation of Islam, Ellison cannot talk about his involvement without lying about it. He therefore either lies or avoid talking to knowledgeable reporters.

Murphy covers Ellison from a supportive radical perspective, yet Ellison refused to talk to him. Ellison obviously refused to talk to Murphy because Murphy had the material with which to raise questions about Ellison’s involvement with the Nation of Islam. Murphy notes parenthetically: “[Ellison] declined to be interviewed for this story, and his office did not respond to detailed questions from Mother Jones” (and there is more to this effect below as well).

That is a credit to Murphy. Murphy reports, for example:

Ellison has said that he was never a member of the Nation of Islam and that his working relationship with the organization’s Twin Cities study group (the national organization’s term for its chapters) lasted just 18 months. He has said that he was “an angry young black man” who thought he might have found an ally in the cause of economic and political empowerment, and that he overlooked Farrakhan’s most incendiary statements because “when you’re African American, there’s literally no leader who is not beat up by the press.” In his book, Ellison outlines deep theological differences between the group and his mainstream Muslim faith. But his break from Farrakhan was not quite as clean as he portrayed it. Under the byline Keith X Ellison, months after the march that he described as an epiphany, he penned an op-ed in the Twin Cities black weekly Insight News, pushing back against charges of anti-Semitism directed at Farrakhan. In 1997, nearly two years later, he endorsed a statement again defending Farrakhan. When Ellison ran (unsuccessfully) for state representative in 1998, Insight News described him as affiliated with the Nation of Islam. Two organizers who worked with him at the time told me they believed Ellison had been a member of the Nation. At community meetings, he was even known to show up in a bow tie, accompanied by dark-suited members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation’s security wing.

Minister James Muhammad, who in the 1990s led the Nation of Islam’s Twin Cities study group, confirms that Ellison served for several years as the local group’s chief of protocol, acting as a liaison between Muhammad and members of the community. He was a “trusted member of our inner circle,” says Muhammad, who is no longer active in the Nation of Islam. Ellison regularly attended meetings and sometimes spoke in Muhammad’s stead, when the leader was absent. An Ellison spokesman declined to answer questions about the congressman’s role in the study group and instead replied in an email, “Right wing and anti-Muslim extremists have been trying to smear Keith and distort his record for more than a decade. He’s written extensively about his work on the Million Man March, and has a long history of standing up against those who sow division and hatred.”

Murphy has more of interest on Ellison’s treatment of the Nation of Islam:

Critics in the Twin Cities view the relationship in cold political terms—Farrakhan was a useful affiliation for Ellison up until he wasn’t. “Keith was able to climb up some steps by talking about his respect and love for the honorable minister,” says Ron Edwards, a Minneapolis media fixture and a former director of the radio station where Ellison co-hosted his show. “People don’t forget that.” Spike Moss, an organizer who worked with Ellison on the Million Man March, called his reversal “the ultimate betrayal.” Farrakhan even recorded a Facebook video responding to Ellison this past December. “If you denounce me to achieve greatness,” he said, “wait until the enemy betrays you and then throws you back like a piece of used tissue paper to your people.”

Menakem attributes the various identities that his book club buddy and radio co-host adopted over the years—Keith Hakim, Keith X Ellison, Keith Muhammad—to “him becoming conscious and him trying on different ways of being before he settled on who he is,” he says. “He’s always remaking himself,” says Anthony Ellison, the congressman’s younger brother. “The Keith Ellison from 20 years ago is not the Keith Ellison today.”

I seriously doubt that Ellison’s DNC candidacy can succeed in the face of Murphy’s friendly if honest reportage. That means we will be dealing with Ellison in Minnesota for some time to come. if so, Murphy’s reportage should help us understand whom we are dealing with.

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