Jewish leaders, college officials defend Farrakhan aide's right to speak

February 03, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

Distressed by a Nation of Islam spokesman's anti-Semitic rhetoric, Jewish leaders and Baltimore City Community College officials nevertheless defend Khalid Abdul Muhammad's right to speak at the college Saturday night.

Mr. Muhammad, whose recent anti-Semitic remarks led civil rights leaders to distance themselves from the black nationalist group, is scheduled to speak as part of two evenings of lectures on the legacy of the slain black leader Malcolm X.

"This is not a college program, and it isn't sponsored or endorsed by the college," James D. Tschechtelin, president of the community college, said yesterday. "What we have is an outside group renting space."

Mr. Muhammad, billed as "national spokesperson and assistant" to the Nation of Islam's leader, Louis T. Farrakhan, is to appear at 7 p.m. Saturday. He shares the Black History Month program with James Small, a former aide to Malcolm X. Tickets cost $10.

The sponsor, Newton-Thoth Inc., paid $955 to rent the 375-seat Forum Auditorium on BCCC's Harbor Campus for two nights, said Herbert C. Sledge Jr., a college spokesman. He said the rental contract was signed Dec. 13.

A flier advertising the event listed Dr. Patricia Newton, a Baltimore physician, as contact person for the group. She did not return phone calls yesterday.

Mr. Farrakhan had found growing acceptance among mainstream civil rights leaders until the Anti-Defamation League publicized a speech by Mr. Muhammad on Nov. 29 at Kean College in New Jersey.

In the speech, the Nation of Islam spokesman called Jews the "bloodsuckers of the black nation," urged blacks to kill white South Africans and referred to the pope as a "cracker."

Dr. Tschechtelin said college officials consulted with the state Attorney General's Office and decided that "we can't deny the rental of space based on what someone might say."

"It would be presumptuous of me to make a comment about something [Mr. Muhammad] hasn't said," the college president said. "But what we teach here is for students to appreciate and learn from the differences of people, not to scorn them."

Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the Attorney General's Office, said that by renting the auditorium to community groups, the college has created a public forum in which "the First Amendment protects the right of free speech of those who rent the space."

"Sometimes we in government need to swallow hard and say, even in these circumstances, that the First Amendment applies, no matter that what we can expect to come out of that gentleman's mouth is something vile," Mr. Schwartz said.

Dr. Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, defended Mr. Muhammad's right to speak. He said he would not judge his message before it was delivered.

"If it leads to open and honest discussion, it'll be positive," Dr. Abramson said. "If it leads to reinforcement of stereotypes, then we've got some problems."

However, he added that "the largest single source of anti-Semitism in the United States today comes from the Nation of Islam. Without that message, Minister Farrakhan is just another minister."

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it was a "sad commentary that . . . some people feel a need to celebrate Black History Month with someone who spews forth hate.

"What troubles me is not that there are Muhammads and Farrakhans . . . but that there is this willing audience who cheer, applaud and defend them," he said.

Mr. Foxman said polls show that anti-Semitism is twice as common among blacks as whites "because the level of education is lower, and there is a greater feeling of anger against outside society, as well as economic frustration."

Mr. Muhammad, who was born Harold Moore Vann, was convicted in 1987 by a federal court in Atlanta of fraudulently using a false Social Security number to obtain a loan, according to Mira L. Boland, who tracks extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League. She said the former minister of defense for the Nation of Islam served about a year in prison.

Neither Mr. Muhammad nor Mr. Farrakhan has disavowed the Kean College speech.

"What nerve you have to call me an anti-Semite. What nerve you have to call me a bigot," Mr. Muhammad told University of Florida students Tuesday. "The state of Florida is on the honor roll of racism."

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