Howard law student in limelight casts shadow with anti-Jewish remarks

March 20, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- When controversial Nation of Islam member Khallid Abdul Muhammad spoke at Howard University recently, he found his caustic brand of rhetoric upstaged by one of his proteges, a law student named Malik Zulu Shabazz.

With reporters noting his words and a crowd of 1,000 loudly endorsing each thrust, Mr. Shabazz introduced Mr. Muhammad by accusing Jews of controlling the Federal Reserve and Hollywood and killing rebellious slave Nat Turner.

Some compared the call-and-response diatribe against Jews with a Nazi hate rally. Afterward, some in the audience, including the head of Howard's student association, pledged money to Mr. Muhammad.

The spectacle has dragged the debate about black anti-Semitism out into the open at Howard, perhaps the nation's most prestigious historically black university.

Alarmed university officials, acutely aware that Howard was founded to battle discrimination and that blacks and Jews have combined to wage America's greatest civil rights battles, were quick to denounce Mr. Shabazz's statements.

Positive images

But many students stand by Mr. Shabazz, Mr. Muhammad and the Nation of Islam -- if not all their words. While not embracing anti-Semitism, they say they sympathize with the what they see as the larger message of the event: to promote black consciousness and black self-determination.

Meanwhile, the controversy has elevated the 27-year-old Mr. Shabazz, chairman of a student group called Unity Nation, to something akin to celebrity status.

Since the rally, the self-styled black nationalist, event organizer, rap music performer and aspiring lawyer has received numerous interview requests even as his words have been roundly repudiated byuniversity officials and others.

University President Franklyn G. Jenifer wrote a guest column in the Washington Post condemning anti-Semitism.

He also used the occasion of Howard's 127th anniversary celebration to lash out against anti-Semitic statements.

"Racism just does not come in one flavor," he said. "All forms of ethnic bias, including anti-Semitism, violate the very principles on which this university was founded and must be condemned."

The school's trustees ran an ad in The Hilltop, Howard's student newspaper, saying that "anti-Semitism has no place on our campus, in academia or in the larger society."

Nonetheless, many students are lining up behind Mr. Shabazz.

"I don't think anything that was said has anything to do with anti-Semitism," said Kimberly Royal, a senior political science major from Dallas. "It has to do with being pro-black."

Omar Karim, a student trustee-elect, wrote in The Hilltop that "not only do the students of Howard University have the backs [support] of Dr. Khallid Muhammad and Minister Louis Farrakhan, but also of every black man and woman brave enough to give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

Some students believe university officials are concerned that federally funded Howard might lose financial support because of the controversy.

Otesa Middleton, editor-in-chief of The Hilltop, said she believes the fallout from Mr. Muhammad's appearance is far bigger than the event itself.

"I think that all this scrutiny is bringing it more into focus for students," she said. "At first, students didn't think much of it because we always have speakers on campus whose views are unpopular. In many ways, that is the nature of universities, to bring different kinds of thought on campus."

She added that it is a mistake to attempt to characterize how deeply anti-Semitic feelings run among Howard students, "because there are 12,000 of us, with widely varying opinions."

The Muhammad speech

But now, more than ever, those opinions are being exposed.

The university's Black Law Students Association recently held a forum at which it played an audiotape of Mr. Muhammad's Nov. 29 speech at Kean College.

In the speech, Mr. Muhammad mocked and attacked Jews, whites, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and the pope. About 35 students showed up for the session, which also included a videotape presentation of Mr. Farrakhan's recent appearance on the Arsenio Hall show.

"This is informational," explained BLSA Chairman Reginald A. Greene. "A lot of people were talking about the speech, but few people had heard it."

The forum was prompted by a dispute between a Jewish member of the law school faculty and a black law students' group over a planned appearance by Mr. Muhammad on the campus.

In fliers touting Mr. Muhammad's planned appearance, he was described as "the powerful, awesome, warrior, scholar, freedom fighter . . . our brother & friend."

Andrew I. Gavil, an associate law professor at Howard, responded to the fliers with an open letter to BLSA. In it, he told a poignant story of his own ancestors lost in the Holocaust. He closed by chiding the students for not showing more sensitivity to that history.

"Did you have to welcome him with such open arms?" wrote Mr. Gavil, who is Jewish. "A conquering hero? A man to be admired and emulated?"

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