Hatemongering at Howard

May 24, 1994

Howard University in Washington, D.C., enjoys a unique place among the nation's historically black colleges and universities. During the first half of this century, it was one of only a handful of schools where black students who aspired to become doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers and architects could obtain professional training in their fields. It was also a cultural center that attracted black artists, writers and performers from all over the country and a hotbed of civil rights activity.

All that illustrious history was nearly overshadowed recently by news accounts of the enthusiastic reception given former Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Muhammad by an audience on the Howard campus. Mr. Muhammad's anti-Semitic diatribe, and the approval of his remarks voiced by many members of the audience, cast Howard into the national spotlight as a nursing ground for black bigotry and intolerance.

Later it turned out most of those present at Mr. Muhammad's speech were not even students and the views expressed were repugnant to the vast majority of the Howard community.

But the damage had been done. The school was besieged by letters and phone calls questioning Congress' role in funding Howard -- the school gets about 38 percent of its money from the federal government -- and the United Negro College Fund also received calls from people who mistakenly believe the group funds the university. At least one corporate donor decided to stop contributing to Howard.

It is a tragedy when a handful of misguided people can so tarnish the reputation of a venerable institution. That is why the remarks of Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, resonated so strongly at the school's recent commencement exercises. "We as a people who have suffered so much from the hatred of others must not now show tolerance for any movement or philosophy that has as its core the hatred of Jews or hatred of any other group," General Powell told the graduates.

General Powell praised Howard for upholding free speech by "permitting the widest range of views, however controversial or outrageous." But he also urged students there "to sort out wisdom from foolishness."

That is a message that deserves a hearing not only at Howard but wherever people value the university as a bulwark against irrational prejudice and hatred.

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