From Boston, civil rights vs. the Nation of Islam

August 31, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

BOSTON -- The Ella J. Baker House is the most imposing structure in the 400 block of Washington St. in the working-class community of Dorchester. It stands detached, with trees and clumps of grass growing to its right.

Two sets of steep concrete steps lead up to the front porch of the magnificent two-story edifice, as if, when visitors ascend, they are paying immediate tribute to Ella Baker herself -- a leader and organizer in the civil rights movement who inspired black collegians to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

These days the Ella Baker House is home to Boston Freedom Summer, a church-sponsored organization that seeks to uplift the urban poor -- educating them, registering them to vote, tutoring and caring for their children. The administrative director of BFS -- which was started by a group of Boston ministers called the Ten Point Coalition -- is Cynthia Silva Parker, a tall, slender, attractive woman who also has much pluck.

During a BFS-sponsored forum on slavery in Sudan, Parker served as moderator. I served on the panel with Rafael Abiem from the village of Abyei in southern Sudan and reporter Tim Sandler of the Boston Phoenix. The forum started at 7: 30 p.m., with an audience composed of mainly BFS interns. But around 8, an avalanche of bow ties descended on the Ella Baker House, led by Minister Rodney X of Boston's Nation of Islam Mosque No. 11.

Parker decided to hold the question-and-answer period by having audience members write their queries on index cards. As she read through the questions, Minister Rodney interrupted.

"I believe I sent a question up a while ago," the minister protested.

"I have all these other questions in front of it," Parker retorted, promising Minister Rodney a two-minute rebuttal when the questions were done.

He made good use of the time. He referred to the United States as the "United Snakes of America." (His leader, Louis Farrakhan, hailed the United States as a beacon of democracy recently. "The founding fathers of this great nation realized freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of speech must be protected," Farrakhan noted in a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists. Do I detect a Farrakhan view of America that is not filtering down to his ministers?) Minister Rodney then referred to Abiem and me as handkerchief heads bent on destroying a "great black leader." (I assume the term handkerchief head didn't apply to Sandler, who is white.)

Parker was unruffled and unintimidated by the tirade.

"You know," she responded, "I'm really sorry I gave you the two minutes."

Later, sitting on a picnic bench in the back yard of the Ella Baker House, Parker told me of BFS's often stormy relationship with the Nation of Islam and how she handled the forum incident so well.

"We were prepared for it," she said. "One of our staff said, 'They probably won't come.' I said, 'They will come and when they come they will clown.' It was expected."

Bad blood between BFS and the Nation of Islam started back in 1994, when the Ten Point Coalition questioned Farrakhan about the NOI's record of violence against black people and what role Farrakhan may have played in Malcolm X's assassination. At least two of the ministers received threats of violence and retaliation from NOI members, Parker recalled.

"Then there's the black-Jewish thing," Parker continued. "Ten Point has been strong on building bridges and partnerships. The fact that some of our friends are Jewish doesn't win us any points with the Nation. It's just a clash of worldviews."

A clash of worldviews and, Parker hinted, competition for the hearts and minds of America's most alienated group: young black men. The Ten Point Coalition started in 1992 after a young man was shot and stabbed while attending a funeral at a Boston church.

"The clergy took it as kind of a wake-up call. If we don't go out into the streets, the streets will come in on us." Since then, ministers have been out in the streets, seeking to redeem the same young black men who are recruited by the NOI.

"The Nation felt threatened," Parker contended. "Here are some ministers stepping up to the plate here. The Nation felt they were encroaching on their turf."

The Boston NOI mosque is located a mere six blocks up Washington Street, a short walk from the Ella J. Baker House. But on many issues, the two places -- like the civil rights movement and the Nation of Islam in the early 1960s -- are light-years apart.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.