Politics Mondays: Pride Or Prejudice?Local Activists Defend Themselves Against ‘Hate Group’ Label by Stephen Sacco
I’m standing at the door of the Respect for Life Bookstore on Bull Street with Yusuf Shabazz.
A cell phone rings. It’s Shabazz, not me. He retrieves his cell from his suit jacket and then turns to me.
“Have a good day, Steve,” Shabazz said. “And get yourself a wife.”
Shabazz is the national spokesman for the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, but here he sounds like my mother.
I was there to ask him how he felt about his group being listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as one of Savannah’s active hate groups. The New Black Panthers are one of four Savannah groups on the list -- other African-American groups like the Nuwaubians and the Nation of Islam are included, as well as a white separatist group known as The National Alliance.
When I told Shabazz that Southern Poverty classified his group as a hate group, he shook his head.
“We’re not a hate group, we’re a black love group,” he said. “I don’t know of any black group that says that they’re better than anybody else.”
Representatives of other groups I spoke with were equally shocked to be on the list.
“The Nation of Islam has been around for 76 years and you cannot point to one incident of violence,” said Brother Minister Prince Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. “How can that be a hate group?”
A group does not have to be violent to get on the list, said Mark Potok, director of the center’s Intelligence Projects, which tracks hate groups throughout the country.
“It’s based solely on ideology,” he said. “If a group through its platform, Web site or statements made by its leaders singles out an entire group of people as inferior or less than (them), then they are considered a hate group.”
The numbers for 2006 are not out yet, but in 2005 the center identified 40 hate groups in Georgia.
These groups may be small and have little influence. Even so, Potok, said, it was important to “shine a light into this ugly corner.”
Size also doesn’t matter. It is difficult to determine membership numbers in most cases.
“It is typical of these groups that they talk about having thousands of members and then you find out that they have dozens of members,” he said.
Love or Hate?
Shabazz was born Lorenzo Jackson in Savannah, but in high school he “changed his name back to his real name” after being exposed to the Nation of Islam and the philosophy of Pan-Africanism.
He’s the father of four and a graduate of Savannah State University. He operated Shabazz Fish Restaurant on MLK Jr. Boulevard in Savannah for roughly 20 years and now designs subdivisions.
“I have to talk with the boss,” he told me as he paused our interview to call his wife on another matter.
Shabazz shares many of the concerns that other black leaders have raised - decent and affordable housing, poverty, police brutality and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system.
He said he loves all black groups but wouldn’t fit into many of them because he was more “proactive.”
He supports reparations from the government for slavery and a separate black state.
“Look at Israel,” he said. “They have their own state and nobody thinks that’s crazy.”
Shabazz believes the black experience in America -- “slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and everything else” -- amounts to a black holocaust. This is not a view unique to the New Panthers; there is an American Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wis.
“The (Jewish) Holocaust happened in Europe. Our holocaust happened in North America,” he said.
Southern Poverty has branded the New Panthers “anti-white” and “anti-Semitic.” This statement from a speech New Panther’s founder Khalid Muhammad made in Detroit, Mich., in 2000, appears on the center’s Web site:
“God has chosen a people. And it’s not some hooked-nose, bagel-eatin’,lox-eatin’, perpetrating-a-fraud, just-crawled-out-of-the-caves-and-hills-of-Europe, so-called, wannabe, imposter Jew!”
Khalid died in 2001, but current New Panthers leader, Malik Zulu Shabazz, continues to make anti-Semitic statements, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Shabazz denied any anti-Semitism.
“The Jews are no longer a Semitic people; they’re European,” he said.
Shabazz asked me if I was Jewish (I’m not). Then he asked me if I was gay (I’m not).
“Just making conversation,” he said.
Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer, of Congregation Mickve Israel, does not see a lot of tension between the black and Jewish communities in Savannah.
“I think most people in Savannah are quite moderate and the black community has always been willing to have a dialog with other groups,” he said.
He feels the media pays too much attention to fringe groups.
“When was the last time you saw a story about the good things happening in the Methodist Church?” Belzer asked me.
The Nation of Islam
I spoke with Prince Muhammad of the Nation of Islam at the Respect for Life Bookstore, too. He can be found there most afternoons, minding the store. He proves an effective salesman.
“Are you going to spend some money with us today?” he said to a young man who entered the store.
Muhammad speaks quickly when he gets passionate. He sometimes asks a lot of question in short succession.
When he becomes more comfortable, he has an engaging smile.
He wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to speak with me, he felt that I would misrepresent him. After some discussion, however, he agrees to talk.
Muhammad does not consider the Nation a hate group or separatist, either.
“We believe in self-reliance and knowledge and love of black self,” he said.
I ask him about anti-Semitism. He briefly becomes agitated.
“Why is it that when you tell the truth, people call you anti-Semitic?” he said. “I just love black people. What’s wrong with that?”
For Muhammad, the Nation is not about hating white people. It’s about correcting the damage done to the self-esteem of black people.
“If somebody doesn’t treat you right, then he won’t teach you right,” he said. “We have been taught wrong and we need to pull together and have right knowledge and love of black self, and then we can go out and be with whoever we want.”
The Nuwaubians and the National Alliance
Southern Poverty and other watchdog groups believe the Nuwaubians, also known as United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors or All Eyes on Egipt (Egypt with an “i” instead of a “y”), are not only a hate group, but also a cult.
The Nuwaubians are still active in Savannah, despite a troubled recent history.Its leader Malachi Z. York, born Dwight D. York in Brooklyn, N.Y, is currently serving a 135-year prison sentence. He was convicted in May 2004 on federal charges of molesting boys and girls from his group and on racketeering, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The 476-acre Egyptian-themed “city” the Nuwaubians built in Putnam County, Ga. in the early 1990s has mostly been sold off by U.S. Marshals.
The All Eyes on Egipt bookstore, however, is open on Ogeechee Road.
A gentleman identified as a “Nuwaubian minister” was as offended as Shabazz and Brother Prince to learn he was on a hate group list.
He politely refused to comment for this story and told me that I was not “authorized to make any statements” attributed to the Nuwaubians.
The small fraction of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, which was active in Savannah in 2005, is no longer here, according to Potok.
What is a hate group?
Southern Poverty, based in Montgomery, Ala. and founded by civil rights attorney Morris Dees in 1971, is best known for its legal fights against white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Still, by the center’s standard, the Ku Klux Klan and the Nation of Islam are both hate groups.
Some, however, question if it’s accurate to present these groups as counterparts.
Nadra Enzi, a member of the executive committee of Savannah’s NAACP, said he would not call these groups “hate groups.” He would, however, call them separatist groups.
Enzi said that of these groups, the Nation of Islam has made the most headway in the black community, but he doesn’t think that these groups are heading in the direction in which most people are moving.
Enzi describes himself as a Republican, libertarian and civil rights activist.
“I understand the separatist impulse, however,” he said. “I don’t think people have anything to fear from (these groups) as far as threats and violence are concerned.”
Plus, he adds that he has found Savannah to be hard soil for any kind of political organizing.
Kamaria Muntu doesn’t like the “hate group” label either. Muntu worked for 17 years as a human rights activist in Atlanta before moving to Savannah, where she organized a forum on the death penalty.
She thinks the “hate group” label implies that these groups are violent or dangerous, when they actually have no history of violence.
Yet, she said there was no excuse for bigoted rhetoric.
“For a black group to blame problems in the black community on another group misdirects energy,” she said.
But, like Enzi, she understands the attraction of these types of separatist ideologies.
“This doesn’t come from nowhere,” she said. “Oppressed people will embrace a number of ideologies - including radical ideologies - when faced with overwhelming oppression, and that’s understandable and justified.”
Militant groups, black or white, share many similarities, according to Ned Rinalducci, a professor of sociology at Armstrong Atlantic University.
“They both tend to attract people who are marginalized,” he said. “People who are at a social, economic or educational disadvantage. People on the edge.”
Rinalducci, however, sees a big difference between white and black groups.
“There’s ideology that goes with justifying something like the slave trade or Jim Crow,” he said. “These (black) groups are reacting to this.”
Southern Poverty concedes this point.
“We understand that black racism is a reaction to white racism, but the cycle has to stop somewhere,” Potok said.
Shabazz and Muhammad both expressed their mistrust of politicians and a white establishment that they feel has distorted their views.
When Shabazz was in school in the 1970s, he was bussed to Windsor Forrest High School as part of attempts to integrate the school system.
“They didn’t bus you if you were living in subsidized housing, but they would bus you if your family owned a house. They thought that we would do better than those living in subsidized housing,” he said.
When a white student refused to take his foot off Shabazz’s desk, a fight and riot broke out, according to Shabazz. He was expelled.
Shabazz appeared to view integration as it stands now as little more than grandstanding.
“Dr. King said that integration was more than just a romantic mixing of colors,” he said. “It is the sharing of power and responsibility, and we do not have that in this country.”
When he was 22, Shabazz made an unsuccessful run for county commissioner but has since given up on electoral politics. However, rumors have surfaced recently that Shabazz might take another crack at politics.
“I think that black politicians like (Savannah Mayor) Otis (Johnson) have good intentions,” he says. “But to get involved in politics takes money and we don’t have enough, so you’ve got to take white money.”
Shabazz issued me a warning.
“If you make me out to be a monster, black people will love me even more,” he said.
After my interview with Prince Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, he followed me to the door to make sure I wasn’t angry with him.
“We don’t only look at the color of a person’s skin,” he said. “We look at their heart.”
I had taken a few pictures of him and he asked to look at them.
“I’m not smiling. I’m trying to show my militancy,” Muhammad said.
He asked me to take another picture. I did. In this one, he smiled.
“I think you should use that one,” he said. “I like that one.”
Send feedback to the author, Stephen Sacco, at email@example.com. This article appears in Connect Savannah.
Monday, April 23, 2007