From the look of things, the hundreds of people lined up outside of Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium last week could have been waiting to hear a concert, or an academic lecture.
Men and women, many regaled in turbans and colorful African fabrics, smiled as they greeted friends and listened to the Caribbean rhythms floating up from street stands offering Jamaican patties and African lemonade.
Only the sign outside the hall with the program’s title, “Documenting the Black Holocaust,” with featured speakers from the militant Black Muslim group, the Nation of Islam, and the men in sharp suits wandering among the crowd hawking the organization’s newspaper The Final Call, bespoke the true nature of the evening’s event.
On the campus of America’s pre-eminent black university, three of the most prominent proponents of a black pride that espouses anti-Semitism addressed a crowd of about 2,000.
The April 19 program was sponsored by a Howard student group, Unity Nation, but most of the audience consisted of working-class blacks from the Washington area, with only a smattering of Howard students.
University officials only grudgingly consented to the use of their hall for the event, saying they were bound by the First Amendment to rent it out to the sponsoring students group.
The evening featured Khalid Abdul Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam; Leonard Jeffries, chairman of the black studies department at City College of New York; and Wellesley College Professor Tony Martin.
During the nearly five-hour program, they charged, among other things, that Jews control the banks and the media and are collectively responsible for the suffering of American blacks.
Following a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum the day before, Muhammad, Jeffries and Martin added another element to the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitic platform, with the claim that the genocide of Jews in Nazi Europe paled in comparison with the “black Holocaust” of Africans under slavery.
“They had piles of shoes,” said Muhammad of the Holocaust Museum, “as if I was supposed to be impressed. We didn’t even have shoes.”
Speakers also charged that Jewish memorials to the Holocaust were a malicious effort to divert attention from the mass killing and exploitation of African slaves.
In the stifling heat of the Cramton Auditorium, and under the watchful gaze of Nation of Islam security guards, the crowd sat mesmerized throughout the evening while a series of speakers paid homage to a version of history in which the oppression of blacks is pinned almost entirely on the pernicious conspiracies of past and contemporary Jews.
In a lilting West Indian accent, Martin, a tenured professor in the African Studies department at Wellesley College, fastidiously explained how slavery, and indeed centuries of black African suffering, are the product of a cabal of “Jewish rabbis” who conspired – via the Babylonian Talmud – to degrade African people with the curse of Ham.
This curse, Martin alleged, formed the “intellectual underpinnings” of modern black suffering and “the pretext upon which the slave trade was built.”
Martin went on to explain, in brutal detail, many of the horrors experienced by African slaves, implying in no uncertain terms that Jews were to blame.
Where Martin played the serious-minded academic, City College professor Jeffries was the spiritual tempest, with the fitful pedantic instincts of a man born to teach.
Clad in yellow African robes, Jeffries – who was recently reinstated as head of City College’s black studies department after being relieved of his post for anti-Semitic remarks – received hoots of approval and standing ovations for his efforts to root anti-Semitic notions in African pride.
“Get into your African mind,” he told the crowed, which rose with clenched fists to the rocking cadences of his teachings.
But the message of self-discovery soon turned to rage, as he lashed out at Jews, gentiles, bankers and Hollywood, attacking non-militant blacks, and Howard University students not present at the lecture, as “Negroes without anything to say.”
As he spoke, Jeffries worked himself into a frenzy, shouting over the static of the microphone to cram a semester of his controversial Afro-centric historical teaching into a 90-minute diatribe.
At the end of his talk, Jeffries, visibly overheated, claimed an existential victory. “We have now redefined reality,” he said, “and that’s real power.”
But the main event of the evening was Muhammad, whose recent notoriety came when the Anti-Defamation League ran advertisements quoting from a speech he gave last fall at Kean College in New Jersey.
In a sleek double-breasted suit, Muhammad smiled as he darted and bounced across the stage, celling Jews “swindlers” and Colin Ferguson, the black gunman who is charged with the shooting deaths of six people earlier this year on the Long Island Rail Road, a “modern-day Nat Turner.”
But it is not what Muhammad said – his message consisted of a string of disconnected accusations – but the particular brilliance of his delivery, that made Muhammad shine.
Few seemed to care that he was repeating, often verbatim, the same clever catchphrases and assaults on Catholics, homosexuals and Jews he had used at widely publicized speeches elsewhere.
They seemed to have come, instead, to see a repeat performance of a favorite act, and to enjoy the derogatory one-liners for which Muhammad has gained notoriety.
“You have your Schindler’s list, but it’s really a swindler’s list,” Muhammad said to the obvious delight of the crowd. “You have swindled us, you have stolen our birthright.”
Muhammad even seemed to cast himself as a modern-day version of Zionist leader Theodore Herzl, calling on blacks to build “a nation of our own.”
A few Jews came out to protest the event, among them activist Rabbi Avi Weiss from New York, who held a placard with racist and anti-Semitic quotations from Muhammad’s previous speeches, including controversial remarks made at an address at Howard University in February.
As an assistant adjusted a prayer shawl on his shoulders, Weiss complained that Jews have not responded adequately to the Nation of Islam.
“How is it possible that the Jewish community is not out here in force to confront this bigots? There’s tremendous fear. To stand out here, it’s not easy,” Weiss said.
Minutes later, a small crowd gathered around him, shouting insults and questioning his right to protest.
“There’s no such thing as a black-Jewish relationship,” said Washington resident Joel Johnson. “It’s just us for us. You got so much power, hit the road.”
But others in the crowd said they did not understand all the fuss.
Gabrielle Lane, a sophomore political science major at Howard, insisted the view that the Nation of Islam is anti-Semitic is a simple case of “miscommunication.
“If they’ll step outside of their own situation, they’ll see there’s no reason to protest,” Lane said of the demonstrators.
When asked about black-Jewish relations, Joseph McKenzie, a dapper young black man with a narrow mustache and a thin leather tie, spoke with concern over the fate of the Jews.
“There are numerous amounts of groups in this country, their sole purpose is to destroy the Jews. I don’t know if they’re in fear of the Jews or what, they just hate them,” he said. These groups “are in a preparatory state of starting race wars against them.”
But McKenzie, like others who had come to the rally, was quick to exclude Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan from this category.
“I don’t think he’s anti-Jewish. I think he’s anti anyone who’s anti-black,” said McKenzie.
But later, McKenzie joined those who were shouting down Weiss and his supporters.
“What has the Nation of Islam ever done to a white person?” he shouted. The speakers that night “have the right to say whatever they want to say.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.