By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Muhammad took the podium, his broad shoulders square, his back uncomfortably straight. He spoke, flanked by bow tied members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam's all-male security force. The leaders were swept to the side, yet still they stood, transfixed by Muhammad's plodding, righteous cadence, as the student minister relived his own run-in with Pak.
"It was said to me by one of my brothers that it was unfortunate that it happened to me," he said. "But I said, 'No, it was a fortunate thing that it happened to me.'"
Muhammad told a story from a couple weeks earlier, when he walked in to get some gas and, he said, was met instead with a vicious onslaught of racial slurs. To make it worse, Muhammad said, the owner was ripping people off on gas, charging $3.29 a gallon. Muhammad decided to only put $5 in the tank but was told the store had a $10 minimum for credit card transactions.
"Because it simply says that if a black man can walk into the store with a suit and a tie on," Muhammad stopped short for effect. "I have a college degree. I came with money to spend — and I'm disrespected like this, it means there's so much blatant disrespect he felt comfortable disrespecting us in our own community.
"We're here to say that we want an end to the price gouging in our community," he continued. "We're saying to our own people that we need to pool our resources and then begin to open up businesses in our own community and shut their businesses down." He was echoing the words of the Nation of Islam's supreme minister, Louis Farrakhan, who preached a "Do For Self" tenet, teaching that if blacks owned their own businesses and hired their own kind, their lives and communities would improve.
"This is about economic warfare. And they have declared war on our community," Muhammad announced, referring to Korean immigrants. "Now it's time to stand up and take back that power by not spending our money in stores where people disrespect us."
His fellow leaders applauded, raising their fists. Councilwoman Carolyn Davis wasn't technically a part of the coalition, but even she lent influence to the cause, calling for a boycott of her constituent's small business. "I am hoping, I am hoping, I am hoping today that nobody goes into this store," she said, looking into the cameras. "I stand firm with the Nation. I stand firm with Brother Muhammad and his congregation."
Davis knew what was obvious to anyone watching: Muhammad was clearly the catalyst. He'd assigned the black leaders their roles. He'd made and supplied the signs. The coalition said it was a group endeavor. But to an outsider like Davis, it was clear. This was a Nation of Islam operation.
Still, Muhammad insisted that his was a supporting role. "I didn't actually, officially, myself call the protest," he said one day on the picket line, his booming voice drowning out a reporter's question. "But I support the protest, because there are other organizations that are a part of the protest."
Even within the Nation of Islam — which reached its peak during the Civil Rights era by preaching black empowerment and black supremacy — Muhammad is a throwback. He's smart, charismatic, ambitious, and he's got preacher-speak down pat, which is why he rose through the ranks of the NOI so quickly. By 1995, when Muhammad was only 28, he was a fully ordained minister.
In June of that year, though, four boys between 12 and 16 broke into an antique store at Westcliff Mall in South Dallas. They tried to make way with the register and a few hundred bucks. They didn't stand a chance. The NOI stresses physical fitness, and it just happened that four Nation of Islam members were working security at the mall that day. Muhammad was with them. They chased down the would-be thieves and, the Associated Press reported, ushered the kids into a meeting room in the mall, where about 50 more Nation of Islam members were waiting. The boys, three brothers and a friend, were then "forced through a gauntlet." The entire congregation took turns whipping the boys with belts and bamboo canes.
Muhammad claimed to be disciplining the kids, but the authorities saw it differently. He and four of his followers were indicted for aggravated kidnapping.
It's the sort of incident that might scare off more mainstream activists — but it happened almost 20 years ago. Still, throughout his effort to rally South Dallas, he dropped hints alluding to his ultimate ambition.
"Our enemy has done a very good job teaching others," Muhammad said on a radio show during the protests. "Those who originally oppressed us in this country have done a very good job teaching others who come to this country, like the Asian and Koreans in particular, how to divide and conquer us."
It's a view he's careful not to share with the "white media." Muhammad kicked the Observer out of a meeting about the boycott when he realized that the reporter, although black, didn't work for a black-owned newspaper. And after initially agreeing to an interview, he later refused to speak with the reporter.