Bay Area residents had a rare opportunity Sunday to hear a man who may be the single most influential Muslim in America. But the limits of his reach were also on display.
When Imam W. Deen Mohammed stepped to the podium at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, there were perhaps 300 people in the audience, almost all of them African American.
Though most of his hourlong talk was not about race, the issue that made him a revolutionary in American religion, he didn't shy away from it. He urged audience members to think of themselves not in racial categories but in human terms.
Mohammed spoke of how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. But after King's death, Mohammed said black leaders chose another direction.
"Now how come after he died, our leaders talked nothing but 'black' to us," he said. Mohammed said the use of the adjective "black" to describe the community's achievements degraded them - and insulted others.
Noting that African American leaders in Congress refer to themselves as the Congressional Black Caucus, Mohammed questioned how people would react if there was a "white caucus." Mohammed urged those gathered to think about the universality of all people - and that defining religion for any one race is dangerous.
"Black theology weakens our ability to gain from scripture, guidance from scripture, to make ourselves a better religious community," he said.
The words are dramatic considering the path that Mohammed has taken.
Mohammed is the son of Elijah Muhammad, who for more than 30 years led the Nation of Islam, the black separatist religion that deemed all white people to be "devils" and black people to be "gods." W. Deen Mohammed was chosen by his father to carry on his legacy.
But after Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, the son chose a different path. He gradually dissolved the Nation of Islam, leading believers toward the Sunni branch of Islam. All people were equal, regardless of race. Women were the same as men, except for physical strength.
While his father's Nation of Islam explicitly referred to the U.S. flag as a symbol of "slavery, suffering and death," Mohammed started New World Patriotism Day in 1979, according to Imam Faheem Shuaibe, who leads Masjidul Waritheen, an Oakland mosque.