[Dawud Walid is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations — Michigan.]
Rarely do we equate Black History Month with the Islamic movement in the United States. In fact, Islam and the history of African-Americans in Detroit have a stronger link than with most other regions.
At the turn of 20th century, many African-Americans migrated from Jim Crow Southern states to northern metropolises such as Detroit and experienced a different form of racism. Proto-Islamic movements such as the Nation of Islam, which was born in Detroit in 1930, convinced many African-American Detroiters that the key to a better life was Islam, that Islam was freedom, justice and equality. The Nation of Islam gained popularity in Detroit and later spread to Chicago, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.
Just as American Muslims today face harassment and are victims of Islamophobia, African-American Muslims in the 1930s-60s faced illegal detainments, firings and, in some cases, assaults and killings. In 1934, teachers and staff of a Muslim school were jailed by the state on charges of leading to the delinquency of minors; children also were incarcerated. The charges were dropped for a lack of evidence.
In 1942, Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, was jailed on draft dodging charges at the age of 45, even though he was past draft age. Other Islamic movements in Detroit faced harassment for being perceived as foreign creeds that had the potential of altering the status quo.
Islam’s message of social equality attracted Malcolm X, otherwise known as “Detroit Red,” whose charismatic speeches helped spark the spread of Islam among African-Americans. Malcolm X’s influence became so widespread that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover feared Malcolm X’s becoming the “Black Messiah.” This same message attracted the world’s most famous athlete and recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Muhammad Ali.
Many African-American Muslims with roots in Michigan — such as Imam W. Deen Mohammed, the first Muslim to make the invocation in the U.S. Senate, and Adam Shakoor, America’s first Muslim judge and co-trustee of the Rosa L. Parks Trust — are a testament to how Muslims have contributed to the fabric of society.