In the Minority

Muhammad Kenyatta Fights for Civil Rights

At least on the surface, Muhammad I. Kenyatta is a man of contradictions. He is 38 years old and a second-year student at the Law School. He is a Baptist minister who changed his name to that of the most sacred prophet of the Islamic church. He is a civil rights activist calling for a boycott of a Law School course on civil rights; a champion of Black causes who indirectly caused the re-election of a notoriously anti-Black mayor of Philadelphia.

These apparent contradictions have subjected him to criticism both now and in the past. The boycott, with which Kenyatta has been closely identified, has been widely censured by students and the national press. His protest candidacy in the Philadelphia Mayoral primary drew criticisms from other Black leaders in the city, most of whom supported a mainstream liberal candidate.

But Kenyatta does not think either of these stands contradicts his overall support of civil rights. Nor does he think his opposition to school busing precludes a fervent commitment to minority education.

Kenyatta's name is perhaps the most easily explained inconsistency. He was born Donald Jackson but changed it in the early 70s to Muhammad Kenyatta. Not a Muslim, he ruefully notes that his name makes him unique among Baptist preachers. But he says that he chose the name, not because of the Muslim prophet, but in honor of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslim movement, as a sign of Black nationalism.

Born in the "West End" ghetto of Chester. Pennsylvania, Kenyatta--unlike most law students--spent his childhood attending a segregated elementary school. Soon after his fourteenth birthday, he was ordained a Baptist minister at Chester's Calvary Baptist Church. He has been a minister for almost 25 years now and has spent most of that time as a civil rights activist. His activism has led to threats on his life by both the FBI and "Black Mafia" drug dealers, he says.

Outwardly, Kenyatta does not fit most people's idea of a radical activist He is average height, a little heavy-set, and has an average-looking face. Like most men of his age, he is getting a hint of gray in his hair, carries a briefcase and has teenage children. He speaks in a calm, soft voice, even when discussing an issue about which he feels deeply, for instance, his decision to attend law school because of the law's importance to civil rights.

Kenyatta recently gained prominence in the Harvard community as an organizer of a nationally controversial boycott of a Law School civil rights course. The boycott protests the assignment of Jack Greenberg, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as co-instructor of "Racial Discrimination and Civil Rights." Students had hoped the Law School administration would see the course as an opportunity to add a minority faculty member to its 58-man, one-woman, one-Black tenured staff. Instead, Vorenberg, appointed Greenberg, who is white, and J. Levonne Chambers, Black president of the NAACP fund, who has declined a permanent position on the faculty.

Neither man will replace Derrick A. Bell, the Black tenured professor who taught the course until leaving the Law School in 1980. In addition, students question the ability of a white man, who has not experienced racism, to teach the course as well as a Black.

As the president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), Kenyatta has been an active spokesman for the boycott both inside and outside Harvard. Minority groups chose him last spring to write a letter explaining the boycott to Greenberg and Chambers. Law School Dean James Vorenberg sent a copy of that letter, along with a draft containing his own anti-boycott stance, to law students over the summer. The national media also obtained copies of the letter and quoted from it in articles about the boycott, most of which criticized the boycotting student for what one columnist called "banal ethnocenricism."

In addition to his anger about what he sees as indifference to minority concerns at the Law School. Kenyatta has reservations about the teachers themselves. "They represent civil rights strategies from the 1950s," he says. "They are woefully out of date with what is going on in this country." The economic conditions of American Blacks are worse than they were ten years ago, he claims, blaming this in part to the failure of past civil rights strategies.

Kenyatta thinks the affirmative action controversy at the Law School is only a part of a national problem. Economic issues, he says, are the most important concern for Blacks in America today, and affirmative action is "a key concept" for helping Blacks escape poverty. Attacking the trend against affirmative action, he insists. "We have to fight to broaden it at the very time institutional America is trying to kill it."

The affirmative action problem, according to Kenyatta, stems from traditional ties between American Blacks and the liberal white establishment. "The ideological and strategic impasse at which Black America finds itself is a result of...our leadership having tied itself to the liberal agenda," he claims. One "liberal panacea" which Kenyatta opposes is school busing. He feels that neighborhood schools generally allow children--both Black and white--to get a better education. He says Black parents are interested in making sure their children get a good education and can become more involved in their children's education when the school is near their homes.

Kenyatta believes Black parents' concern for the overall quality of their children's education has been the real reason for past desegregation battles. "The issue for Black people has not been an issue of radical integration per se: it's been an issue of quality education," he says. "The reason we said let's go to the white schools is because we thought that's where the good education was."

National criticism of the student boycott does not bother Kenyatta. He argues that, even if people disapprove of the BLSA's tactics, people will realize the Law School faculty needs more Black professors when they hear about it. He hopes that this will, in turn, bring pressure on Harvard and other law schools to hire more minority faculty members.

Kenyatta is also working with another Law School group, the Affirmative Action Coalition, to bring a legal complaint against the school for discrimination in hiring practices. He doesn't think the complaint will succeed, although he does hope it will also put pressure on the administration to hire more minority professors. He cites administration response at Columbia and Antioch Colleges to similar complaints as precedents for such a move at Harvard Law School.

And if nothing else, the BLSA boycott has led Dean Vorenherg to announce, in the unusual forum of the summer letter to law students that he has offered faculty positions to two Blacks. Neither Vorenberg nor other Law School officials will reveal the names of these two people, although they say one of the two has accepted the offer.

He says the liberal civil rights establishment--and he counts Chambers and Greenberg among its members--is pushing busing policies on whites and Blacks that neither of them want. "It we could get the civil rights establishment to pay as much attention to getting quality education for everyone as it has paid to these elaborate and unsuccessful busing plans, I think it would be a step forward for everybody," Kenyatta says.

This extreme distrust of liberals may have been the reason Kenyatta ran for the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Philadelphia in 1975. At the time, Frank L. Rizzo--whom Kenyatta calls "the George Wallace of the North"--was up for reelection and being challenged by a white liberal state senator, Louis G. Hill, for the party's nomination. Hill was counting on support from the city's Black population to beat Rizzo, and most of the city's Black leaders gave it to him.

Kenyatta did not support Hill, however: he ran for the Democratic nomination himself. The Philadelphia media paid a great deal of attention to his candidacy, in part because he had just completed a highly-publicized citizens' campaign against a "Black Matia" drug ring in the city. Although Kenyatta says he entered the race because he did not think. Hill was really any better than Rizzo, critics have accused him of deliberately splitting the Black vote so Rizzo would win. But Kenyatta denied and continues to deny that he made any deals with Rizzo in exchange for his protest candidacy. Party leaders passed up many good Black candidates for Hill, he says.

One reason for this accusation of collusion lies in the fact that two of Kenyatta's friends were given city jobs by Rizzo. Wycliffe Jangdharrie was appointed to a $19,500-a-year patronage job and Wilmer B. Woodland became a $21,500-a-year special assistant to a gang control program. Personnel records on Woodland are not available, but Jangdharrie was appointed just two months before Kenyatta decided to run for mayor and terminated within a year of the primary. Kenyatta says Woodland was appointed at the beginning of Rizzo's term and adds that Jangdharrie counseled him against running in the primary.

Hill remains bitter towards Kenyatta even seven years after the campaign He notes that, though he has run against many candidates, he felt that in particular he could not trust Kenyatta. Now a judge on the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia. Hill says that during the campaign he felt that his opponent was running simply to help Rizzo, who was later implicated in an anti-Black police brutality scandal, win. Today, Hill feels Kenyatta ran because "he is interested in promoting himself, however the chips may fall."

Whatever his reasons for running, Kenyatta did not have much of an effect on the race in the end. Except for his influence on the Hill campaign, which spent a great deal of time trying to discredit his candidacy, he left little mark on the election. Even in Black wards, Kenyatta picked up so few Black votes that the Philadelphia Inquirer termed his candidacy "inconsequential" and Rizzo easily won more votes than all his opponents.

Although some Philadelphia political leaders may doubt Kenyatta's dedication to civil rights, at least the FBI did not doubt his potential for causing racial trouble in 1969. In April of that year, three FBI agents sent a phony threat letter to Kenyatta while he was at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, working with the Jackson Human Rights project. The letter--which was signed by the "Tougaloo College Defense Committee" and approved by FBI headquarters under the bureau's Counter-Intelligence Program against "Black nationalist" groups--stated that the group disapproved of Kenyatta's activities at Tougaloo. "You are directed to remain away from this campus," it told him.

It also warned Kenyatta that, if he did not take the group's advice, they might "take other measures available to us which would have a more direct effect and which would not be as cordial as this note."

The FBI memorandum asking for approval of this letter speculates that the letter would give Kenyatta, then Donald Jackson, the impression he had been discredited on the campus. The memo adds that it might also cause him to return to Pennsylvania, which he did within a month of receiving it. Now, he is suing the three FBI agents responsible.

The government claims that the letter was not the reason Kenyatta left Tougaloo. Gordon W. Daiger, the Justice Department attorney who is representing the three agents, contends Kenyatta left Tougaloo for other reasons, including the opportunity to work with a new civil rights group in Philadelphia. According to lawyers on both sides of the ease, the suit, which was filed in 1977 should come to trial within six months.

Kenyatta is sure he is as dedicated to civil rights now as he was when he was a student at Tougaloo. Although others may think differently, he does not think anything in his past or present is inconsistent with his support for minority issues.

"For some people, the issue regarding Black oppression in this country is an issue of finding a good master versus a bad master," he says. "My perspective is that... it doesn't matter whether [the master] is Simon Legree or James Vorenberg.... I want to be the master... I want our people to be the masters of their own fate."