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.