“The stone that the builders refuse shall become the head cornerstone”…Psalms 118:22
In March 1996, I awoke one Friday morning, after speaking at East High School the night before, to find my image on the front page of both the Denver Post and the now defunct Rocky Mountain News. The headlines read something like, “Jamal X did not apologize.” I didn’t apologize for critical remarks about racism and white supremacy in my presentations at local high schools and colleges. At the time, I was the Denver, Colorado representative of Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (NOI). I was known first as Jamal X and then as Jamal Muhammad. That was approximately 20 years ago.
Before my arrival to the Mile High City, I taught at the University of Islam, an elementary and middle school in South Central Los Angeles dedicated to teaching youth to be academically competent with the LA Unified School District and to also train them in self- knowledge and organization. Many of our students came from the “killing fields” of LA schools to our mosque school where they experienced positive changes in their academic levels and general behavior. I was the former first lieutenant of the FOI (Fruit of Islam) of Muhammad Mosque 27, one of the NOI satellites favored by Minister Louis Farrakhan for its great support of his directives and program. I didn’t sit on my hands at the LA mosque and complain about what was wrong. I was known as a worker who would roll up his sleeves and get down and dirty if needed.
The first time I came to Denver was in June 1994 with two or three NOI security officers to deliver a lecture at the local mosque in the old Dahlia Shopping Center. I had to hold back tears as I saw the condition of my brothers and sisters in the local mosque. There was a lot of infighting and disagreements before I arrived and this was the scene that I was about to become a part of. I returned the following month to be installed as the minister of Muhammad Mosque 51.
Early on, rejection was bountiful on several levels because of my outspokenness and religious status as Muslim – but I was unfazed. Upon arrival I sent out introductory press kits to the media and various organizations including the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, an organization serving the Black community. They outright rejected my assistant’s attempt to join the alliance. Even though to my knowledge, Rabbi Steven Foster, a leader in the Jewish community of Denver was privileged with membership in the ministerial alliance. This same rabbi invited me to discuss current events on his cable TV show on more than one occasion.
In addition to my new position being very enjoyable, it was also very educational. I had had plenty of experiences to draw from, including my time in Watts, Inglewood and several other LA neighborhoods as a lieutenant and study group coordinator. But, I had never been the focus of any television or newspaper reporting to the degree that I experienced in Denver. In Los Angeles, I was a teacher, lieutenant and student minister in the mosque, not a public figure as such. I was always wearing too many hats.
As a Fruit of Islam officer in LA, I worked airport security detail to secure Minister Farrakhan’s wellbeing many times. I recall one time in particular when my regional minister, Abdul Wazir Muhammad, called me from the side of the car I had driven to the airport to drop off the minister at LAX. Minister Farrakhan came walking back out of the airport terminal by himself towards me. He talked to me and greeted me very warmly and asked me about my family. He told me that Minister Wazir had told him how involved I was in the Los Angeles NOI activities. Praising me playfully and very fatherly, the Minister said that I was following his path and becoming like him. I was very active in LA. It was an honor to me and it was really a great honor to be around the minister. I remember being in charge of the post, directly behind his back, at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1990. I remember many things. And, even though many times I felt like an outsider in the midst of the Nation of Islam, I regret nothing.
Denver’s African-American community was quite different from what I was accustomed to. It was not as confrontational and tended to be less outwardly aggressive as their Los Angeles and East Coast counterparts. There definitely was more apathy and passivity than you might find in any major city but Denver Black people also had their first Black mayor – the mayor nationally known for putting on his tennis shoes and hitting the pavement – the Honorable Wellington E. Webb. He had much love and support for and from the “hood” but there was also mixed feelings and some resentment from the community. It seemed that Black lives really didn’t matter as much as other lives in the city of Denver, even though it was a fast growing city with many opportunities for educated Blacks. During that time, I had heard a speech by Mayor Webb about Denver and how it was a growing city and I thought that Black people including myself should be growing with it. But I kept reading about crimes committed against Black women and Black people in general and it bothered me a lot. It was just like in South Central Los Angeles where numerous Black women were killed. They were under-investigated and under-reported in the LA law enforcement and media for almost 30 years and were the subject of a 2014 Lifetime channel movie, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper.” Margaret Prescod, KPFK radio host of the Sojourner Truth morning show out of Los Angeles kept this issue front and center on her show for the past three decades.
In a Denver Post article, writer Chuck Green lamented on the non-involvement of Denver’s Blacks in a recent killing of a young African American female who was found close to Grape Street near where I lived and not too far from where the NOI weekly meetings were held. I was sensitive to this issue from my South Central LA background. That incident sparked an exchange between Green and me about how media ignored Black suffering and used appropriated images of dark humanity to scare voters like what George Bush Sr. did in his Willie Horton ad against Democrat candidate George Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. I agreed with Green that Black people weren’t outraged enough at many negative things in the communities of color. I challenged the media to report more accurate facts about cocaine arrests in the Black community. Subsequently, the Denver Post printed a whole section of a San Jose Mercury News expose of U.S. government officials conspiring with Central American nationalists under President Ronald Reagan to bring cocaine into South Central Los Angeles to fund illegal activities in the Iran-Contra affair. The story is featured in the film “Kill The Messenger.” The story of Gary Webb, the reporter who uncovered these facts, was found dead allegedly from several self-inflicted wounds to the head.
I had been feeling anxious and concerned about what I was seeing around Five Points and Aurora. The local newspapers published ongoing articles about the “negative population growth” emanating from Los Angeles almost like it was a plague. I saw and heard the concerns of Denver residents in general. Urban growth can be problematic but it reminded me of a question by the great W.E.B. Du Bois: “How does it feel to be a problem?” It sounded like African-Americans and Latinos were being blamed for whatever increase in crime and stress on state and city services. I wanted to help bring fire to the consciousness of the people in Northeast Denver and spread it throughout the state.
None of this is to say that before arriving in 1994, there was not a history of resistance and progressive political movement among Denver’s Black community. But I didn’t come here asking anyone for permission to do anything either. My attitude was: “Don’t ask what you can do? Just do something.” I just wanted to put into practice all of what I learned during my time at Los Angeles Mosque 27 and contribute to the community I was sent to live and work in. I lived in the late Councilman Hiawatha Davis’s District 8 who was a great mentor, good friend and supporter of me as well. Davis has a special place in my heart for his example and manner of going about helping his community. I was and am inspired by his humble service to his district. My relationship with the west coast NOI leadership was confrontational most of the time. I met the new regional head chosen by Minister Farrakhan, Tony Muhammad, in Phoenix, Arizona in June, 1995. He tapped me as I was sitting on the dais behind the minister as he concluded a lecture at the convention center. He instructed me to drive to Farrakhan’s Phoenix home for a meeting with him later that evening. The new regional representative seemed sincere and straight forward at first but turned out, in my opinion, to be a petty tyrant flying off into macho man rages, yet not offering any good advice to me on how to be successful in my endeavors. I was on my own in Denver with no family, no friends and no help from the Los Angeles Nation of Islam leadership. But I was eager to work the program and I have always loved reaching out with positive vibes towards my people even when we act negative towards each other. I had paid my own way to Denver to minister and never looked back to smoggy LA for anything but a good kick in the ass.
I found that Black people in Denver were just as down for the cause as Black people anywhere. Just as real and full of heart – just the same. With just a small crew of good brothers and sisters from our local mosque membership, I had to promote the national Million Man March in Denver.
The first Million Man March event that I participated in was a forum sponsored by Brother Jeff in Five Points. It was an open discussion between different segments of Black men around some of the problems Minister Farrakhan was targeting for his October 16, 1995 march in Washington, D.C. The meeting had a good spirit and was well attended and Brother Jeff continued with spreading the word throughout the Five Points community and greater Denver.
Earlier in 1995, I was on the West Coast for a few days visiting my ailing mother. Whenever I checked in with my staff, the Mosque secretary and captain would tell me that this “brother” named Alvertis kept calling and leaving messages for me. When I arrived back in Denver later that week, we met and agreed to work together to promote the Million Man March across the state of Colorado or as far as we could reach. He came to my home and presented it to me from the standpoint of a Black Baptist and a Muslim working towards the same goal, similar to Minister Farrakhan and Benjamin Chavis Jr. but on a local level. We didn’t always agree on tactics but we agreed that time was critical and we had to get the message out to as many Black men as possible.
When we returned from the national march in Washington D.C., we hit the ground running. I fondly remember one meeting hosted by Rev. Dr. Paul Martin at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Park Hill. It was attended by more than 1,100 Black men who were passionate about creating change in the community. Actor Pam Grier was in attendance giving us her blessings and support simply by just being there. Rev. Dr. Paul Martin offered priceless and spiritual advice.
1996 blew in like a hurricane and we set to make the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) a chapter dedicated to the MMM objectives. While connected to the national committee which was headed by Minister Farrakhan and Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., we tried to follow their timelines and directives. I was attempting to hold it all together but it was like herding fleas. I was still the minister of the local NOI mosque and my plate was full just from the ministry. In addition to the many fundraising, teaching and training duties, I still had to conduct weekly mosque meetings and promote the sales of Final Call newspapers, one of the main programs of the NOI.
I didn’t get a lot of sleep in those days because of my work schedule and duties. Up very early and late to bed. I remember some of my neighbors not speaking to me because police were parked around at night. I don’t know who was watching but my neighbors seemed to think that it was me because of who or what I represented. I never lost sleep over that.
One day, a brother who attended mosque meetings regularly called me out of the blue and asked: “What would you do if a child was killed in your neighborhood as a minister of the Nation of Islam?” We spoke for a few minutes and I immediately called Alvertis Simmons and we went around asking local leaders of a few organizations to help us and put a spotlight on the shooting of a three-year-old by alleged gang members. We went door to door passing out flyers asking the neighbors to speak up and speak out. Later that week I saw Denver Police Chief David Michaud and Mayor Wellington Webb on the nightly news at the scene of the child’s murder. Because of our activism, the spotlight was put on Denver’s Local Organizing Committee. It wasn’t the only one. We were also criticized for a George Washington High School student “walk-out” and a few other incidents around Denver. In 1996, I was banned from appearing at Denver schools. The American Civil Liberties Union lawyers took my case to court and had the decision reversed.
In July 1997, I was suspended from the post as the minister at which time an investigation ensued.
Several months passed and I called the regional minister since I hadn’t heard anything and he told me that I was “relieved of duty.” Just like that. No warning. No explanation. And, no communication from Minister Farrakhan. Interestingly enough, I was relieved.
When I stopped associating with the NOI, I ventured back into two of my favorite passions – books and music. I broadened my reading list and bought my share of books from the Hue-Man Bookstore. I applied for a job at the bookstore and the owner, Clara Villarosa, who had seen me around town, said that she would hire me, but had been warned not to because I was a “troublemaker.” I am grateful that she hired me with a few warnings. The Quran says that Allah tries believers once a year very severely because He loves them. So Allah purifies them this way. I was going on about four or five years of trials and tribulations non-stop. The Most High must love me if we use that rule. At least, that’s what I think sometimes.
I kept a guitar around the house for years even as an NOI member but hardly played it. It was eventually pawned in LA along with a nice Music Man bass I had kept for a while. A friend gave me an acoustic guitar of which I started playing after work to relax. I enjoyed old country blues songs by Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Music became a great focus for me again. I dove into it with a hunger. I went into my innermost being and grounded myself through ritual, dance and music.
I began playing in funk and reggae groups and moving around different parts of the country – playing and hustling. I am from Panama and I speak Spanish and several other languages with fluency. I am also what you call a “Caribbean brother.” There is a saying by the NOI Muslims that when you leave the mosque, you go back to what you were doing before. Well, I fast-forwarded to my Caribbean roots and never looked back.
The dreads I wear are not a fashion statement. The dreads that crown my head mean that I received a great blessing. I have been asked if I am Rasta now. I was always Rastafari even when I was clean shaven and give the greetings of “As salaam alaikum.” If I am Rasta it is because I am living in the moment with my sights aimed forward – a vision to look forward without fear and to learn and grow. And I don’t need a dogma or religion to do that. It is not a religion but a culture of divine elevation and resistance which has spread across the earth from the tiny island of Jamaica where three of my grandparents come from. My mother’s father was from Bangladesh and came to the Caribbean looking for work and business opportunities so I have plenty to celebrate about my heritage.
Really, as I see it, all religions and dogmas and doctrines belong to me. I don’t belong to a church or mosque or temple. I don’t belong to none of them because they all belong to me. I don’t deal as much with dogma and doctrine. I am like a bee buzzing around the garden of life in search of that deep, sweet honey which is the bounties of Jah. I just deal with life. What are you dealing with?
Editor’s note: Jamal Mootoo returned to Denver to pursue his creative skills in writing (as a columnist for DUS), music and public speaking. He can be reached by email at Jamal@urbanspectrum.net or 303-292-6446.
Photos by Bernard Grant