In the summer of 2020, University of Redlands leadership established the weeklong Diversity in Action residency to introduce ideas, perspectives, and experiences that challenge and inspire the University community. Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, one of the most respected authorities on the life and legacy of human rights leader Malcolm X, is the program’s inaugural resident and began working with students, faculty, and staff on the main Redlands campus on March 7. Katie Olson of the Bulldog Blog spoke with Muhammad about his work and why Malcolm X remains relevant today.
Bulldog Blog: What are your first impressions of the Redlands campus and community?
Abdur-Rahman Muhammad: It's absolutely beautiful. The way it's hidden here against the mountains. It really has a spiritual feel to it. It's contemplative, serene, calm—very pleasant.
BB: You’re the University’s first Diversity in Action resident. Is this your first time working with college students?
Muhammad: No. I'm a scholar and an independent historian, and that comes out of an activist tradition. In the African-American community, we have a very storied tradition of activists who were writers, musicians, playwrights, singers, entertainers, and intellectuals. So, I see myself coming out of that tradition. As a result, I've always been engaged with students, whether as an undergraduate myself—in the activist scene in Washington D.C., we had so many movements when I was a young man. There was the anti-apartheid movement, and the movement to make Dr. King's birthday a national holiday was also very active in D.C. and on the campus of Howard University, my alma mater. There were many different movements involving students. I love speaking to students and I've spoken on many campuses over the years.
BB: You wear many hats—you're an activist, an independent researcher, journalist, and historian. Did you always imagine yourself doing this kind of work? And how did you launch this career?
Muhammad: I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I had a vague idea that I would be a lawyer. But I didn't really understand how to build a career, or even what a degree was necessarily supposed to do for me. I just knew that I had to go to college. I got exposed to university life by attending dances and events at Brown University, which was literally a couple of blocks down from my high school. That's how I got the idea to even go to college—it wasn’t something that was really discussed in my family. I don't think I've ever really had clarity on what I would do for a career. I do know, though, that I was a young man who was very angry at how I was treated by the police. I knew that Howard University was a historically Black college, and I wanted to be in the Black scene because I come from a predominantly white state—I’m from Providence, Rhode Island. So, I was looking for that community more than learning how to build a career at that time in my life.
BB: You're the foremost authority on Malcolm X’s assassination. How did you become interested in him in the first place? What was the catalyst for this work?
Muhammad: The catalyst was my attending Howard University. Around 1980, one of the convicted assassins was doing television interviews, attempting to exonerate the two men who were convicted with him at that time, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson—now they are known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam. He was doing television interviews, and these interviews appeared on our college television station. That's what I first got exposed to this injustice. In the early 80s, Mike Wallace hosted a 60 Minutes series on it. I was seeing it in the media, and I felt that it would be resolved; obviously, these two men didn't do it. But you find out that in the criminal justice system, once they get a conviction, there are so many reputations on the line that nothing ever became of this new information. Around 1986, I became a Muslim. I was born into a Catholic family, and I accepted Islam. This put me right in the Muslim community in Washington D.C. Malcolm, at one time, was the minister of the Washington D.C. mosque. There were many people alive at that time, who knew him and worked with him, and I began to detect that there were still some hard feelings towards him. That was interesting because outside of the Muslim community, Malcolm was a universal hero. But within the African-American Muslim community, especially some of the old-timers that I got a chance to talk to, there was some residual bit of bitterness about it.
In 1988, I filed a Freedom of Information Act with the FBI to get some documents on the Nation of Islam. In those days, you had to literally go down to the Hoover Building in Washington D.C. with an escort and mark the documents that you wanted. They would make copies and mail them to you and then you had to wait. Long before I even went to college, the federal government had released their files on Malcolm X. They had also released the files from the New York bureau of the FBI that was tracking him, so those were available on microfiche and at certain libraries. I just took it from there. I'm not the only one who has investigated this thing. There’s a handful of researchers who've taken a hard look at this, so I don't claim to be the only one. But I'm the one who made the positive identification of the true shotgun assassin. If I have any claim to notoriety, it's for that. It was after the acclaim of the series that I published photos of most of the other assassins. They were an absolute mystery; their faces had never even been seen.
BB: In the docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X?, you show extraordinary commitment and courage in your work. At times, it’s very apparent that people were wary of your questions. How did you know you were doing the right thing? How did you keep going?
Muhammad: Well, one thing I share with people is that there was no way that I could go like full-throttle on this research project. I'm an independent historian, a man with a family and a job. I'm not affiliated with any institution. I have no budget. There were times when things would be quiet, and then there would be times when I'd get a little nugget, and then I'd get energized. I'd find some money—I might have a good month selling cars because I’ve had very humble, working-class positions. I might be able to do some traveling, maybe go to New York, or New Jersey. But it wasn’t the kind of thing I could do full-time.
I had to be very careful. That is a very painstaking process. I like to use the word “skullduggery”—I'm engaged in something that could be dangerous. For most of the time that I have been looking at the assassination of Malcolm X, the actual participants were still very much alive, and still relatively young. The reason it's taken so long to get to the bottom of it is that the way they killed Malcolm—in broad daylight, in front of 400 people and his pregnant wife—was so brazen and so shocking that it sent a message, loud and clear: If we did this to Malcolm in broad daylight, with all caution to the wind, we can just as easily come and get you too. It was similar to a private citizen trying to investigate the mafia. Your whole family's at risk; it's none of your business. So, I had to learn how to ask questions. When people feel comfortable talking, 97% of what they said can be of no use at all, but that 3% might be gold. But you have to let people tell it to you. Because if you ask a question too directly, all kinds of flags will go up because this was a taboo subject.
BB: What can we learn from Malcolm X's life and legacy today?
Muhammad: We can learn that a man who is born of very humble beginnings can raise himself up through the power of self-education and spark of inspiration. With a commitment to self-development, you can live a very impactful life. You may not become a Malcolm X, but you can be a change agent, you can make a difference. Malcolm was not a Martin Luther King, who was born into a very comfortable middle-class existence. Except for Malcolm's youngest brother, Robert, none of his brothers and sisters went to college. They’re all regular working-class Black folk trying to make a living. Because of his intelligence, his commitment to self-education, and being inspired by the leadership of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became an international figure. That’s what we can learn from this life—average people can do above-average things.
BB: What's next for you? Is Malcolm X's assassination going to be your life's work?
Muhammad: I'm an independent historian, I talk about the totality of the African-American experience, going back to 1619 when we first arrived here. That covers a lot of bases, media-wise. Next, I’m working on a new series about social justice.
BB: What do you hope people will take away from this week?
Muhammad: That we're living in an age where the country is having a reckoning with its unsavory past, related to race. A liberal arts school is supposed to expose students and others to different perspectives and experiences. The campus must engage with the perspectives and the experiences of all of its students, whatever their backgrounds, and that should be a working partnership between the administration and the students—to try to address some of these unsavory aspects of history.