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Eddie Conway: In 1980, as a political prisoner in the Maryland penitentiary, I and a number of other prisoners, along with the librarian, organized a program called To Say Their Own Words. At this program, we had a number of speakers. Amiri Baraka, Askia Muhammad, Bruce Franklin, and Charlie Cobb are some of our most prominent speakers. When educational programs were more standard in prisons, these thinkers and scholars came in and spoke about topics like impending US fascism, the prison industrial complex, capitalism, increasing surveillance, and many issues that have escalated today. We were able to find some of these people that spoke to us. We are talking to them now about what’s happening in America today and about a number of their predictions that have came to pass.
Speaker [Video Clip]: The 13th amendment, the one that says that slavery don’t exist in America, except in prisons. And of course we know that we are not slaves. We don’t have any desire to be slaves.
Speaker [Video Clip]: Racism is the foundation of the entire system. Racism is the foundation of capitalism, racism is the foundation of imperialism.
Speaker [Video Clip]: I think whether we look at it historically or whether we look at it in terms of the kind of politics that’s going on in the world today, I think we’d still come out with the same answer.
Speaker [Video Clip]: What I’m talking about is from a slave to a convict, from a convict to a prisoner, from a prisoner to a inmate, from a inmate to a resident.
Speaker [Video Clip]: Patient education and persuasion by those of us who think that we advanced that is the responsibility of consciousness. Consciousness carries with it responsibility.
Speaker [Video Clip]: Let me greet you as Muslims ordinarily greet one another and, in a sense, in a way that people have greeted one another for centuries, with a greeting of peace, which is as-salamu alaykum.
Speaker [Video Clip]: This is our program and this is the proof that it’s our program because we do the work.
Eddie Conway: Askia Muhammad, thank you for joining me.
Askia Muhammad: Yeah, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
Eddie Conway: Okay. 40 years ago, when you came into the Maryland Penitentiary, you spoke to about 100 prisoners, had a dialogue. That was around 1980, and the Iran hostage crisis was in full force then, it ultimately led to the election of Ronald Reagan after some skullduggery. How do you see today, 40 years later, on the eve of an election that brings forth someone even apparently worse than Ronald Reagan. How do you see today, 40 years later now?
Askia Muhammad: Well, I guess going back historically, Barry Goldwater in 1964, who was unsuccessful, laid the path for Richard Nixon.
Barry Goldwater [Video Clip]: The good Lord raised this mighty Republican Republic to be a home for the brave and to flourish as the land of the free. Not to stagnate in the swamp land of collectivism, not to cleanse before the bullying of communism.
Askia Muhammad: He paved the way for Richard Nixon, and the country has been moving to the right ever since then. Richard Nixon laid the pathway for Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan for George W. Bush, who I thought that W, whenever I used his name, meant worst president ever. And now we have, W laid the groundwork for this guy we have in the White House now, who looks like he’s headed for possible, probable, reelection. The irony is that the conditions that have made it possible for Donald J. Trump to be really in this ascension that he’s been in and remains on a high, is that the country has been moving farther and farther and farther and farther to the right. At the time of 40 years ago, Jimmy Carter was presiding over an economy that was being manipulated by the rich and turned against his really decent instincts. Although as president, he did what presidents do, which is rattle the saber and be a warmonger.
But since then we’ve had, at that time, it was Proposition 13 in California, a limit to the amount of property tax that could be imposed on people. And so that was seen as really pretty stringent and conservative. But since then we’ve had movements that each one goes beyond the one before. We had the Tea Party, we had the Boogaloo Boys, we got the Proud Boys, we got QAnon. All of these really bordering on fascist movements, indeed would be fascist movements, have been pushing the perimeter farther and farther to the right. And so Donald J. Trump is really, I think, a master of playing to that sentiment. He really is the ideal white boy. Unlike Goldwater, who really had a semblance, and tried to have, maintain, a semblance of the normal political discourse, Trump has none of that. Unlike George Wallace, who was the original white boy candidate on the national scene, he, this guy is not a southerner, he’s a New Yorker. Unlike David Duke, the klansman, Trump is none of that, he doesn’t have any of that Ku klux Klan, Alabama baggage. He is just a New Yorker. He’s your everyman. He’s what would be a likable guy, a TV star.
And so he caters to that right-wing, Nazi-influenced agenda perfectly, because he doesn’t sound like a cracker. He doesn’t sound like one of those bad guys. He sounds like you and I, white people think. And so this is where we are. Where we’re really on the verge of a fascist takeover, in my opinion. I mean, the takeover has already happened. The takeover has already happened, and really, I think Trump intends, with all his might, to maintain that with whatever it takes for him to maintain it.
Eddie Conway: 40 years ago, when you were talking to us, you had been supporting Ben [Chambers 00:08:42], you had covered and reported on George Jackson’s funeral, Jonathan Jackson, et cetera, you’ve been very involved. And over the years, I’m aware that you continue to be involved. Well, we still have political prisoners locked up, as well as now in the prison-industrial complex, which is way over 2 million people. What do you think we should be doing about it? I mean, there’s people that’s in jail right now and that’s been there for 50 years, or some better than 50 years. What do you think the public should be doing or we should be doing to help get them out?
Askia Muhammad: I think we should be steadfast and maintain solidarity with those brothers and sisters. Assata Shakur is in exile, thankfully not incarcerated, although there’s a what, a $1 million reward for her capture. So we should remain steadfast and not bow away from and let our brothers and sisters who are in this really intolerable situation fall by the wayside. We have to stand with them. And basically that’s the best thing that we can do. And understand and believe that we will prevail, that we will be successful, that this is, I’ve heard often referred to as, the third Reconstruction. The first Reconstruction after the Civil War, after the Confederates were unsuccessful. The second Reconstruction after the civil rights movement in the 1960s. And now here we are with another one. And each one has faced a backlash. Reconstruction faced a backlash. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s faced a backlash.
And so now there’s a huge backlash, even greater than the backlash that we endured before. And the Dixiecrats, the whatever we want to call them, the crackers, think that they are going to prevail by maintaining Trump in office. But then I often remind us, and certainly those who’ve been on lockdown understand this, and who have escaped understand this, that we’ve been here before. We’ve been under even more trying times before. The Dred Scott and the other Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, those were 8-0, 7-2 decisions. So now we’ve got a 5-4 court, maybe if Justice Ginsburg retires and, as she probably will before Trump’s second term ends, and it becomes a 6-3, or even a 7-2 against. So what? It’s been like that before, we’re not going backward. And what the Dixiecrats and the Trumpistas don’t understand is that there will come a time when they need us more than we need them.
And I’m prepared. And I would urge people in our community to just say no when time comes for—and certainly that time will come, when US military is tried and tested, they will need the support of people who are there now kicking dirt in the face of the people who were there now thrown under the bus. They will need us. Even now, speaking of those who are incarcerated, just this week, I think in California at least, former incarcerated firefighters have finally been getting their prison records expunged so they can become firefighters, because they just need so many firefighters. The need has become so great, and things are not going to get any better. The unintended consequence of the right wing, which they don’t know and they don’t understand, is that Black people are not alone. We have the spirit of the world with us. And even though some of them are being beat back, the righteousness of our cause will prevail, and they cannot prevail. They can’t prevail without us. Certainly not, I guess, an external enemy. Although they think that because they have subjugated us internally that we have no choice.
Well, what brother Malcolm said, “When the master’s house is on fire, the house slave will help put the fire out. But the yard slave, the yard Negro, the field Negro will pray for a strong wind.” And I believe that when that time comes and, as it’s approaching now. Donald Trump says we’re going to have a vaccine for the coronavirus. Well, if it’s so good, you take it, Donald J. Trump. Donald Jr., you take it. Eric, you take it. Ivanka, you take it on TV live so that we know that you really, really believe this, rather than saying you’re going to experiment on us.
Eddie Conway: And I think it’s important to go back a minute and look at history. Does the Iran hostage crisis seem to be where the anti-Islamic sentiments started in this country? And now it’s completely out of hand. What do you think in terms of just the religious aspect of how the right wing in America is dealing with, not just the Islamic faith, but other faiths that even appear, like the Sikh, that appears to look like they’re Muslims?
Askia Muhammad: Well, even among the Christians, the Caucasians think that if you’re not—and I guess, I saw something on social media that raised the question, do white Christians think there’ll be a segregated heaven? Well, I mean, they don’t believe that Black people are going to go to heaven, their heaven, as it is. I saw something just this weekend, Pat Robertson says the Black church, and others say the Black church is a hotbed for hostility, and the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to destroy the Christian faith. Well, not the Black Christians, not the Christians that I know. And so there can’t be two Christs. There can’t be two Gods, there has to be only one. And so if that’s the case, the same God that Muslims pray to is the God that the Christians pray to, the same God that the Buddhists and all the others pray to.
And so there’s only one Supreme. And so I believe, and I think evidence shows quite conclusively, that the Pat Robertsons of the world, that the Jerry Falwells of the world, that the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world are corrupt and are wrong, and will be brought down. I mean, hardly any of them who espouse these philosophies has gone without shame. Falwell, whomever it might be, disgraced, Jimmy Swaggart, disgraced. So they’re bankrupt, but because it’s convenient and because white people really believe in whiteness—and for a long time, they had us believing in whiteness. I was talking to my wife recently, we used to watch cowboy movies and root for the cowboys. So we didn’t know any better. And in a sense, white people, some of whom were probably well-meaning, don’t know any better either, but what are you going to say?
Custer, the white man who was an aggressor and wrong, and who was trounced by Sitting Bull, white people sympathized with that guy. White people sympathized with the aggressors at the Alamo. White people sympathized with the white point of view because it favors them, and because they’re white. But they’re wrong. And so it’s as simple as that. They cannot prevail, they cannot hold on, they cannot win. And if there’s any truth in what the Bible says, “God is not mocked. So know that so as a man soweth, so shall he reap.” If that’s true—I didn’t write it, it was written long before I was born. If that’s true, then boy, that white Christian church has something terrible coming toward it, and I wouldn’t want to be a part of that.
And good Christians ought to say, “Hmm, are we being led in the right direction?” And perhaps some will wake up and recognize that that’s wrong and not be a part of it. But otherwise we look at people crying and misery in California and all these fires, they lost everything. And I just think about how in silence Black people cried when babies were ripped from their arms and sold off into slavery somewhere else. When men had to watch their wives being raped, when men were sodomized by slave owners. When all these horrible things happened, we didn’t have video. We didn’t have any way of knowing what they were doing widely, only anecdotally, only among the few who are able to see that. And so now we see the same sort of grief coming to people throughout the country. Many of them, most of them white. And so it’s terrible to watch, but it’s not unprecedented.
Eddie Conway: You were talking about how we’ve been here before, and obviously we have in 1865, ’70, the 1870s, we’ve been here before. Like you say, with the civil rights movement and the dogs, the water hoses, the hangings, the lynchings, the murders, et cetera. We’re here again now. And I’m looking at Trump and I’m seeing that even after the election, he still might decide not to leave office. Or he’s building a case due to the manipulation of the post office through just mass media that the voting won’t be fair, it won’t be counted, et cetera. And we know George Bush won the Florida election just because there was no pushback on it. And we’re looking again at a possibility of an election being stolen or not being respected. And it looks to me like we might be heading for another civil war or hopefully, God forbid, not a race war. But it looks like there’s forces out there, fascist forces trying to push for that.
How, how do you see this going? I mean, it’s the court itself is one of the factors, but right now—and there’s men on the ground. There’s the promise keepers, say, for instance, or the Oath Keepers, or you name it. There’s people on the ground that’s trying to push us into some sort of conflict. How do you see this playing out?
Askia Muhammad: Well, I think the difference now and what’s happened before is that there are Black people who will shoot back. Since COVID, the greatest largest number of people purchasing weapons, I read, has been Black people. Black women are learning to shoot and are being armed. Now, I don’t know that we can necessarily prevail against the Boogaloo Boys and the Proud Boys and all them. I think what, rather than a race war per se, it’ll be something like what happened in Rosewood. What happened in Greenwood, Florida, and Rosewood, Tulsa, Oklahoma, that white people think that they can just march in and torch our residences and burn down all of our accomplishments and businesses the way they did 101 years ago. But what’ll happen is that there’ll be some Black people who shoot back. Now, the question then becomes for it to be a civil war, it would have to be really a military engagement.
So which side is the US military going to protect? So far, the police have sided with the white supremacists. They gave water to the boy up in Kenosha who killed two people who was illegally armed. When Dylann Roof shot up the church in South Carolina, they took him to get a burger. Black people, and it happens every single week, a Black person gets beaten… The latest incident was a Black man was beaten for not having a driver’s license and he wasn’t driving. A Black man was beaten and killed for riding a bicycle. I mean, what violation, what criminal violation can you commit on a bicycle when there was no crime committed? And certainly what violation could you have committed that would justify the death penalty? But police had become judge, jury, and executioner, and they have sided with the Boogaloo Boys, and the Tea Party, and all those guys who think that they’re going to have their way with us again.
Certainly the forces of nature aren’t on their side. They deny climate change, and climate change has caused the fires in California and Oregon and Washington to be the worst ever. And we’re only halfway through the fire season, and the fires have consumed more than they did ever before. And one fire in California is 750 square miles. I can see, I believe, that the forces of nature are on the side of the oppressed, and that these people will not be able to get away with their evil plans to attack us. I saw someone suggest online that, well, if these Boogaloo Boys are so bad, why don’t they march into California and help put the fires out? They don’t want to do that. I saw just last week, a 59-year-old former Marine, 59 years old, went through bootcamp in order to get back into the army reserve. Well, if you’re so bad, if you’re so tough, do that. Join the US military and go fight people who will fight you back. Don’t think you’re going to attack innocent Black people, you’re going to attack unarmed Black people, you’re going to attack helpless Black people and get away with it.
So no, they think that this is what’s going to happen, but there’s always unintended consequences. When George W. Bush attacked Afghanistan, he should have known better than that. Alexander the Great could not conquer Afghanistan. The Russians in 1980 could not conquer Afghanistan. Afghanistan has not been conquered. And now they are on the verge of winning again, and the United States is backing out, claiming some sort of a victory when, in fact, they have been humiliated like they were in Vietnam. Humiliated like they were in Korea. The Korean War isn’t over, it’s just a truce. Not since World War II has the United States won a war, and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad said they will not win another war. So I believe that that’s correct. And I believe that the evidence suggests that if they try and if they attack us, then they can’t prevail, they can’t win.
Now, on top of which there will be some people who shoot back, which is not what they anticipated. They think that it’s going to be a cakewalk. That’s what Custer thought when he attacked Sitting Bull. The Indians will run when they see our might and our golden hair and our swords, they will run. And they killed him and everybody with him; they even killed Custer’s horse. So no, I don’t think that there’s any mercy for them if they attack us in that way. And in addition to the fact that they can’t prevail, I think they will have a humiliating defeat at their hands.
Eddie Conway: Just I want to make a couple points. The bail now for Assata is $2 million. They upped it for some reason or another, and the FBI took it to Congress and added an additional million dollars to it. I just want to point that out. But yeah, I think you’re right, because just yesterday they had an incident in LA, and I don’t necessarily endorse that kind of activity, but some Black guy apparently is being hunted now by the LAPD because he shot two deputy sheriffs. And I guess if you keep shooting Black people, eventually somebody is going to shoot you back. Dr. Muhammad, thank you for joining me.
Askia Muhammad: You’re very welcome, and thanks for having me. I’m honored to be with you.
Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.
In 1980, TRNN’s Eddie Conway helped organize a prisoners’ educational outreach program called “Say Their Own Word,” where thinkers and scholars came to Maryland Penitentiary and spoke about topics like impending US fascism, the prison-industrial complex, capitalism, increasing surveillance, and many other issues that have become even more pressing today. These speakers included Amiri Baraka, Askia Muhammad, Bruce Franklin, Nijole Benokraitis, and Charlie Cobb. As part of a series, TRNN will be speaking with these individuals about their predictions in 1980 and how they resonate today. This interview is with activist, journalist, photojournalist, radio broadcaster, and poet Askia Muhammad.
Askia Muhammad has been honored for his work on National Public Radio by the National Association of Black Journalists. He currently is a columnist for the Washington Informer and the senior editor of The Final Call newspaper. Eddie Conway spoke with him again leading up to the 2020 election for TRNN’s Rattling the Bars, and he reflected back on his speech in 1980, as well as what he thinks about the current political situation.
In 1980, when Muhammad spoke at Maryland Penitentiary Prison, the Iran hostage crisis was developing and the United States was on the cusp of the so-called Reagan Revolution, which accelerated a rightward turn in American politics that continues to this day. Muhammad at the time predicted that the hostage crisis and Jimmy Carter’s refusal to speak to the just demands of the Iranian people would fast-forward the US towards a “1984” scenario.
Speaking to TRNN, Muhammad explains how you can trace the rise of Donald Trump directly to this rightward tilt in foreign policy. “The conditions that have made it possible for Donald J. Trump to be in this ascension … is that the country has been moving farther and farther and farther and farther to the right,” he said.
He sees the Reagan administration as reflecting the racism of the Nixon administration, which in turn built on the racism that Barry Goldwater brought with his unsuccessful campaign for president—each movement building on the one before. “Trump is really, I think, a master of playing to that sentiment. He really is the ideal white boy,” says Muhammad.
Muhammad thinks that Trump has figured out how to appeal to white people by ignoring the respectability politics that people like Goldwater trafficked in, while at the same time not sounding—in tone, anyways—like the traditional Southern racist. “He caters to that right-wing Nazi influence agenda perfectly because he doesn’t sound like a cracker, he doesn’t sound like one of those bad guys. ‘He sounds like you and I,’ white people think. So this is where we are.”
In 1980, Muhammad addressed the crowd of Maryland prisoners with a deep concern about the United States’ increasing power, and in particular its growing number of political prisoners.. He struggled to reconcile the contradiction of a country touting lofty ideas of freedom and liberty, while at the same time locking up so many people for their political views. “If the US is so powerful politically, why did it take until Christmas Eve 1979 to get the Reverend Ben Chavis out of jail? If the US is the most powerful country in the world politically, has the best political system in the world, why is Ruchell McGee, an innocent man, still rotting in a California prison cell?”
Muhammad still expresses solidarity with these prisoners and those like them in 2020, and believes that the path for justice for these prisoners and for all Black Americans is ultimately the righteous path. “Black people are not alone, we have the spirit of the world with us, and even though some of them are being beat back, the righteousness of our cause will prevail,” he says.
He sees this righteousness reflected in the downfall of white Christian leaders who have tried to attack Black progress. “I believe, and I think evidence shows quite conclusively, that the Pat Robertsons of the world, that the Jerry Falwells of the world, and that the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world are corrupt and are wrong and will be brought down. I mean, hardly any of them who espouse these philosophies have gone without shame … the forces of nature are against white supremacy,” he says.
He links the conditions that people are facing now and in 1980 to the history of struggle that goes over centuries for Black people. For example, while people are concerned about a Supreme Court without Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he is reminded of the near unanimous court decisions in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson. “What the Dixiecrats and the Trumpistas don’t understand is that there will come a time when they need us more than we need them.”
He notes the fact that former California prisoner firefighters can now have their records expunged due to the need that America has for their labor to fight record wildfires in California. As these crises become more and more frequent, he says, America will have to come around to the idea that Black Americans and imprisoned Americans are not to be discarded.
When addressing the Maryland prisoners in 1980, Muhammad spoke to the war of ideas that Black people are fighting as one in which they were “woefully underarmed.” But now Muhammad points to the increase in Black gun ownership as an indication that Black people are not willing to continue to allow their rights to be eroded under a fascist regime. “I think the difference now is that there are Black people willing to shoot back,” he said.
Additional reporting by Molly Shah
Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Ericka Blount
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino