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.
“It’s so abundantly clear about what is going on in world affairs is about the US imprisonment of the rest of the world’s collective thinking.” – 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