Backstory: Islam's soul of the South
The improbable rise of a black Muslim politician in deepest Alabama.
Yusuf Salaam's dedication to racial reconciliation started when a white man died for his sister. It was 1965 Alabama, the height of the civil rights movement, and Mr. Salaam's 16-year-old sister, Ruby Sales, was in the thick of it, working to end segregation. That August day she, with a handful of others, was confronted by a shotgun-wielding avowed racist. As he leveled his gun, shouting obscenities, Ruby was shoved out of the way by an Episcopal seminarian named Jon Daniels who died instantly from the blast.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"If you want to understand what I stand for, and why I do what I do here in this place that isn't known for its tolerance and its understanding, you really have to go back to Ruby and that Jon Daniels thing," Salaam says referring to the incident that occurred not far from this city aside the churning Alabama River.
When Daniels was killed, Salaam was at a summer prep school in Colorado "along with a bunch of rich kids," as he puts it. "They offered me a scholarship. But after what happened, I felt like I had to go back to my Jim Crow school in the South and start being a part of it.
"I felt such a sense of gratitude then that someone from outside the black race would make such a sacrifice for us, that it nullified any inclination I had toward looking at it racially myself."
Today's Selma, he will tell you, is a different place than it was during the height of violence and suffocating oppression of 1965. And he's right. Gov. George Wallace's state troopers no longer menace peaceful marchers, Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse no longer terrorize blacks registering to vote. The city has a black mayor and a majority black city council. Enfranchisement at least has been achieved.
But he also grudgingly acknowledges what's still there: the issue, the question, the matter of race. It's a current just below the surface, determining and defining just about everything from the city budget to candidates for public office. It's safe to say that one of this nation's most racially intolerant cities in the 1960s still has issues. But when you cast about for a way to measure Selma's lack of tolerance and it's unwillingness to reconcile and embrace change, you run up on a problem in the form of Yusuf Salaam himself.
It would be hard to find anyone so out of the ordinary and unlikely to be accepted in middle Alabama. Yet, here's a Muslim convert of 30 years who is Selma and Dallas County's representative to the state house in Montgomery. The county is 47 percent white and 99 percent Christian – and many of them, black and white, are deep-water, conservative Baptists. With demographics like that, it would seem a Muslim vying for public office wouldn't have a prayer – especially with central Alabama's record of resistance to change.
However, it appears that Salaam has hit upon a successful strategy: He speaks the politics of pragmatism and reconciliation, and a lot of people – enough to reelect him – love that.
"You have to be wise when you get power," he says over breakfast at the Downtowner Restaurant, a few blocks from the Pettus Bridge, site of a bloody attack on black voting rights marchers in 1965. "I learned I had to find a way to transition from protest politics to electoral politics. You see, it's one thing to dream about power, it's quite another to actually govern, to deliver to the people. And the test of faith, in Selma, comes with being fair to all races."
But how does that come off in Selma's day to day, where a flagging economy and lingering animosities aggravate festering racial issues? The proof is in the returns. Salaam won handily in 2002 and 2004. Last June he won the Demo- cratic primary – almost equivalent to winning the general election here – with 54 percent of the vote.
He gets high marks from both whites and blacks for being what he calls a "compassionate-conservative Democrat." That roughly means he's about fiscal discipline and accountability, is antiwar, not a George Bush fan, but ardently anti-abortion. And he's big on delivering: He's funneled $10 million in development funds to the area in recent years and backed a major road-building project that serves a nearly all-white community north of Selma.