Backstory: Islam's soul of the South

The improbable rise of a black Muslim politician in deepest Alabama.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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"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.

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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.

His connection to the people was clear in his reception at the Downtowner. Next to a table full of burly white guys making too much noise and going on about turkey hunting, Salaam sat quietly in a booth. While his neighbors were knocking back their sausage and fried ham, the waitress drifted by to serve the representative his "usual" – also known as the "hold-the-pork plate."

As Salaam settled in to toast and eggs, an older white man striding by paused just long enough to hiss, "don't believe a damn word he says."

A ghastly silence fell. Then an outburst of laughter from the white guys at the next table, the old man, the waitresses, and Salaam himself. Half the morning, it seemed the waitresses doted on him, and businessmen, farmers, and old ladies stopped to say hello. Many people at the Downtowner and around town respect the man who has raised five children here while practicing law.

Becky Nichols, the white director of the Selma-Dallas County Public Library says Salaam's a successful politician "because he has struggled to represent all the people. That sounds simplistic, but in this community, that is essential for a politician."

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Born Joseph Sales in 1947, Salaam was the son and grandson of Southern Baptist preachers. His sister, Ruby, today is an Episcopal priest. He converted to Islam in the '70s because of a personal crisis – bad habits he was picking up in law school at the University of Miami (like chasing too many women and drinking too much). That, combined with a deeper reason: "I was looking to bring about that change Martin Luther King spoke to us about. I was looking for that way [that] could take black people to the Promised Land, and I wasn't seeing it in the Christian leaders.... I did, however, see it in Islam and the Islamic leadership."

He explains that he disagreed with the racial rhetoric of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad, especially references to "white devils." But in 1975, the organization took a moderate turn under Warith Deen Muhammad, who emphasized empowerment and racial reconciliation.

Selma isn't very conducive to someone adhering to the dietary restrictions of Islam – there are as many barbecue joints in Dallas County as churches. And Salaam, who is imam of the local mosque, readily admits that it's sometimes difficult to fulfill all the daily obligations of a devout Muslim. "I aspire to pray five times a day," he says, but sometimes "I have to give in to the realities of Alabama and American life." Such as when he is debating on the floor of the State House. "But look, you know Muslims don't have a corner on praying a lot. My grandmother was a hard-core Southern Baptist. She must have prayed 12 times a day."

His detractors are easier to find in the black community, where people will whisper that Salaam is the "white man's candidate."

"Yusuf was a mentor to a lot of us," says community organizer Tarana Burke. "We really looked up to him, but somewhere along the line he figured out he could be more powerful by allying with white folks. That's when he stopped working for the reforms that were important for blacks."

It takes about a millisecond for Salaam to respond to such accusations: "That kind of talk you hear about me, that's just left over, boiled over rhetoric from the 1960s.... I refute that kind of nonsense by my action. There hasn't been anyone from the African-American community who has done more for Selma than I have."

Ultimately, however, he wants everyone to know that he represents a new way of politics in this part of the South. George Wallace, he explained, learned early how to use race to gain power and a lot of black politicians have used the same idea.

"None of that is me," he says. "What I've done is to convince people that they need to stop voting along racial lines. It has been a long struggle, but it's paying dividends. I think a lot of politicians could learn from that."

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