Backstory: Islam's soul of the South
The improbable rise of a black Muslim politician in deepest Alabama.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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."