By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Louis Farrakhan's disarming grin belied the embarrassment he felt being in New York City on the morning of July 6. Looking thinner after a year of battling prostate cancer, but still dashing in a royal blue suit, the Nation of Islam leader had stopped Uptown to promote next month's Million Family March in Washington, D.C. Although Farrakhan had planned several weeks earlier to make sweeping changes within the hierarchy of his black Muslim movement, he remained tight-lipped about an impending shuffle in the top echelons at Harlem's historic Mosque No. 7. Once the envy of leading mosques in the NOI, "the house that Malcolm X built" before his assassination in 1965 has been plagued by a series of political, financial, and sex scandals in recent years.
At the center of it all, pulling strings and provoking desperate responses, stands Minister Benjamin Muhammad, Farrakhan's point man for the Million Family March. He is the former Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis, the disgraced ex-chief of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1994, Chavis was forced out of the nation's oldest civil rights group after he secretly diverted more than a quarter of a million dollars of the organization's funds to settle a sex-discrimination claim. Farrakhan rescued Chavis, who went on to organize the successful 1995 Million Man March. Chavis, an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, later converted from Christianity to Islam and changed his last name to Muhammad. In 1997, against the advice of some hard-liners in his ruling council, Farrakhan removed the popular Conrad Muhammad as minister of Mosque No. 7 and appointed Benjamin Muhammad the new shepherd and his sole representative in New York.
It has been a scandalous tenure for Minister Benjamin. Until recently, the sordid details of his three-year stint at the 127th Street mosque remained hidden behind Farrakhan's new family-values crusade.
For four monthsbeginning last November and ending in FebruaryMinister Benjamin allegedly carried on an affair with a young Muslim woman whom he'd been counseling about marital problems. In March, Anita Williams, the former volunteer recording secretary for the NOI's Staten Island Study Group, alleged in a $140 million lawsuit that Minister Benjamin sexually harassed and attacked her. Through a top aide, Minister Benjamin, who is married, emphatically refutes the allegations. "Marriage is so important with Allah," writes Farrakhan in The National Agenda of the Million Family March, edited by Minister Benjamin, "that any interference in the process of the unification of male and female who have committed themselves to each other . . . is a very serious offense."
In papers filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, Williams, 30, claimed that Minister Benjamin, 52, pressured her for sex for several months and that she repeatedly rebuffed him. In January, he showed up at her house without his usual bodyguards, according to the documents, first published in the New York Post. "Complaining that he had not had sex with his wife for six months . . . Chavis suddenly grabbed [Williams's] breasts while grabbing his erect penis and said, 'I want to make love with you,' " the suit charges. Williams claims she chided Minister Benjamin about his persistence, pointing out that they both were married. A few weeks later, Williams charges, Minister Benjamin asked her for oral sex. When she refused, he allegedly told her: "This is the will of Allah that the two of us be together." Then he "coerced her into" letting him "perform oral sex" on her. The lawsuit also charges that Minister Benjamin often made lewd remarks to Williams and asked her for sex in his office at Mosque No. 7.
Amid rumors of Minister Benjamin's philandering, Mosque No. 7 plunged into deeper financial crisis. Currently, the mosque barely meets its monthly expenditures. Insiders say it still has not recovered from the brazen theft in February 1999 of thousands of dollars that were earmarked for the Chicago-based NOI treasury. Members of one vociferous faction suspected either the mosque secretary or a top minister's kin, who they claim had a drug problem and had a key to the mosque. Farrakhan dispatched an investigator, who was unable to determine what had happened to the funds. The secretary, however, was fired. "He lost his post because he left the safe opennot because he stole the money," a source says. "They're just saying he didn't admit he made a mistake."
Shortly after the investigation, Farrakhan made a dramatic appearance at the annual Saviour's Day celebration at the United Center in Chicago, partly to confirm his near-death experience from the effects of cancer radiation treatment and also to declare that he had been poisoned. He suggested that the U.S. government was behind an alleged plot to kill him. But in a closed-door meeting at Mosque No. 7, Minister Benjamin told his followers that Farrakhan had confided to him that he had been poisoned in Harlem. Whenever he visits New York City, Farrakhan stays at the Central Harlem home of an influential figure at Mosque No. 7, whom some members fear because of her alleged tendency to undermine the minister in charge. She led a faction that repeatedly challenged Minister Benjamin's leadership, insiders say.
"Min. Ben told me in front of another sister that [the faction leader] was the one who poisoned you," Minister Benjamin's accuser, Anita Williams, claims in a letter to Farrakhan, which is being published here for the first time. "He said that you told him this. He also went on to say that the reason why you cannot get rid of her [is because] she is a close friend to your wife. He said she knows too many secrets. He said you gave him instructions who and where not to eat from. I felt that it was not something that he should be sharing with us. But I just wanted to let you know he played a part in spreading those rumors here in New York."
Revelation of Minister Benjamin's alleged tryst with Anita Williams rocked New York City's close-knit civil rights community. Chagrined black preachers, whose help Minister Benjamin had asked for to draw 1 million black families to the nation's capital, bombarded the mosque with calls, demanding an explanation. Minister Benjamin denied the charges.
A key black Muslim operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that a major civil rights figure warned Farrakhan during a meeting in Chicago that a moral backlash sparked by the sex scandal would derail the Million Family March. "He went to Farrakhan and asked him to remove Ben as head of the Million Family March," the source says. "He said Ben shouldn't represent the Million Family March because Ben has got some real women problems."
The civil rights leader, the source adds, had an ulterior motive in wanting Minister Benjamin out of the way. "I thought first that he was just trying to give him some brotherly advice, but it was later told to me that Farrakhan and his top aides felt that [the civil rights leader] wanted to take over the Million Family March himself. Such a move would shore up [this activist's] base; it would increase his legitimacy. As he moves more to the center, he wants to make sure he still has a radical base." Two days after his departure from New York, Farrakhan, annoyed by nagging questions about Minister Benjamin, quietly ordered a changing of the guard at Mosque No. 7. According to an NOI official who is privy to the details, New York is no longer the flashpoint of the black Muslim movement; that distinction has been conferred on Washington, D.C., which is the new East Coast regional headquarters of the Nation of Islam. Minister Benjamin, who retains the title of national director of the Million Family March, will operate out of Washington. Farrakhan removed Sister Captain Kareema Muhammad and Majeed Muhammad, the former captain of Mosque No. 25 in Newark. Captain Majeed had taken over from Captain Muhammad Abdul Aziz 16 months after Farrakhan tried to elevate the convicted killer of Malcolm X from cold-blooded assassin to Mosque No. 7's top cop.
Inside Mosque No. 7, the "laborers," as NOI followers call themselves, debate the meaning of the recent changes. Some say Minister Benjamin was put in "Class C" (a disciplinary category slightly above the more punitive Class F, under which a member is put out of the mosque and banned from associating with fellow Muslims for a period of time) for being "untrustworthy" and unable to stem infighting. Others contend that the Nation hit Minister Benjamin with "morals charges" related to the sex scandal, which, if proven by NOI investigators, would relegate him to Class F status.
But an NOI insider traveling with Farrakhan put a less nefarious spin on what had occurred. "The Minister knew what had to be done with Minister Benjamin because it's crunch time for the Million Family March," he says. "When you're the national director of such an event, you can't administrate inside a spiritual house or over a region. Minister Benjamin has to be able to concentrate solely on bringing a million families to Washington."
Asked to explain why Brother Captain Majeed and Sister Captain Kareema were demoted, the Farrakhan aide replied that "everyone was pretty new to administering a mosque." He adds that Chicago felt it was better "not to leave the administration of a region in their hands until they're seasoned. There's really not much to it." He insists, "The move clearly is to make sure this Million Family March happens."
In another controversial move, Farrakhan shuttered Mosque No. 7C in Brooklyn and appointed its leader, Kevin Muhammad, as both chief minister at Mosque No. 7 and his New York spokesman. The appointment is being viewed by some as Minister Kevin's greatest political triumph. He had always been the man who replaced the marquee minister but who never got the job. "He's never Chicago's first choice; he's always a stand-in until Minister Farrakhan selects a new leader," says a source familiar with Minister Kevin's history with the NOI.
In 1986, after Mosque No. 7 minister Abdul Allah Muhammad was suspended, Kevin Muhammad filled the post for 90 days until the appointment of Abdul Akbar Muhammad. After Minister Abdul suffered a heart attack in 1987, Kevin Muhammad became the interim minister, a position he held for three years. In 1990, Farrakhan passed over Minister Kevin, as well as then NOI national student representative Conrad Muhammad, and appointed Khallid Abdul Muhammad as Mosque No. 7's new minister. Ministers Kevin and Conrad had campaigned for the post. Khallid never got along with the two ambitious young Muslims. In 1991, in an attempt to ease tensions, Farrakhan removed Khallid and promoted him to national assistant. Kevin Muhammad held the post for 90 days until Farrakhan installed the more charismatic Conrad Muhammad, who became known as the "hip hop minister."
In 1994, when Farrakhan intensified a national campaign entitled "Stop the Killing," Minister Conrad became his emissary to street gangs like the Bloods and the Crips. Minister Conrad improved relations with black politicians. He started an elementary school that he named Muhammad University of Islam, and even was considered a possible heir to Farrakhan. He became embroiled in the executive affairs of the NOI and later would privately endorse Farrakhan's firing of Khallid for calling Jews "bloodsuckers" and attacking the pope during a speech at Kean College in New Jersey. After Khallid was shot in a May 1994 assassination attempt, the Voicebroke the story of how, a year and a half previously, he had accused Minister Conrad, Captain Dennis Muhammad, and other ministers at Mosque No. 7 of setting him up to be killed. Both Minister Conrad and Captain Dennis vehemently denied they were involved in an assassination plot.
In the ensuing years, Minister Conrad battled with critics such as Minister Kevin, Captain Kareema, and Captain Dennis, who, in the words of one Mosque No. 7 member, "had a history of mayhem under his regime." Old-school Muslims also accused Minister Conrad of spending too much time settling grievances among gangstas and rappers. Sometimes he fought publicly with Al Sharpton, even storming a Sharpton rally with a contingent of bodyguards to interrupt a speech by Jesse Jackson. Sharpton eventually complained to Farrakhan, telling him that leaders at Mosque No. 7 were veering out of control.
On February 26, 1997, Abdul Sharrieff Muhammad, then supreme captain of the Nation of Islam, charged Minister Conrad's secretary, Jean Muhammad, with unauthorized "spending of Saviour's Day money." Sharrieff, the Voicereported, alleged that Jean had used $15,000 in monthly "taxes" intended for Chicago to pay the mosque's debts. "He paid the bills to keep the lights and gas on," a source said. Each of the Nation's 91 mosques is responsible for its own financial survival plus collection of taxes, which go into the NOI's coffers. From 1991 to 1997, Minister Conrad dumped more than $2 million into the NOI treasury, a source said. "The mosque was a $300,000-to-$500,000-a-year operation. Some years it gets up to $800,000, $900,000 in total revenues." The money is generated through sales of The Final Call, the NOI's newspaper, and other fundraising activities. A supporter of Minister Conrad scoffed: "He sent a whole lot of money to Chicago and they bust him for $15,000?"
"An NOI insider: 'It's crunch time for the Million Family March.' "
At about the same time that Minister Conrad was defending his stewardship, allegations swirled through the black Muslim community that a captain at the mosque was sleeping with another minister's wife. Farrakhan seized the opportunity to clean up Mosque No. 7's tarnished image, removing Minister Conrad and Captain Dennis in what some call "the Saviour's Day Massacre." Captain Dennis was reassigned to Farrakhan's personal security detail. A month after Minister Conrad was fired, Farrakhan kicked him out of the house he'd lived in with his wife and two young children. The shabby treatment of Minister Conrad destroyed his marriage.
Saying he was pumping new lifeblood into Mosque No. 7, Farrakhan appointed Benjamin Muhammad chief minister and eastern regional head with broad powers. Again the task of ensuring a smooth transition fell to Minister Kevin, whom Farrakhan tapped as Minister Benjamin's top assistant. "Since 1986 he's felt like he should have been given the top job in New York," an NOI source says of Minister Kevin. "It's made him, I think, bitter. It's made him resentful. Whenever a minister is appointed to the city, he becomes a thorn in that minister's side. In a sense he's like the guy who starts a fire in a house and then gets a medal of courage for putting the fire out."
In assessing the state of affairs at Mosque No. 7, some insiders fear that its "new" leadership can't survive the awful mess Minister Benjamin left behind. "The mosque is dead," a former member asserts.
"I'm not anti-Minister Benjamin," says another. "I'm saddened by what has happened to him." Such expressions of support for Minister Benjamin anger Khallid Abdul Muhammad. On July 20, after appearing at a news conference in West Philadelphia, Khallid, now leader of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, reminded a reporter about a prediction he had made after Farrakhan elevated Benjamin Muhammad into his inner circle.
"Ben Chavis has never atoned for a damn thing!" Khallid had charged in a fiery speech at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn on February 26, 1997. "If one of our points here is that stealing money from the movement is counterrevolutionary, what about the money he stole from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People? Goddamn it, you can't sweep that under the rug! Ben Chavis is a goddamn thief and a rogue! . . . Now what is the nigger gon' do . . . ? Steal from the Nation of Islam? . . . He was busted for chasing women and buying the women, paying the woman to go to bed with him," Khallid alleged. "Nigger should have been named John instead. Name him John F. Muhammad, not Benjamin F. Muhammad. No-good bastard!" Khallid offered these words of advice to Farrakhan: "I warn you, my dear spiritual father, Minister Farrakhan, not to have a nigger like that next to you. Be careful! Make sure everything is on a need-to-know basis because that kinda nigger will sell you out if he can."
Additional reporting: Amanda Ward