If I Must Die
If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die, O let us nobly die....
"If We Must Die," Claude McKay
Lying helpless and hooked up to a machine in the white man's hospital in Georgia is not how Khallid Abdul Muhammad envisioned he would die. Over the past five years, every time I interviewed him for The Goddamned White Man, a book we were planning to co-author, the leader of the New Black Panther Party and founder of the Million Youth March, would begin the session by reciting Claude McKay's epic poem "If We Must Die."
At times, Khallid changed some of the words to reflect the alienation he sensed from his followers, an alienation he believed was closely related to his own estrangement from his spiritual father, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. "If I must die," Farrakhan's domey ex-mouthpiece would declare, "though far outnumbered let me show me brave/And for their thousand blows deal one death blow/What though before me lies the open grave?/Like a man I'll face the murderous, cowardly pack/Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"
I would like to think that is how Khallid faced down death on February 10. Sources told the Voice that five days before the 53-year-old black ultranationalist fell gravely ill, members of a disgruntled faction of the Panthers in Atlanta were planning a violent showdown in New York to settle once and for all their challenge to the legitimacy of Khallid's group. Some members of the New York chapter were warned to stay indoors, the source said. Hashim Nzinga, a spokesman for the new Panthers, did not return Voice calls for comment.
Khallid, who had been renovating a brownstone on Harlem's historic Strivers Row, was in New York City on February 10. He had met with a group of vendors at the Harriet Tubman School in Harlem. After the meeting, Khallid returned to Atlanta, where he had a home. His wife told supporters that Khallid complained about "feeling tired and achy," went to lie down, and began vomiting profusely. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital at which the family was told that they did not have the facilities to handle neurological emergencies. He was then driven to WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, a suburb of Atlanta. On Wednesday afternoon, Akbar Muhammad, a top Farrakhan aide, rushed to Khallid's bedside and prayed with the family.
"Family members said he suffered a stroke and was on life support," said James Muhammad, editor of The Final Call, the Nation of Islam newspaper in Chicago. "Our prayers are with him and his family." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Friday that Khallid had suffered a brain aneurysm and had been taken off life support on Thursday afternoon.
However, as the Voice went to press Friday, Khallid was still on life support in an intensive care unit, despite the extensive media reports that he had died. Reverend Al Sharpton, leader of the Harlem-based National Action Network, was the first prominent civil rights figure to go to the hospital. "His family seemed stunned," recalled Sharpton, adding that he did not question them about Khallid's medical condition. After praying with Khallid's wife and top aide Malik Zulu Shabazz, the Baptist minister was led into a room where the once fiery activist lay motionless. Sharpton again prayed and after about one minute he was escorted from the room.
"Khallid was just lying there," said Sharpton, who struck up a friendship with Khallid after being stabbed in Bensonhurst by a white man in 1991. "He sent me a note after the incident," Sharpton remembered. After Khallid was gunned down by a former NOI minister in 1994, Sharpton wrote Khallid a letter of support. "Imagine that! When I saw him, I couldn't physically do anything for him," the activist said.
When Khallid got into trouble several years ago and was sentenced to community service, he went to Sharpton, who arranged for Khallid to serve out his term delivering a series of lectures to street gangs Sharpton had been trying to mentor. "Reverend Sharpton and Khallid developed a strong relationship over the years," said Timothy Ford, who ran the program at Sharpton's headquarters. "One of the reasons Reverend Sharpton is so touched by this tragedy is that he and Minister Khallid had both vowed never to duplicate the mistakes of their respective heroes, Jesse Jackson and Farrakhan," Ford explained.
Eight years ago this month, Khallid first drew harsh criticism for his strident anti-Semitic and anti-white rhetoric and his verbal attacks against gays and Catholics. Farrakhan rebuked "the tone" of his virulent attacks after a November 1993 diatribe against Jews delivered to black students at Kean College in Union, New Jersey, and removed him as his top national assistant. In the speech, Khallid called Jews "bloodsuckers," and called for the slaughter of white South Africans. Farrakhan suspended him indefinitely from the Nation of Islam in 1994 after Khallid called non-black merchants, Koreans and Italians with businesses around Harlem's Malcolm X Boulevard, "white Jews and bloodsuckers."
In 1998, Khallid staged the Million Youth March in Harlem, which ended in clashes between some of the estimated 10,000 participants and an army of 3000 cops dispatched to the event. Mayor Rudy Giuliani called it a "hate march." A year later, Khallid softened his rhetoric at a second Million Youth March, urging about 2000 people to commit their lives to the black liberation struggle. A third Million Youth March last September drew only a handful of participants. Khallid insisted that was because he had heeded calls from some of his advisers to further tone down his attacks on the mayor and black politicians who did not support the march. Through it all, only Sharpton, among mainstream civil rights leaders, voiced support for Khallid's right to espouse his political views.
"Minister Khallid wanted to lead black nationalists and Reverend Sharpton wanted to lead people in the civil rights movement," Timothy Ford said. "Minister Khallid saw Reverend Sharpton as a true believer in Dr. Martin Luther King, and Reverend Sharpton viewed Minister Khallid as a true follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Although Minister Khallid sometimes referred to Reverend Sharpton as 'a glorious fool' for believing in Dr. King, they never got in each other's way. They found a way not to hurt each other."
Black nationalist sources say many of Khallid's followers were hurt by his rumored split with Aaron Michaels, the original founder and chair of the then Dallas-based New Black Panther Party. "Aaron felt Khallid stole the reins of the group from him," said one Panther insider. "Khallid started making decisions that were not approved by the National Central Committee; he was pushing a dictatorship." Michaels could not be reached for comment.
Rather than repeat the same mistakes that led to the breakup of the old Black Panther Party, Michaels, the source said, "decided to let Khallid have the group." Khallid aligned himself with the New Black Panther Party at a time when he was searching for an organization to lead and when the party was facing stiff opposition from remnants of the old Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The latter group had filed a lawsuit to stop the newcomers from using the Black Panther name. Some, like co-founder Bobby Seale, called the New Black Panthers a "black racist hate group."
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Seale and Huey Newton, who called for an end to police brutality and patrolled the city to document excesses by authorities. They had conflicts with police and startled California with a fully armed protest inside the state legislature. But they also ran breakfast programs, conducted sickle-cell anemia testing, and pushed for better housing and more jobs.
The party spread to other cities and had as many as 5000 members at its peak. Trouble spread as well. In all, 28 party members and 14 police officers died in armed conflicts. By the late 1970s the party had fallen apart; Newton died in 1989 in a shootout on a drug-infested street in Oakland. The New Black Panthers' party platform is based on the 10-point program of the original Black Panther Party, with some revisions. It also calls for free health care and "full reparations for our people." The new group says it has worked on voter registration and food distribution programs, and is fighting for justice just like the black power groups of the 1960s.
With Khallid on board, the new Panthers were infused with the additional concept of a new black Muslim movement. Khallid restructured the group and ran it with the military precision of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam's elite military guard. Michaels, who accepted the post of minister of defense, allegedly complained to other members that he didn't like the way things were going. "He didn't like the way Khallid treated members and handled the growing pains of this young organization," the source said. Michaels did not speak to Khallid for about four months last year, the source added. Steeped in turmoil, the organization has been losing membership.
According to other sources, Michaels heard that the New Panthers had been infiltrated by the Joint Terrorist Task Force after the agency learned of alleged operations that Panthers planned to carry out across the country. "Only certain people knew about the moves that the New Black Panther Party planned to make," said an insider. "Aaron checked out why he was being followed and discovered that some people close to him were agents."
As rumors spread that Khallid lay brain dead in Atlanta, conspiracy theorists began to come forward. Among the first were those who linked what had happened to former president Bill Clinton's plan to set up offices in Harlem. "They say he had a massive stroke, but I don't know if that's true, because Clinton had just moved to Harlem, and they don't need a rabblerouser [like Khallid] up there stirring up trouble," claims one Khallid supporter. "[There] are big corporate interests up there who may find it convenient to put poison in his food or drink."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.