Mayor Dwight Jones and some City Council members are scheduled to appear at an event Saturday alongside the Nation of Islam, which the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks as a hate group.
The interfaith event is scheduled for July 25 at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Student Commons, celebrating the Nation of Islam’s 85th birthday.
The group was created to inspire Islamic faith among black people in strong opposition to Christianity, which was viewed a “slave religion” forced onto blacks by whites. The civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center says it’s concerned about the group’s history of controversial sentiments, including black supremacy, anti-Semitism and anti-homosexuality.
But the event organizer says his Nation of Islam chapter has cut out the legacy of hate. “Originally, the movement was largely segregative,” says Greg Abdus-Salaam, a former graphic designer for the city of Richmond. “It grew out of the Jim Crow era.”
Still, he says, there may be religious differences with the mayor, who is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of South Richmond. City Councilwomen Cynthia Newbille and Ellen Robertson, as well as Delegate Delores McQuinn, also are scheduled to attend.
Locally, the Nation of Islam was folded into Masjid Bilal in Church Hill, Richmond’s oldest mosque. Abdus-Salaam says some local temples still refer to themselves as Nation of Islam. But ultimately, a fading dynastic leadership has caused the group to change its national image.
“One of the group’s original leaders had a son, Wallace Muhammad, who during the ’70s tore down a lot of the incorrect language and rhetoric,” Abdus-Salaam says. “What remains is a religion of universal brotherhood.”
A news release describes the event as a gathering of elders, and says the group “was very deliberate in selecting an academic campus as a venue for the event.”
A separate Muslim organization, Islam Life Radio, attempted to hold a similar event at VCU in the spring. But it withdrew its application, saying it was frustrated by the university’s demands.
Asked whether a group of any ideology may hold an event on campus, VCU coordinator of event and meeting services Ashley Aker says her department’s interested in handling only logistics, not politics.
“We’re merely providing a venue for outside organizations,” she says. “It is not our job to regulate what types of events take place in our spaces.”
Asked whether Jones was concerned about the Nation of Islam’s past, press secretary Tammy Hawley replies in an email, “I’m sure VCU does not have a hate group on their campus.”
“This is a family reunion,” Abdul-Salaam says. “We do want our neighbors to understand what our history is. We don’t want to be perceived as something strange, out the corner of your eye.”