Women’s March Co-President Tamika Mallory’s public image has been taking a drumming all week since news broke of her attendance at the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviour’s Day, during which Minister Louis Farrakhan delivered a speech with anti-Semitic commentary.
The speech was delivered at the end of February, but Twitter went ablaze last weekend after CNN’s Jake Tapper posted footage on Twitter with time stamps indicating where Farrakhan made the incendiary remarks. An Instagram post Mallory shared from the event was amplified on social media, further drawing sharp reactions from progressives and others.
Public statements from the Women’s March and from Mallory, released on NewsOne Wednesday explaining how the NOI was with her when the father of her son was killed some 17 years ago, haven’t abated media scrutiny.
On Thursday, CBS ran with the headline, “Women’s March Leader Tamika Mallory Defends Relationship With Farrakhan.” The Washington Post ran a column Wednesday titled, “The Anti-Semite Who’s Haunting the Left.” Headlines with even harsher critiques of Mallory and other co-leaders of the Women’s March ran in days prior.
Some of Mallory’s supporters wonder why she’s being held accountable for Farrakhan’s words, and that pressure for her to do so reinforces how black women are held accountable in ways white women rarely—if ever—confront. Kellyanne Conway, Hope Hicks, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other white women are regularly interviewed on network television as officials of the Trump administration, but face no consequences for supporting a white supremacist president. White female Trump supporters are often painted in a sympathetic light in mainstream media, never pressed to answer for electing a racist and alleged sexual abuser.
A letter emailed to The Root by a group of black women outlined their support of Mallory, reading in part: “We denounce any effort to smear Ms. Mallory’s reputation as one of our country’s most promising bridge builders of people of all backgrounds. We stand united against those attacks and encourage the Women’s March to stand united as a diverse body of women and to guard against judgements based on association.”
One of the signees, Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP, said we shouldn’t expect Mallory to speak out against Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism because she doesn’t see the need to. (Mallory did not respond to multiple requests from The Root for comment.)
“She’s not an everyday Minister Farrakhan follower or into his program,” Dukes said. “Her program is working with Rev. [Al] Sharpton. She was addressing criminal justice, police actions. She wasn’t addressing Farrakhan and what he was doing.”
That doesn’t sit well with writer and activist Marisa Kabas. She said that Mallory is the face of an intersectional movement that requires an expanded appreciation of what her associations with Farrakhan mean to people his views offend.
“It still doesn’t answer the question of ‘Do you support Louis Farrakhan’s views on Jews?’” Kabas, who lost five of her family members during the Holocaust, said of Mallory’s statement. “I’m glad she found comfort in the Nation of Islam during painful periods of her life, but to the question of ‘Why do people care now?’ it’s because her status as a movement builder has been elevated. The person who eased her pain is causing pain for the same women she claims to fight alongside with and for. At this point, it doesn’t seem like she can support him and them at the same time.”
What is missing in the clickbait-centered Twittersphere, where much of this public conversation is holding court, is that circumstances for black women in Mallory’s position are far more complex than many of us are willing to admit. The NOI stands at the intersection of many avenues in the black community that are far too complex to explain in 280 characters.
What this means is that Mallory must grapple with what it means to be an intersectional leader in an intersectional movement, while withstanding the public scrutiny of exploring her intersectional blackness where one of those crossroads meets squarely at the avenue of the Nation of Islam.
Many black people have had either direct or indirect interactions with the Nation of Islam at some point in their lives. They’re the brothas walking down the street selling the Final Call on Nostrand Avenue in New York City’s Brooklyn borough or selling bean pies on 125th Street in Harlem. They are our cousins, friends and the dude at the barbershop.
There hasn’t been a period during the NOI’s history when the organization hasn’t evoked controversy, be it NOI founder Elijah Muhammad’s unique interpretation of Islam, the group’s ideological clashes with the more acceptable corners of the civil rights movement, its homophobia and, most notoriously, its unmitigated hatred of whites and, under Farrakhan’s leadership, Jews. The NOI also has another side that’s more familiar to many black people: facilitators of black dignity and prison rehabilitation.
We can’t discuss the NOI without exploring the white supremacy that inspires its radical black theology. In a country that warehouses black men in prisons at rates outlandishly disproportionate to their size within the U.S. population, the NOI is known to take broken men and build them up, its most famous convert being Malcolm X.
Some would argue that the NOI was, at one point, the only recidivism program for black men during prison and post-release. Correctional officials and black community groups have long praised the group for filling the void of a broken and predatory criminal-justice system. The group, founded in the early 1930s, saw a sharp rise in membership during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s because of its alternative outlook of pursuing black liberation. At the time of Muhammad’s death, in 1975, membership was estimated to have reached 250,000; that number is around 50,000 today.
Always immaculately dressed, be it in the scorching heat or the freezing cold, NOI men and women are often found in the bowels of the community, places some church folks supposedly wouldn’t dare go. But not every black man or woman can come to NOI as they are. LGBTQ people don’t fit within the group’s black-liberation paradigm. Farrakhan said as much in his Founder’s Day speech. “I can tell you you can come as you are, but with Christ, you can’t stay that way. Some of us are going to have to make some changes in order to be in the Kingdom of God. … God did not create man to lay with man. You are being chemically programmed against your nature.”
What’s frustrating for Dukes about the media coverage of Mallory is that she is being compelled to renounce a man whose views she does not share. As a black community activist, Mallory can’t disavow Farrakhan as everyone insists, Dukes said. He and the NOI are too entrenched in the community. As an NAACP leader, Dukes says that a lot of her chapter’s work and that of Mallory’s run parallel to some of the NOI’s goals.
“She was there because, in our community, they’ve voiced some of the same things we’ve said about incarceration, people who are returning back to our community,” she said. “‘What do we do?’ ‘How do we assist them when they return home?’ That’s been a part of her work and has been a part of her real activities. So to say she is anti-Semitic is totally untrue.”
Dukes’ explanation doesn’t address concerns Mallory is failing to comprehend that her social commitments as co-president of the Women’s March extend beyond the tight-knit group of supporters who appreciate the complexity of her activism and the alliances she’s formed over the years.
“I sympathize with her in that regard,” Ben Faulding, an African-American writer and Jew, formerly of the Hasidic sect, told me. “The community I lived in, in Crown Heights [in Brooklyn, N.Y.], is mostly conservative. Most of my friends are hard-core Zionists. I have friends who served in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces].
“At some point, if someone says, ‘How can you be friends with this person?’ I’m going to need to answer for that,” he continued. “And I’m going to have to say, ‘I don’t agree with my friends.’ There are events that I don’t go to. There is an event in my community every year that basically honors IDF soldiers. I don’t attend it anymore. It’s something I had to let go. It’s really hard, but it’s something I had to do.”
Elad Nehorai, founder of Hevria, a community of Jewish creators, said he understands the influence the NOI has in black communities and the white supremacy that set up those conditions. While he appreciates the complexity of Mallory’s predicament, Nehorai isn’t satisfied with her recent statements (or her tweets that many consider tone-deaf) and feels that she’s being dismissive of Jewish people who aren’t in her inner circle. He does, however, find troubling the hypotheticals comparing to Mallory’s situation the outrage that a prominent white person refusing to condemn a white supremacist would evoke.
“I feel like that is offensive to say because there’s so much more to the story than that,” he said. “The message I’m getting is that people want to see growth. What I would hope for at the very least is an unequivocal renouncing of Farrakhan. I know an explanation will come during dialogue, but before that can happen, we need to know that she is 100 percent unaligned with that.”
“The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
—Malcolm X, May 22, 1962
Tamika Mallory started working at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network at the age of 15 and eventually moved up to becoming the youngest executive director in the organization’s history at age 28, according to the Amsterdam News.
Dukes, who met Mallory when she was 13 years old, recalls her as something of an activist prodigy, wise beyond her years. Her youth allowed her to relate to teenagers, and her maturity got her into the room with the adults making the big decisions. Mallory’s professional rise met a personal tragedy when she lost the father of her son to gun violence in 2001.
In an interview with The Grio’s Natasha S. Alford, Mallory said that she felt too ashamed to discuss it initially. “First of all, you’re too young to be pregnant anyway,” she said. “And on top of that, your baby daddy gets killed. He ain’t nothing about a thug. Those were some of the things that were playing in my head because I hear our people speak about that about other folks.”
Eventually Mallory found herself in circles with other activists and mothers who’d lost their children to gun violence. There was no cause for shame, she realized. Mallory became even more involved in the movement because her son’s life depended on it. “America’s got some explaining to do about why this is happening to so many black men,” she told The Grio. Her son is now a student at a prominent historically black college.
In 2015, Mallory spoke at the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, an event that drew hundreds of thousands of black people from around the country in 1995. She challenged the country to reckon with its violent attacks against black male bodies. “Twenty years ago, the death of Tamir Rice would have fallen on deaf ears and been left for the police to write a false report, not broadcast for the world to know,” Mallory told the crowd, according to the Washington Post. “Michael Brown’s body would have only traumatized the community rather than wake up the people.”
There are few people who could have delivered those words with the personal experience and elocution Mallory did. Surrounding her were the NOI women who had held her down 17 years ago when she lost the father of her son to gun violence. It is because of her well-known personal sacrifice and the daily death threats she receives for her activism that so many people are rushing to her defense. Our social media environment thrives off of getting people fired, canceled and outright raked over the coals with little time to allow for growth. Black people, especially black women, are afforded few avenues to recover from controversies in which Mallory finds herself.
America has a very cruel and unceremonious way of discarding black women. Black men have led movements and become pillars of their communities all while cheating on their wives and ignoring their families, all while being given the benefit of the doubt to grow into better people—or not.
The civil rights movement heralds black men like Martin Luther King Jr. despite his personal shortcomings. We praise Malcolm X’s growth from a hustler and an inmate to an NOI minister and beyond. He’s celebrated for his break from the NOI, something with which he struggled for the remainder of his life. (In Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable outlines how the former NOI leader explored collaborations with the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. )
Malcolm was magnificently brilliant and extraordinary complicated, fam.
In 2008, former President Barack Obama faced his own public relations conundrum when Fox News ran an old video of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright preaching in the black prophetic tradition. Fox News, which severely mischaracterized the sermon, lit up prime-time airwaves with infamous refrains from the speech, most notably, “Goddamn America.” Soon, every media organization picked up the speech, never taking the time to listen to it completely. Hosts and reporters covering the story barely had a passing grasp of black-liberation theology, so they lacked the framework to ask nuanced questions.
Obama ended up delivering a televised speech responding to the controversy. While he stood by Wright (until he didn’t), he condemned his statements, expressing his disagreements with his longtime pastor. He didn’t isolate himself from the controversy. He faced it head on, something many people wish Mallory would do. A sober mind can justifiably wonder what Mallory’s relationship with Farrakhan is and require that she explain it directly, just as Obama did with the Rev. Wright.
Historically, movement work has always been messy, and the people involved all encounter some personal controversy they must work through, sometimes in public. They will have missteps and be called out for it.
Mallory’s challenge is to engage in the personal work of what it means to be publicly accountable to people outside of her close network of allies. Indeed, there are Jewish members of the Women’s March who have come out in support of her. What about those who look up to her and do not have a context for her character to lean on when she is asked to explain why she attended a Nation of Islam event where anti-Semitic rhetoric was expressed?
There are a lot of black people who must work through what it means to be associated with Farrakhan and how that impacts their social and personal commitments. Farrakhan was a guest at the 2006 State of the Black Union, a now discontinued annual symposium of big-wig black intelligentsia. In 2013, Farrakhan spoke before the Detroit City Council. Seven black lawmakers came under fire this week for their ties to the NOI leader. Farrakhan and the NOI are fixtures in the black community, a dynamic that will not cease to exist anytime soon.
Mallory may eventually address her relationship with Farrakhan, but the NOI leader’s burdensome profile should not weigh solely on her shoulders, either. Certainly, folks are coming for her head and want to see her suffer. Those people will never go away. Then there are people who admire Mallory and simply want answers.
Faulding, the black Jewish man, respects the travails of her situation and her backers’ devotion. Still, it’s all disconcerting.
“That means you are not listening to other people and that makes you a bad activist,” he said. “If you are cutting off information other people are trying to give to you, you are incomplete. You cannot fight for a just world if you are only listening to the voices that are pleasing to you.”