Ellison’s Muslim faith has generated no controversy in the campaign. On the contrary, it has served to insulate aspects of his public record from close scrutiny in a city whose dominant news organ, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is a paragon of political correctness. With the exception of columnist Katherine Kersten, the Star Tribune has scrupulously avoided examining Ellison’s long train of troubling associations, foremost among them his ties to the Nation of Islam.
Ellison was born Catholic in Detroit. He states that he converted to Islam as an undergraduate at Wayne State University. As a third-year student at the University of Minnesota Law School in 1989-90, he wrote two columns for the Minnesota Daily under the name “Keith Hakim.” In the first, Ellison refers to “Minister Louis Farrakhan,” defends Nation of Islam spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad, and speaks in the voice of a Nation of Islam advocate. In the second, “Hakim” demands reparations for slavery and throws in a demand for an optional separate homeland for American blacks. In February 1990, Ellison participated in sponsoring Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) to speak at the law school on the subject “Zionism: Imperialism, White Supremacy or Both?” Jewish law students met personally with Ellison and appealed to him not to sponsor the speech at the law school; he rejected their appeal, and, as anticipated, Ture gave a notoriously anti-Semitic speech.
Ellison admits that he worked on behalf of the Nation of Islam in 1995. At a rally for the Million Man March held at the University of Minnesota, Ellison appeared onstage with Khalid Abdul Muhammad, who ran true to form: According to a contemporaneous Star Tribune article, “If words were swords, the chests of Jews, gays and whites would be pierced.”
Even in 1995, Ellison’s work on behalf of the Nation of Islam extended well beyond his promotion of the Million Man March. That year, he dutifully spouted the Farrakhan line when Qubilah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, was indicted for conspiring to murder Farrakhan. Ellison organized a march on the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis demanding that Shabazz be released and alleging that the FBI itself had conspired to kill Farrakhan. In a November 6, 1995, column for the Minneapolis periodical Insight News, Ellison wrote under the name “Keith X Ellison.” He condemned a Star Tribune editorial cartoon that was critical of Farrakhan as a role model for blacks because of his anti-Semitism. Ellison argued to the contrary.
Then, in February 1997, Ellison appeared as a local spokesman for the Nation of Islam with the last name “Muhammad.” He spoke at a public hearing in connection with a controversy involving Joanne Jackson of the Minnesota Initiative Against Racism (MIAR). Jackson was alleged to have said, “Jews are among the most racist white people I know.” Jackson denied making the statement or insisted that it had been taken out of context.
Ellison appeared before the MIAR on behalf of the Nation of Islam in defense of Jackson’s alleged statement. According to the Star Tribune and the full text of the statement published in the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder, Elli son said:
“We stand by the truth contained in the remarks attributed to [Ms. Jackson], and by her right to express her views without sanction. Here is why we support Ms. Jackson: She is correct about Minister Farrakhan. He is not a racist. He is also not an anti-Semite. Minister Farrakhan is a tireless public servant of Black people, who constantly teaches self-reliance and self-examination to the Black community. . . . Also, it is absolutely true that merchants in Black areas generally treat Black customers badly.”
Ellison first emerged as a candidate for public office in 1998, when he ran for the DFL nomination for state representative as “Keith Ellison-Muhammad.” In a contemporaneous article on his candidacy in the Insight News, Ellison is reported still defending Louis Farrakhan:
“Anticipating possible criticism for his NOI affiliation, Ellison-Muhammad says he is aware that not everyone appreciates what the Nation does and feels there is a propaganda war being launched against its leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan.”
Ellison says now that he broke with the Nation of Islam when “it became clear to me that their message of empowerment intertwined with more negative messages.” However, Ellison himself was the purveyor of the Nation of Islam’s noxious party line in his every public utterance touching on related issues over the course of a decade. Moreover, Ellison’s unsavory associations were not limited to the Nation of Islam.
Perhaps the lowest moment in Minneapolis’s history was the September 1992 execution-style murder of police officer Jerry Haaf. Haaf was shot in the back as he took a coffee break at a restaurant in south Minneapolis. The murder was a gang hit performed by four members of the city’s Vice Lords gang. The leader of the Vice Lords was Sharif Willis, a convicted murderer who had been released from prison and who sought respectability as a responsible gang leader from gullible municipal authorities while operating a gang front called United for Peace.
The four Vice Lords members who murdered Haaf met and planned the murder at Willis’s house. Two witnesses at the trial of one of the men convicted of Haaf’s murder implicated Willis in the planning. Willis was never charged; law enforcement authorities said they lacked sufficient evidence to convict him.
Within a month of Haaf’s murder, Ellison appeared with Willis supporting the United for Peace gang front. In October 1992, Ellison helped organize a demonstration against Minneapolis police that included United for Peace. “The main point of our rally is to support United for Peace [in its fight against] the campaign of slander the police federation has been waging,” said Ellison.
Ellison publicly supported the Haaf murder defendants. In February 1993, he spoke at a demonstration for one of them during his trial. Ellison led the crowd assembled at the courthouse in a chant that was ominous in the context of Haaf’s cold-blooded murder: “We don’t get no justice, you don’t get no peace.” Ellison’s working relationship with Sharif Willis came to an end in February 1995, when Willis was convicted in federal court on several counts of drug and gun-related crimes and sent back to prison for 20 years.
The various themes of Ellison’s public commitments and associations all came together in a February 2000 speech he gave at a fundraising event sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the far-left National Lawyers Guild, on whose steering committee he had served. The event was a fundraiser for former Symbionese Liberation Army member Kathleen Soliah after her apprehension in St. Paul (under the name “Sara Jane Olson”) for the attempted murder of Los Angeles police officers in 1975.
Ellison weirdly referred to Soliah/ Olson as a “black gang member” (she is white) and thus a victim of government persecution. He described her as one of those who had been “fighting for freedom in the ’60s and ’70s” and called for her release. (She subsequently pleaded guilty to charges in Los Angeles and to an additional murder charge in Sacramento; she is serving time in California.) Still toeing the Nation of Islam line, he recalled “Qubilah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, [who] was prosecuted in retribution against Minister Farrakhan.” He also spoke favorably of cop killers Mumia Abu-Jamal and Assata Shakur. (Shakur has been on the lam in Cuba since 1984; last year she was placed on the FBI’s domestic terrorists list with a one million dollar reward for her capture.)
Having spoken out over many years as an advocate of the Nation of Islam under guises including Keith Hakim, Keith X Ellison, and Keith Ellison-Muhammad, Ellison might reasonably prompt Fifth District voters to wonder where he really stands. His recent account of the nature and extent of his relationship with the Nation of Islam cannot be squared with the public record. During his congressional campaign, Ellison has nevertheless held himself out as a friend of the Jewish people and of Israel. As if to shore up his identity as a Muslim activist, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Nihad Awad, flew to Minneapolis to appear as a featured guest (along with Ellison himself and Guant?namo chaplain James Yee) at an Ellison fundraiser in suburban Minneapolis on August 25. Awad is notable, among other things, for his past expressions of support for Hamas.