THAT AN attempt to assassinate former Louis Farrakhan aide Khalid Abdul Muhammad should have occurred in California is no surprise to attentive observers of the Nation of Islam.
When I was a student minister in Mr. Muhammad's Mosque No. 26 in San Francisco in the early 1970s, we referred to our region as "The Wild, Wild West" for good reason: We were like rebellious children who felt we knew better than anyone anywhere else how to interpret and live out the strict teaching given by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.
Although most of the members I knew then were God-fearing men and women who prayed and strove to be "upright to him who originated the heavens and the earth," I also remember many kooks and rogues.
One was Lt. Jervis X. I thought he was as decent a man as I had ever known, a wash ing machine salesman at Sears.
But then he was charged with attempted murder in 1971. Rogue elements of the Fruit of Islam had been whispering among themselves that prostitutes should be doused with gasoline, then set on fire with a lighted match. Lieutenant Jervis and a woman were both found in flames in San Francisco's Tenderloin district one Saturday night.
Another case involved a bloody shootout between Muslim brothers who fought OK-Corral-style from atop their Cadillac with police in Baton Rouge, La. The men were all from Vallejo, Calif., near Oakland. The strangest case at the time, though, was the arrest of several members of the San Francisco mosque who were all former inmates. They were charged with systematically snatching white people off the street and brutally murdering them in 1972 -- San Francisco's notorious "Zebra" killings.
Muslims were not the only blacks out of control on the West Coast in those days. Even before H. Rap Brown's invocations to urban rioting, burning and looting, the most violence-prone elements of the civil rights movement had already stormed the California State Capitol while the legislature was in session, wearing black berets and leather jackets and brandishing unloaded shotguns and rifles. They were the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and they were born in that same Bay area caldron.
The "cultural nationalist" counterpart to the Black Panthers was also born out West. Maulana Karenga's militant "US" organization grew up in Los Angeles in the heady 1960s. US members assassinated Panther Party members John Huggins and Bunchy Carter in a 1970 UCLA campus shootout.
Later it was learned the incident was provoked by the FBI. According to secret agency COINTELPRO documents released by the Justice Department a decade later, a memo was sent on March 4, 1968, to 13 FBI field offices where "black extremist activities are concentrated."
Director J. Edgar Hoover's stated goal was to "prevent the coalition of militant black nationalist groups; prevent the rise of a 'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement; prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability, by discrediting them; prevent the long range growth of militant black nationalist organizations. . ."
Given this history of government provocation, who would suggest that U.S. policy today is any more benign toward black militants and extremists like Mr. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam than it was 26 years ago?
Khalid Muhammad is himself a West Coast product. He holds a black belt in karate and a Ph.D. He was an Afro-American studies professor at Long Beach State University with a reputation for being a spellbinding, "take-no-prisoners" speaker long before he got involved in Mr. Farrakhan's efforts to rebuild the Nation of Islam in 1977. His oratory has even earned him cameo appearances on rap songs by Ice-T and Ice Cube.
For me, though, it is not "in spite of" the lunatic fringe that I believe the Nation of Islam is a good movement for black people. It is "because of" it that I am convinced that Mr. Farrakhan and his message will ultimately succeed. If the madness, ignorance and self-hatred so evident in the Khalid Muhammad assassination attempt were all that I could ever imagine coming from the Nation of Islam, it would be no better than the black Christian world where anti-social behavior is also on the rise.
I am convinced that the Nation of Islam is our last, best hope. Mr. Farrakhan and his loyal supporters in the movement who struggle to adhere to his teachings demonstrate real progress among black people whose condition outside the Nation of Islam seems to deteriorate a little more every day.
Askia Muhammad is news director at WPFW-FM radio in Washington.