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TV host a unifier or separatist? Website’s divisive remarks decades old, Munir Muhammad insists

Cable TV personality, who interviewed Obama and Blagojevich, says remarks on black separatism don’t define him.

Munir Muhammad, in 2006

Munir Muhammad works MacArthur’s, a busy soul-food restaurant on the West Side, like a politician or celebrity. He enters with an entourage, including his own film crew, and shakes hands with restaurant workers and patrons.

In walks Tommy “Tiny” Lister, an actor who has appeared in more than 90 movies, and state Rep. Deborah Graham (D-Chicago), who both warmly greet Muhammad. They know him and quickly agree to tape an interview on the spot for one of Muhammad’s talk shows that air on Chicago public access TV five days a week.

Afterward, Graham says Muhammad has “been a beacon of light in the community.’’

Graham is not the only politician to praise Muhammad and appear regularly on his shows, despite the fact that they are far from prime time. Past guests include Gov. Blagojevich, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Barack Obama and Mayor Daley, as well as businessman Jay Pritzker and Cardinal Francis George. Powerful Ald. William Beavers and former Illinois Gaming Board chairman and Daley fund-raiser Elzie Higginbottom regard him as a close friend.

But his efforts to reach out to people from all walks of life contrast with views posted on the Web site for the group he runs, the Coalition for the Remembrance of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, or CROE. The site says blacks should form a state separate from whites, shouldn’t pay taxes and should be prohibited from marrying whites, among other beliefs.

Considers changing website

The statements have led some to criticize officeholders for associating with him or his group, which combined have received more than $58,000 in donations from 33 politicians since 2000. The biggest donor was Blagojevich, who gave $13,500.

”What’s the governor doing promoting separatist language, promoting this kind of division?’’ former Ald. Edwin Eisendrath, the governor’s failed primary opponent, said in March.

Munir Muhammad, 56, of South Holland, had not responded to the criticism in the past. But in a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he emphasized that the controversial statements are direct quotes from a newspaper written by the late leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad. They date back four decades or more and came during a contentious period in race relations in the United States. He said he is considering changing his Web site to clarify their context.

Muhammad, who is not related to Elijah Muhammad, takes issue with being called a black separatist. “That has never been my goal,’’ he said. “That has never been a goal of CROE.’’ Interviews with his guests as well as a review of recent shows indicate he doesn’t push that agenda.

On the question of whether blacks should marry whites, he says he has no desire to be “involved in somebody else’s affairs.’’ And he notes that he and his members pay taxes and vote -- even though black Muslims in the past were seen as not taking part in the political process.

CROE founders (left to right) Halif Muhammad, Munir Muhammad and Shahid Muslim.
Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Less controversial in person

Elijah Muhammad’s true message is “self-government, standing black people up, cleaning them up,’’ Munir Muhammad said. He and others got together to form CROE in 1986 — after Elijah Muhammad’s son took over the movement and, they say, led it away from black nationalism and more toward orthodox Islam — because “it angers me that a man who did so much for so many people is written out of history.’’ The group, headquartered near 71st and Western, maintains a large archive on Elijah Muhammad, whom members view as the “Last Messenger of God.’’

CROE is independent from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad said, although he considers the minister a friend. CROE is not a “splinter group,’’ as it has been identified in the past, because it formed separately from the Nation after Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, he said.

But unlike Farrakhan, Munir Muhammad comes off as far from controversial in person or on his oft-aired cable-TV programs. His interview style is more laid back, in the mode of Larry King, than in-your-face, a la Mike Wallace. He has done more than 2,000 shows, covering everything from black empowerment to property taxes to life in Birmingham, Ala., where he grew up before moving to Chicago as a teen.

A former city code inspector who now sells insurance, he explains that his approach as an interviewer is to “detach myself from my belief to get yours out. . . . The more I question you about that, you are going to tell me the truth or not the truth. I’m not going to say, ‘Wait a minute, I think you are lying.’ “

In fact, his style is so non-confrontational that he acknowledges being criticized for not being hard enough. During a recent program featuring an interview with Michael Scott, former president of the Chicago School Board, Muhammad tells him, “They say I let you off the hook’’ in the past.

Praises governor

That’s not to say callers to his show don’t espouse controversial views. At a taping Aug. 13 at the Chicago Access Network’s studio on the Near West Side, one caller says “the white man is the devil.’’ But when one claims that no white has ever brought a lawsuit claiming false arrest, Muhammad corrects the caller and says he knows of some examples.

Some callers thank Muhammad for the show. “I appreciate the fact that you do champion the small guy,’’ one says.

The show is not particularly polished -- there are plenty of technical problems during the taping, most of which make it on air. He at times forgets guests’ names. It’s not always scintillating, featuring long but basic explanations of law or a city service.

But it does have an audience, although it’s difficult to determine its reach because no one tracks viewership. But Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, after sitting for a taping Aug. 13, said, “I’m surprised at the number of people who watch this show. I see people on the streets who say ‘I saw you on that show with [Muhammad].’ “

His ability to reach a different audience than mainstream news has made him a popular ally for local politicians.

A Blagojevich campaign spokeswoman said Muhammad was paid to be a consultant before the 2002 primary to help reach black voters. Blagojevich later appointed him to a $39,888-a-year seat on the state Human Rights Commission. Muhammad has nothing but praise for Blagojevich, saying he’s “glad he won. I do like him.’’

Muhammad has a particular interest in the state’s prison system, and he has spoken to inmates at the Cook County Jail through a program called “Dare to be Different.’’ On his program, many of his questions, no matter who the guest, veer back to the topic of reforming inmates.

Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, who has been on the show and given $500 to CROE, appointed Muhammad to the Cook County Board of Corrections.

Sheahan spokesman Bill Cunningham said Muhammad, as a member of the Sheriff’s Committee on Religious Tolerance, helped draft a policy allowing Muslim deputies to wear headscarves. But Muhammad also told the sheriff that it was important that Jewish deputies be allowed to wear yarmulkes, Cunningham said.

Munir Muhammad
Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Mainstream pols have 2nd thoughts

Still, the fallout from the controversy over the views on the Web site has some mainstream politicians thinking twice about continuing to associate with him. Cook County Assessor James Houlihan’s campaign committee gave Muhammad’s group $2,300 because Muhammad helps reach “some parts of the community that doesn’t get the message about benefits from the assessor,’’ spokesman Lucio Guerrero said. Nevertheless, Guerrero said the assessor was re-evaluating whether to donate or appear in the future, based on the views listed on the Web site, which Houlihan wasn’t aware of in the past.

Muhammad is now trying to get Houlihan back on the show. Larry Mamiya, an expert on black Muslims at Vassar College, said the fact that Muhammad sits down with such a variety of guests would indicate a desire to bring the races together -- not divide them.

Contributing: Scott Fornek