The Magazine

Louis Farrakhan's
First Congressman

Why was the press so incurious about the past of Keith Ellison?

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Minneapolis

AT THIS PARTICULAR TIME in history, it is a matter of note that Congress is about to re ceive its first Muslim member. Keith Ellison, currently a Minnesota state representative, is poised to succeed 14-term incumbent Democrat Martin Sabo in the Fifth District, which includes the city of Minneapolis. Ellison's endorsement by the Demo cratic-Farmer-Labor party is tantamount to his election in what is one of the safest Democratic seats in the country. Thus, at age 43, Ellison stands positioned not only to win that office but also to hold it as long as he chooses.

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's record also includes a multitude of embarrassments of the traditional kind. He fell afoul of the IRS after failing to pay $25,000 in income taxes; he ignored fines that he had incurred for parking tickets and moving violations so numerous that his driver's license was suspended more times than he can remember; he was fined for willful violation of Minnesota's campaign finance reporting law. It amounts to a striking pattern of lawbreaking since he undertook the practice of law in 1990.

But it was the link to the Nation of Islam that stood as the most serious impediment to Ellison's primary campaign. He addressed it in a letter to the local chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council following his endorsement by the DFL in May. In the letter, Ellison asserted that his involvement with the Nation of Islam had been limited to an 18-month period around the time of the Million Man March in 1995, that he had been unfamiliar with the Nation of Islam's anti-Semitic views during his in volvement with the group, and that he himself had never expressed such views. The Star Tribune has faithfully parroted these assertions as facts.

As a result, the three assertions have become the cornerstone of Ellison's campaign, securing him the support of prominent Minneapolis Jews and the endorsement of the Minneapolis-based American Jewish World newsweekly. Nevertheless, a little research reveals each one of them to be demonstrably false. Ellison's activities on behalf of the Nation of Islam continued well beyond any 18-month period, he was familiar with the Nation of Islam's anti-Semitic views, and he himself mouthed those views.

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.