February 8, 2017


Keith Ellison is everything Republicans thought Obama was.  (Chris Visions, 2/07/17, Mother Jones)

[T]he story of Keith Ellison is the story conservatives wanted to believe about another cerebral African American community organizer from the Midwest--Barack Obama. Raised Catholic in Detroit, Ellison converted to Islam, dabbled in black nationalism, and marched with the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan--all before his first bid for Congress in 2006. His past dogged him in that run, and it has continued to be an issue in the DNC race: Billionaire Haim Saban, one of the Democrats' biggest donors, has trashed him as an "anti-Semite."

As a young activist in Minneapolis, Ellison learned to build coalitions outside the scope of party politics. He also learned the limits of what such activism could achieve without political power. For Ellison, it was a time of experimentation, education, and sometimes radical dalliances that ultimately imbued in his politics a hard-edged pragmatism. Many Democrats underestimated the extent to which Trump's religious intolerance and ravings about "inner cities" would appeal to broad, largely white swaths of the electorate. They banked on the arc of progress to knock him back. Ellison, who built his career battling racist institutions, knew better than to make that mistake.

Ellison was the third of five boys raised in a big brick house in a mixed-race enclave of Detroit known as Palmer Woods. His father, Leonard Ellison Sr., was a psychiatrist, an atheist, and a hard-ass who quizzed his sons on current events and drove them to Gettysburg to walk the battlefield every Easter. Leonard was a Republican, not an activist. While he once helped to integrate a sailboat race run by an all-white Detroit yacht club, he mostly believed in nudging a racist system through relentless achievement. The Ellison boys were expected to become either doctors or lawyers. They all did.

If his trajectory was ordained by his father, Ellison's worldview bore the imprint of his mother, Clida, a devout Catholic from a Louisiana Creole family. The congressman's maternal grandfather was a voting rights organizer in Natchitoches. Clida was sent to a boarding school for safety; the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross outside their house. Clida's family tree--with roots in the Balkans, France, Spain, and West Africa--was a prism for understanding the absurdity of the South's racial caste system. Ellison's younger brother, Anthony, now a lawyer in Boston, recalled Ellison struggling with their mother's revelation that some of their Creole ancestors had owned slaves. During visits to a family cotton farm in Louisiana, Ellison brought notebooks and a tape recorder and spent hours interviewing relatives.

Ellison's political awakening, which he credits to reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X at age 13, came during a period of racial turmoil in Detroit. When riots started after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Ellison, then five, hid under his bed as National Guard personnel carriers cruised past his block. Over a two-and-a-half-year period in the early 1970s, one Detroit police unit that formed after the riots was accused of killing 21 African Americans. Ellison feared crime and the people tasked with stopping it. After graduating from high school in 1981, he majored in economics at nearby Wayne State University, moving out of his leafy neighborhood and into a one-bedroom apartment in the city's crack-ravaged Cass Corridor.

Ellison's first brush with controversy came a few months into his freshmen year. After joining the student newspaper, the South End, he persuaded the editor to publish a cartoon featuring five identical black men dribbling a basketball alongside a man in a Klan robe who was clutching a club. Above it was a question: "How many Honkies are in this picture?" It was meant to poke fun at racial caricatures, but students didn't see the humor. An African American classmate stormed into the newspaper's office to confront him--a scene Ellison breezily recounted in a follow-up column mocking the outcry. His critics were "still living in the Jim Crow era," Ellison wrote. The firestorm made the pages of the Detroit Free Press.

In the months to follow, friends noticed a change in Ellison. "He seemed to be a little more introspective, a little more circumspect," says Mary Chapman, a Detroit writer who worked on the South End. "Maybe he grew up."

Or maybe he found religion. Ellison had drifted from his mother's Catholic church, but it had left a void. In his 2014 memoir, My Country, 'Tis of Thee, Ellison writes that he began attending a mosque when he was 19--drawn by a billboard he passed on his commute. Clida Ellison described the reveal as more confusing than shocking. "He announced one day that he was going to mosque," she said, "and my next question was: 'What's mosque?'"

Increasingly, he devoted his energy to anti-apartheid activism, and his columns took on a new urgency. When Bernie Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder after shooting four black men on a New York City subway, Ellison warned, "[I]t won't be long before police officers, old ladies, weekend survival gamers, and everyone else considers it open season on the brothers."

He read a lot of Frantz Fanon, the Marxist anti-colonialist writer from Martinique, and in 1985 he attended a campus speech by Louis Farrakhan, the controversial Nation of Islam leader who blended calls for black empowerment with lengthy diatribes against Jews, gays, and other groups. "I remember talking to him and being surprised at how far left he had gone," says Chuck Fogel, an editor at the South End who lived next door to Ellison. But there was an air of experimentation to everything he did. In high school, Ellison had formed a short-lived ska and thrash-metal band called the Deviants. Now, Ellison would fiddle with his guitar incessantly, studying different variations of "Johnny B. Goode," Fogel recalls. Sometimes it was the Chuck Berry version. Sometimes it was Jimi Hendrix. "He was trying on things and searching."

Many democrats view Ellison as the kind of organizer the moment demands, capable of harnessing the resurgent movements of the left--racial justice and economic populism. But critics have flogged a consistent narrative about his past, one that has haunted him since his first run for Congress in 2006. The case against Ellison has its roots in his time at the University of Minnesota Law School, where he began making a name for himself as a fierce critic of police and a Farrakhan defender. It was a radical identity he outgrew, one that friends insist doesn't represent the Ellison of today, but one that fundamentally changed his idea of how politics worked.

Detroit had been a hub of black culture and political power. The Twin Cities were not. When Ellison arrived in the fall of 1987, the University of Minnesota had few tenured black professors. The state had just one black legislator. In an interview at the time, a young Ellison described the climate as "extremely isolating."

When the Africana Student Cultural Center sponsored speeches by Farrakhan and one of his associates, tensions erupted on campus between Jews and African Americans. Ellison, who had taken to calling himself "Keith Hakim," published a series of op-eds in the student paper, the Minnesota Daily, defending the Nation of Islam leader. The center also invited Kwame Ture, the black-power activist formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, to give a speech, during which he called Zionism a form of white supremacy. Ellison, then a member of the Black Law Student Association, introduced him.

In the hopes of mending fences, the university organized a series of conversations between black students and Jewish groups. Ellison could be deferential at these meetings. He thanked Jewish students for sticking up for black students' right to host controversial campus speakers--even if they had denounced those speakers--and suggested working together on common political causes. But he also insisted the charges that Ture was racist were unfounded. Michael Olenick, a Jewish student who clashed with Ellison and who was the opinions editor at the Daily, recalled Ellison maintaining that an oppressed group could not be racist toward Jews because Jews were themselves oppressors. "European white Jews are trying to oppress minorities all over the world," Olenick remembers Ellison arguing. "Keith would go on all the time about 'Jewish slave traders.'" Another Jewish student active in progressive politics recalled Ellison's incredulous response to the controversy over Zionism. "What are you afraid of?" Ellison asked. "Do you think black nationalists are gonna get power and hurt Jews?" (Ellison has rejected allegations of anti-Semitism. "I have always lived a politics defined by respecting differences, rejecting all forms of racism and anti-Semitism," he wrote recently. He declined to be interviewed for this story, and his office did not respond to detailed questions from Mother Jones.)

Posted by at February 8, 2017 6:20 AM