Veteran journalist, poet and photographer Askia Muhammad chronicles his decadeslong career, Nation of Islam devotion and perplexities of institutional racism with his new work, “The Autobiography of Charles 67X,” in poetry and photographs.
The exclusive collection of poetry and photographs follows Muhammad on a remarkable journey through the development of his early life, social, spiritual and political consciousness.
Muhammad recalls his childhood paper route, terror of 3 a.m. beatings, selling the Muhammad Speaks newspaper and attending Garvey Day parades.
Before he picked up a pen to write professionally or joined the Nation of Islam, Muhammad, born Charles K. Moreland Jr., had dreams of being a Naval officer.
“I went to Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island,” Muhammad said during a recent appearance on “The Kojo Nmandi Show.” “I thought that was what I was going to do, but 1967 was also the year of peace protest, anti-war protest, and it grew and grew and grew.
“By 1968, with the assassination of Dr. King, things changed dramatically,” he said. “Newsweek offered me an internship in 1968, which I accepted, and [I] declined to go back to OCS. I was not to be an officer, I was to be a journalist.”
At the end of the ’60s, Muhammad made another move that would alter the course of his life forever.
“I was orbiting and drifting around in late 1968 and I started attending Nation of Islam meetings,” he said. “In 1969, I got my X and got involved. I threw myself into the activities of the Nation almost the same way I threw myself into the activities of Omega Psi Phi. It was a search for brotherhood and manhood and I found it there.”
Muhammad said he exchanged the “slave name” Moreland for the Nation of Islam’s “X,” as in “unknown quantity,” or “ex-Negro,” thus bringing forth “Charles 67X.”
“In the Nation of Islam, every X is equal, but then the way you distinguish Charles who joined in April versus Charles who joined in September is Charles from April is Charles X, and Charles in September is two Xs,” he said. “So I’m 67X.”
After joining the Nation, Muhammad began to get into journalism again, writing for the Nation of Islam’s publication Muhammad Speaks.
“[Former Nation of Islam leader Elijah] Muhammad wanted writers and editors, so I wrote Richard Durham, then the editor and I always got form letters in response, but I kept covering Cesar Chavez, the Soledad 3,” he said. “I got to cover amazing stories.”
Years later, Muhammad made his way to Washington, D.C., where his journalism career took off at the urging of a respected mentor.
“I was so fortunate that Louis Martin, the sky end of Black politics in the 20th century, sent me here in 1977 after Jimmy Carter was elected,” Muhammad said. “He said, ‘You know Black people put Jimmy Carter in office, it’s going to be a new day for Black people, why don’t you go down to Washington to see what you can do for the Chicago Defender?’
“In 1957, he sent Ethel Payne here to Washington — the legendary Ethel Payne, on a postage stamp she’s so legendary,” he said. “That is how I got here, and with his patronage I was able to get a White House press pass and so forth.”
Muhammad said that at that time opportunities for Black journalists were few, but they were advancing.
“Trish Robinson was the pioneer, she broke a lot of barriers, certainly, at NBC,” he said. “There was a lot of people like Jim Vance and Ed Bradley, chief among them who were on the crest of the new wave of Black journalists.
“I had an opportunity to come in on a peer level because I was in the Black Press as opposed to trying to get a job at [The Washington] Post,” Muhammad said. “I had once tried to get a job as a typist in the classified ad department at the Post, but couldn’t get it.”
Born to a single mother as only child in Indianola, Miss., those experiences inspired such Muhammad poems as “Anthony Houston,” “Whisky A-Go- Go” and “Old Age,” featured in his autobiography.
There are also more than three dozen original photographs in the book, including those of the Rev. Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King, Dr. Carlton Goodlett and journalist Ethel Payne and then-Sen. Barack Obama pictured with Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan taken at a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) meeting at the U.S. Capitol in 2005.
Muhammad said he never published the photo of Obama and Farrakhan because he was sworn to secrecy.
“Someone from the CBC staff said, ‘We’ve got to have the picture back,’ so I rebelled and we talked and finally I said I’ll give it to Minister Farrakhan, so the Final Call had the pictures,” he said. “So, in a sense, I was sworn to secrecy. I snuck a copy for myself. It wasn’t until the minister started speaking publicly about having the picture that I felt relieved that maybe the picture could come out.”
Muhammad served as a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered for 25 years, as well as senior editor of the Final Call and as a White House correspondent. He currently is a columnist for The Washington Informer.
“The Autobiography of Charles 67X” is available in bookstores and amazon.com.