State NAACP condemns Philly chapter president’s anti-Semitic meme, won’t act without national guidance

Philadelphia NAACP President Rodney Muhammad speaks at a peaceful protest at City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia NAACP President Rodney Muhammad speaks at a peaceful protest at City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated: 6:36 p.m. Tuesday

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In the days since Philadelphia NAACP President Rodney Muhammad posted an anti-Semitic cartoon to his Facebook page, local elected officials, faith leaders and members of the Black community have condemned the behavior as “reprehensible” and “sickening.”

Though most of the public statements stopped short of calling for repercussions, The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia called on the NAACP to immediately remove Muhammad from his position, which he’s held since 2014.

Muhammad has not apologized for sharing the meme. Via a statement released on the national NAACP site late Monday, he acknowledged that the cartoon and wording had been used previously by white supremacists, and said it was never his intention to cause hurt.

“I stand with all members of the Jewish faith in the fight for social justice, and I intend to use this opportunity for thoughtful conversations with both the Black and Jewish communities,” Muhammad said in the statement.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf joined the chorus of voices calling for Muhammad’s resignation, describing the meme as vile.

“Sharing this type of racist content is unacceptable—especially from a civic leader,” Wolf wrote in a tweet. “I’m joining the call for Minister Muhammad to resign. Hate has no place in Pennsylvania.”

As of Tuesday evening, national leadership at the NAACP had not directly commented on the issue.

The Pennsylvania NAACP has denounced Muhammad’s post, saying it in no way reflects the thoughts and work of the state chapter. But Kenneth L. Huston, the state conference president, said his hands were tied in terms of taking any sort of action. In the chain of command, he explained, the state NAACP chapter has jurisdiction over municipal and college branches, but the national office oversees the state conference.

“This has become a significant issue for the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP,” Huston said. “People are very angry.”

The meme in question was shared on Friday by Muhammad, who said he was trying to express support of Philadelphia Eagles player DeSean Jackson, who recently came under scrutiny for his own anti-Semitic posts. Muhammad’s post depicted a Jewish man in a yarmulke pressing down on a faceless mass of people. Next to the image was a quote, falsely attributed to French philosopher Voltaire, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” The real source of the often-misattributed line appears to be Kevin Strom, an American neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.

Muhammad took the post down after he was questioned about it, but did not apologize, saying he “didn’t pay attention to the picture.”

In 2015, Muhammad was a paid consultant for Mayor Jim Kenney’s reelection campaign. The NAACP chapter head also lobbied for Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax in 2016 — a role Muhammad did not disclose, landing him in trouble with the city’s Board of Ethics.

Via an emailed statement, Kenney said he was outraged by the message, and called upon his former consultant to apologize.

“Our city and nation need healing and unity now, not the sort of division and hatred that this post creates,” the mayor said. “I know Minister Muhammad to be a bridge-builder, and I hope he is up to the task of rebuilding the bridges that his unfortunate post has now damaged.”

A setback for racial justice and religious unity

A group of Black and Jewish leaders convened Tuesday afternoon to reaffirm their shared goals and unite against discrimination in all forms. At the virtual forum, state Senator Anthony Williams swore he would no longer work with the NAACP unless Muhammad was removed.

“As long as Mr. Muhammad leads the organization I will not be working with or aligning myself with that chapter,” he said.

At least three members of Philadelphia City Council — Jamie Gauthier, Isaiah Thomas and Alan Domb — have issued statements condemning Muhammad’s sharing of the meme, though only Gauthier hinted that any sort of repercussions should follow.

“This incident calls into question his competence for such a prominent role, and his fitness for leadership in an organization that is, at its core, dedicated to racial justice,” Gauthier wrote.

U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans tweeted on Friday evening that he was appalled by the cartoon and demanded Muhammad apologize. On Tuesday, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro wrote on Twitter that he’d reached out to Muhammad directly, but instead of an apology, received a response that was “offensive.”

Pa. Sen. Williams noted, as did many others, that the fight for racial justice depends on avoiding racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Various multi-faith and multi-racial coalitions expressed disappointment that Muhammad’s post might set back efforts to work on a united front for racial justice and religious unity.

“The fact of the matter is Blacks and Jews have a common enemy, and that’s white supremacy,” said Philadelphia-based writer and commentator David Love, who is Black and Jewish. He pointed to the desecration of both synagogues and Black churches in recent years.

“I think for Black civil rights leaders to, perhaps unwittingly, join forces with white supremacists, it’s something that people have to speak out against,” Love said.

The Philadelphia Muslim-Jewish Circle of Friends, a group of business, professional, and religious leaders convened in 2016 by the American Jewish Committee, demanded the NAACP hold Muhammad accountable.

“Minister Muhammed has been a leader in Philadelphia and has supported important issues that matter to Black communities in the City,” the group wrote in a statement. “However, sharing such a cartoon is hateful and divisive, and demonstrates extremely poor judgment at a time when we are all struggling to confront bias, bigotry and hate.” The group extended an invitation to Muhammad and other local NAACP leadership to participate in a dialogue on race and understanding.

On Saturday, Muhammad issued a statement where he said he would be “happy to have a discussion with other leaders to better understand our history,” according to NBC10.

Huston, the Pennsylvania conference leader, said in his conversation with Muhammad, the Philadelphia chapter head echoed the excuse that he hadn’t read the meme before sharing it. Huston worried that his entire organization’s reputation would be jeopardized if the public associates the NAACP with such a hateful message.

“This would be a very serious setback with the work that we’re trying to accomplish in the Pennsylvania State Conference,” said Huston, who was elected as president of the conference in October. Since then, he said, he’s been aggressively working to build partnerships with the religious, business and political communities across the commonwealth.

“This is a time in our nation when a lot of things hang in the balance,” Huston said.

According to his formal statement, it does not appear Muhammad will resign. If that were to happen, he would be replaced, at least on an interim basis, by Bishop J. Lewis Felton, senior pastor at My. Airy Church of God in Christ, who currently serves as the Philadelphia NAACP’s first vice president and chair of its religious affairs committee.

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