Remembering Professor Muhammad Kenyatta And His Case For Reparations: He Sued The FBI Over Harassment

Remembering Professor Muhammad Kenyatta And His Case For Reparations: He Sued The FBI Over Harassment

Muhammad Kenyatta

Muhammad Kenyatta. (Photo: Twitter @malcolmkenyatta)

Muhammad Kenyatta was a renowned legal scholar, law professor and civil rights activist who sued the U.S. federal government in 1969 for harassment by the FBI’s illegal Counterintelligence Program, more widely known by its abbreviation Cointelpro.

He was also an avid reparations activist who made a thorough case for why they are owed to Black Americans. One such instance occurred during a 1969 interview with the Philadelphia “Input” discussion program.” Twitter user @EarlLandrix shared a clip from it on Nov. 25.

“America would not be the wealthy country it is today if it were not for the resources of Black people, the free labor of Black people,” Kenyatta said. “And it’s since slavery the process has continued; that second-class citizenship, job discrimination, that these are just manifestations of kind of an updated slavery, a new style slavery to me, new economic and social conditions.”

“Looking at that, we see a whole case for the sense of debt, the idea of debt. Moreover, we can look at historical and political precedence,” Kenyatta continued. He explained that “the case for reparations was made for the Jews on two bases” after the Holocaust.

One was stolen land by the fascist German government and the other was the immorality of Jews’ mass murder and inhumane treatment by Nazis during the Holocaust, Kenyatta said.

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“The parallels for Black people are, of course, the stolen labor, the free labor, in fact, the stolen people who were literally, physically stolen from one place and transported to another,” Kenyatta said. “And, of course, the series of barbarities practiced against our people have meant for us that we have always lived in a fascist nation.”

“We have not experienced just a five or six-year period of fascism, but we’ve experienced a history in this country – it’s been a history of … 40 million Black people killed before getting to America on the slave ships … the countless lynchings, the countless acts of wanton police brutality … for us this has been the course of events,” Kenyatta continued.

Though Kenyatta lost his lawsuit against the FBI, he accomplished many things in his life.

Born Donald Brooks Jackson in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1944, Kenyatta changed his name in the early 1970s to honor Elijah Muhammad. Kenyatta, who was ordained as a Baptist minister when he was just 14, was not a Muslim.

However, he saw the Nation Of Islam leader as a symbol of Black nationalism, something he also represented, according to a report by the Harvard Crimson.

As a longstanding and devout Christian, Kenyatta argued there was also a “theological basis” for reparations. He said Biblical scriptures instructed the implementation of the three R’s – repentance, reparations or restitution, and reconciliation when harm is done to others.

“Crimes have been committed. Sins have been committed. There is a blood debt,” Kenyatta explained. “Making scriptural reference, as it says in the Bible, if you’ve sinned against somebody, if you have a debt, that it’s not enough to just mouth repentance, but that the tree is known by its fruits; and that in order to make repentance real, there has to be some concrete act, repayment of setting things straight.”

“There’s more than enough in the scriptures to explain and justify … the whole business of reparations,” he said.

Reparations are one of many Black American issues Kenyatta advocated for. He was an Air Force veteran, a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a community organizer who was instrumental in starting a Head Start program in Mississippi, and president of Harvard’s Black Law Students Association.

During his time at Harvard, Kenyatta organized a boycott against the college’s appointment of a white man to teach a civil rights course after Derrick Bell, the Black professor who taught it, accepted a position at a different school. He took issue with the majority-white faculty at the law school across the board.

“They represent civil rights strategies from the 1950s,” Kenyatta said. “They are woefully out of date with what is going on in this country.”

Kenyatta also served as vice chair of the Pan African Skills Project, was a theologian in residence at Ohio’s College of Wooster and helped found the Western New York Chapter of TransAfrica.

He ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 1975 but did not receive the Democratic nomination.

In addition to his activism, Kenyatta excelled in academia. According to an obituary published in Buffalo News, he attended Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Merrill Fellow in 1973-74 and received his bachelor’s degree from Williams College in 1981.

In 1984, Kenyatta received his law degree from Harvard Law School, where he was a fellow in public interest law from 1984-85. 

He was a visiting professor at the University of Buffalo Law School when he died at just 47 years old in 1992 after a long battle with failing health and diabetes.

At the time of his death, Muhammad Kenyatta was survived by his wife Mary, three children, his mother, grandmother and six siblings. His grandson, Malcolm Kenyatta is a Philadelphia State representative who also ran for a U.S. senate seat.

Watch the panel discussion with Kenyatta below: