SCLC's Leader Tackles 'Economic Terrorism'; Muhammad Is Known as a Stern Defender of Civil Rights and Economic Equality

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Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Tired of what they call the "economic terrorism" endured by Jacksonville's black and poor populations, leaders of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said they needed a bold, new leader to take the organization in bold, new directions.

So the organization's board this year elected Desmond Muhammad, a Muslim and member of the Nation of Islam, as its president.

Muhammad, 40, a Jacksonville businessman and father of five, replaced Edward Exson.

Board Chairman Juan Gray said Muhammad was chosen because he is an eloquent and effective defender of civil rights. The fact that he is a Muslim underscores the interfaith advocacy component of the organization co-founded by Martin Luther King Jr. and others in 1957, Gray said.

"Being interfaith means reaching across boundaries to speak to people instead of at people," Gray said.

The Times-Union sat down with Muhammad and asked him about his faith, his civil rights advocacy and other issues.

When and why did you become a Muslim?

I've been a Muslim since 1992. The reason why was that I had the opportunity to meet and talk with [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan, who shared several things from the Bible and the holy Quran. And once I heard him speak to different ills that are impacting not just the black community but poor people all over the world, it struck something in me. I began to study more and more and more ... I grew up in the church - my mother is a Christian and one of the best persons I know in the world - but I saw the universality and the unity that is in both religions.

Has being a Muslim created any roadblocks for you personally or professionally?

Not really. I am a business owner - 5 Point Painting Co. - and it has not hindered anything at all at this point. In fact, it has enhanced my business because I've been able to spread beyond a Christian community to a broader community.

What experience do you have in the area of civil rights?

I was the chairperson of the communication and media committee of the NAACP, and I'm also the vice chairperson of the African American Community Advisory Board. I also work as a minister in the Nation of Islam, attacking certain ills like police brutality, not just in Jacksonville but across Florida.

How does the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's mission fit into your values as a Muslim?

SCLC is an interfaith advocacy organization and it is a perfect match with what we advocate. …