Out of America: A black mark for bigotry at Howard

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - It may never have been American academia's Shining City on a Hill, to borrow from the phrase book of Ronald Reagan. But once upon a time, Howard University could offer a passable imitation. From its perch on one of Washington's highest vantage points, there are splendid views across the Capitol and the Potomac to the Virginia shore beyond. To this day, Howard is recognised as the country's most prestigious black college, boasting a solid academic record and alumni who include Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of a US state, and Toni Morrison, the first Afro- American to win the Nobel prize for literature. These days, though, there is precious little else to shout about.

In the space of two turbulent months, Howard's reputation has been transformed. Amid a drumbeat of newspaper headlines, the tolerant institute of learning has metamorphosed into a hotbed of black bigotry and anti-Semitism. Franklyn Jenifer, its esteemed president, resigned last weekend as he was about to be sacked. The turmoil among the teaching staff is matched only by the bitterness of Howard's 10,000 students, who feel they have been collectively tarred by the excesses of a very few. It is all a product of a peculiarly American brew of race, the right to free speech, and some old-fashioned Senior Common Room back-stabbing.

It all began when a group of students from Howard and other local colleges invited Khalid Abdul Mohammad, a leading supporter of black radical Louis Farrakhan, to address a campus meeting on 23 February. Muhammad, whose views are so extreme that even Farrakhan has been forced to keep his distance, duly obliged with a rabidly anti- Semitic tirade, blaming a Jewish conspiracy for every woe of black America. No matter that only a small minority of the 1,500 audience were Howard students. So enthusiastic was Muhammad's reception that Jenifer subsequently postponed a lecture at Howard by a celebrated history professor from Yale who was Jewish, for fear he would be abused and harassed. Surprisingly, Jenifer did not cancel a return visit by Muhammad, set for 19 April. He had roundly condemned the first appearance, but felt he could not act because Howard had a tradition of free speech.

Last week Muhammad took advantage of Howard's hospitality in predictable fashion. Blacks, he proclaimed, had suffered genocide which the world had ignored. He would, he told cheering supporters, act like a 'pitbull' towards Jews and would 'bite the tail of the honkies'. Muhammad singled out for special praise Colin Ferguson, the embittered Jamaican immigrant who shot dead six white commuters on a Long Island train last December. 'God spoke to Colin Ferguson and said, 'Catch the train, Colin, catch the train'.'

In fact, Jenifer's days were numbered well before this wretched episode. He had arrived four years earlier at Howard with the goal of turning it into one of America's finest universities - not just a 'black Harvard', but a rival of the real Harvard. He raised much money, which he spent on upgrading facilities and setting up generous scholarships to attract the brightest black students. But his plans to abolish redundant posts worried much of the teaching staff, who passed a no-confidence vote in Jenifer last autumn.

The second Muhammad fiasco provided the perfect opening. Three days later, Howard's governing trustees began a meeting, whose sole purpose was to force Jenifer out. In the event, he beat them to the punch, announcing his resignation to take over at the University of Texas at Dallas, which by chance had offered him the job at that very moment. Howard's would-be saviour thus becomes the first black president at any of the 15 universities in the Texas state system. It is a sideways move at best, but Jenifer is delighted to put his Washington tribulations behind him, and says he savours the prospect of 'buying a pair of boots and a big hat and becoming a real Texan'.

As for Howard, the wounds of the last two months will not quickly heal. Khalid Abdul Muhammad will not be back in a hurry. But a television documentary has suggested that an institution which started life as a negro seminary just after the Civil War, is becoming a seedbed for a black version of the Ku Klux Klan. Students, meanwhile, have been demonstrating in favour of Jenifer, fearful his successor will be as intolerant as he was tolerant. Douglas Wilder would have been a perfect replacement, but has said no. And if finding a president is difficult, regaining a reputation will be harder still.