“I remember you was conflicted,
Misusing your influence,
Sometimes I did the same.”
~ Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”
It was my first day in Michigan’s maximum state prison. The image of white guards lording over black inmates within and beyond gray bars colored a bleak, yet familiar picture. Whether plantation or prison, the hues of those in power and those in bondage have remained the same. From slaveship to auction block, or school to prison, the pipelines reducing black men and women into state property have only changed in form.
I sat down in the prison meeting room waiting on my client. As a criminal appeals attorney in Detroit, 27 of the first 30 cases I was assigned involved a black male. Blackness, which was initially framed as a marker of chattel, has mutated into a marker of criminality. This is especially true in my hometown of Detroit, where economic neglect, racial and spatial segregation and the erosion of the public school system heightened the vulnerability of black men. The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander coined it.
Before I even saw my client, I heard a raucous “Salamu Alaikum.” My client, whom we’ll call Edward, unlike many incarcerated Muslim men, did not take on a Muslim moniker. He “could not change his name until Islam finally changed his spirit.” Although we strategized on how to steer his appeal and examined probable errors made by his trial counsel, we spent more time discussing the history of Islam within American prisons. I learned a great deal from him, eight years ago, in that prison meeting room.
Edward was a student, a self-trained historian. Passionate about Islam, he would send me case files on a weekly basis, files that had nothing to do with his appeal.
He shared Ruffin v. Commonwealth of Virginia, a foundational case that established that prisoners were “slave[s] of the state,” and gave prisons and wardens unprecedented authority over prison policy, which stripped prisoners — especially Muslims — of their religious rights. Edward then shared the seminal Fulwood v. Clemmer, Sostre v. McGinnis, and Cooper v. Pate. In that last case, a Nation of Islam inmate not only challenged the decades-long “hands-off doctrine” — which preempted prisoners from asserting their religious rights — but convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that prisoners had standing to sue prisons under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871. As a result, “prisoners were no longer slaves of the state,” but humanized men and women who could fight for their religious rights in court. A Muslim brought forth this transformative reform. A black Muslim.
It opened the door for subsequent cases whereby black Muslims won the right to have a Qur’an in prison, a prayer mat, don a beard, meet with an imam, pray collectively on Friday, and be provided halal meals. The men behind these cases were from the Nation of Islam, but the accommodations and rights they made possible were accessible to all Muslims.
If prison walls could talk, they would tell long and rich stories of revolutionary achievements won by black Muslim inmates. They go beyond the stereotypes and cliches most Muslims toss around about “black inmate converts,” Malcolm X, and “they’re not real Islam.” In fact, prison walls have been talking — very loudly and clearly — but non-black Muslim America hasn’t been listening. It’s a playlist we should know well, as illustrated by our celebration and appropriation of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, but our rejection of the movement that made Malcolm.
Sometimes I did the same. Until I met Edward and the string of men behind bars who follow our faith in a way I wish I could. And most importantly, exemplify the essence of Islam behind bars in a fashion that we have failed beyond them — as a tool for social justice and a theology of liberation.