By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — Frustration is building inside the local and state NAACP over Rodney Muhammad weeks after the head of the organization’s Philadelphia branch shared an anti-Semitic meme.
A member of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, who requested anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, told The Tribune “a lot of people” within the state conference want Muhammad to resign over the offensive social media post.
“There are a lot of people in the state organization who want him out,” the source said. “That’s true.”
The source also cast doubt on news reports that the national office was backing Muhammad.
“The national organization is not standing behind Rodney Muhammad,” the source said. “This is still a very fluid situation. I guarantee you.”
Bishop J. Louis Felton, first vice president of the city branch, said the fallout from Muhammad’s post has inflicted “tremendous damage” to the local brand.
He said the Jewish community has long supported the NAACP and did not believe Muhammad’s excuse that he was unaware the post was anti-Semitic.
While not explicitly calling on Muhammad to resign because he would be first in line to take over the branch, Felton said: “We have asked that the right thing be done.
“There’s a song that says, You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, you got to know when to fold ‘em,” he added. “And anytime you damaged your brand, anytime you bring damage to your branch, obviously you’re not doing the right thing.”
Kenneth Huston, president of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, declined to comment.
Aba Blankson, Austyn Ross, Marc Banks, spokespeople for the national NAACP office, did not return requests for comment.
In an email on Monday, Muhammad directed a reporter to his past statements and disregarded other questions.
“There has been and [sic] apology on our website for the past few days. That is the statement. I’m looking forward to talks with leaders regarding just that.”
Muhammad said last week he was not anti-Semitic and removed the post after learning it “bared significant offense to the Jewish community.” While Muhammad said he regretted the “insult, pain and offense it caused to all particularly those of the Jewish community by this unfortunate episode,” he did not formally apologize for the post.
Questions continue to swirl around what the national office will do.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Friday that the national NAACP office believed Muhammad’s claim that the image “unbeknownst to him has a history of anti-Semitic propaganda,” according to an unsigned statement the group issued last week. The statement added national leaders were “saddened and deeply disappointed” in Muhammad, but also incorrectly claimed he “apologized for his error in judgment.”
NAACP National President Derrick Johnson was expected to come to the city to meet with community and faith leaders over the controversy, the Inquirer reported. Muhammad will participate in the talks.
But Felton said he was unaware of an unsigned document from the national office supporting Muhammad. He expected national leadership to issue a formal response to the controversy around Muhammad this week.
“The longer he [Muhammad] stays without addressing these issues, the worse off we’re going to be,” Felton said, adding: “It’s not like you can ignore this. Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the country so if we’re hurting, it doesn’t help the national.”
The source in the NAACP’s state conference stressed the national office has yet to decide on Muhammad. The silence from national leadership was roiling state members, the source added.
“There is no unsigned document by the national office,” the source said. “They’re not standing by Rodney, they’re just waiting to see where this is going.”
State and local levels
While the state conference has no power to remove Muhammad from his local post, the conference’s executive committee will have its first chance to vote on Muhammad’s position at the state level.
The state conference’s executive committee, which is made up of more than 30 elected members including Muhammad, has the power to vote to remove Muhammad from the committee at its upcoming closed-door meeting on Aug. 15. The executive committee sets policy and achievement goals and provides guidance for the state and local branches.
There was chatter among members to remove Muhammad from the committee, said a second member of the NAACP state conference’s executive committee.
“I don’t think he needs to be on the executive committee,” the second source said. “It’s not a healthy thing for the NAACP.”
The first source said it remained “uncertain” whether the state conference’s executive board will take action against Muhammad.
If removed from the executive committee, Muhammad would also lose his chairmanship of the state conference’s labor and industry committee.
Since posting the anti-Semitic meme in July, Muhammad has faced significant backlash and calls to resign from state and local officials, including Gov. Tom Wolf and state Attorney General Anthony Shapiro, and numerous groups, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Anti-Defamation League. Yet the opinion of Muhammad remains split among the Black community.
Only the local branch officers can remove him because Muhammad sits in an elected position. While the national NAACP can suspend him, it cannot immediately revoke his membership without going through a lengthy process.
The Philadelphia branch’s board is made up of Felton; the Rev. Cleveland Edwards, second vice president; Kamryn Bonds, third vice president; Shirley Jordan, treasurer; Shirley Williams, assistant treasurer; and secretary Shirley Roberts.
Efforts to contact other board members were unsuccessful.
Muhammad, a local Nation of Islam leader, is up for re-election in November, along with all other branch officials, for another two-year term. He has served as president of the Philadelphia branch since 2014.
The Philadelphia NAACP’s website lacks any mention of the impending election. The most recent event listed on the branch website is the group’s 2018 branch awards gala.
Muhammad is a long-time Democratic consultant for Mayor Jim Kenney. The Kenney campaign has paid Muhammad more than $95,000 over the years for consulting services.
Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, the former board secretary of the Philadelphia branch, also appointed Muhammad chaplain with the Sheriff’s Office. Bilal, who has come out strongly in support of Muhammad, declined to comment on Monday through a sheriff spokesperson.
The meme Muhammad shared showed photos of Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, rapper Ice Cube and TV host Nick Cannon, all of whom have made anti-Semitic statements recently and faced criticism, along with a cartoon image of a yarmulke-wearing man with a large nose and a black beard.
Written under the photos was a quote the meme attributed to French writer and philosopher Voltaire, but Voltaire did not or write say it; the quote is more commonly attributed to white nationalist and Holocaust denier Kevin Alfred Strom.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.