MIAMI—One decision thrust John Muhammad into unexpected territory. Known around his St. Petersburg, Florida community as Brother John, on Oct. 13, he emerged victorious when out of six candidates, the St. Petersburg City Council appointed him to the District 7 seat in a 4-3 vote. The district’s previous occupant vacated the seat, which serves predominantly Black neighborhoods. However, the victory was not won without controversy.
“I’m Brother John … a lot of people know me,” he told The Final Call. “They know the work. And so I was really thinking that as a part of this application process, that the work would speak for itself. And it eventually did, but I didn’t expect the type of backlash or what came with it.”
Mr. Muhammad’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam, and his support of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan grabbed the attention of some council members, as well as Jewish residents and organizations. Many falsely and baselessly accused Minister Farrakhan, as well as Mr. Muhammad, of being anti-Semitic. As the opposition grew, Mr. Muhammad prepared himself for a fight for truth, to better serve his people, without ever compromising his support for Minister Farrakhan.
From activism to politics
Mr. Muhammad had no real desire to enter politics, at least, not until after the August primaries. In fact, when he was approached by a local council member roughly a decade ago about running for office, his response was, “are you crazy? You’re out of your mind.” He described himself as ‘apolitical.’ But over time, that attitude changed.
He joined the Nation of Islam in St. Petersburg in 1998, capping a years-long search for God sparked by trauma and tragedy in his life. He says hearing Minister Farrakhan in Atlanta in August of 1997 transformed him.
“When I heard him speak, it was really like the voice of God,” Mr. Muhammad said. “What he was saying was speaking to everything that I was dealing with. … I found a sense of purpose and direction for my life.”
Aspects that stuck out to him the most was Minister Farrakhan’s proclamation that Black people were the chosen people of God, and how he made parallels between the plight of Black people and Bible scriptures. He says study guides written by Minister Farrakhan titled “Self-Improvement: The Basis for Community Development” helped him to improve his life and get off the streets.
Mr. Muhammad became involved with other community-based organizations when the coordinator of the St. Petersburg Nation of Islam Study Group at the time asked him to attend a meeting on his behalf. There, he met various professionals, as well as the president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, the neighborhood where he grew up. He saw the association as a place for people who were working on aspects of The Muslim Program, which includes doing for self, building hospitals, schools, businesses and more.
“I was just seeing it as an opportunity to be able to materialize some of the program that we have been advocating for,” Mr. Muhammad said.
Mr. Muhammad continued to serve his community as a member of the Nation of Islam; co-founded the Community Development & Training Center, Inc., a non-profit organization in the Tampa Bay area that provides leadership training and community outreach; co-founded the St. Pete Stop The Violence Coalition; became president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association; and has joined and been a part of numerous other organizations and grassroots efforts. He also worked with and developed relationships with members of the St. Petersburg City Council.
After hosting a candidates’ forum with his neighborhood association, his view of politics began to change. “I saw a shift in how city government related to our neighborhoods,” he said. “We had constituents who participated in the electoral process. We started to be able to identify resources for our community, and funding for different ideas and programs that we had.”
For two years, he advocated for Amendment 4 in Florida, which gives felons the ability to restore their right to vote, as long as they meet certain requirements. In 2018, the amendment passed. But while rallying people to vote, he saw that a very low percentage of the Black community who was registered to vote actually voted. He had also helped to train candidates who were running for office but learned that some people in the community were not moved by the candidates to go out and vote for them.
“I had been asking people to step up and some people did, others didn’t,” Mr. Muhammad said. So he decided that if he stepped up it could possibly inspire others to get involved.
On Sept. 2, he sat down with his wife, prayed and went into deep thought, and decided he would run for city council. It was not something he necessarily wanted to do, but it was something he felt called to do.
Thirteen days later, the council member who occupied the District 7 seat resigned.
The deadline to apply for the job was pushed back due to Hurricane Ian. The new date fell on Oct. 7, the birth anniversary of Minister Farrakhan’s teacher, the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, so Mr. Muhammad says he felt even more compelled to do it.
But before Mr. Muhammad even applied for the position, false accusations began coming his way.
Standing strong among false accusations of anti-Semitism
Mr. Muhammad appeared on a radio program, where he expressed his desire to apply for the vacated seat. Soon after the interview, his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, as well as his criminal background surfaced.
“And it just came out like who is this guy?” Mr. Muhammad said. “And so that was a surprise like wow, the ink ain’t even dry on the application and here we are having this conversation.”
According to the Tampa Bay Times, former mayoral candidate for St. Petersburg Vince Nowicki pulled several of Mr. Muhammad’s tweets, where he expressed support for Minister Farrakhan and shared them in a mass email to media outlets and local officials. In the email, Mr. Nowicki alleged Minister Farrakhan “is not a good man” and says he found it “morally reprehensible to appoint Brother John Muhammad.”
However, his email was not met with complete support. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers replied to Mr. Nowicki’s email, writing, “I find it incredibly offensive that you would suggest for one minute that your motives are pure and that you are doing something to help enhance those of black and brown skin in the city of St. Petersburg.”
She continued, “I have never voted based on my religion and I sincerely do not believe that Brother John Muhammad will do so. We agree on one thing, you are right, hate speeches and conspiracy theories have no place starting with your communication!”
According to reports, council members received calls and emails from Jewish community members asking them to properly vet Mr. Muhammad. The Florida Holocaust Museum released a statement that read, “John Muhammad’s continued support of one of America’s most outspoken anti-Semites, Louis Farrakhan, should do more than alarm the entire St. Pete community; it should disqualify him from public office. St. Pete has earned its reputation as a welcoming city, and Council should seize this opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to inclusivity by keeping anti-Semitism away from government.”
During an Oct. 13 council meeting, the six candidates for the seat gave introductory and closing statements. They also answered questions submitted by residents. Some council members expressed their discomfort and disagreement with appointing Mr. Muhammad to the seat. However, several others voiced their support and cited his decades of service to underserved communities.
Throughout the controversy, Mr. Muhammad looked to the example of Minister Farrakhan.
“I thought more so about what I’ve heard [Min. Farrakhan] say, and how there will be a point in all of our lives where we will be faced with that decision to either continue to stand with him or they’ll put what they call the Farrakhan litmus test,” he said. “I heard about it. I’ve seen other people experience it. But it dawned on me like okay, well, here it is.”
“My thing was, I know who and what Farrakhan means to me and the idea of renouncing and denouncing and all of that is out of the question,” he said.
He says his mother also gave him guidance. “I talked to my mom and she said if you have to change who you are in order to get that job, then that job ain’t for you. And that gave me comfort as well. Because I’ve been consistently brother John Muhammad. I’ve never shied away from my affiliation with the Nation. I’ve always introduced myself the same way. And so, it was like, okay, don’t try to be changing up now. I am who I am,” he said.
When it came time for Mr. Muhammad to address the council, he spoke on the accusations.
“I deny any allegation that I am an anti-Semite or anti-LGBTQ and I’m encouraged by the fact that many of those in the Jewish community and other communities have been able to see through this coordinated attack and attempt to further divide us,” Mr. Muhammad said during the council meeting.
He also said, “I have shown a consistent commitment to being a bridge builder that a lot of us talk about, but it seems like the inclusivity that we champion as a city only applies when we agree on certain things.”
In his closing statement, Mr. Muhammad said, “I am not willing to denounce a leader of my faith, no more than a Catholic would be willing to denounce the pope.”
In the end, it came down to two applicants: Mr. Muhammad, and a former council member and state representative. After two rounds of votes, four out of seven chose Mr. Muhammad to fill the seat. He was sworn in on Oct. 20.
Mr. Muhammad says he had the support of the people he’s served for decades.
“It just shows the beauty of community and how when you have the support of your people with you there’s nothing that we can’t do in the Name of Allah (God),” he said.
Now that Mr. Muhammad is in the seat, there is much work he wants to do for the district he serves, such as connecting the community with local government and helping them to access resources, education on how local government is supposed to work, and policy that will impact everyday lives.
He says once he settles in as a councilmember, he desires to dialogue with members of the Jewish community. Mr. Muhammad says he previously reached out to The Florida Holocaust Museum to have a dialogue. In a statement, the museum said they had no record of him reaching out but have extended an open invitation.
“I’m hopeful that when we have these conversations, that it’ll be a two-way conversation and not the Holocaust Museum looking to educate and teach me something,” Mr. Muhammad said. “I’m hoping that they’ll be open to learn … Really being able to understand that what they’re hearing is not hate; it’s pain.
And when you are in pain, you cry out. And so, they’re misinterpreting, in my opinion, the pain that we feel as a community, and because we’re not expressing it in a way that is comfortable for them, that they can put it into a box and say that it’s hate or anti-Semitic, when no, it’s just we have some real history. And there’s parts of our history that they were involved in and that we really need to examine.”
Since many of these events took place around the Holy Day of Atonement, which was established by Minister Farrakhan, where atonement with self and others is the focus; and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish faith where focus is placed on repentance and atonement; Mr. Muhammad hopes to bring that spirit into the conversation.
“I’m hoping to enter those conversations with the eight steps of atonement and be able to show the different points that [the Jewish community] have failed to acknowledge … that we have the research and the documentation to show,” Mr. Muhammad said.
“I know it’s gonna be difficult. It’s hard,” he said. “But I don’t think Allah put me in this position if I wasn’t up for the task.”