In the 1960s, he worked for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to include black participation in politics.
Donald Brooks Jackson was born in 1945 in the West End of Chester, Pennsylvania. He attended a segregated elementary school and was ordained a minister in the Cavalry Baptist Church in Chester at the age of 14. He was married to Mary Kenyatta and had a daughter and two sons and two grand children. Jackson changed his name to Muhammad Kenyatta to honor Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and Jomo Kenyatta, Pan-Africanist and leader of Kenya. Kenyatta attended Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Merrill Fellow (1973–74), and received his bachelor's degree from Williams College in 1981. He earned his degree three years later from Harvard Law School and was a Harvard fellow in public interest law in 1984-85. Pan African Project
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
In the mid to late 1960's Kenyatta was an organizer for the Head Start Program (intended to help impoverished children catch up academically). He supported the occupation of a building owned by Quakers (who had helped blacks resist white racism), demanding they pay reparations and (reportedly) teaching a "hate-whitey" philosophy. Boston Phoenix Jan. 18, 1983
He also worked then for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a group that encouraged black participation in Southern politics. It was at this time that he received a letter found to have been forged by three F.B.I. agents working in the Cointelpro program that was aimed at disrupting and discrediting people considered dangerously radical. The letter threatened Kenyatta with warnings to stay away from Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where he had been a student. He left Mississippi, but later sued the Government for violating his constitutional right to free speech. A university spokesman, Arthur Page, said the suit finally came to trial in Jackson, Miss., in 1985, but the jury did not decide in his favor.
Harvard University Boycott
Kenyatta gained prominence in the Harvard community as an organizer of a nationally controversial boycott of a Law School civil rights course. The boycott protests the assignment of Jack Greenberg, director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as co-instructor of "Racial Discrimination and Civil Rights." Students had hoped the Law School administration would see the course as an opportunity to add a minority faculty member to its 58-man, one-woman, one-Black tenured staff. Instead, Vorenberg, appointed Greenberg, who is Jewish, and J. Levonne Chambers, Black president of the NAACP fund, who has declined a permanent position on the faculty.
Neither man will replace Derrick A. Bell, the Black tenured professor who taught the course until leaving the Law School in 1980. In addition, students question the ability of a white man, who has not experienced racism, to teach the course as well as a Black.
As the president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), Kenyatta was an active spokesman for the boycott both inside and outside Harvard. Minority groups chose him last spring to write a letter explaining the boycott to Greenberg and Chambers. Law School Dean James Vorenberg sent a copy of that letter, along with a draft containing his own anti-boycott stance, to law students over the summer. The national media quoted from it in articles about the boycott, most of which criticized the boycotting student for what one columnist called "banal ethnocentrism."
In addition to his anger about what he saw as indifference to minority concerns at the Law School. Kenyatta had reservations about the teachers themselves. "They represent civil rights strategies from the 1950s," he said. "They are woefully out of date with what is going on in this country." The economic conditions of American Blacks are worse than they were ten years ago, he claimed, blaming this in part to the failure of past civil rights strategies.
Kenyatta thought the affirmative action controversy at the Law School was only a part of a national problem. Economic issues, he said, are the most important concern for Blacks in America today, and affirmative action is "a key concept" for helping Blacks escape poverty. Attacking the trend against affirmative action, he insists. "We have to fight to broaden it at the very time institutional America is trying to kill it."
Philadelphia Mayoral Run
Kenyatta ran for the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Philadelphia in 1975. At the time, Frank L. Rizzo—whom Kenyatta calls "the George Wallace of the North"—was up for reelection and being challenged by a white liberal state senator, Louis G. Hill, for the party's nomination. Hill was counting on support from the city's Black population to beat Rizzo, and most of the city's Black leaders gave it to him.
Kenyatta did not support Hill, however: he ran for the Democratic nomination himself. The Philadelphia media paid a great deal of attention to his candidacy, in part because he had just completed a highly publicized citizens' campaign against a "Black Mafia" drug ring in the city. Although Kenyatta says he entered the race because he did not think Hill was really any better than Rizzo, critics have accused him of deliberately splitting the Black vote so Rizzo would win. But Kenyatta denied and continues to deny that he made any deals with Rizzo in exchange for his protest candidacy. Party leaders passed up many good Black candidates for Hill, he says.
For years, Kenyatta was vice chairman of the Pan African Skills Project, an international education program including the United States, Tanzania and Ghana, and was a permanent representative to the United Nations nongovernmental organizations section. He helped to organize the Western New York Chapter of Trans-Africa, a Washington-based lobbying group for African and Caribbean interests.
Kenyatta was a visiting professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law from 1988 until his death. He had long been in ill health, said university officials, who added that the professor had suffered complications from diabetes and was hospitalized at the time of his death.
- Muhammad Kenyatta, 47, Dies; Professor and Civil Rights Leader New York Times, January 6, 1992.
- In the Minority Muhammad Kenyatta Fights for Civil Rights The Harvard Crimson, November 1, 1982.