It was a striking visual: a group of white teens wearing “Make America Great Again” hats appearing to taunt an American Indian elder banging on a drum near the Lincoln Memorial. The video of the standoff during the annual March for Life on Friday in Washington quickly went viral, and was seen by many as a sign of the political and racial divides of Trumpism.
But an extended cut of the video has brought another group into the fold: Hebrew Israelites, a religious organization that appears to have been involved in a confrontation with the teens that the elder was reportedly trying to defuse.
Anyone who’s walked the sidewalks on a Friday in Center City over the last 25 years is probably familiar with Hebrew Israelites. An Upper Darby-based outpost called the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK) teaches that African Americans are descended from the Israelites in the Bible. Its members preach by shouting obscenities at pedestrians.
Ornately dressed men representing the Israelite School have been known to park on the sidewalk and set up a platform with grainy-sounding microphones — they’re typically found these days outside Temple University’s Center City campus, near 15th Street and JFK Boulevard — and spew hateful language at anyone who walks by. Among their favorite terms: “white devils,” “whores," “faggots,” and the N-word, which members routinely shout at black passersby.
A New York-based leader of the sect, who wanted to be called General Mahayaman, said what happened Friday is “a perfect metaphor for why street speaking is so important.”
“There was the American Indian demonstrator who attempted to sing in the face of great hatred,” he said, referring to the teenagers wearing MAGA hats (which he said “are no different than Klan hoods”). “What we learned in the Israelite School is that you can’t sing in the face of hatred. You’re going to have to speak up and talk back, and our street speaking is how you talk back.”
The below video includes obscene language.
The Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK), a sect of the Hebrew Israelites, is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group of black nationalists. It and other sects have complicated histories. And in Philadelphia, where it has had a presence for three decades, its members are no stranger to controversy and have had their free-speech rights challenged.
A complicated history
Lewis Gordon, a professor of Africana philosophy at the University of Connecticut who has studied black Jews and Hebrew Israelites, said many groups call themselves Hebrew Israelites, including groups that identify as Jews, as Christians, and as neither. Ideology varies greatly among these groups.
Gordon said that in general, people who are called “Hebrew Israelites” are descendants of African American enslaved people who are Jews. Some Africans who were already Jews were enslaved, while other Africans who were enslaved on Jewish-owned plantations maintained a kosher household.
Racism and “internal racist issues in Jewish communities,” Gordon said, led to a number of different Jewish and black groups that identify as Hebrew Israelites, some of whom follow the Bible and believe Jesus was the Messiah.
Among those groups are sects that believe African Americans are descendants of the Israelites and take the position that white Jews aren’t really Jews. But this belief, he said, is “not the majority of the people who would honor the designate ‘Hebrew Israelite.’”
Some sects have been deemed extremist groups, including the ISUPK. Tom Metzger, a prominent white supremacist leader, once said extremist Hebrew Israelites are “the black counterparts of us.”
The men in the video have been identified by others as Hebrew Israelites, but haven’t themselves been identified, so it’s unclear what ideology they believe in.
Molefi Kete Asante, chairman of Temple University’s department of Africology and African American studies, said some of these sects are “much more radical” and can represent the equivalent of a personality cult. He said he believes these groups started because of an identity crisis among African Americans.
“The principal crisis in the African American community is that too many African Americans dislike being Africans,” Asante said. “So they will do anything not to be identified with the continent of Africa. Yet, Africa, especially West Africa, overwhelmingly and predominantly is where our origins are.”
A controversial presence in Philadelphia
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ISUPK has more than 25 locations throughout the country and is based in Baltimore. The group is led by a man called General Yahanna — his real name is John Lightbourne — who has described the protests in Philadelphia as “shock treatment."
General Mahayaman said the “abrasive” language directed at people of color is “the only remedy for someone that suffers from Stockholm syndrome, [which] is to make them face the cruelty of their oppressor.”
The below video includes obscene language.
Asked if the group is anti-white, anti-woman and anti-gay, General Mayahaman deflected, saying, “The Christian church hates black people, gays, and women based on how they treat them.... The difference is, we don’t have a history of hurting kids, molesting women the way Christians do." He said the school and its followers don’t consider themselves Christians or Jews, but rather “the race of the people.”
The local group started its street preaching near the former Gallery on Market Street, and later moved to the sidewalks outside One Liberty Place, the site of a showdown with the building’s owners, who sued the school in 2013 and pleaded with the court to rule the men were preaching on private property.
A Common Pleas Court judge issued a temporary injunction, halting the protests from that portion of the sidewalk. During a hearing in the case, General Kory Travis a leader of the group, said the corner was essential to their ability to reach their target audience of blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians.
“There are certain locations that are necessary to make our message more real,” he said, adding that the inflammatory language is necessary because, given how minorities are treated in society, “sweet talk just won’t do.”
Two months after the temporary injunction was put in place, the judge ordered in favor of ISUPK, a ruling a higher court upheld. While the case was snaking through the courts system, Liberty Place owners went so far as to hire a DJ to drown out the demonstrations.
Staff writer Valerie Russ contributed to this article.