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New NAACP leader looks to tackle tough issues

It was a quiet victory on a rainy Saturday, the results announced not to a cheering crowd but to a dozen people huddled under a sidewalk awning in North Philadelphia.

Rodney Muhammad smiles after learning he will become president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, Dec. 6, 2014. (RON TARVER/Staff Photographer)
Rodney Muhammad smiles after learning he will become president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, Dec. 6, 2014. (RON TARVER/Staff Photographer)Read more

It was a quiet victory on a rainy Saturday, the results announced not to a cheering crowd but to a dozen people huddled under a sidewalk awning in North Philadelphia.

Rodney Muhammad had been elected the new president of the Philadelphia NAACP, a victory that in past years might have guaranteed public adulation but that now promises mostly hard work.

Muhammad, 62, takes over the leadership of a venerable organization torn by internal dissent, assuming local command amid national protest over the police killings of unarmed black men in New York City and Ferguson, Mo.

"He's got a big job," said A. Bruce Crawley, a public relations executive who has known Muhammad for more than 20 years.

Crawley described him as smart, sincere, and credible, someone who has worked hard on issues of community economics and police abuse - and who did so when there were no TV cameras present to showcase his efforts.

"He was always an outspoken community leader," Crawley said, citing Muhammad's visibility in demonstrations over the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old shot by a Florida community watch captain in 2012.

In an interview Friday, Muhammad said he was invigorated by his election and believed the community felt the same way.

Among his first acts, he said, would be to review the chapter's membership roll, improving its accuracy by striking the names of dead and long inactive members, then building the size of the group.

"We have a lot of talented people in the membership that can really help us in our fight for social change, and to improve the quality of life for all people in Philadelphia," he said.

A second priority is to ensure the safety of citizens "from the people who have been sworn to serve and protect."

Though he said he had great confidence in Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, "Philadelphia is not immune to what we see playing out in the country."

In the last decade, the city has paid more than $2.5 million to settle dozens of lawsuits that resulted from shootings by police, records show.

Muhammad also intends to mount an attack on poverty by showing people how to connect with city services and by promoting personal growth and improvement. "We're not just going to be pointing the finger," he said. "We also want to put it on our shoulders."

Muhammad was elected Dec. 6 in a three-way race to replace J. Whyatt Mondesire, who along with three board members was suspended by the national NAACP in April.

Muhammad, born Rodney Ellis in Chicago, was criticized in the run-up to the voting as the handpicked successor to Mondesire, an allegation he denied. He was named first vice president of the civil rights group when Mondesire and board members Donald Birts, the Rev. Elisha Morris, and Sid Booker were suspended in an effort to quiet a nasty public feud over Mondesire's financial management.

The board members questioned a $10,000 donation to the chapter from Market East Associates, a group then trying to win a Philadelphia casino license. Mondesire publicly declared his support for the Market8Casino.

Losing presidential candidate Tom Logan, a retired union official, told reporters that the NAACP offices had gone months without electricity and water service, and that allegations of financial malfeasance had made attracting donors impossible.

"We will work toward healing," Muhammad said on the day of his election. On Friday, he said the chapter had moved past the controversy.

Founded in 1909, the Baltimore-based NAACP is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group - and it's struggling for greater modern relevance. Many equate the group with the segregation battles of the 1960s, less so with modern concerns of police violence and voter suppression.

The NAACP will hold its next annual convention in Philadelphia in July.

Muhammad, father of two sons, was the eldest of three children born to Jim and Katherine Ellis.

His father starred in football at Michigan State University, and in 1953 was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. He later took a job in social work as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s.

His mother, Muhammad said, worked as a model and in a hospital human-relations office. Katherine Ellis, records show, earned an undergraduate degree and in 1977 a master's in business administration from Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Together, the couple ran a nightclub that was considered the family business, he said in a 2012 interview now in the La Salle University archives.

In the late 1960s, Muhammad was becoming racially conscious, reading books such as Black Power by Stokely Carmichael, Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. By the end of the decade, Malcolm, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had all been shot to death.

Muhammad studied accounting at DePaul University, but never earned a degree. He passed licensing tests to work as an estate planner.

In 1979, a friend invited him to hear Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, speak at a high school in Chicago.

"I heard that address that night, and the way he could take the Bible narratives and sort of mathematically put it over our situation, and it was such a match," Muhammad told his La Salle interviewer.

He began devotedly studying Islam, eventually giving up the surname Ellis to become Rodney 2X. For black Muslims, the X represents a lost African surname. When several mosque members have the same first name, they are assigned numbers such as "2X" to distinguish them from one another.

Rodney 2X was later given the name Muhammad, after the faith's central prophet. It means "praiseworthy." In 1991, he was assigned to Philadelphia to lead Mosque No. 12 at Broad and Cumberland Streets.

He was active from the start, helping to organize the Philadelphia-area presence at the Million Man March and later at the Million Family March.

In 2012, he worked on a major antiviolence campaign, and after his NAACP election joined with members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus to condemn the grand jury decisions that cleared police in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island.

"No achievement we make is safe," he said then, two days after his election, "if we can be gunned down and it can be legal."

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage