An impulse as irresistible as in the acorn to germinate is in the soul of the prophet to speak.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Journal, 20 October 1833
Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.
—Moses (14th cent. ) Aaron (14th cent. B.C.) and Miriam (14th cent. B.C.). Numbers 12:6
One thing I learned, never to be a prophet … Prophecy is a dangerous thing. No prophet has died a natural death.
Eli Wiesel (1928- ).Response to a question from the audience, National Press Club speech, Washington, 20 May 1997
Bobby Barrow couldn’t seem to get the chicken and rice on his fork fast enough, as he shoveled it into his mouth much like he had been shoveling dirt into various wheelbarrows for almost twelve hours straight and he felt as if he was too tired to even talk; not that he particularly wanted to talk this sweltering mid-summer evening in 1963. He had just been fired from his job and wasn’t looking forward to telling his wife, who was sitting directly across from him at the dinner table.
Bobby Barrow was the first-born son of an alcoholic father who had spent almost 20 years in the army. His father had been of mixed blood, half Cherokee and half Irish, but his mother had been black and Barrow had been ostracized from the Caucasian race—almost his entire life. His father had served most of his tours in the Southern United States and Barrow had been forced to live as all blacks had in the Deep South during the forties and fifties, when not very much of a reason was really needed to lynch a black man. It had been his mother, and the all-black Baptist churches they had attended, that had been his salvation during those highly-charged and trying times for any black human being living anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. He had married Opal Brown, his high school sweetheart—upon their graduation from high school—in the small Georgia town their father had moved to when he was forced out of the army.
Having made Staff Sergeant Bobby Barrow’s dad, Nathaniel Barrow, was on the very precipice of retiring when he had punched a young lieutenant who had insulted his wife to his face. He was busted to private but spared any time in the stockade when he was forced to accept an Undesirable Discharge, just six months shy of his 20th year served—doomed to a life of scrimping and scraping just to keep food on the table. Having no pension to help deter the cost of living for the Barrow family, of two boys and three girls, Nathaniel Barrow worked two jobs, as did his wife, and all of their children were also expected to work and help out the family, financially. Barrow Junior, who, at age 18 was working in Georgia for .25 cents an hour, had moved to Washington D.C. four years ago, in 1959, just after his wife gave birth to their first child, a son. In D.C., President John F. Kennedy had finally raised the minimum wage and in September of that year, 1963, it was set to go to $1.25 an hour. Bobby Barrow looking for a better environment in which to raise his children had begged, borrowed and scraped up enough money to buy a 1948 Pontiac, which gave him enough courage to make the move. They had moved in with his wife’s brother their first day in town and were still there four years later. B.J. felt his wife’s hand on his and stopped his fork in mid-air, halfway to his mouth. “Wha’ jew want O?” he said, looking at her worried face.
“Honey, Billy’s in with B.J.”
Barrow glanced at his watch and noticed it was almost 9:00 p.m., his son’s bed-time. Billy Brown, his wife’s brother, who had changed his name to Muhammad 2X, was sitting on B.J.’s bed and talking to him in low monotones, even while Bobby Barrow stood in the doorway, fuming silently. His brother-in-law was a Black Muslim and had been preaching their doctrine to little 4-year old B.J. for the last six months. Bobby Barrow took his son to a local Baptist church every Sunday and was incensed over what he considered an intrusion into his son’s childhood. He shook his head. That’s enough Billy,” he growled.
Billy Brown stopped talking to B.J. and scowled towards the doorframe. “C’mon man, you know my name’s Muhammad—Muhammad Two-X.”
“Look, Billy—Mohammad— we’ve gone over all this before. We’re Baptists and we believe in Jesus Christ and …”
“White man, that’s a white Gee-zuz you is talkin’ about man—white man’s god man—shee-it man, who you think made ‘im white? The white man put all dat in yo’ mind man. I’m tellin’ Bee-Jay all about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, ’bout the profit and Malcolm and …”
“B.J. don’t need to hear about them; they’re preachin’ hatred and separation of the races and you can’t advance anywhere with talk like that. You have to …”
“Shee-it man, lotta good the white man ever did fo’ you—zebra.”
Bobby Barrow gritted his jaws together and put his head down. “Elijah Muhammad is not a prophet, as a matter of fact, he …”
“Mohammad was the real prophet and he din’ take no shee-it either; he …”
“Jesus Christ was the son of God and that I do know.”
“Ah-eh, that’s another silly-ass white man’s trick!”
“Gee-zuz wuvs me Uncah Bee-wee, for the bi-bull tells me so,” little B.J. said and immediately looked at his father, who smiled at him and opened his arms. B.J. ran over and Bobby Barrow quickly lifted him up and gave him a kiss.
“He knows about Jesus, Billy.”
“Man, how many times I gotta say it? My name’s Muhammad and I don’t think B.J. ‘id be so brain-washed either, if you didn’t make him go to dat Baptist church every Sunday. Lemme take ‘im to the mosque tomorrow—than he can really learn mo’ facts ’bout the black man’s history.”
“I’ll tell you what Bi … Muhammad; I’ll let him go with you tomorrow because he’s going to church with me the next day.”
Billy Brown smiled. “Goin’ to the march Wednesday?”
“Yup, are you?”
“I might; not that it’ll do any good man. Elijah Muhammad says …”
Bobby Barrow waved his hand in the air and shook his head. “Billy can hear all about that tomorrow okay? Now, it’s his bedtime.”
Billy Brown smiled and winked at his nephew and rubbed his head on his way out of the room. “See yah tomorrow little man,” he said.”
‘Gah’night Unca Bee-wee,” little B.J. replied, as his father deposited him on his bed.
“It’s a waste of time sis’ —so—why you goin’?”
“I don’t think it’s a waste of time Billy, oh, I mean Mohammad,” Opal Brown Barrow replied to her brother, “and, anyway, I wanna hear Harry Belafonte sing.”
“Heh-heh, yeah, yeah I can’t blame you for that, Harry B can sing man.”
“Yeah-yea-uh Unca Moham-mud and Sammy Davis gonna be there too, you should come wif us.”
Billy Brown, aka Muhammad 2X, laughed and smiled at his nephew. He had kept him at the mosque for several hours the previous Saturday and little B.J. still remembered it but now, just after eating his lunch, little B.J. was excited because it was finally Wednesday and he was going with his parents to a large gathering of people—important people, his father had told him—people who were working for civil rights, something B.J. didn’t fully understand, but then his father told him that these people were helping everyone become friends instead of enemies. They were people who would speak of non-violence instead of revolution, peace instead of war and love in place of hate—people who would speak to everyone just like his Sunday school teachers spoke to him. His father had told him that these people worshipped Jesus Christ—just as they did in his church.
B.J.’s uncle had told him that the black men who he would hear speak would actually slow down the black man’s fight for progress; he told his nephew that only when he heard Elijah Muhammad speak would he hear the true prophet speak and his message was that the black man was not free and that he must take his freedom, or it would be—once again—taken from him.
B.J. couldn’t make up his mind—he was confused. He had spent almost the whole day at his uncle’s mosque and about half that much time at his father’s church and could still hear his uncle’s words, ringing in his ears: ‘Gee-zuz was white B.J. and Mohammad was brown and Mohammad was real, not like your dad’s made-up white Gee-zuz.’ These were awfully strong words for a four-year-old boy, who was being pulled in two different directions. He loved his daddy but he also loved his uncle, who he had known and lived with for as long as he had with his parents. He waved to his uncle as they left their home; Billy Brown had refused to go to the gathering of which he now referred to as: “traitors to the movement.” It was just almost 1:00 p.m. and Opal Barrow carried with them a picnic basket, while her husband carried a thermos, because they meant to stay right up until the end.
It was a march on the Nation’s Capitol, for jobs and freedom, and there were over a quarter of a million people surrounding the Lincoln Memorial. It was late in the afternoon and the numerous singers and speakers had just about all had their say. Mahalia Jackson had brought tears to many eyes with her rendition of ‘I been ‘buked and I been scorned’ and Bobby Barrow motioned for his wife to follow him, on his march from their space at the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, towards the very steps that the speaker’s podium rested on. Besides the stirring voice of Mahalia Jackson they had heard great voices sing for freedom: Joan Baez; Peter, Paul & Mary; Bob Dylan, Odetta, Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. and they had heard speaker after speaker talk about freedom but Bobby Barrow wanted little B.J.—as well as himself and his wife—to hear the next speaker because he had never before heard the man speak and he was determined to stay until he did. He gently picked his son up and carried him down almost to the front—to a row of people with a perfect view of the podium. He put his son down and little B.J. rubbed his eyes; he was exhausted and ready for bed but he smiled at his dad. “I’m tired Daddy,” he said and his father smiled.
“I know son but I want you to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak.”
“Mah-rin Woofah Daddy …?”
Barrow had to laugh. “Yes son, look.”
Little B.J. ripped his eyes away from his father’s face and to the podium, maybe a hundred feet from where he now was, standing between his father and mother.
A. Philip Randolph, the elder statesman of the civil rights movement, stepped to the microphone and quickly introduced the next speaker: “I have the pleasure to present to you the moral leader of the nation: I have the pleasure to present to you Dr. Martin Luther King Jay-R.”
Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the podium and he stared straight into the eyes of everyone in attendance; as most of them would swear to later, in the years to come. Opal Brown noticed B.J. frowning as he tried to get a better view of King and she picked him up and he smiled, then seeing his father staring intently and listening to the speaker, he did the same: “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition …”
The crowd was silent but burst into applause and cheering on numerous occasions and little B.J. watched his parents’ reactions very closely and when he looked around and saw so many people weeping and then saw tears streaming down his father’s face he looked towards the speaker and listened intently: “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be …”
As the speech continued little B.J.s’ eyes became wider and wider, as though he realized who the speaker on the stage really was and he whispered it in his daddy’s ear; he thought that he might know who it was—who was speaking—sort of like his uncle took the name of Muhammad 2X; it wasn’t his real name but a name taken after his prophet—his god—and now he realized—in his child’s mind—exactly who this speaker was. He only whispered it; he needed his father’s reassurance because he wasn’t really sure and—after all—his daddy knew everything. His father made little B.J. laugh with glee and happiness, as only fathers can do, when he reassured him: “Yes B.J. —it is—it is Black Jesus.”
Bobby Barrow scowled at his draft notice. He had gotten it three days earlier, on Monday April 1, 1968, April Fool’s Day, but it was no joke and it was also no joke that he meant to resist the draft, even if it meant joining several friends and co-workers who had already fled to Canada. God was against all wars and so was Barrow and the man who Barrow considered his spiritual advisor, his prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was against the war, in Southeast Asia, also and he—one of the very few who did—preached against the war and that was enough for Barrow to know that he wouldn’t go. He glanced at his watch and saw it was past six p.m. It was Thursday and he typically worked a 12-hour shift— from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.—at the auto repair shop that he worked at, and it was now a few minutes past 6:00 p.m. He clocked out and walked out into the parking lot. It was then that he heard the news that would change his life—and so many other lives—as well as American history. What appeared to be a homeless black man was standing on the street-corner and was shouting: “Doctah King done been shot … he’s been shot and a white man done be the one who did it … Doctah King’s been shot …”
Bobby Barrow jumped into his car and pulled onto Maryland Avenue. He immediately began turning the knob on his car radio but he need’nt have bothered because the news of Dr. King’s assassination was all over the airwaves—on virtually every station.
Driving through the streets of the Nation’s Capitol, he saw large crowds of black men huddling on street corners and many were even stopping traffic as they yelled out the news of the assassination. Barrow watched as a Buick stopped at a red-light and when the driver rolled down the driver-side window to see what the group of black men wanted, Barrow saw that it was a white man behind the wheel and then he watched as a large black man reached in and hit the man. Barrow was about to get out of his car when the Buick screeched away and he quickly drove the last two blocks to the apartment they now lived in, just over his brother-in-law’s. It was 7:00 p.m. and when Barrow got out of his car he saw his wife’s brother with a half-dozen other black men sitting on the steps.
Muhammad 2X nodded at the six Black Muslim brothers sitting with him and then nodded towards Barrow and shouted out: “C’mon Bobby a white man done shot and killed King and we gonna go and get some pay-back—you comin’?”
Barrow shook his head and walked up the steps, even as his brother-in-law derided him voraciously. He walked into his living room and heard the T.V. blaring even before he saw the newscaster stating that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been pronounced dead, in Memphis—where he had been staying—with several other civil rights workers, on behalf of the black sanitation workers, who were not afforded the same equal treatment as their white counterparts were and were on strike for those equal rights. Bobby Barrow suddenly began crying and his wife ran over and embraced him. He gathered his wits and walked to his favorite living-room chair, where he collapsed. He was sitting there, with his head in his hands, when his 9-year-old son came over to the chair. When he saw his father had been crying tears formed in his eyes and began streaming down his cheeks. He looked at his father and inhaled deeply. “Daddy, daddy—Black Jesus is dead—Black Jesus is dead!”
Bobby Barrow put his arm around his son and kissed him on the cheek. “Yes son,” he rasped, forlornly, “I’m sorry but Black Jesus is dead.”
“But why Daddy … why …?”
For once B.J.’s father was out of answers and he could only shake his head disconsolately and mutter silently: “I don’t know B.J. —I just don’t know.”
Work is an extension of personality. It is achievement. It is one of the ways in which a person defines himself, measures his worth, and his humanity.
—Peter F. Drucker (1909-2005). Management Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, 14, 1974, abr., 1977
Bobby Barrow would avoid the Vietnam War when he was awarded a family deferment, as being the only provider for his wife and three children. They moved to the Southeast quadrant where Bobby Barrow found out that a fellow worker, a man named Sean O’Coyle, an Irishman who was also a Muslim, lived, with his family, also. O’Coyle being a Muslim was something entirely new for Barrow and he questioned him endlessly on their breaks from the garage they were both working at. O’Coyle’s father was a mechanical engineer but O’Coyle wanted to open his own auto garage with money borrowed from his father. The thing that Barrow couldn’t comprehend about O’Coyle was that there were more Muslims than just the Black Muslims that Barrow had thought were the only practicing Muslims because he knew of no others. O’Coyle invited him to his mosque and Bobby attended, learning a lot of new positive information about the Muslim religion, and when Sean O’Coyle offered the 28-year-old Bobby Barrow a job at his new automotive garage at $2.50 an hour, exactly double what he had been getting paid at Earl Schieb’s Auto Repair and body-shop garage, he jumped at it.
O’Coyle lived in the Fort Dupont neighborhood and Barrow drove to the Fort Dupont Park with his 9-year-old son, B.J., and his two small girls every chance he got because his neighborhood although just a few miles away was in the heart of the ghetto and ruled by gangs, drugs and violence and Barrow was determined to move up to Fort Dupont, a middle-class neighborhood—with well-kept homes and almost no crime—and so Barrow worked 60 and 70-hour weeks, working himself up from mechanic’s helper all the way to general manager. It was when he had almost five-thousand dollars saved up that he was offered a partnership in O’Coyle’s Garage & Body Shop and he took it, putting all of his savings into the business.
Sean O’Coyle was a devout Muslim, as was his entire family, and little BJ. Barrow saw a completely different set of religious values and a different view when he was allowed to go to the local mosque with O’Coyle’s two sons, both in the same grade as B.J.
In 1972, and with a $3500 down payment from his life savings, the Barrows finally moved out of the ghetto and into a home that they bought from Sean O’Coyle himself, when O’Coyle bought a house in the tonier Eastern Market, an area with its own grocery-stores, as well as restaurants, sports facilities and movie theatres —and the best that the Southeast quadrant had to offer.
Strong towers decay,
But a great name shall never pass away. —Park Benjamin, A Great Name.
Fate holds the strings, and men like children move
But as they’re led; success is from above.
—George Granville, Heroic Love. Act v, sc. 2.
This is the duty of the father, to accustom his son to act rightly rather of his own accord than from unnatural fear. —Terence, Adelphi, 1, 74. (Act I, sc. 1.)
In 2011, the 70-year-old Bobby Barrow finally turned the reins—of his half of the hugely successful O’Coyle & Barrow Auto Repair business—over to his son B.J., who had already been running the place for three years but Barrow made it official in 2011, at his granddaughter’s wedding. B.J.’s oldest daughter was marrying Sean ‘Trey’ O’Coyle III and the wedding was to be held in a local mosque on A Street. B.J. himself was a Muslim but he also was a Christian and observed all the rituals of both religions, seeing no contradictions, even if some others did. His wife of 26 years, Belinda O’Coyle Barrow was a devout Muslim but also attended church services with B.J. at a local Baptist church every Sunday and Bobby always attended Friday’s prayers at a local mosque.
The date for the wedding was August 29, 2011, which was the last day of Ramadan. All the Muslims in both families were fasting for the entire day and not eating anything until the sun went down. It was just after 7:00 p.m. and B.J. was in the car with his father headed for the wedding feast they would eat as soon as the sun went down when suddenly Bobby Barrow pulled his Mercedes off the road, making an extremely sharp left turn. B.J. turned pale but sat still when the car finally came to rest, its wheels resting up over the curb. “Geezuz, Joseph and Mary Dad, what … wha’ the hell is going on …”
Barrow opened the door to the car and got out.
“Dad, what the hell you doin’ …? This is a ghetto … this is dangerous, we’re in Congress Heights, man this place is the pits, we’re …”
“Get out of the car son,” Barrow said and B.J. reluctantly opened his door and got out. Almost immediately his cell-phone rang. “H’low, this is B.J., yeah honey, well, we’re, well right now we’re in Anacostia … ah, well we’re in Congress Heights right now and …”
B.J. held his cell-phone a few inches from his ear and you could hear the screaming from where Bobby Barrow stood and he walked over to B.J., where he took the phone and put it to his ear. “This is Bobby, yes, yes I know, we’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He handed the cell-phone to his son who took it back and slipped it back into his pocket.
“Dad … what …? We gotta get outta here.”
“Son … son, don’t you remember? We lived here?”
“We did not … we lived in …”
Barrow walked over to his son and guided him to two intersecting streets and nodded at them.
That used to be Nichols Avenue Southeast when we lived right up there.” He pointed to a vacant lot strewn with empty shopping carts, beer cans, wine bottles, needles and old garbage cans. That used to be Portland Avenue, right there. He pointed at the cross street.
B.J. shook his head and looked around nervously. A metro cross-town bus stopped a block away and several people got out. B.J. looked nervously towards them. “Dad, we better go.”
Bobby Barrow grabbed his son’s hand and walked him to the two cross streets. He nodded at them and smiled widely. “Son, we lived right over there for nearly four years. I know it’s gone now and the neighborhood is no place to be at night but son we lived right there and …”
“Dad, are you going crazy? So what we lived there?”
“Son, the Lord never wants you to forget where you come from.”
“I know that Dad, I ah-er …” B.J. saw three roughly dressed young men approaching them and he became highly agitated. “Dad, let’s get ….”
“Ah-er, no, ah, I mean what …?
The three men walked over to them and B.J. could see that two of them held metal lunch-boxes in their hands. One man had an undershirt on and his huge chest rose and fell like a barrel being constricted and expanded every few seconds. He nodded at B.J. and smiled shrewdly.
“Aw, well,” he said, “we seen your car there up on the curb, figured maybe you needed some help?”
“Yeah,” the man just next to him said, “we’re auto mechanics and if you need …”
“No, we’re all right,” Bobby Barrow said, smiling at the trio. “You’re all mechanics then?”
“Well, they are but I’m just a helper; mostly I paint and do body work right now but I’m learnin’ a lot and someday …” his voice trailed off.
“Where—if you don’t mind me askin’—ah, where do you all work?”
“Earl Schieb’s Auto and Body Repair it’s ’bout a mile and a half from here.”
Bobby Barrow smiled at his son and shook his head. “They’re still there?”
“Ah, yessir, they sure are.” the man replied.
Bobby Barrow stuck his hand out. “I’m Bobby Barrow,” he said and the three men nodded as they shook hands. “I’m Trace Perkins and this is Roland Webb and Abdul Muhammad.”
‘You know we used to live right up there, that vacant lot,” Bobby Barrow said.
“Man that’s been a vacant lot for a long time.”
“Yeah we moved in seventy-two,” Bobby replied.
“Well, if you guys’re all right I’d better be getting on, my wife—well—she’s a worrier.”
The three men turned to go but Bobby Barrow stopped them, as he reached into his pockets and began searching them.
“Say, you men here, here, I have, B.J. gimme your card.”
B.J. reached into his vest pocket and took out a gold-plated case. He slipped it open and took out three cards, handing them to his father, who then handed them—one by one—to the three men. “Call this number on Monday and we’ll see about giving you all a job.”
“A job?” the man who had identified himself as Trace Perkins said.
“Yup, a job—what’s your pay-rate at Earl Schieb?”
The men exchanged glances and Trace Perkins smiled. “Well, ah I’m making eight bucks an hour but then I’m not …”
“Twenty-five dollars an hour; we’ll pay you twenty-five bucks an hour and if you work hard enough we’ll give you a raise every year.”
The trio nodded and began to leave. “I’ll call you Mister … ah … Barrow, you can bet on it.”
“Good, good, you do that son.”
They walked away mumbling and even from ten yards away both Barrows could tell they didn’t believe Barrows’ story or the possibility of a decent-paying job awaiting them on Monday.
“Dad we’d better go. Why did …”
Barrow pointed to the sign and smiled. “Black Gee-zuz son … remember … and, as we both know you know all about Malcolm.“
B.J. smiled—Malcolm X was one of his heroes, because he had studied the Muslim Religion and then the Koran and Mohammad’s life and he saw and realized that Malcolm X had done more than any other American Muslim in an effort to bring peace and stability through his efforts to discover the truth. In 1964, Malcolm X completed his pilgrimage to Mecca, a hajj, and said that the trip allowed him to see Muslims of different races interacting as equals. He came to believe that Islam could be the means by which all racial problems could be overcome but almost as soon as he began speaking the truth: declaring himself a Sunni Muslim, breaking away from the Nation of Islam and speaking of reconciliation with all civil rights groups he was assassinated, exactly as Martin Luther King would be—three years later—and both men would leave this earth at the same age—39.
B.J. looked up at the two signs and again saw the intersection where they had once lived. They had lived just off Nichols Avenue, SE, slightly east of the Anacostia River, on Portland Avenue, which had been renamed Malcolm X Avenue and Nichols Avenue which had been renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue.
Bobby Barrow smiled at B.J. “You know how I’m always lookin’ for signs when I have to make a decision B.J.? Well—I just got two signs.” Both men laughed heartily and as Bobby opened the car-door, he smiled widely. “Let’s go eat son—Ramadan is officially over.”