From rage to redemption
radical celebrates spiritual rebirth anchored in lessons espoused by King
By Robert King
Mmoja Ajabu didn't always embrace the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy that protest should be peaceful.
When he led the Black Panther Militia in Indiana, Ajabu specifically left open the possibility that armed conflict might be the answer to black oppression.
When he wanted to bring attention to his concerns about a black man's impending execution, he burned an American flag on Monument Circle.
When his son was being prosecuted for a triple murder in Carmel, Ajabu was jailed for making threatening comments toward court officials.
Ajabu, a man disillusioned by his tour of duty in Vietnam and bitter about racism he saw upon his return, thought more along the lines of Malcolm X, who asserted that blacks should seek justice "by any means necessary."
He was an angry man.
Now, years later, Ajabu has changed. He no longer believes in violence. He regrets burning the flag. He said he was wrong to think only of himself and his son when two Carmel families were enduring the aftermath of the murders his son took part in.
Today, Ajabu will speak at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, and he's also leading an effort to rename Michigan Road for the civil rights leader who opposed violence.
So what happened to Ajabu, the man then-Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith once called "one of the most destructive forces" influencing race relations in the city?
Ajabu says he has found peace from God, with the help of Bishop T. Garrott Benjamin Jr.
"It was my faith that made me start being more concerned about my behavior and how it was affecting others," Ajabu said. "Now I think about what I do and how do other people think about it."
Foe becomes friend
That Benjamin should be instrumental in Ajabu's turnaround is perhaps the most fascinating irony.
Ajabu once saw Benjamin as his nemesis. He confronted Benjamin in public and lambasted him on the radio as the epitome of the black church's failure to address real social injustices.
Yet it was in Benjamin's Light of the World Christian Church where Ajabu, now 57, was ordained in October and given the title "minister of social concerns."
In his new role, Ajabu is focused on some of the same issues that drove him in the 1990s: poverty, crime and the city's failure to solve them. He is again concerned that a violent uprising is imminent unless the problems are addressed. But this time he is not fanning the fire. Ajabu and those who know him say he has put away the flamethrower in favor of reason.
"I cannot garner support by being out here burning the flag. That is not going to garner support," Ajabu said. "It is going to let people know what is going on. But instead of getting people to look at the issue . . . they are going to look at the tactic."
Ajabu spent much of the early 1990s making waves across Indianapolis.
He brought controversial minister Louis Farrakhan to town to raise "defense funds" for the Black Panther Militia. He picketed a Korean-American-owned business, urging blacks to go elsewhere for their sundry needs, presumably to black-owned businesses.
He racked up three felony convictions for handgun possession, an altercation with a service station attendant and threatening the prosecutor in his son's murder case. He served time in prison.
As he waged a personal war, Ajabu made Benjamin a symbolic target for his rhetoric. But Ajabu had never heard Benjamin preach or seen what his church was doing.
"The strategy at the time was to use Bishop Benjamin because he was the most influential pastor, in our eyes, in the city," Ajabu said.
Benjamin said the difference in their styles sometimes masked similar goals.
"I think what he wanted at that point was for people to look at the Black Panther methodology as the way," Benjamin said. "Of course, I was talking about a Christ-centered, Martin Luther King protest, if you will -- peaceful and nonviolent."
Finally, a church member coaxed Ajabu into visiting Benjamin's church.
The invitation came at a key point in his life.
Ajabu had been fired from his job because of the handgun arrest. His marriage had fallen apart. His house burned in what he still thinks was an arson. And his Black Panther Militia was starting to crumble. Then, there was his son's conviction in the murder case.
Ajabu almost didn't make it through the door of Benjamin's church, then on 38th Street. Security guards had heard of Ajabu's rantings against the bishop and stopped him from entering.
Although Ajabu had lost the right to carry a weapon after his handgun arrest, the members of the militia he brought with him that day were well-armed. A dangerous confrontation looked imminent.
Benjamin, hearing about the ruckus, intervened, telling the men to let Ajabu come in. He told them to put Ajabu in the front row, next to Benjamin's wife.
"If you put the light on the enemy," Benjamin said, "he will either run to you or run away from you."
Benjamin's act of reconciliation touched Ajabu deeply, as did the subsequent sermon on Moses -- the great liberator of an oppressed people, and Ajabu's hero.
"I couldn't ignore the symbolism," Ajabu said.
He cried like a baby, he said, and when the altar call came, Ajabu went forward and joined the church. "I think God was trying to tell me something," he said, "and he finally got my ear."
Panther to preacher
Mark A. Russell has seen the change in Ajabu.
While an associate minister at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, he nearly came to blows with Ajabu after Ajabu cursed in his church
. Quoting from the Bible, Russell said Ajabu "had a zeal, but not according to knowledge."
Russell, now with the Indianapolis Urban League, said Ajabu's transformation means that his actions no longer thwart his interest in bettering the community.
"There is a serenity and sense of peace that Mmoja has now that was not present before," Russell said. "In the past, you could always tell there was a not-so-subliminal sense of rage going on."
Cornell Burris, president of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP branch, said Ajabu was a divisive figure who is now an example of how anyone can change.
he has become less aggressive and more persuasive -- like Dr. King advocated while he was alive," Burris said.
Ajabu's main task these days is directing Light of the World's mentoring program for troubled kids. He shares with them his story, including his time in prison, and his son's crimes, which led to a life prison sentence.
Curiously, people had been telling Ajabu that he was destined for ministry since he was young. After all, his father, Paul West Sr., had been a Baptist minister. Ajabu credits Benjamin for bringing him home.
"He loved the hell out of me," Ajabu said. "Literally."
Call Star reporter Robert King at (317) 444-6089.
Copyright 2006 IndyStar.com. All rights reserved
Here is a reference article for the kind of good citizen Mmoja, his wife JANE raised..
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