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Backstory: Islam's soul of the South

The improbable rise of a black Muslim politician in deepest Alabama.

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Yusuf Salaam's dedication to racial reconciliation started when a white man died for his sister. It was 1965 Alabama, the height of the civil rights movement, and Mr. Salaam's 16-year-old sister, Ruby Sales, was in the thick of it, working to end segregation. That August day she, with a handful of others, was confronted by a shotgun-wielding avowed racist. As he leveled his gun, shouting obscenities, Ruby was shoved out of the way by an Episcopal seminarian named Jon Daniels who died instantly from the blast.

"If you want to understand what I stand for, and why I do what I do here in this place that isn't known for its tolerance and its understanding, you really have to go back to Ruby and that Jon Daniels thing," Salaam says referring to the incident that occurred not far from this city aside the churning Alabama River.

When Daniels was killed, Salaam was at a summer prep school in Colorado "along with a bunch of rich kids," as he puts it. "They offered me a scholarship. But after what happened, I felt like I had to go back to my Jim Crow school in the South and start being a part of it.

"I felt such a sense of gratitude then that someone from outside the black race would make such a sacrifice for us, that it nullified any inclination I had toward looking at it racially myself."

Today's Selma, he will tell you, is a different place than it was during the height of violence and suffocating oppression of 1965. And he's right. Gov. George Wallace's state troopers no longer menace peaceful marchers, Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse no longer terrorize blacks registering to vote. The city has a black mayor and a majority black city council. Enfranchisement at least has been achieved.

But he also grudgingly acknowledges what's still there: the issue, the question, the matter of race. It's a current just below the surface, determining and defining just about everything from the city budget to candidates for public office. It's safe to say that one of this nation's most racially intolerant cities in the 1960s still has issues. But when you cast about for a way to measure Selma's lack of tolerance and it's unwillingness to reconcile and embrace change, you run up on a problem in the form of Yusuf Salaam himself.

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