It was a normal Wednesday on Capitol Hill when photographer Askia Muhammad told a freshman senator from Illinois: “You look just like the minister.”
The “minister” was Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who had been invited to speak at the weekly Congressional Black Caucus lunch in 2005. The senator was Barack Obama.
“He is much better looking than I am,” Obama quipped as the two men stood for what Muhammad called a “grip and grin,” a single frame.
Later that afternoon, Muhammad says, he got a call from a Congressional Black Caucus staffer, requesting that he send them the photo for safe keeping. Instead, Muhammad sent the image to Farrakhan but says he kept a copy for himself. Nobody had seen the photo for 13 years – until now.
Muhammad’s account could not be independently verified.
“I swore myself to secrecy,” Muhammad, 72, told the AJC. “If the picture was exposed, it could still be a deal breaker for Obama. I felt that there was an ambition that black people had about Obama being elected president. I did not want to be the instrument of his downfall.”
Muhammad would not identify the person he says called him from the black caucus.
“I don’t know at what level the decision was made or who was involved,” Muhammad said. “But it was someone from the CBC.”
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Lithonia Democrat, said a handshake does not equate to political support. But if the photo had been released ahead of the 2008 election, Johnson said, “it would have affected the outcome of the election.”
Muhammad, who is also a member of the Nation of Islam and a senior editor of its newspaper, “The Final Call,” published the photo in January as part of his latest book, “The Autobiography of Charles 67X.” The book is a retrospective of his 40-plus years as a member of the black press, including 28 as a White House correspondent.
But the image has provoked a strong response from Obama opponents, who accused Muhammad, Farrakhan and “the media” of trying to protect Obama.
In a tweet, Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called on Obama to publicly denounce Farrakhan.
“Over his career, [Barack Obama] has denounced the bigotry of Farrakhan,” Greenblatt said in a tweet. “Time to do so again. Leaders always should make sure that there’s no doubt: America is no place for those who advocate #antisemitism or hate.”
Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute and an expert on journalism ethics, said the issue of publishing the photo is not that cut and dried, considering that Muhammad was working for Farrakhan’s newspaper. She said there were several considerations, including the relevance and context of the meeting.
“But it is certainly something that would have been relevant to a group of people who probably would have distorted the photo and taken it out of context,” McBride said. “It would have been used and abused by a lot of Obama’s detractors.”
McBride said had Muhammad been working for a mainstream news organization, the photo likely would have been published years ago.
“I would never argue that as journalist we should withhold info because we know it would be used and abused,” McBride said. “They’ve got to try their hardest to keep the context.”
‘A horrible, horrible human being’
It was not hard to spot Obama’s potential, even in 2005. A year earlier, he catapulted onto the national stage after an electrifying keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, while he was at an Illinois state senator. By the time he was in the U.S. Senate, he was already one of the party’s rising stars.
Farrakhan, who led the Million Man March a decade earlier, was still a polarizing figure. While popular in the black community, he has been accused of bigotry and anti-Semitism.
“Louis Farrakhan is a virulent anti-Semite. He has called Judaism a gutter religion,” Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz told Fox News, adding that he would not have campaigned for Obama had he seen the photo. “He’s anti-American and he is a horrible, horrible human being.”
Two years after the photo was taken, on Feb. 10, 2007, Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency.
Plemon T. El-Amin, Imam Emeritus of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, one of the largest and most progressive mosques in the country, said the photo should not have been an issue had it surfaced, but he admits that it would have been.
“The Jewish community had issues with Minister Farrakhan and Barack Obama had a lot of Jewish and young support,” El-Amin said. “If you look at what Barack had to go through with Rev. Wright, this would have double or tripled.”
Obama, who became the first black person to secure a major party nomination, spent part of his campaign knocking down rumors that he was a Muslim who wasn’t born in the U.S. The Farrakhan photo would only have fed that bogus narrative.
Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright
Obama maintained a close relationship with Jeremiah Wright, his pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
In March of 2008, several of Wrights’ more controversial sermons came to light, including one in which he said: “God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme.” T
Obama was forced to denounce the man who officiated at his wedding and baptized his children.
Muhammad, who arrived in Washington to cover the White House for the Chicago Defender in 1977, said he was still getting calls as late as 2008, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, making sure that the photo was still under wraps.
“I constantly worried about it,” said Muhammad, who is also the news director of WPFW-FM in Washington. “When he became a candidate, I was scared that somebody was going to discover it and do a Watergate ‘plumbers’ job on my residence. I was scared all the way up to Election Day.”
But even after Election Day and after Obama was re-elected in 2012, Muhammad continued to sit on the photo.
“Sure, I could have revealed the picture, but why?” Muhammad said. “I could have easily made $20,000, but what would have happened? Not an Obama presidency. And I would have been hated for derailing his candidacy. It wouldn’t have been worth it.”
Muhammad said in 2015-2016, Farrakhan started talking about the picture in speeches and in private conversations.
“That is when I felt a little more at ease. When I got ready to do the book, I told Minister Farrakhan – so long as he didn’t object – that I planned on using it in my book,” Muhammad said.
Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.
Note: Commenting on this article is being moderated by AJC editors.