by Dr. Jamillah Karim
Sister Ana Karim was the first woman editor of the Muhammad Speaks (MS) newspaper. Appointed by Imam W.D. Mohammed in 1975, her story weaves together a legacy of women’s activism in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Nation of Islam (NOI). In particular, her story sheds new light on the male-centered narratives of the Black Muslim movement. Women like Ana Karim inspired from within Black power structures spaces for women’s leadership and contribution. Ana’s story, therefore, illuminates the way in which the Movement for Black Lives stands on the shoulders of great Muslim women in Black History.
Ana, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, was no ordinary woman in the NOI — or person, for that matter. She was invited by Elijah Muhammad personally to join the organization. Before meeting Muhammad, Ana was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist in Lowndes County. Located between Selma and Montgomery, Lowndes County was a fierce battleground for SNCC. It was also near Tuskegee, where Ana began attending college in 1965.
Ana Burks (Karim) (L) at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University)
“I nearly lost my life,” Ana shared, recalling how some of her peers were shot to death. News of these courageous students made local newspapers that eventually fell into the hands of Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad tried to convince her to join the Muslims. She initially declined, returned to Tuskegee, and witnessed an atrocity that never left her.
It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything
As we approached one house, we heard a truck coming on the road…I hid in a cornfield. There were two Caucasian guides, one at the wheel; and two on the truck bed that were on the porch talking to an African American sister who was pregnant, and some argument broke out, and we saw them grab her off that porch, hang her by her feet and split her stomach open. So it was so horrendous at nineteen to see something like that happen.
Elijah Muhammad’s call to convert to Islam began to make sense to her:
It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything — just die on a back road in some rural county and my body be buried in a cornfield or drowned somewhere in a stream. I didn’t want to die like that, so I left because I thought there was a higher mission, a better opportunity to help my people with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Ana excelled as a leader in the NOI. “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad asked me to introduce Islam in Tuskegee” by contributing to the MS newspaper a column titled “Islam in Tuskegee.” After graduating from Tuskegee, she moved to Chicago to work for Muhammad and occasionally spoke on his behalf at local temples.
“He sent me to Detroit, to Cincinnati, and to Dayton to deliver his message from the pulpit, and that had never been done by any woman…He sent me to teach in areas where there was a problem. He said the minister there is not following [his] instructions.” The fact that Ana was authorized to speak on behalf of Muhammad to correct ministers illustrates that women sometimes circumvented the Nation’s traditional gender roles.
How the MS newspaper’s legacy of the “best man for the job” led to the first woman editor
Malcolm X started the MS newspaper in Harlem in 1960, and it soon became a stunning success. C. Eric Lincoln called it “by far the most widely read paper in the Black community.”
Historians attribute MS’s success partly to its high quality journalism. Preparing the MS from his basement, Malcolm X enlisted assistance from professional writers and editors, including Louis Lomax and C. Eric Lincoln.
Imam Mohammed once declared, “I will follow any qualified woman. What God instills in her to bring about change and human excellence among our people, I will follow.”
By 1961, the newspaper was moved to Chicago at the Nation’s headquarters and produced weekly. Dan Burley, a seasoned journalist and former editor of the Amsterdam News, was the first editor. The next two editors were also non-Muslims with experience in the Black press, one a former editor of Ebony. Elijah Muhammad, determined to get his message to the Black masses, permitted Nation outsiders to lead his newspaper for pragmatic reasons.
Malcolm X had no immediate influence over the paper once it was moved to Chicago in 1961. He did, however, arrange for his close friend and secretary of the Harlem temple, John Ali, to be promoted to national secretary of the NOI and moved to Chicago. One of John Ali’s duties was overseeing the Nation’s MS newspaper printing plant, established in 1968, where at least 500,000 papers were produced per week.
The MS legacy, therefore, was one of quality, competitive journalism: let the best man do the job. This legacy provided an unexpected platform for Ana Karim’s leadership.
When Imam W.D. Mohammed became the new leader of the NOI, he actively promoted women’s work and leadership as ideal and central to the community’s transformation to Sunni Islam. Imam W.D. Mohammed followed in the legacy of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad to let the best man do the job, except now it was let the best man or woman do the job. Imam Mohammed once declared, “I will follow any qualified woman. What God instills in her to bring about change and human excellence among our people, I will follow.”
Women at the Center of Imam W.D. Mohammed’s Transition to Sunni Islam
Imam W.D. Mohammed leveraged the platform of MS to demonstrate his commitment to women’s leadership. Imam Mohammed had faced resistance from the MS staff, many of whom were still loyal to Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. Like his predecessors Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, who authorized the most qualified professionals to lead the paper, Imam W.D. Mohammed sought the person most qualified to ensure that MS would reflect the transition.
Ana Karim was the most qualified person. Although she was not a trained journalist, Imam W.D. Mohammed chose Ana Karim because of her intelligence, exceptional courage and loyalty.
When Ana arrived at the MS printing plant in 1975, it was managed by John Ali, introduced previously as Malcolm X’s friend and secretary of the Harlem temple, who was later appointed as the National Secretary. John Ali had become one of Malcolm’s fiercest enemies and used the paper to cast Malcolm as a traitor. Obviously, Ali was not happy with Imam W.D. Mohammed’s leadership either.
Ana stated, “The Honorable Imam W.D. Mohammed asked if I would be willing to take the position at the paper because of the volatility down there under John Ali.” Ana described John Ali as harsh and said that the way he treated the staff “was reminiscent of the hardcore racist and ruthless rule of southern whites in Alabama during the civil rights struggle.” Ana called a meeting of the entire MS staff and declared, “If you all don’t stand up against this man, you deserve the treatment he is giving you.”
Afterwards, “a new determination to be treated with respect began to emerge on the faces of the staff.” Eventually, “it got to a point where John Ali was run out of that plant, so it was then that the Honorable Imam W.D. Mohammed asked if I would become the head of that plant and that’s how I became the first woman editor of MS.”
Ana continued to face some resistance from a few who “were not on board with the Honorable Imam W.D. Mohammed and wanted the name of the paper to remain MS.” At the end of 1975, Imam Mohammed changed the name of the paper to Bilalian News to connect African Americans to the Islamic legacy of Bilal ibn Rabah, the enslaved African who converted to Islam in Mecca and became the first man to perform the Islamic call to prayer. The Bilalian News, he instructed her, should feature developments within the new Muslim community, as well as positive news about the larger African American community. Although Ana faced opposition from male staff, her resoluteness helped stem the tide. Leading the paper in a new direction would have been difficult for any editor, but she understood that her gender amplified the fight:
1976, Transition Period, Editor at Bilalian News
“So, either you stand your ground, Sister, or they trample over you because being a woman — this was not something these brothers were used to. You know, the militant, commanding FOI, Fruit of Islam, they were the dominant force of our community in terms of visibility. So here comes a woman saying that you have to follow the agenda of Imam W.D. Mohammed. This didn’t sit well with them. But it didn’t matter. ‘You either do it or else,’ I told them. [I was prepared for this type of defiance] because I assumed the hardship of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Ana led the paper until 1978. She resigned to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in her childhood interest, agronomy, and continued on to complete her master’s degree. Dorothy Ghallab, succeeded her as the editor. Three men followed Ghallab until Ayesha Mustafaa, the current editor, began her tenure in 1988. Since Ana’s time, the name of the paper changed to the Muslim Journal and its staff is majority female. Today, Sister Ana Karim resides in Columbus, Ohio.
Parts of this article were previously published in Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored by Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim.
C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Third Edition)
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
Askia Muhammad, “Muhammad Speaks, a Trailblazer in the Newspaper Industry,” The Final Call
Jamillah Karim is an award-winning author, speaker and blogger. Jamillah specializes in race, gender and Islam in America. She is author of American Muslim Women and co-author of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam. Dr. Karim is a former associate professor of Islam at Spelman College and holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies from Duke University. In 2014, she was highlighted as a young faith leader in the African American community by JET magazine.