Photo of then-Sen. Obama and Minister Farrakhan may have tanked presidential chances

2/2/2018, 6:28 a.m.
It was during a mid-2005 Congressional Black Caucus meeting on Capitol Hill when award-winning journalist Askia Muhammad captured one of …
This 2005 photo shows U.S. Sen. Barack Obama with Minister Louis Farrakhan during a Congressional Black Caucus meeting.

By Hazel Trice Edney

It was during a mid-2005 Congressional Black Caucus meeting on Capitol Hill when award-winning journalist Askia Muhammad captured one of the most significant photos of his career. 

Mr. Muhammad had doggedly covered then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Chicago since he “first laid eyes on him” at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Now, here was the senator in a warm conversation with constituent and fellow Chicagoan Minister Louis Farrakhan. As leader of the Nation of Islam, Minister Farrakhan is another star in black America, but one whose name is synonymous with controversy. Wasting no time, Mr. Muhammad snapped the news photo. But moments later, he faced a dilemma. Sen. Obama already had become the darling of national Democratic politics. And the scent of a presidential run was strong.  

Mr. Muhammad and others realized almost immediately that the public release of the photo could mean major trouble down the road. Mainly because of bigotry and fear mongering, the public release of that photo could doom America’s chances of electing Sen. Obama as its first African-American president. 

Mr. Muhammad had not left the scene when he received a call and the photo was being summoned by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Mr. Muhammad ultimately surrendered the disk to Minister Farrakhan’s chief of staff. And it remained one of America’s best-hidden secrets for the next 12 years. 

For the first time, more than a decade later, the photograph of now former President Obama and Minister Farrakhan has been published in a book by Mr. Muhammad that was scheduled for release on Wednesday, “The Autobiography of Charles 67X.”

Mr. Muhammad and some political observers still believe that if that photo had been released, it could have drawn enough fire — even from some of President Obama’s supporters — to dent his chances of becoming president. 

“I gave the picture up at the time and basically swore secrecy,” Mr. Muhammad said in an exclusive interview last week with Trice Edney News Wire. “But after the nomination was secured and all the way up until the inauguration, then for eight years after he was president, it was kept under cover.” 

As for any debate that the photo could have made a difference in the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Muhammad is emphatic, “I insist. It absolutely would have made a difference.”

He has agreement in high places. 

“I do believe that it would have had a very, very negative effect in that given moment as far as the candidacy of candidate Obama at that time,” said Dr. Shayla Nunnally, president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.

Her opinion was based largely on the “negative stereotypes about Muslim Americans, about black people and about their allegiance to the United States,” which often have been twisted and used to fit bigoted agendas, especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

“On top of that,” Dr. Nunnally said, “people have always characterized Minister Farrakhan as being a combative figure in American politics. That adds another layer.”

She questioned what the release of the photo will mean “even now because there are so many conspiracy theories still floating.”

President Obama, who is a Christian, constantly had been the target of bigoted attacks, Dr. Nunnally pointed out. When a woman called him an Arab during a public forum, even his 2012 re-election opponent Sen. John McCain retrieved the microphone and corrected her, saying, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man.”

Dr. Nunnally also recalled how former Secretary of State Colin Powell once weighed in against negative stereotyping of Muslims saying, “He’s a Christian … But the really right answer is, what if he is” a Muslim?

Dr. Nunnally concluded, “There are many, many, many layers of what that picture can represent to people in their various perceptions. So, I say this to mean that I can see that the release of that photo in that given moment, it would have been highly controversial.”

Also pictured in the photo are Minister Farrakhan’s son-in-law, Leonard Farrakhan Muhammad; his son and security chief, Mustapha Farrakhan; Minister Farrakhan’s son, Joshua Farrakhan; and the Rev. Willie Wilson, executive producer of the program for the Million Man March in 1995 and a chairman of the 20th anniversary march.

Columnist and political observer A. Peter Bailey said he believes the photo would have created controversy for President Obama, but could not have caused him to lose the election or his re-election because of the groundswell of black voter support.

“It could have done some damage,” Mr. Bailey said. “But nothing could have stopped the election because black support would have countered it.”