John Muhammad: The road to city hall

Councilman John Muhammad was sworn in on Oct. 20 by the Honorable Pamela A. M. Campbell, Sixth Judicial Circuit. Photos courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg.

BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – When long-time community activist and leader Brother John Muhammad was voted in to represent District 7 on the St. Petersburg City Council by a narrow margin of 4 to 3, it clearly indicated our country’s ongoing struggle to accept new pathways toward combatting historically stubborn social and political problems.

Muhammad’s community work is not new — he has long been involved in grassroots organizing and community outreach. His commitment to changing St. Petersburg dates back to the St. Pete Stop the Violence Coalition, which received National Volunteer Service Awards from President Barack Obama’s office in 2013 and 2014.

While as president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, he brought greater membership enrollment and led the organization to be recognized as “Neighborhood of the Year for Civic Engagement.” He also brought a renewed commitment to focusing on the Childs Park Strategic Planning Initiative.

Bro. John Muhammad made history being the first Black man in the Muslim faith to serve on city council.

As co-founder and executive director of Community Development & Training Center, Inc (CDAT), the nonprofit has provided leadership training and community outreach to individuals and organizations while connecting them to programs, services, and resources. As lead organizer of the New Deal for St. Pete, Muhammad helped create a community-led agenda born from surveying several hundred residents in St. Petersburg.

Also, while he was Tampa Bay Regional Lead for Service Employees International Union, his efforts helped the organization gain passage of a local wage theft ordinance, a “hard to hire” apprenticeship policy, and a $15 per hour minimum wage for city employees.

Still, when it came to running for city council, the retrograde and legless questions about decisions made in his youth that led to a decades-old arrest, along with the seemingly illegal perusal into his faith practice — regardless of our still-intact ruling on separation of church and stay — hounded him.

In the end, his work and ethics stood for themselves, and the grassroots and hurriedly assembled team of supporters, advocates and vocal changemakers in and outside of city hall helped Muhammad win the seat, in a victory that was undoubtedly, as he said, a vote of confidence from the community.

“It’s not something that I did; it’s something that we did,” Muhammad shared in a recent conversation. “I’d like for that to be very clear. This is not something that Brother John did or a Brother John accomplishment. I think this is a community accomplishment because I am community — and I only did it because I had a supportive community.”

Muhammad acknowledged that he had been asked to run for years but had never seriously considered it because “I didn’t have my own personal why. It was always, ‘you should run; you will be good.'”

Currently working with Florida Rising, a statewide organization seeking to build political power among historically marginalized communities, Muhammad noted that his interest began growing while working on the Black Men Rising project. While talking to Black men about the electoral process and trying to get them engaged in voting, it became evident to him just how uninspired many Black men he spoke to were. It was at that point, Muhammad acknowledged, he began to think of running.

“We did work around Amendment 4, the Rights Restoration amendment, to get returning citizens the vote. During the primaries, we were looking at the numbers, and they were saying something like eight percent of those who were eligible registered to vote; it was a very small number of citizens.” (A Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, ProPublica and Georgetown analysis in 2020 found that fewer than eight percent of Florida’s felons have registered to vote since Amendment 4 passed.)

Bro. John Muhammad, of the Muslim faith, only scraped by with a 4-3 split vote to represent District 7 on the city council. Photos courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg

A call into the CDAT-sponsored radio program, Tampa Bay Breakfast Club, helped cement his commitment to run. When a friend and returning citizen, who had recently gotten his rights restored, called in to say he was planning to vote, Muhammad paid attention to his friend’s admission.

“He said, ‘I’m gonna vote, but I’m really just not inspired. I’m not excited about these candidates.’ I immediately perked up.”

While Muhammad said he was thinking about running after this November’s election — he had talked to his wife Tashawn on Sept. 2, and “got her blessing to do it” – it was only 13 days later that Lisa Wheeler-Bowman resigned from office after it was reported she no longer lived in District 7.

“That,” said Muhammad, “really escalated and moved the timeline up dramatically. I wasn’t even really prepared for a campaign. I was just in an exploratory phase, trying to see what type of support I could get, who would support me and I hadn’t even really begun to move on it yet.”

Still, he announced that he was interested in applying, and from there, he said, the attacks regarding his connection to the Nation of Islam started. Muhammad noted that he “kind of expected it … but not to the degree that it came and the way it came about. They sent my criminal background, screenshots of Tweets that I had, all that was circulated publicly and to city council.”

Muhammad was still debating whether he should run when Hurricane Ian forced the deadline to apply back. “The date that it ended up being was Elijah Muhammad’s birthday — it was Oct. 7. That was a clear enough sign for me that it was something that I really needed to do, and I was being called to do.”

Wanting to be “mindful of my reason and my motive for doing things because I don’t want it to just be a vain pursuit,” Muhammad took the new date as a portent. “I knew for a fact that it was something that I absolutely had to do at that point. And then we got into the process … and God’s favor was on us.”

Still, the Oct. 12 city council meeting of the “Whole” in which the vote was held was something that Muhammad admitted he doesn’t like to think about often, nor has he been able to watch the entire recording of the meeting.

“I was in kind of a fog and blur that day, totally distracted by a lot of the noise. Part of what happened I remember; I’ve heard about it from other people … and I can watch parts of it, but I can’t watch the whole thing,” the new councilman acknowledged.

He likened his response to the day to a “trauma response — to where you just kind of block it out so that you don’t really have to confront it and deal with the magnitude of it.”

This kind of “noise” has allowed today’s politics to become fractured, rife with partisan viciousness, and polarized to the point of deadlock on issues that most heavily impact low-resourced communities, seniors and school-aged children and families.

These are the issues that Muhammad has spent the last two decades of his life considering and working to resolve – and as councilmember for District 7, he now has an opportunity to address them as an elected official.

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