The Antagonist

King Salim Khalfani has railed against social injustice for more than 25 years. Is Richmond finally listening?

King Salim Khalfani has just been vindicated. Smoothing the wrinkles in his Air Jordan-brand basketball warm-up suit, the executive director of the state conference of the NAACP hammers out talking points on a laptop computer at the organization’s headquarters off Graham Road.

As victories go, it’s bittersweet.

“We told them,” Khalfani says. “But they haven’t been listening. Or if they have been listening, they weren’t doing anything about it.”

It’s a balmy Friday morning in mid-April, and just hours before, city officials announced that the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center would close, effective immediately. Citing new allegations of mismanagement, Byron Marshall, the city’s chief administrative officer, walked into City Council chambers to make the announcement. The new accusations had merit, he said. And in light of them, Mayor Dwight Jones — not one to make knee-jerk decisions — concluded that it was in the best interest of the city to close the facility. As a result, 72 city employees essentially have been laid off, while the center’s 48 residents have been transferred to nearby juvenile detention centers.

Only the allegations aren’t new. Not exactly. During the last eight months city administrators have received multiple warnings about staff improprieties at the detention center — mostly by way of Khalfani and the state arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

And that’s how the last year has gone for Khalfani, arguably Richmond’s most hard-charging political activist. Armed with information fed to him by a series of insiders, he’s harangued state officials and Virginia Commonwealth University, which uses a downtown plot of land thought to contain the bodies of buried slaves as a parking lot. After that, he took up the cause of disgruntled black construction contractors in decrying the deeply flawed process by which the city awarded the contract to build a new municipal jail. And since August he’s been speaking publicly about lingering management and safety issues at the city’s juvenile detention center.

In turn, various city officials have dismissed his accusations. The most prominent is Carolyn Graham, deputy chief administrative officer for human services, who bluntly told WTVR-TV 6 in October that Khalfani’s claims of mismanagement at the juvenile detention center were “not based in reality.” Yet, as is often the case, Khalfani’s accusations bore considerable truth.

Still, the closing of Richmond’s youth detention center isn’t exactly the outcome Khalfani was angling for. “It makes zero sense to close it,” he says. “You have a gang of employees that have now all lost their jobs, when it was the management at the facility that was the actual problem. Anyone that tells you that this solves the issues at RJDC is a liar.”

It’s the more combative response. But that’s Khalfani’s style, honed during nearly 30 years of political advocacy. From his second-floor office inside the Baptist General Convention of Virginia building, just a stone’s throw from Virginia Union University (Khalfani’s alma mater), King Salim stews over what he says is a Richmond populace enslaved in mind, if not in body.

At 53, uncompromising and wholly unapologetic about it, he’s spent the last 27 years battling “slavery,” he says. Not oppression or racism, but what he says is the enduring, and in some cases, self-imposed bondage of Richmond blacks. And he isn’t so polite that he won’t inform a person that they haven’t yet thrown off its yoke. Or that they are a liar, or an “Uncle Tom.”

“You see, people in this town — people everywhere — are afraid to tell the truth,” he says. “But I’m a man. I have integrity. And I’m going to talk like I do.” It’s a sermon he often wanders into during discussions of Richmond. The way Khalfani sizes people up, they’re often either righteous or they’re liars, slaves or free men. Black and white, in so many ways, is how Khalfani orders the world.

In gentlemanly Richmond, that’s won him few allies. “His style can be brutal; in that way he makes me look tame,” 1st District Councilman Bruce Tyler says, adding that despite serving different constituencies, he often finds himself on the same side of the NAACP’s outspoken director.

Councilman E. Martin Jewell, who like Tyler has at times been on the wrong side of Khalfani, agrees. “But that in part is why people who have no other recourse turn to him,” Jewell says.

Indeed, there is some utility in playing the outsider. Richmond’s preferred method for handling problems is behind closed doors. But when issues go unaddressed, many people turn to Khalfani and the state’s NAACP.

“These Negroes don’t have any love for me,” Khalfani, an imposing man who seems far larger than his 6-foot frame, says of city political and civic leaders. “But I don’t want to be in their club or your clique. I don’t want to be accepted. I want to be free.” In other words, when you’re right, who needs allies? In the last year that’s meant picking fights with Mayor Dwight Jones, a black mayor who rode into office campaigning for social justice. As of late, Khalfani seems to be winning.

KHALFANI WAS BORN Edward Duane Hudson on April 24, 1959. It’s the name he answered to from childhood in Cleveland through his arrival in Virginia in 1977 as an 18-year-old freshman at Virginia Union. In-between, he was known during certain periods as “Hollywood.” On the road to his becoming a black ideologue, it was “Malcolm X.” But in 1991 he became Khalfani, finally shedding the last vestige of what he calls “slave heritage” that he says began when a white doctor slapped him at birth.

The path wasn’t exactly straight. To become a self-styled black revolutionary, you must start somewhere. Khalfani’s began with Alex Haley’s 1965 “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” He received it as a birthday present his freshman year from a former high-school teacher. Khalfani fell into it. “Malcolm was like me,” he says. “He was hood. Reading him and about his life was a part of my transformation.”

But the transformation from Edward Hudson, the 18-year-old who chemically straightened his hair, to the Khalfani who exists today didn’t take hold until the mid-’80s.

Bearing a degree in political science and history, he detoured south to Florida after graduating in 1984. Following a short stint in Miami, he returned to Cleveland. Then it was Los Angeles, where he slept in a park before finding employment in the city of Pomona, Calif. The dream of making it in Hollywood got deferred for lack of contacts and opportunities.

He came back east in 1985, and found a job working Best Products’ Richmond headquarters. It was around that time that he reconnected with an old friend. Khalfani ran into Lee Robinson during a visit to Virginia Union’s north Richmond campus. The two knew each other during college. Khalfani at the time was, by his own admission, “conscious” but still “running the streets.”

Upon Khalfani’s return, however, Robinson recalls seeing in him a kindred spirit. “You could tell that he was looking for a purpose,” Robinson says. “I convinced him that to truly help our people, we need revolutionary change, not reform.”

Khalfani fell in. He joined Robinson as a member of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, an international political group that preaches that the dream of equality for African people can be achieved only through a unified and socialist African state. Stokely Carmichael, unofficial voice of the brief but influential Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s, by that time had become a spokesman for the group, as well as one of Khalfani’s heroes.

At 22, Khalfani became the political education chairman for the party’s Virginia branch, which consisted only of himself and Robinson. Driving across Virginia, they spoke at college campuses to explain the party’s goals and recruiting younger people to carry on the work. How successful were those efforts?

“People never stopped trying to get me off that pro-black shit,” Khalfhani recalls. “Revolution? In Richmond? Please.”

BY 1990, KHALFANI had taken a job as a field organizer for the state branch of the NAACP. He’d already developed a reputation. Khalfani says that shortly after he was hired he and Jack Gravely, who was executive secretary of the state’s NAACP chapter, found themselves riding in the same car. Gravely, he says, took the opportunity to inform that he had advised against Khalfani’s hiring.

Khalfani says he thanked Gravely for his honesty.

If there was a reason for Gravely’s trepidation, it was Khalfani’s tendency to say exactly what he thinks. His television show, “Africa Speaks,” proved that. Khalfani and Robinson had during the late 1980s begun filming what Khalfani says was Richmond’s first ever live television talk show, which ran on Richmond public-access television for several years.

The format was open. They talked socialism and other taboos such as the goals of the Palestine Liberation Organization, otherwise known as the PLO. There wasn’t a payday in doing it, Khalfani says. What it offered instead was a forum. Frequently, Khalfani used that forum to weigh in on local politics.

“I was off the chain,” Khalfani says. “We used to have a joint called the Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima Hall of Shame. Dwight Jones and Dolores [McQuinn], the preachers, were all a part of it.” But no one got blasted as often as L. Douglas Wilder.

Khalfani’s measuring stick for any elected official is the person’s advocacy for Richmond’s black community. By that metric, Wilder has been dead to Khalfani since long before Richmond made the former governor the city’s first popularly elected mayor. “He was just part of that light, bright black coalition,” Khalfani says. “He didn’t do nothing to advocate for his people.”

And Khalfani, for his part, reveled in playing the “chief exposer.” During telecasts, a crawl of then-governor Wilder’s various campaign contributors ran at the bottom of the screen, all the better to illustrate the politician’s ties to the area’s business interests and political financiers.

By the end of Wilder’s term as Richmond mayor, Khalfani had been acting director of the state NAACP for 10 years. As the organization’s one remaining paid staffer, he’s been no less critical of Wilder’s successor.

Khalfani is no fan of Jones the politician. With certain members of City Council taken out of consideration, there’s a legitimate case to be made that he’s been the mayor’s chief political antagonist. But “it’s not personal,” Khalfani says. “Dwight Jones is a nice person. But we [at the NAACP] have permanent interests. Not permanent friends.”

“It’s because I’m the only game in town,” Khalfani says, explaining why employees at city’s juvenile detention center and others chose him and the NAACP as their advocates. “People in this town are afraid to stand up. They come here because they know that we’re not.”

Councilman Jewell has been on the outs with Khalfani before. He was a frequent supporter of Mayor Wilder. Despite that, Jewell has joined Khalfani in raising questions about the city’s procurement of the new jail construction contract, as well as the conditions at the juvenile detention center. “I have a sneaky suspicion that much of the oomph in Salim’s style is generated out of frustration,” Jewell says. “You’ve got a Crusade for Voters that’s not crusading, and an Urban League that’s not leaguing. So it doesn’t bother me when he calls people out. Sometimes that’s necessary to strike a match under the black leaders in town.”

Khalfani’s methods may be born out of necessity. Ray Boone, owner and publisher of the Richmond Free Press, has known and worked with Khalfani, as well as previous heads of the state branch of the NAACP. Khalfani’s approach to the job differs from his predecessors, Boone says. “But if you look at his lack of resources, his approach makes sense,” he says, referring to the NAACP’s better-funded glory days in the civil-rights era. “Previous directors drove the work through court cases. But he can’t do that. Right now, there’s just him. So, what he’s figured out is if he is vocal about complaints, he can get people who would otherwise be slow to do so to make change.”

The job pays Khalfani a salary of $69,000 per year. But he remains the state NAACP’s only full-time employee. Frustration over the community’s lack of financial support for advocacy groups such as the NAACP bleeds over into his “sermons,” the recorded phone messages he uses as prompts for his voicemail inbox.

In one of the latest, a dejected-sounding Khalfani complains that black people are more willing to support “minstrels” like comedian Steve Harvey over advocacy groups like the NAACP. Based on Harvey’s book, “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man,” the eponymous film grossed more than $30 million in its opening weekend. Asked about the organization’s annual budget, Khalfani won’t say. “But if white philanthropy ever dries up, we shut down the next day,” he says. The same, he jokes, can be said for a lot of organizations — “maybe even City Hall.”

Despite his public hectoring of city officials, Khalfani seemingly has earned the mayor’s respect. “While Salim and I may disagree on methods and tactics, we share many important priorities,” Mayor Jones says in an emailed statement. “I believe Salim plays an important role in helping ensure our government is accountable and responsive to the residents of Richmond. Additionally, I applaud Salim’s commitment and dedication to providing another voice for those who otherwise can’t speak for themselves.”

Their dynamic hasn’t always been so cordial. At the height of the controversy over the city’s award of a $134.6 million contract to build a new city jail, Khalfani and Jones held dueling news conferences, with the former standing on the steps of City Hall implying that both the bidding process and the mayor were corrupt.

“I don’t mind disagreement, I don’t mind debate. I’m built for that,” Jones said in August 2011. “But I don’t really want to have the administration questioned in terms of its integrity. I think that’s crossing the line.” The deal nearly fell through when it was revealed that city officials hadn’t received state approval for plans drawn up by the winning bidder.

Khalfani has since kept up the tongue lashings. In September he started holding news conferences about the unsafe conditions at the juvenile detention center. It began with allegations fed to Khalfani from employees at the facility, who reported malfunctioning door locks and other safety hazards. Audits by both city and state officials validated many of the employees’ claims. In November the city diverted $477,000 in emergency funds to address the facility’s physical and security-related shortcomings.

But there were other, management-related issues that Khalfani said the city had yet to address. Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring took up one in particular, ordering an investigation into charges that city administrators forged the signatures of detention-center employees on documents certifying that they’d attended state-mandated training sessions. According to Khalfani, many hadn’t. Michael Hollomon, the assistant commonwealth’s attorney assigned to the case, says the investigation is close to wrapping up.

On April 16, 10 days before it was announced that the center will shut down, Khalfani spoke before a meeting of the City Council’s public-safety committee to tweak the facility’s administrators for “coverups, lies and subterfuge.”

“Why does it take eight months to get this straight?” he asked. “I’m here today to beg you again — and I don’t like being in a position to beg — to take care of this.”

So far, the controversy has claimed the jobs of two high-placed city employees — the former superintendent of the juvenile center, Diane Gadow, and Charles Kehoe, head of the city’s Department of Justice Services. Kehoe, who was acting as interim superintendent of the detention facility since Gadow’s firing, resigned the day after the city announced it was closing the center.

City officials decline to comment on the allegations that led Jones to take those steps. David Hicks, senior policy adviser to Jones and former Richmond commonwealth’s attorney, was appointed as Kehoe’s temporary replacement.

“I can say that issues came to light which confirmed the administration’s concerns about the ability to correct the situation,” Hicks says. “But I’m not in a position where I can comment on the details.”

With the announcement, and Khalfani’s commensurate bump in credibility, City Hall has been reeling. The detention center is expected to be closed down for at least a year while city officials perform a top-to-bottom review of its management and policies, Hicks says.

NOT THAT ANY of that is going to compel Khalfani to quiet down. Back in the office, Khalfani prepares for another news conference. He’ll be sending a public reminder to members of City Council that he’s called for a city audit of the emergency monies appropriated for “brick and mortar” improvements at the juvenile facility. “We’re going to keep up the pressure,” Khalfani says. “We don’t ever let go.”

Just before lunch, he retreats into the office to retrieve the visual evidence. Back outside, he brings a brick-shaped white cardboard box that has gone yellow with age. Inside is a black metal container containing the ashes of Joe Louis Wise.

In 1993, Wise was executed by the state for the 1983 murder of a Mecklenburg County maintenance worker. It’s a somewhat macabre keepsake that Khalfani takes with him when he visits schools, the Juvenile Detention Center, or any place where there are young men in danger of making bad decisions. Now, the box filled with Wise’s remains sits on the conference table in his office.

Back in the 1990s, Khalfani worked with Virginia Association to Abolish the Death Penalty. Wise, convicted of robbing and killing a maintenance worker at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center, and Khalfani had developed a sort of friendship. Wise had the mind of a 5-year-old, Khalfani says. Before his execution, Khalfani recalls asking him what he wanted to say to kids who Khalfani would be speaking to. “Tell them I said, ‘Don’t end up in the box,'” was Wise’s response.

In telling this story, Khalfani’s eyes begin to well up, and he raises his arm in anger at the memory. This is something that people won’t ever understand about him, he muses.

“I go hard, but I’m really a crybaby,” he says, laughing through the tears. “But I’m a going-hard crybaby for my people.” S

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, King Salim Khalfani is quoted as saying he once told Jack Gravely, former executive secretary of the state’s NAACP chapter, to go “f—k himself” after learning that Gravely was against hiring Khalfani. While upset, Khalfani says he didn’t make the comment directly to Gravely.


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