The Warrior’s Return

Kicked out of his leadership post at the Virginia NAACP, the polarizing King Salim Khalfani is back to hold feet to the fire.

King Salim Khalfani, until recently the outspoken executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, was unceremoniously locked out of his office six months ago.

The organization’s newly elected president never explained her actions, and if the NAACP has hired a new state director, no one seems to have heard from him or her.

Khalfani doesn’t care one way or the other.

“Doesn’t matter if they get a new director,” he says. “Frankly, he wouldn’t even be able to hold my jockstrap.”

After lying low, Khalfani made it clear this month that he’s still here, still watching, and, in a new development, he’s available for hire.

Khalfani’s worked in state and local politics for more than 30 years and boasts of being on a first-name basis with every living governor. He’s trying to leverage that experience into his political consulting business.

“I’m the best trained orca at Sea World,” he says.

While he works to grow his client list — he claims some success so far but declines to name any — Khalfani’s resurrected the same kinds of issues he handled at the association — in essence, holding feet to the fire on a freelance basis.

Khalfani announced his return to public life with a flurry of news releases on the proposed widening of Route 460 from Petersburg to Suffolk, on which the state’s spent $300 million without deploying a single construction crew.

But without the cachet of the association, Khalfani’s found it more difficult to get the attention he’s used to. And his confrontational approach to politics hampers his ability to fall back on a cushy gig the way others in Virginia’s state political scene seem to do.

Few of Richmond’s political actors have been so polarizing for so long, and Khalfani was controversial from the beginning — even among his peers at the NAACP.

“He hasn’t done anything constructive since he’s been here,” said the late Oliver Hill, a groundbreaking Richmond civil rights attorney in 1998, shortly after Khalfani took over as executive director of the Virginia NAACP branch. Khalfani had worked as a field director since 1990.

He quickly raised his profile in city politics, taking a stand against a proposed mural of Robert E. Lee on the Richmond floodwall. But at the time, Khalfani made it clear he had other priorities.

“Instead of fighting over murals, let’s get down to the real issues,” Khalfani told Style. Then he dropped one of the jarring talking points he keeps on rotation today: “We haven’t had full employment since we were slaves.”

As an activist, Khalfani has seen victories big and small. He followed through on his promise to focus on employment issues. In the General Assembly, he was a constant advocate for minority businesses in state contracts. In city politics, he was vindicated when, after months of calling attention to conditions in the city’s juvenile detention center, Mayor Dwight Jones and his staff conceded there was truth to his allegation of mismanagement. The center closed in 2012 and reopened last year after management, program and facility changes.

“Salim is a warrior,” says David Hicks, a former commonwealth’s attorney and chief policy adviser to Jones. “Richmond’s the kind of place that doesn’t always appreciate warriors. And Salim’s an incredible example of how Richmond can be tough on its warriors.”

Khalfani declines to detail his departure from the NAACP. He says he never got a straight answer. The association’s state president, Carmen Taylor of Hampton, was unreachable for comment and hasn’t issued a statement to any media outlets about the firing.

The Richmond Free Press reported that Taylor “appeared to have run for state president with the goal of eliminating Mr. Khalfani and shutting down the state headquarters.” Sa’ad El-Amin, a former city councilman and longtime ally of Khalfani’s, says the NAACP’s executive committee “acted like the Ku Klux Klan in bygone years.”

Khalfani, 55, acknowledges that he’s among the last practitioners locally of a fading brand of confrontational black activism that grew out of the civil rights movement.

He cites the deaths of Free Press publisher and editor Ray Boone and The Richmond Voice’s publisher Jack Green, and the ages of El-Amin, 74, and former City Councilman Marty Jewell, nearing 70 — “I haven’t seen anyone to come fill the void,” he says. “They knocked us all out of it one at a time.”

Love or hate Khalfani’s style, Hicks says, his presence enabled the success of many of the black politicians who took a more diplomatic approach to advocating for the black community, such as Jones and the recently retired state Sen. Henry Marsh.

“Salim, by being confrontational, made some of those other more conciliatory, diplomatic things possible,” Hicks says. “The greatest limitation of Richmond politics isn’t the either-or, it’s that those two roles haven’t learned to appreciate their interdependence.”

As for the NAACP, El-Amin and Hicks question whether it will continue to be relevant in Khalfani’s absence.
But Khalfani says he isn’t worried about the future of activism in Richmond.

“Somebody will step up,” he says. “There has been a dearth, but if you look at the history of Richmond, there’s always been advocates who come out of the communities, and they get the job done.” S


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