It’s a sunny day and Umar Muhammad, clad in a blue-green plaid shirt, is crossing a parking lot, headed into work at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. As he walks, a cameraman follows.
“What happened to your suit and tie?” an off-screen voice asks.
With a grin, Muhammad replies that he hadn’t learned how to tie a tie, and the person who did it for him the day before wasn’t available to lend a hand again.
To hear friends and family talk about him, you’d get the impression that tying a tie may have been one of the few things Muhammad couldn’t do.
Muhammad, a community organizer, activist and advocate for the formerly incarcerated, was remembered Saturday in a celebration that blended Islamic, Christian and African traditions, storytelling, tears and laughter and filled the four hundred and fifty-capacity St. Joseph’s AME Church. Muhammad, who began his career after being incarcerated for about five years, was killed in a motorcycle accident July 17 at the age of thirty.
“Umar has always been very honest and fierce and passionate,” his older sister, Hadiyah, said. “I think he’s always faced his life head-on and with integrity and authenticity. I think that those are the characteristics he’s always embodied that helped him through the most challenging parts of his life as well as the success he experienced … He was who he said he was. He used his life experiences to change other people’s lives.”
The ceremony included prayers and speeches by family members, Nia Wilson and Omisade Burney-Scott, of SpiritHouse, Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and a sort of video diary of Muhammad, including the clip about his tie-less outfit. Prior to the celebration, a memorial motorcycle ride was held.
“This brother was a God-breathed miracle,” Barber, whose rumbling incantations of “all of us or none” (a guiding principle for Muhammad and a reference to a grassroots organization in which he had been a local leader) seemed to shake the 1890s-era sanctuary amid a standing ovation and shouts of “hallelujah.” Listing the names of those who, like Muhammad, became “liberators” after being incarcerated — from the Biblical figure Joseph to Martin Luther King Jr. — Barber was moved to “dance like Mandela when he came out of jail,” shuffling and stomping his feet on stage.
Muhammad’s sister, Hadiyah, said she has only seen such a reaction following the death of boxer Muhammad Ali.
“I’m humbled, really, by the outpouring of love and support for him and his life and his legacy,” she said. “It’s just deeply moving … It’s comforting — although the pain is still very raw — but not everyone gets a memorial or a funeral like my brother experienced and that is comforting. To be with people that I grew up with and people who loved our family for all these years, people who I don’t know coming to celebrate my brother, it makes me feel honored just to be his sister.”
Muhammad’s death has shaken many in Durham, in part because it was so sudden. He had a two-month-old daughter and recently joined Forward Justice as a lead community organizer and campaign strategist, after three years with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. (An online fundraiser has been set up for his daughter’s education).
“Can I be real?” said Barber. “We imagined somebody shooting him, some racist or something, before this because we know the risks that come when you stand up for truth and when you challenge the system.
Some never imagined his life would turn out the way it did either. We couldn’t imagine his death but also could we imagine his life? From prison life to a purposed life, from captivity to calling — we’ve got to remember not just how he died but how he lived.”
Muhammad’s mother, Joyce, talked about the five-year prison sentence her son — whom she called “a breaker of chains” — served for robbery with a dangerous weapon, and the impact it had on her family.
“Our system forces families to pay for their loved one’s crimes,” in the form of bond payments, lawyer fees, phone calls and lost time, she said.
After Muhammad was released in 2012, ” although he was physically free he was still limited … due to our society’s unwillingness to forgive him.” The experience inspired him to work for the rights and dignity of people who have been incarcerated, leading expungment clinics and efforts to “ban the box” on job applications to denote prior criminal convictions.
“He gobbled up everything we gave him,” said Burney-Scott, who worked closely with Muhammad through SpiritHouse and, during the memorial, led a libation, pouring water into the pot of a living plant while attendees called out the names of ancestors.
“He’s gonna be the baddest ancestor there ever was,” she said.