By Fred A. Reed
In a few days’—or weeks’—time the City Council of New Bedford Massachusetts will decide whether to name a street for a man named Jibreel Khazan. I ardently hope they do, for the most pressing personal, historical, social and political reasons. For Jibreel Khazan is that rarest of human beings: a true and genuine hero.
I met Mr. Khazan perhaps ten years ago, thanks to the effort of my old and dear friend Dionysios Skaliotis, who now practices acupuncture in that New England city.
It was during one of our semi-annual visits there that he introduced me to Jibreel. The occasion was a multi-course dinner at the Metro Pizzeria, a take-out joint in the suburbs run by a former Cretan shepherd. Dionysios, his friends and guests would be gathered around a platter of freshly caught halibut quick-roasted in the pizzeria’s oven, doused with lemon juice and plenty of olive oil, and accompanied by salads, home-made sourdough bread and a variety of Greek delicacies.
The abundance and the festive atmosphere would never fail to surprise walk-in customers who were looking only for an all-dressed pizza.
“There’s this guy I’d like you to meet,” Dionysios told me that evening.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said.
Shortly afterward Mr. Khazan arrived: an African-American of slight build, perhaps my age, wearing very long dreadlocks and a beret.
“Salam alaykum,” he greeted me, extending his hand. Of course I responded in kind, not terribly surprised since Jibreel is the Arabic name for the Archangel Gabriel who, Muslims believe, revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed.
So began a conversation that led deep into the tortured labyrinth of race relations in my former homeland. For as we talked, and I plied my newfound acquaintance with questions, it became clear that Jibreel was more than a Black American convert to Islam in highly unorthodox attire.
This is the story he told me, recounted through the filter of fading memory but sharply etched still in my consciousness.
The date was February 1, 1960. The place was Greensboro, North Carolina. Four students at the local agricultural college, all in their late teens, inspired by Dr. King, decided to strike a blow for equal rights for America’s black citizens. Their names: Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond. The first on that alphabetical list, Ezell Blair, had taken the name Jibreel Khazan after his conversion to Islam a few decades before we met.
There, in that suburban New Bedford pizza joint, I was listening more than attentively to one of the instigators of a movement that was to change the face of the USA.
“We chose the Woolworth’s drug store,” he said. “It was right downtown, and notorious for refusing to serve Black people. We decided that we would go in, the four of us, sit down and ask politely to be served. And if we were refused, we would ask again. And again. And not leave.”
And so they did. Dressed in suit and tie, and wearing topcoats, as it was a cold day.
The waitress refused to serve them. “Now, you boys go home,” she advised them. Then the manager appeared and told them to get out.
“We would like to be served, please,” they said. And refused to budge.
The manager called the police and a single cop arrived. He ordered the lads to leave, to which they responded that they would only like to be served a meal and would stay there until they were.
As Jibreel told the story, the cop walked back and forth behind the four as a small crowd of onlookers gathered. Pulling out his nightstick, he slapped it repeatedly into the palm of his left hand.
“We didn’t know whether or when he would hit us,” Jibreel told me. “I was wet all over; maybe I’d peed in my pants,” he said. It was only sweat, torrents of it: the sweat of fear.
By then it was noontime. The cop looked at the clock on the wall and said, “Well, that’s the end of my shift,” and left. The Woolworth’s manager re-appeared, increasingly nervous. “I’m closing the lunch counter as of now’” he said and sent the waitress and cook home.
The four got up from the counter stools and exited through the back door, wary of a growing crowd of hostile whites outside the front entrance. In the alley, a smaller group had gathered, shouting racist insults. But among them was a middle-aged white woman who, in a loud voice, said: “You boys showed real courage in there today.”
The Greensboro Four never enjoyed a meal at the downtown Woolworth’s. But their boldness and bravery proved contagious. On the following day they showed up again, with a crowd of supporters whose numbers grew day by day. A gang of KKK thugs put in an appearance, but the hundreds of demonstrators who now thronged the streets caused them to back off.
A few days later the Woolworth’s manager instructed four of his Black employees to change out of their uniforms and sit down at the lunch counter, where they were promptly served. Even though they never tasted their meal the original four tasted victory.
The movement they launched swept across the sub-continent of American apartheid. It forced the dead hand of racist businesses, municipal and state administrations, culminating in the great 1963 voting rights march in Washington DC and the voting rights act of 1965.
By then our table had been emptied; the feast ended. Much time had passed in two short hours.
I asked Jibreel why he was now living in New Bedford. “Easy,” he said. “I wanted to stay alive.”
A few weeks after the sit-in a member of a Greensboro white supremacy group had let him know he’d be safer if he left town. Message received.
Jibreel migrated north, to the city where once lived the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas, and had been a center of anti-slavery activism for generations prior to the American Civil War. The town welcomed him as one of its own and is now poised to make that permanent.