Betty Shabazz gazed at the mural of her late husband and said, "The muralist deserves a hand. Of course, I couldn't understand why anyone would destroy the other mural two years ago."
Shabazz may not have known why the original Malcolm X mural was sandblasted from its place on a wall in the center of the San Francisco State University campus. But several hundred S.F. State students and faculty members who braved rain and wind to see the mural's replacement unveiled last Thursday certainly did.
Controversy erupted in May 1994 when a mural memorializing Malcolm X depicted not only the Black Muslim leader but also such potentially anti-Semitic imagery as dollar signs, Stars of David and the words "African blood." The work was sandblasted from the wall after public outcry drew national media attention.
The incident was the most notorious in what has been a difficult period for Jews at S.F. State. Racial tensions have lingered like a heavy fog ever since, but lifted — perhaps just temporarily — Thursday of last week.
Jewish students and faculty were surprised and relieved to find that the new mural depicts a gentler Malcolm X, surrounded by shades of orange, canary yellow and sky blue.
In the mural, two separate images of Malcolm X flank a silhouette of the African continent inside which, painted in black, is the United States. In the bottom left corner, muralists Eric Norberg and Kamau Ayubbi have inscribed a quote from Malcolm X: "Our objective is complete freedom, justice and equality By Any Means Necessary."
The artists, both S.F. State students, were among nine Bay Area applicants competing for the project. To avoid a repeat of the 1994 debacle, the pair submitted a sketch to the governing board of the Cesar Chavez Center and to the office of S.F. State president Robert A. Corrigan for approval.
Most students and faculty who gathered for the unveiling seemed unconcerned with past strife, and focused instead on Malcolm X himself. Celebrations began with a prayer ceremony at 9:30 a.m. and culminated with a speech from Shabazz.
The mood was upbeat, focusing on African American empowerment and pride. Shabazz spoke of responsibility and education. Children from San Francisco's Malcolm X Academy performed a skit. S.F. State students read poetry aloud, and danced in styles ranging from hip-hop to Haitian and Brazilian.
In many ways, the celebration was not much different from any number of Jewish cultural events.
This crowd, however, was larger than those at Jewish events on campus and brought together celebrants of all races.
A handful of students distributed pamphlets from the World-Wide African Anti-Zionist Front, and some in the crowd reported that the event's early-morning speakers had delivered anti-Semitic remarks. Nonetheless, the school's Jewish leaders were optimistic.
"We didn't expect trouble today," said Stacey Roberts, director of student programming for San Francisco Hillel.
Laurie Zoloth Dorfman, director of the university's Jewish studies department, added, "Malcolm X was an important leader who was celebrated in a positive way today. The speakers called for responsibility — a message for all peoples.
"There were deliberate acts [by the university] to build solidarity. It feels like a new era at State."
In hopes of warding off future problems, Hillel, along with Academic Judaica, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and the S.F. State program in Jewish studies, placed a half-page advertisement in the campus newspaper mandating "zero tolerance for hate speech."
The ad in the May 16 "Golden Gater" reads: "San Francisco is a model of diversity for the entire world. It's time that San Francisco State University takes the city's example." It urges faculty not to tolerate hate crimes, for students to take a stand and for staff to make all students feel welcome.
Roberts insisted that the ad was not a response to the Malcolm X event, but rather an effort to end the school year on a positive note.
"This is the last newspaper of the semester. And there have been a few eruptions in a relatively quiet year here."
In one incident, during student elections earlier this school year, one candidate said that the "only good Zionist is a dead Zionist."
Now S.F. State Jewish groups are adopting what Roberts called a "new strategy" that includes "working with the administration, as it seems to be distancing itself from anti-Zionist sentiment and hate speech."