Popularity and Populism
This August, a distinguished-looking, 65-year-old man who has described himself as a "prince of peace" walked out of federal prison after 11 years behind bars. The world should be afraid.
Just how afraid becomes clear from a reading of Brother Love: Murder, Money and a Messiah, a book by journalist Sydney P. Freedberg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the case.
It is the harrowing tale of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the cult leader whose black supremacist Nation of Yahweh has been linked to 23 murders, including those of a temple dissident beheaded with a dull machete and several whites whose ears were hacked off as trophies.
Born in Oklahoma as Hulon Mitchell Jr., the man who later would achieve international notoriety as Yahweh Ben Yahweh attended law school, dropped out, and moved to Atlanta. He joined the black separatist Nation of Islam, becoming Hulon X, and got to know civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. to Stokely Carmichael to H. Rap Brown.
But, Freedberg writes, Mitchell left the Nation in the late 1960s after being accused of skimming money and sexual improprieties, only to resurface as one Father Michel, a.k.a. "the King," a prosperity preacher who promised miracle cures for an array of ailments.
In 1978, after a stint preaching in Oklahoma, Mitchell, now known as Brother Love, arrived in Miami, a city seething with racial tensions and black rage.
Before long, he had embraced the loosely knit Black Hebrew movement, strains of which have existed in America since the 1800s.
He wrote a book — You Are Not a Nigger! Our True History; The World's Best Kept Secret; Yahweh God of Gods — and embraced increasingly supremacist theories. "God is concerned about us, the so-called Negroes only," he wrote. Caucasians were "white devils."
Black Hebrews generally believe that they, not Jews, are the descendants of the Bible's lost tribes of Israel, and that God is black. Like their counterparts on the white supremacist right, many believe that Jews are the spawn of Satan who secretly pull the strings in American society. Many expect to return one day to Israel.
Eventually, Mitchell decided he was Yahweh Ben Yahweh — "God, Son of God," in Hebrew — and began to build up his Nation of Yahweh organization, marked by the white robes and turbans worn by its members.
Along the way, as Freedberg describes it, Yahweh allegedly molested prepubescent girls as young as 10, including his own relatives; led "midwife classes" for young women that were sometimes conducted entirely in the nude; slept with a series of women associated with his Miami temple even as he made their spouses promise chastity; and performed acts on the men including gruesome amateur circumcisions.
At the same time, throughout the 1980s, the Nation grew, organizing satellite temples around the country and building up an empire of apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants, retail stores, houses and a fleet of hundreds of white-painted cars, vans and trucks — holdings Yahweh once claimed had reached $100 million.
Fund-raising quotas were imposed on members, and violators were beaten, forced to sit in steel chairs for days and had food withheld by temple enforcers.
As the Nation of Yahweh turned into more and more of a personality cult, with beatings administered to temple members and outsiders alike, a dissident group began to coalesce. Ultimately, a key dissident was kidnapped and beheaded.
Two days later, a dissident couple was attacked as they returned from telling police about the war within the temple. The man was shot dead. The woman had her throat cut in an unsuccessful beheading.
"Yahweh got them," the former Hulon Mitchell exulted, according to his nephew. "Yahweh called these niggers."
The beheading, the shooting murder, an incredibly brutal mob killing of a man inside the temple, and, most remarkably, a series of grotesque murders of "white devils" whose ears were taken back to the temple as war prizes — none of it seemed to prompt decisive action from the authorities.
Even the very public firebombing of a street of houses and the terroristic takeover of a South Florida housing complex failed to provoke action against the Nation for almost a decade.
In fact, Yahweh turned himself into a civic hero. Black leaders in Miami shouted his praises, saying he was bringing discipline to the ghetto. White leaders fell over themselves to embrace the black messiah who brought such order to their troubled city.
The orgy of misplaced praise culminated on Oct. 7, 1990, which Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez christened "Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day."
A short time later, after an investigation that began more than a year before Suarez's infamous declaration, Yahweh and 15 followers were arrested and tried on federal racketeering charges.
Prosecutors said Yahweh had ordered followers to "kill for Yahweh" and had watched from the podium as a mob of 50-plus followers beat a man to death inside his "Temple of Love."
Represented by former federal Judge Alcee Hastings and helped a long by a series of dubious decisions by the judge in the case, Yahweh was found guilty only of a conspiracy charge, rather than the racketeering charge tying him to the murders. Six others were found guilty of the same charge, and the other nine were freed.
Given the often extensive testimony that Yahweh had called for the beheading of apostates, played with the severed ears, celebrated the murders and even ordered the mob killing, prosecutors were stunned.
U.S. District Judge Norman C. Roettger, Jr., had one more surprise in store. As he turned to sentence Yahweh, he said little of the destruction the "prince of peace" had wrought. "The Nation of Yahweh under the leadership of this defendant ... tried to be a good citizen," Roettger intoned as he imposed a lesser sentence.
"Thank you," an understandably grateful Yahweh replied.
Today, Yahweh Ben Yahweh is free on parole, although a judge recently called Yahweh "an extreme risk" to the community and denied his attempt to force authorities to allow him to return to leadership of the Nation of Yahweh. He will be on parole until 2008.
The Nation, meanwhile, reportedly still has some 1,000 followers, hundreds of whom attended two conferences in Montreal this spring — although, with most of the cult's property lost to creditors since Yahweh's jailing, it's not clear where its members live. That they still have money, though, is certain. The two conferences in Canada, along with a third planned for this fall, were booked at a cost of about $200,000 apiece.
In many ways, Freedberg's excellent book is a dismaying chronicle of sloppy police work, hobbled prosecution, almost incredible pandering by the Miami political establishment and black leadership and, finally, mind-blowing judicial decisions. As a reader, it is hard to know who to be angriest at.
Brother Love, documenting the metamorphosis of a personality cult into an incredibly violent hate group, ends with a quote from the black messiah that should now send chills down Americans' collective spine: "When the morning comes, we'll be ruling the earth! Won't that be a glad day? Won't that be a glad time?"
-- Mark Potok