For 28 years I made my journalistic rounds in Washington with a coveted White House “hard pass.” Basically, that credential permitted card-holders virtually unlimited access to the White House Press Office from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week.
For the first 16 of those years — from 1977 until 1993 — my tenure was mostly trouble-free. I first represented the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper group. Access was aided by the fact that Louis E. Martin, my editor, was on good terms with official Washington, particularly with Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
Once, I asked Carter an embarrassing question at a nationally televised press conference, about how could he presume to challenge Leonid Brezhnev, the president of the Soviet Union about “human rights” at an upcoming summit meeting, while the Rev. Ben Chavis and the Wilmington 10 — innocent U.S. citizens — languished in prison on trumped-up political charges.
Again, during the Iran hostage crisis, after the failed attempt to rescue U.S. diplomats held by Iranian Revolutionary Guards at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, I asked Carter why didn’t he pursue peaceful negotiations, rather than a belligerent military attack?
Later, I transitioned to the National Scene News Bureau through the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and even upped to profile the National Scene magazine publisher L.H. Stanton, getting him invited once to a briefing and photo session with the president.
But then, sometime during George H.W. Bush’s term, my past, my reputation began to catch up with me. The renewal of my credential was not routine as it had been. I investigated and insisted that I met the written requirements: accreditation with one of the Congressional Press/Radio-TV/Periodical Galleries; and ability to pass a Secret Service background check. That sufficed for a time.
When Bill Clinton took office, I felt like I was being targeted, targeted because of my religious identity. My patron Louis Martin was off the scene, but I had won reliable friends. Sharon Farmer, the Chief White House Photographer, a personal buddy who even took a photo of me and Clinton in the East Room one day, and made sure I got a copy of it; Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), destined to become chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), all intervened quietly in my behalf. I was safe for a while.
Despite the fact that I, through my National Scene News Bureau regularly contributed content to The Washington Informer, National Public Radio (NPR), Christian Science Monitor Radio, TV’s America’s Black Forum, Howard University Television’s “Evening Exchange,” WUSA-TV’s “Capital Edition,” The Washington Post, USA Today, The Baltimore Sun, and other outlets, was “snakebit,” as an NPR official told me once: “Askia, you have certain ‘baggage.’”
I understood it, but I did not want to confront its reality. You see, back when I first got to Washington, my mentor — Ofield Dukes, who had served as an aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey — told me that I couldn’t get anywhere just calling government, or cabinet officials, unless I told them that I was calling in behalf of Louis Martin, my boss. So, that’s what I commenced to do.
Then one day Martin called me. “Askia. What is your real name?” he asked. “Askia Muhammad,” I replied. “What was it before that?” he persisted. “What’s this all about?” I wanted to know. It seems, HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris had called him, wanting to know, why was he having a “Black Muslim” call her office?
Years later now, in the face of the reference to my “baggage,” I understood what that meant. There would have been no problem had I been a Muslim reporter from Egypt, or Turkey, or Pakistan calling the secretary’s office. She had a gripe, because I’m a “Black Muslim,” affiliated with The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam, Minister Louis Farrakhan. That bias continues until this very hour!
Then came the George W. Bush White House Press Office. They told me my pass would be canceled because there were “too many” pass holders and the Secret Service wanted to limit the size of the press pool. Bunk!
Now, in the wake of the Trump White House shenanigans, accrediting many, many, never before heard of agencies that were friendly to The Donald, it’s crystal clear to me, that in particular, Black Muslims like me are unwelcome in the White House press corps.
Even though I pleaded with my personal acquaintance and Bush press secretary Tony Snow for help maintaining my press pass, it was all for naught. He and I had often appeared on the “Evening Exchange” program together. He knew I was legit, but he just couldn’t hold back the steamroller that was out to get rid of me.
In 2005, my White House press pass expired, although I occasionally gained access to the Barack Obama White House with my membership in the Monroe Trotter Group of Black columnists and commentators. At least they didn’t hold my religion against me.