Clyde tells the story of his upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama, during the civil rights movement, and of membership in the Nation of Islam. His message is one of adaptation creating change at the community level. Clyde encourages young generations to trust their own instincts, and to believe in their own ability to create change. This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.
“If we’re talking about birth, it begins in Montgomery, Alabama.
If we’re talking about my consciousness of my journey, it actually began in a little rural community outside of Montgomery called Lapine, Alabama, where we lived until I was probably entering the third grade…so that would have made me around seven. I was always a year younger than I was supposed to be in school, because my grandmother made them take me at school early.
So I remember distinctly–clearly, but probably not accurately–living in the country, living on a farm, being surrounded by a pretty big extended family and participating, you know, in raising food and harvesting everything from vegetables to cotton, to even milking a cow every now and then.
But the main thing I remember is the interaction with my grandmother, and the stories about what had happened in our family, in our community, and even in our country before I was born, and during my great-grandmother’s life, who I missed by about eight years. If I had been born about eight years earlier I would have seen her; she was born in 1843, she died in 1939.
That’s really the beginning of my journey, but I say the beginning of a bigger picture of the world was when we moved to Montgomery. After a few years there, we found ourselves living in a very close-knit community, but also a community that was pretty much at the center of the world’s attention in terms of the civil rights struggle and the struggle for human justice. I lived through the bus boycott, which was really the launching of Martin Luther King Jr., and many other leaders’ careers. So that was just something that I lived and I think it really shaped my sense of my role in the world to a great degree.
We lived through the bus boycotts, the public accommodations fight, you know, the beginning mumblings of the school desegregation fight, and the battle for voting rights. I actually recall going with my mother to some churches where people were speaking about the right to vote. I really remember this one little church that we’d never gone to and it was in our neighborhood–we had never set foot inside that church. And so one Sunday, my mother takes us to this little church and I’m saying, Why are we going to this church–I don’t remember the name of it but, why are we going to this church? Fannie Lou Hamer was speaking at that church that day, and I had no idea who this woman was, but I knew she was somebody powerful. And it was many years later that I realized, Oh that’s the lady I saw at that church with my mother! I remember her talking about voting rights, but I mostly remember her singing and playing the piano.
I realized that my awareness of the Nation of Islam actually started when I was in high school. These guys would be on the corners selling the papers downtown, and being the typical teenager in Detroit, when I would see them I would go to the other side of the street because I knew they were going to make me buy this paper (laughs). Sometimes they would catch me early, and I wouldn’t get to the other side of the street so I would buy the paper and take it home, but I would never do anything except take this paper home and lay it down on the coffee table. I never read it, but I would lay it down, and for some reason it seems I would always lay it down with the backside up. I’d be sitting there watching television, and I would see…they had something called “What the Muslims Believe and What the Muslims Want,” and there were like ten things that they wanted to see happen for African Americans. So I became familiar with those almost accidentally, but I wasn’t planning with it. My mother would ask me, “Why do you keep buying this paper?” I didn’t tell her why I was buying the paper, you know, because the truthful answer would be, “The brother just talked me into it, I couldn’t get away from him.” (laughs) Because I had heard the word ‘Islam’ from them, it gave me a curiosity about it: I don’t think I got that word from anybody else.
I came into the Nation of Islam and I accepted what that meant. At that time, what that meant was basically saying that you accepted the teachings of the Nation of Islam, the liturgy of the Nation of Islam (they didn’t use the term ‘liturgy,’ but that’s what it was), the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, and all those things. Now, there were degrees to which everybody agreed with everything and it wasn’t the same degree. I always had a problem with the idea of [Muhammad] being God, because I had already gone through that in the Church. The idea of a man being God was, like, somewhat a bore to me (laughs). But I’m looking at the fact that these are the people building the businesses, these are the people that are actually taking people out of prison and not sending them back, making sure they can start their lives again. These people have a model for addressing all of the problems in the community–I’ve got to give them a break on that! As long as they don’t come to me and say, “You’ve got to leave,” I’ve got to give them a break on that!
My advice to young people is that the time that you are living in is the time that you are prepared to live in. Everything that needed to happen for you to come into this world at this time, and do the things that you’re supposed to do to change this world, has happened for that purpose. You’re well equipped, so don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. And you’re going to change it–probably quicker than you think.”