- U.S. congressman from Minnesota
- First Muslim elected to the U.S. House of Representatives
- Supported Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam
- Says that Farrakhan “is a role model for black youth,” “is not an anti-Semite,” and “is a sincere, tireless, and uncompromising advocate of the black community and other oppressed people around the world”
- Spoke favorably of the high-profile murderers and leftist icons Mumia Abu Jamal, Assata Shakur, and Geronimo Pratt
- Former steering committee member of the National Lawyers Guild's Minnesota chapter
- Publicly defended former Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist Kathleen Soliah
- Supported the activities of the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011
See also: Louis Farrakhan Nation of Islam
Congressional Progressive Caucus Congressional Black Caucus
Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus
Born in August 1963, Keith Maurice Ellison was raised as a Roman Catholic in Detroit, Michigan. At age 19, while attending Wayne State University, he converted to Islam because he perceived it to be a faith that “might inform social change [and] justice in society.” After graduating with a BA in economics in 1987, Ellison enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School.
As a third-year law student in 1989-90, Ellison penned two columns for the Minnesota Daily under the name “Keith Hakim.” In the first piece, he made respectful reference to “Minister Louis Farrakhan,” defended the incendiary Nation of Islam (NOI) spokesman and black supremacist Khalid Abdul Muhammad, and, as The Weekly Standard reports, spoke “in the voice of a Nation of Islam advocate.” In the second piece, Ellison demanded reparations for slavery and said that African Americans should be offered the option of settling in an all-black, geographically self-contained “homeland” if they wished to do so. In February 1990, Ellison participated in sponsoring Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael) to speak at his law school on the subject, “Zionism: Imperialism, White Supremacy, or Both?”—a speech that proved to be deeply anti-Semitic.
After earning a Juris Doctorate in 1990, Ellison worked three years as a litigator with the Minnesota-based law firm Lindquist & Vennum. He then served as executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, which specialized in the pro bono defense of “low-income people and people of color.” After that, he took a job with the law firm Hassan & Reed Ltd. (also in Minneapolis).
During the 1990s, Ellison failed to pay all or part of his income taxes on a number of occasions. Consequently, the IRS filed liens against him and he eventually was forced to pay some $25,000 in back taxes. Ellison also ignored fines that he had incurred for parking tickets and moving violations so numerous that his driver's license was suspended multiple times.
In October 1992 Ellison publicly came to the defense of Sharif Willis, a convicted murderer and ex-convict who was now the leader of the violent Minneapolis-based Vice Lords gang. The previous month, four Vice Lord members had used Willis’s house as their headquarters for planning the murder of a local police officer named Jerry Haaf. At the trial of one of the killers, two witnesses implicated Willis in the plot. Willis himself was never charged, however, because law-enforcement authorities said they lacked sufficient evidence to convict him. Ellison helped organize a demonstration against Minneapolis police, where he denounced “the campaign of slander the police federation has been waging” against Willis. He also told the crowd that the police union was systematically trying to frighten white people in order to persuade the city to hire more officers and thereby strengthen the police union’s power base. In February 1993, while the trial of Officer Haaf’s killers was in progress, Ellison led a protesting crowd outside the courthouse in the chant: “We don't get no justice, you don't get no peace!” In February 1995 Willis was convicted in federal court for several drug and gun-related offenses, for which he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In 1995 Ellison worked actively on behalf of the Nation of Islam. At a University of Minnesota rally to promote Louis Farrakhan’s highly anticipated Million Man March, Ellison appeared onstage with Khalid Abdul Muhammad, who delivered a thundering, racist diatribe.
That same year, when Qubilah Shabazz, daughter of the late Malcolm X, was indicted for conspiring to murder Farrakhan, Ellison organized a march on the U.S. Attorney's office in Minneapolis demanding that Shabazz be released, and alleging that the FBI itself had conspired to try to kill Farrakhan. In a November 6, 1995, column for the Minneapolis periodical Insight News, Ellison wrote under the name “Keith X Ellison” and condemned a Star Tribune editorial cartoon implying that Farrakhan was an anti-Semite. Ellison argued to the contrary, saying that “Minister Farrakhan is a role model for black youth”; “is not an anti-Semite”; “is a sincere, tireless, and uncompromising advocate of the black community and other oppressed people around the world”; and is regarded by “most black people” as “a role model for youth and, increasingly, a central voice for our collective aspirations.”
In February 1997 Ellison served as a local NOI spokesman (with the surname “Muhammad”) at a public hearing in connection with a controversy involving Joanne Jackson of the Minnesota Initiative Against Racism. Jackson, a supporter of Louis Farrakhan, was alleged to have said that “Jews are among the most racist white people I know.” Declared Ellison:
“We stand by the truth contained in the remarks attributed to [Ms. Jackson], and by her right to express her views without sanction. Here is why we support Ms. Jackson: She is correct about Minister Farrakhan. He is not a racist. He is also not an anti-Semite. Minister Farrakhan is a tireless public servant of Black people, who constantly teaches self-reliance and self-examination to the Black community.”
Ellison first emerged as a candidate for public office in 1998, when he ran, unsuccessfully, for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nomination for state representative as “Keith Ellison-Muhammad.” In an article on his candidacy that appeared in Insight News, Ellison was still defending Farrakhan:
“Anticipating possible criticism for his NOI affiliation, Ellison-Muhammad says he is aware that not everyone appreciates what the Nation does and [he] feels there is a propaganda war being launched against its leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan.”
In February 2000 Ellison gave a speech at a fundraising event sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, on whose steering committee he previously had served. Also in attendance was the former Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn. The event was a fundraiser for onetime Symbionese Liberation Army terrorist Kathleen Soliah after her apprehension in St. Paul for the attempted murder of Los Angeles police officers in 1975. Calling for Soliah's release, Ellison referred to her as “basically … a black gang member” (though she is white) because she was purportedly a victim of government persecution. He also described Soliah as a woman who had been “fighting for freedom in the '60s and '70s.” (Soliah subsequently pled guilty to charges in Los Angeles and to an additional murder charge in Sacramento.) Further, Ellison spoke favorably of the high-profile murderers and leftist icons Mumia Abu Jamal, Assata Shakur, and Geronimo Pratt.
In 2002 Ellison, having dropped “Muhammad” from his name, was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives; two years later he was re-elected.
In 2006 Ellison ran (as a Democrat) for Minnesota's Fifth District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Early that year, the Minnesota State Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board reprimanded Ellison's campaign for unreported contributions, misclassified disbursements, and inaccurate cash balances. Ellison himself was fined for willful violation of Minnesota's campaign-finance-reporting law and was sued twice by the state attorney general.
In May 2006, Ellison addressed his Nation of Islam links in a letter he penned to the local chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council. In the letter, Ellison asserted that his involvement with NOI had been limited to an 18-month period around the time of the Million Man March in 1995; that he had been unfamiliar with the organization’s anti-Semitic views at that time; that he “did not adequately scrutinize” those views; and that he himself had never expressed or defended such views. All of those assertions were demonstrably false. As journalist Joe Kaufman, founder of Americans Against Hate, writes: “Indeed, although he has since denied it, Ellison was involved with NOI for ten long years. In that time, he participated in NOI rallies, including the Million Man March hate fest; he defended NOI hate speech; and he used such NOI aliases as Keith Hakim, Keith X Ellison, and Keith Ellison-Muhammad.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) executive director, Nihad Awad (a self-identified supporter of Hamas), spoke at an August 25, 2006 fundraiser for Ellison, who accepted thousands of dollars in campaign donations raised by Awad.
Also during the 2006 campaign, Ellison called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the impeachment of President Bush.
In August 2006 the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) said: “If Keith Ellison is elected in November to represent Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, he will bring to the U.S. House of Representatives a fresh progressive voice in tradition of Paul Wellstone. He will also be the first African American congressman from Minnesota and the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress.”
In October 2006 Ellison keynoted a closed-door meeting of CAIR in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Ellison won his congressional election on November 7, 2006, and has been re-elected every two years since then. At his 2006 victory party, a number of his supporters shouted “Allahu Akbar!”—the traditional battle cry of jihadists.
Later in November 2006, Ellison gave a speech titled “Imams and Politics” to the Fourth Annual Body Meeting of the North American Imams Federation (NAIF). At that conference, he also participated in a “Community Night” event along with Imams Siraj Wahhaj and Omar Shahin. Two days after the NAIF gathering, Shahin and five other conference attendees were removed from a US Airways flight when their suspicious behavior alarmed other passengers. In the wake of the airline incident, Ellison asked to meet with executives of US Airways and the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) to discuss what had happened. “While some constituents have understood the fears of the passenger who reported the clerics' prayers as suspicious activity, many more have expressed shock and surprise at what they perceive as discrimination,” Ellison wrote in a letter to US Airways CEO Doug Parker and Jeff Hamiel, executive director of the MAC.
On December 24, 2006, Ellison spoke at a Dearborn, Michigan convention of the Muslim American Society and the Islamic Circle of North America.
That same month, Ellison spoke at the sixth annual convention of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). Two years later, he would address a town hall forum during MPAC's “Activate '08 Election Campaign.”
On January 4, 2007, Ellison placed his right hand on a Koran (instead of a Bible) at the photo-op reenactment of his congressional swearing-in ceremony. (At the earlier, official ceremony, all the newly elected representatives were sworn in at one time, without any books.) Notably, the Koran used by Ellison had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson; the book had been taken from the Library of Congress, under security, specifically for Ellison's swearing-in ceremony. Clayton State University English professor Mary Grabar observed: “In this p.r. stunt [Ellison] tried to claim Jefferson’s blessing. The mainstream media presented it as another way to upstage what they see as ignorant rubes who would be upset by a Congressman not using the traditional Bible in the swearing-in ceremony.”
Soon after joining the House of Representatives, Ellison became a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus.
On February 20, 2007, Ellison endorsed the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, praising the latter's “unifying spirit” as well as his “message of an open and fair economy, a balanced prosperity and clear opposition to the war in Iraq.”
In May 2007 Ellison spoke at the fourth annual convention of the Muslim American Society. On June 16, 2007, he was a featured speaker at the first annual banquet of CAIR’s Minnesota chapter. That same month, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee honored Ellison with its Trailblazer Award, for his “career of advocacy focused on promoting civil and human rights, peace, and prosperity for working families.”
On June 28, 2007, Ellison co-sponsored Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s bill to impeach Republican Vice President Dick Cheney for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The bill charged that Cheney had “purposefully manipulated [pre-Iraq War] intelligence” and had “fabricated a threat of weapons of mass destruction.” Other co-sponsors included William Lacy Clay, Jan Schakowsky, Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, and Maxine Waters.
In a July 2007 speech, Ellison likened America's military response to the 9/11 attacks to the manner in which the Nazis had exploited the 1933 burning of the Reichstag in Berlin: “It’s almost like the Reichstag fire, kind of reminds me of that. After the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it, and it put the leader [Hitler] of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted.”
In 2007 Ellison was a guest speaker at that year's Take Back America conference, which was organized by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and the Campaign for America's Future (CAF). Ellison also spoke at the 2009 and 2010 America's Future Now conferences organized by those same two organizations, and at a 2011 Take Back the American Dream conference, again organized by IPS and CAF.
In 2007, 2008, and 2009, Ellison spoke at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual national conventions. His 2008 address discussed the theme of “mobilizing the Muslim political machine.”
In the spring of 2008, Ellison keynoted the Muslim American Society's Minnesota convention, appearing alongside Siraj Wahhaj.
In 2008 Ellison spoke at CAIR-Tampa's sixth annual banquet, where he urged his listeners to support Sami al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor who had confessed two years earlier to conspiring to supply goods and services to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In April 2008, Ellison introduced Resolution 1078 to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This Resolution called for the implementation of a Global Marshall Plan that would “demonstrate the commitment of the United States to peace and prosperity,” a plan that “must operate within the ethical framework of generosity and magnanimity, not merely of instrumentality, and to be successful and must be perceived as more than a new attempt to extend influence into the world.” This plan mirrored the foreign-policy approach advocated by the Network of Spiritual Progressives.
In May 2008 in St. Louis, Ellison was a panelist at a town hall meeting held at the 37th International Convention of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which was founded by the Communist Party USA.
Also in 2008, Ellison accepted $13,350 from the Muslim American Society (MAS) to finance his pilgrimage to Mecca.
In 2009, after the FBI had cut off its contacts with CAIR because of the organization's ties to Hamas, Ellison spoke at three CAIR fundraising dinners, gave videotaped statements at a number of others, and appeared with CAIR officials at meetings on healthcare reform and at Muslim religious festivals.
In 2009 Ellison delivered the keynote address at a Washington, DC forum titled “Engaging The Muslim World—Challenges and Opportunities,” sponsored by the U.S. Institute Of Peace. In his speech, Ellison stated that “violent extremism with a Muslim veneer is essentially a post-colonial reaction” (i.e., a reaction to past Western colonialism) and a manifestation of a “political environment rooted in grievance.”
In October 2009 Ellison denounced four Congressional Republicans who had called for an investigation of CAIR's possible infiltration of government committees. Said Ellison: “The idea that we should investigate Muslim interns as spies is a blow to the very principle of religious freedom that our Founding Fathers cherished so dearly.”
Soon thereafter, Ellison attended a CAIR fundraising event in Washington and urged his organization's supporters to apply for jobs with the incoming Obama administration.
On January 27, 2010, Ellison was one of 54 Members of Congress who signed a letter calling on President Barack Obama to use diplomatic pressure to end Israel's blockade of Gaza—a blockade which had been imposed in order to prevent the importation of weaponry from Iran and Syria.
During his 2010 congressional re-election bid, Ellison accepted campaign contributions from such notables as Jamal Barzinji and Hisham Al-Talib, both of whom had previously served as vice presidents of the International Institute of Islamic Thought, and both of whom had been identified by the FBI as U.S. leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ellison also received donations from former Muslim American Society president Esam Omeish; Turkish Islamist Merve Kavakci; and former American Muslim Council officials Aly Abuzaakouk, Mohammed Cheema, and Yayha Basha. Further, CAIR executive director Nihad Awad helped organize a fundraiser on Ellison's behalf.
In 2011 Ellison spoke at a rally held during the annual conference of Netroots Nation.
At a Network of Spiritual Progressives event in early 2011, Ellison derided what he viewed as America's traditional means of conducting foreign policy:
“Diplomatically, we have got to understand that it's not about imposing will upon countries through economic warfare, like all these sanctions that we're so fond of. Equity has got to be how we interact with the rest of the world. And I'm telling you that many of the problems that we are facing today find their roots in colonial relationships that are fundamentally premised on inequity. And the reactions from people of what we used to refer to as the Third World. ... Much of what we are seeing is a reaction to historic colonial relationships and neocolonial relationships.”
Ellison added: “[S]omething is wrong ... when we have the attitude that my oil is under your sand, and so I'm gonna get it from you, and I'm willing to end your life to do it and ruin your society to do it.” He then proceeded to urge U.S. dialogue with Iran vis à vis the latter's nuclear-weapons program: “When we discuss Iran, we should be discussing what happened in 1953”—a reference to the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh's government, with the aid of American and British intelligence agencies.
On March 10, 2011, Ellison testified at a Committee on Homeland Security hearing in Washington, DC, titled “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response.” In his testomony, Ellison said:
“Ascribing the evil acts of a few individuals to an entire community is wrong; it is ineffective; and it risks making our country less secure.... Targeting the Muslim American community for the actions of a few is unjust. Actually all of us—all communities—are responsible for combating violent extremism. Singling out one community focuses our analysis in the wrong direction.”
In the fall of 2011 Ellison strongly supported the activities of the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street movement.
In September 2012 Ellison condemned a portion of the Republican Party Platform that stated: “There must be no use of foreign law by U.S. courts in interpreting our Constitution and laws. Nor should foreign sources of law be used in State courts; adjudication of criminal or civil matters.” Interpreting the foregoing text as a manifestation of anti-Sharia sentiment and a generalized spirit of intolerance, Ellison said:
“It's an expression of bigotry. There has never been any legislation offered to establish Shariah law—not at the federal level, not at the state level. There's not been a municipal ordinance opposing this, there's not been anything.... Why do they want to become the party of hate? They're hating on immigrants who are from Latin America. They're demonstrating hatred toward Muslims. They're demonstrating hostility toward women. They act like they don't like gay people.... I'm sad that they have decided to go into this dark ugly place where they see the whole world as their enemy.... [T]hey're the party that is basically a bigoted party and they have now officially declared themselves against a whole segment of the American population, because if we said we were going to put a plank opposing Jewish law, or Catholic canon, it would be an outrage. This is also an outrage."
When Ellison debated Republican challenger Chris Fields on October 18, 2012, the latter accused Ellison of having paid a law firm $240,000 to dig up embarrassing details of Fields' divorce; of having shorted his own (Ellison's) ex-wife on child-support payments; and of having enriched himself to the tune of some $2 million via funds from pharmaceuticals and other companies. In response, Ellison called Fields “stupid,” a “lowlife scumbag,” and a “gutter dweller.” Notably, however, the congressman did not deny the $2 million enrichment charge.
In a February 2013 interview with Fox News' Stuart Varney, Ellison expressed his belief that it is “fair” for the wealthy to be taxed at whatever rate is necessary to raise money for the provision of services to lower-income Americans. When asked if a 65% or 75% income tax rate would be fair, he stuck to his principle.
In April 2013, Ellison was the featured speaker at a “benefit dinner” held by EMERGE USA, an organization that seeks to increase the political influence of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans.
On October 8, 2013, Ellison was one of eight members of Congress (all Democrats) who were arrested when they sat in the middle of Independence Avenue and blocked rush-hour traffic during an immigration rally on Washington’s National Mall. Though the Mall was, at that time, legally closed due to a so-called “government shutdown” that had gone into effect a week earlier, the National Parks Service allowed the demonstration to take place because of First Amendment protections. Consisting of more than 15,000 participants, the rally was intended to persuade Congress to pass legislation allowing illegal immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship. Also arrested were U.S. Representatives Joseph Crowley, Al Green, Raul Grijalva, Luis Gutierrez, John Lewis, Charles Rangel, and Jan Schakowsky.
In February 2015 address he delivered at the U.S. Vote Foundation’s Voting and Elections Summit in Washington, DC, Ellison denounced conservative efforts to pass voter-identification laws. Said the congressman: “Now I also think we need to make voting easier; it should be easier. In other countries it's easier. Why should voting be so difficult? Tuesday? Who thought that up? I mean the fact is, is that there’s wide variation in when people can vote. You can’t necessarily register to vote on Election Day. I’ve often asked myself why you should have to register to vote. Why shouldn’t it be automatic?”
Ellison was one of two keynote speakers at the Islamic Shura Council of California's 21st anniversary celebration on February 27, 2016. The other keynoter at that event was Siraj Wahhaj.
In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used his influence to secure, for Ellison, a major role in formulating the Democratic Party’s platform for the election campaign.
For an overview of Ellison's congressional voting record on a number of key issues, click here and here.