Ellison, Keith M.

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Keith M. Ellison



Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison reluctantly made history on January 4, 2007. By raising his hand to take the oath of office, he became the first Muslim to serve in the United States Congress. His election was met with passion on all fronts. Many hailed it as a symbol of tolerance and religious freedom, while others warned of the dangers of a Muslim in government. His religion had been a hot topic throughout his campaign. He never wanted to be a Muslim politician, however, just simply a politician who also happened to be Muslim. "My goals are to have excellent constituent services, and to leverage the energy, talent, and intelligence of the district. I want to see the minimum wage increased and Medicare Part B reformed," he told the Christian Science Monitor. "If my religion can prove to people that Muslims can make a contribution—to me, that's a side benefit."

Formed Strong Beliefs

Keith Ellison was born on August 4, 1963, in Detroit, Michigan. His father Leonard, a psychiatrist, and his mother Clida, a social worker, raised Ellison and his four brothers in a very tight-knit home. "Everybody called them 'the Ellison Boys,'" Ellison's wife Kim told City Pages. "They were tough, they were smart, and they stuck up for each other." Though his family was Catholic, it was their history of community activism that inspired Ellison most. He told a story on The Tavis Smiley Show about his grandfather Frank who was active in the Louisiana NAACP during segregation. As a result of Frank's activism, he and his family had legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall over for dinner one night. "It's something that my mother and her family are very proud of until this very day. I grew up hearing that story, and it really was an inspiration to me to pursue a career in the law, to pursue social justice." The story must have inspired his brothers as well—two went on to be lawyers, one a Baptist minister, and the fourth a surgeon.

After graduating from Jesuit High School, Ellison enrolled in Detroit's Wayne State University. The school was a hotbed of African-American activism and Ellison was soon led to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Inspired by the book, and by his Muslim friends, he converted to the faith at the age of 19. He told Smiley, "I found that it just worked for me." Ellison graduated in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in economics. He married his high school sweetheart Kim, a math teacher, and the pair moved to Minneapolis where Ellison enrolled in University of Minnesota's law school.

Ellison explored some of the more extreme views of Islam while in law school. Writing for the student newspaper under the pseudonym Keith E. Hakim, he defended the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan against accusations of anti-Semitism. In another article, Ellison questioned the motives behind affirmative action. Speaking of that time, classmate Jordan Kushner recalled to City Pages, "[Ellison] was a lot more intense when he was younger." He added, "Keith felt the burden of being a black man in that environment. He was one of the very few black law students out of 250, and there was no black faculty." Ellison later admitted to his political motivations at that time. "My perspective was a tunnel vision," he told the Washington Post in 2006. "I was mostly concerned about the welfare of the African American community."

Found Political Bearings in Community Activism

Ellison earned his law degree in 1990 and joined the Minneapolis firm of Lindquist and Vennum where he worked in civil rights, employment issues, and criminal defense. Meanwhile, he and Kim started a family, eventually having four children. Ellison left the firm in 1993 to become executive director and counsel for the Legal Rights Center, a Minneapolis non-profit law firm for low-income clients. In 1998, he left to run his own trial practice within the firm of Hassan and Reed. Throughout this time, Ellison was a committed community activist. For eight years, he hosted a public affairs program for the independent radio station KMOJ in Minneapolis. He also regularly testified before local and state legislatures on behalf of issues such as welfare reform, indigent defense, and civil rights. He helped create the Minneapolis Police-Civilian Review Board and became active with the Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota.

In 1995, Ellison organized Minnesota's contingent to the Million Man March, the Nation of Islam initiative to unite and mobilize African-American men. Ellison was drawn the event's focus on reconnecting black men to their families and instilling in them a sense of responsibility. However, over a decade later, as Ellison geared up for his congressional run, his association with the march was raised as proof of alliance with Farrakhan. The issue of Farrakhan's anti-Semitism was at the forefront of the controversy. In a 2006 letter to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minneapolis, quoted by the Washington Post, Ellison apologized for not recognizing Farrakhan's stance at the time. "They were and are anti-Semitic, and I should have come to that conclusion earlier than I did," he wrote.

Ellison's activism led to politics and in 2002 he was elected to the Minnesota Legislature. As a representative from Minneapolis, a traditionally democratic, liberal district, Ellison impressed both his colleagues and his constituents. "I spend about four days a week lobbying at the State Capitol during the session and I see how effective Keith has been," Brian Elliot, an environmental lobbyist told City Pages. Ellison was one of the most active members of the legislature, pushing through dozens of initiatives. He authored a bill giving ex-offenders the right to vote. He opposed anti-gay marriage legislature. He repealed a law that had made homelessness a crime and secured funding to help the homeless. He increased funding to public schools. He helped pass a minimum wage increase for Minnesota workers. As he did all of this, Ellison made sure to involve constituents. "One reason Keith authors so many bills is because people come to him with ideas and proposals that he takes seriously," his colleague Frank Hornstein told City Pages. "He really is a true representative." Ellison easily won his second term.

At a Glance …

Born in 1963 in Detroit, MI; married, Kim; children, Amirah, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Education: Wayne State University, BA, economics, 1987; University of Minnesota, JD, law, 1990. Religion: Islam. Politics: Democrat.

Career: Lindquist & Vennum, Minneapolis, MN, lawyer, 1990–93; Legal Rights Center, Minneapolis, MN, executive director and legal counsel, 1993–98; Hassan & Reed Ltd, Minneapolis, MN, lawyer, 1998–2006; Minnesota State House of Representatives, representative for Minneapolis district 58B, 2002–06; United States House of Representatives, representative from Minnesota District 5, 2007–.

Memberships: Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, member; Congressional Black Caucus, member.

Addresses: Offices—2100 Plymouth Ave. N., Minneapolis, MN, 55411; 1130 Longworth House, Washington, DC, 29515.

Elected to Congress for Merit, Not for Being Muslim

In 2006, veteran Minnesota Congressman Martin Sabo announced his retirement. Within two months, the Democratic Farmer Labor party (Minnesota's equivalent of the Democratic Party) endorsed Ellison for the candidacy. Almost overnight, he became a media sensation as the 'Muslim from Minnesota.' The mud-slinging came soon after. The tamer attacks focused on Ellison's past association with the Nation of Islam. Uglier hits came from right-wing pundits who equated Ellison with Islamic terrorism. One Web site run by a Republican senatorial candidate announced that condolences for the death of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an Al Queda leader, could be sent to Ellison's campaign headquarters. Media personality Glenn Beck asked Ellison during an interview on CNN to "prove" he wasn't working with "our enemies."

Ellison responded to the attacks with a refreshing grace. "I'm trying to make a positive impression on history, not a negative one," he told the Star Tribune. "I'm not going to lash out at somebody because they don't see the bigger picture." When the focus turned to his religion, he deflected it back onto the issues. "I'm proud to be a Muslim. But I'm not running as a Muslim candidate," he told the Washington Post. "I'm running as a candidate who believes in peace and bringing the troops out of Iraq now. I'm running as a candidate who believes in universal, single-payer health care coverage and an increase in the minimum wage." His message, along with his track record in Minnesota's legislature, resonated with the public. In addition to the Muslim community, the Jewish community, labor interests, gays and lesbians, environmental groups, and the working class, supported Ellison. In November of 2006, he won the congressional seat with 56 per cent of the vote. However, the controversy over his religion was not yet over.

Ellison's announcement that he would use the Qur'an for his private swearing in ceremony set off a virulent media storm. Republican congressman Virgil Goode declared that it was an invitation for Muslims to immigrate to the country. Other detractors claimed that using anything other than the bible was an affront to America. To Goode's supporters, Ellison responded that he is not an immigrant. In fact, his family has roots dating back to 1742 in Louisiana. Regarding the Bible, the media pointed out that the Constitution states that a public representative shall serve free from religious requirements. The official swearing in ceremony is held with no book at all. However, public servants can choose to hold a second, personal ceremony using any book they choose. Past politicians chose Jewish prayer books and law books. If this revelation wasn't chastisement enough, Ellison swore in on a Qur'an that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. With that the furor died down and Ellison turned to the task of being a freshman congressman with a big agenda. Upon appointment to the Judiciary Committee, he told the Star Tribune, "I look forward to pursuing a progressive agenda in the committee, including the restoration of American citizens' civil liberties that have come under increasing attack over the past six years." Considering his track record, Ellison just might accomplish that.



Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN, November 13, 2006, p. 1A; November 22, 2006, p. 13A; December 31, 2006, p. 1B; January 11, 2007, p. 6A.

Washington Post, September 11, 2006, p. A03.


"Contender May Become First Muslim in US Congress," Christian Science Monitor, www.csmonitor.com/2006/0925/p01s02-uspo.html (January 19, 2007).

Keith Ellison, www.keithellison.org (January 19, 2007).

"Muslim Keith Ellison Seeks House Seat," CBS News, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/06/29/ap/politics/mainD8IHOJ5O0.shtml (January 19, 2007).

"Running Man," City Pages, www.citypages.com/databank/27/1343/article14661.asp (January 19, 2007).

United States Representative Keith Ellison, http://ellison.house.gov (January 30, 2007).


Transcript, "Interview with Keith Ellison," The Tavis Smiley Show, National Public Radio, October 2, 2006.