Yusuf Abdus Salaam grew up in Columbus, the son and grandson of Southern Baptist preachers.
Those who knew him as a young boy living in the east Wynnton neighborhood probably don’t recognize the name. That’s because Yusuf changed his name from Joseph Sales to his Muslim moniker in 1975.
Yusuf is the Aramaic or Hebrew word for Joseph, he explained. And Abdus-Salaam means “Servant of the Peace.”
So, it’s only fitting that Yusuf plans to bring a message of unity to Columbus on Aug. 20 as keynote speaker for the Annual George Washington Carver-William H. Spencer High School Unity Breakfast. The event will be held at Carver High School, with takeout from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. and the dine-in program from 9:30 to 10:30 a..m. It will kick off activities for the Carver-Spencer football game that will be held Aug. 26 at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium.
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Yusuf, a retired attorney living in Montgomery, Ala., is well aware of the decades-old rivalry between Carver and Spencer. He was a student at Carver when it transitioned from a junior high school to a high school, which initiated the competitive spirit.
After graduating from Carver in 1966, he went to the University of Georgia and then to the University of Miami Law School. He worked as a law professor for a few years. He then served as president of the City Council in Selma, Ala. He later became the first Muslim elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, where he served from 2002 to 2010.
Before I spoke with Yusuf, I got a sense of his background from his sister, Ruby Sales, a former Columbus resident who made her mark on civil rights history. Ruby was a 17-year-old civil rights worker when she encountered a racist who tried to shoot her. Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white seminarian, intervened and died in her place. I wrote about Ruby last year after the 50th anniversary of the historical voting rights march in Selma.
Yusuf, her younger brother, said the experience changed his life. When he became a Muslim, he joined the Universal Islam branch of the religion because he found the rhetoric among some black American Muslims too racially divisive.
“My sister had been literally saved by a white man,” he said. “So, I have never been one to ever adopt any kind of exclusive orientation when dealing with human beings.”
So, what does this all have to do with the rivalry between Carver and Spencer high schools?
Yusuf said it’s important to remember that sports is not just about competition, but also about community. He said he learned that from Coach Booker T. Fowlkes, who served as a linchpin between the two athletic programs in the early days.
“I want to remind people that even though the game is coming up, our history was not just about sports,” he said. “It was about using sports to strengthen educational institutions so that we could all benefit educationally, whether we played sports or not.”
Unity is the key to a better future, he said, in sports and in life.