Umar Muhammad, who fought to help the formerly incarcerated have a second chance at life, died in a motorcycle accident Monday afternoon, according to the Durham Police Department.
Muhammad, who was thirty, worked as a community organizer for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. He raised two twin boys and recently had a baby girl.
“He was so, so hungry for knowledge. He was so earnest, so eager, so passionate,” said Omisade Burney-Scott, who began working with Muhammad through SpiritHouse about five years ago. He had a “megawatt smile” and was “over the moon” about the birth of his two-month-old daughter, she said.
Burney-Scott said Muhammad was a man of his word who never judged others for their past. After being released from prison in 2012, he quickly grew into an organizer who spoke at national conferences.
“I felt like he was making up for lost time,” Burney-Scott said.
Muhammad was a local leader of All of Us or None, an organization that fights discrimination against people who have been incarcerated, and worked with the Clean Slate Project, an expungement clinic. He was an advocate for the "ban the box" movement to have questions about criminal history removed from employment applications.
“He was all about the liberation of his community and he was 100 percent committed to never leaving anybody behind,” Burney-Scott said. “I think that if people want to figure out a way to continue his legacy, think about how they support this work. What does it look like for you to liberate people who have been left behind?”
Muhammad joined the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in 2014 and June 30 was his last day working for organization, said executive director Anita Earls. He planned to do organizing work for All of Us or None.
During Muhammad’s three-and-a-half years with the SCSJ, Earls said she saw “amazing growth in his skills and talents.”
“He learned to be able to relate to folks in the community in a way that was meaningful to them but also shared his perspective on the issues affecting people of color and people impacted by the criminal justice system.” Earls said. ”He could talk about that so eloquently in a way that people could relate to and turn around and speak to the Durham City Council.”
Earls said she last saw Muhammad at a Clean Slate Clinic a few weeks ago “really urging people to believe in their own ability to make a difference.”
“I think his legacy is an example that you can work for justice no matter what hurdles you may face personally. You can make a difference,” she said.
Earls said two organizers had already been hired to fill Muhammad’s previous role, but that the SCSJ planned to continue working with him.
“This is just a loss that we will always have,” she said. “There’s no replacing the kind of extraordinary person he was … I’m not over-exaggerating to say he was central to our work and what we were trying to achieve. He was a person who spoke to the moral conscience of why the SCSJ is doing this kind of work.”
According to a police department press release, Muhammad was driving his motorcycle south on Alston Avenue near Massey Avenue just before noon when it collided with a Cadillac Seville. Durham police charged the driver of the Cadillac, Rodney McLaurin, with misdemeanor death by vehicle, failure to yield right of way and driving while his license was revoked.
“It is such a loss to have someone that humble and that dedicated to the struggle be taken away from us like that, especially in such a tragic manner,” said Desmera Gatewood, a fellow community organizer. “There will never be another Umar. He was definitely someone an activist and an organizer should be. He used his lived experience to inform his practice, not to discourage him from wanting to fight alongside people.”
Gatewood, who knew Muhammad through a community building program called Harm Free Zone, said she will carry on his legacy by making sure that “everywhere we can, we lift up the stories of young black people the system has deliberately tried to break,” as Muhammad sought to do in his work.
“He was as much a student as he was a leader in the movement,” she said. “… Admirable doesn’t seem like it’s fitting enough of a word.”
SpiritHouse plans to organize a community memorial in the next few weeks.