It was October 2015, and a crowd of thousands were gathered on Washington D.C.’s National Mall, where Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam claimed to be uncovering a conspiracy. In front of a throng gathered for the anniversary of the Million Man March, he accused the federal government of systematically poisoning black and Latinx children.
“It has been brought to our attention,” he thundered, “that the senior lead scientist for the Center for Disease Control has admitted that the MMR vaccines and many of the vaccine shots have been genetically modified to attack black and Latino boys.”
He paused for effect.
“I don’t think you heard me,” he told his audience. “We are living in a wicked time, where we’re dealing with a spiritual wickedness in high places!”
Muhammad likened vaccinations to Pharaoh killing the sons of the children of Israel. “Now they’re trying to force vaccines on baby boys—at least 80 shots before they’re three years old.” He urged his audience of thousands to march on the CDC in Atlanta. “We’re going to say, ‘Not another Tuskegee on our watch!’” he roared. “We’ll be damned if we’re going to sit around and let someone else pump us up full of viruses!”
There’s no evidence whatsoever that the CDC is systematically poisoning black and Latino boys. It’s no mystery where Muhammad got that sentiment. He heard it, he told the crowd, from the scion of one of the most influential political families in American history: the famous environmental activist and vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
In the summer of 2015, Kennedy enlisted the help of the Nation of Islam, a black separatist organization, in his years-long campaign to convince Americans that vaccines cause autism. According to several reports, Kennedy wanted to encourage black families to consider not vaccinating their children, based on a debunked claim that a mercury-based preservative in vaccines causes autism. At the time, Kennedy was trying to stop SB 277, a California bill which eliminated a personal-belief exemption that some parents had used to avoid vaccinating their kids. In April, in promoting an anti-vaccine movie called Trace Amounts, Kennedy referred to vaccine injuries as “a holocaust.”
Kennedy and the Nation of Islam didn’t succeed in opposing SB 277, but the relationship between the Nation of Islam and anti-vaccine groups has only grown. It’s one of the strangest political alliances in America—and one that, if it’s effective, could have serious public health consequences.
This is an exciting time for the American anti-vaccine movement: Before taking office, the president repeatedly tweeted that vaccines cause autism. (There’s an enormous body of evidence proving that’s not true, including a 2014 meta-analysis that looked at studies involving over one million children.) The lead proponent of that claim is Andrew Wakefield, the former gastroenterologist who was the lead author on a 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine and autism. During the election, Wakefield reportedly claimed to have met privately with Trump and then endorsed him, although he’s British and was unable to vote in the U.S. While we don’t have confirmation that meeting took place, Wakefield did attend an inaugural ball held in Trump’s honor, in January.
Wakefield says that a whistleblower at the CDC named Dr. William Thompson claimed that the organization is covering up the fact that the MMR vaccine is linked to a “340 percent increase in autism” among black boys. (Thompson hasn’t spoken publicly in years and his attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story.)
Undaunted by Thompson’s recent silence, Wakefield has been promulgating his story about a so-called CDC coverup ever since. His numbers are as catastrophic as they are questionable: he’s claimed that by 2032, one out of two children in America will have autism. On a conspiracy-themed cruise I covered for Jezebel in 2016, he claimed that a full 80 percent of boys will have autism within 15 years.
Wakefield’s study suggesting an MMR-autism link was retracted in 2010 and he was subsequently stripped of his medical license. Despite that, he still holds enormous sway and influence, gathering a dedicated following of parents who believe he’s the only person telling the truth about their children’s vaccine injuries. In 2016, Wakefield and a former CBS producer named Del Bigtree released Vaxxed, a film claiming, again, that the Centers for Disease Control and other major medical bodies are colluding to cover up the fact that the MMR vaccine causes autism, particularly in African-American boys. Vaxxed was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival after a huge outcry, but has screened independently in theaters across the country and in Europe for over a year. It’s built a large and vocal grassroots following: two different Facebook groups supporting the movie each have over 75,000 members.
Along the way, Wakefield and Bigtree have made a lot of new friends, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who, in addition to his work as the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a well-respected environmental organization dedicated to protecting the nation’s waterways, is one of the major proponents besides Wakefield of the belief that vaccines cause autism. In 2005, he wrote a now-infamous story, “Deadly Immunity,” published simultaneously on Salon and in Rolling Stone. The story charged that thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, was linked to autism, and that government agencies had colluded to cover it up. (The story was retracted and subsequently deleted by Salon.) Thimerosal contains ethylmercury, a mercury compound that the World Health Organization says is safe and non-toxic in the amounts found in some vaccines.
(Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this piece after we failed to reach an agreement about the form it would take. Kennedy requested that Jezebel post only a transcript of any interview, unedited, which Jezebel refused to do.)
Thimerosal was removed from virtually all childhood vaccines in the U.S. in 2001 out of an abundance of caution (although it’s still used in some multi-dose vials of flu vaccines) and was never put in the MMR vaccine. But that hasn’t stopped vaccine skeptics from believing vaccines still contain it and other ingredients they believe to be harmful. In January, Kennedy made waves by announcing that Trump had asked him to chair a vaccine safety commission. Since then, though, there’s been no progress on that commission, and Kennedy has tweeted frequent, bitter criticisms of Trump’s environmental policies, which seems to suggest the two aren’t on good terms.
The new friendship between Kennedy and the leadership of the Nation of Islam is not, on its face, an obvious one. The NOI has called for the establishment of a separate country for the descendants of slaves and for prohibitions on both intermarriage and “race mixing.” (The Southern Poverty Law Center designates it as a hate group based on a history of anti-gay and anti-Semitic rhetoric, particularly under its current leader, Louis Farrakhan.)
But in fact, the Nation of Islam has been anti-vaccine for decades, a skepticism that’s part of a broader distrust of the medical establishment. In the 1960s, according to Farrakhan, the NOI’s most influential leader Elijah Muhammad told his followers not to get the polio vaccine, but said others were acceptable. In 2004, a story in their official newspaper, the Final Call, suggested that vaccines could be linked to health problems from autism to diabetes. By 2013, Farrakhan was claiming children in Zimbabwe were being intentionally poisoned with vaccines from Europe and the U.S., “to limit the population of Black people in those countries and places in the world where America’s needs for their vital minerals and resources were deemed necessary.” (The idea that medicines are part of an effort to poison black people has a lot of traction in the NOI: In his 1965 book A Message to the Blackman in America, Elijah Muhammad said birth control was also a depopulation scheme and a “death plan.”)
And it’s the absolute truth that if anyone has reason to distrust the medical establishment, it’s black and Latinx Americans, as well as Native people. The Tuskegee experiment, a government-backed, horrific, racist experiment in which black men with syphilis were left untreated for 40 years so scientists could observe the progression of the disease, was just one hideous chapter in a sordid history of medical abuses in this country. The 20th century alone saw federally-funded forced sterilization programs that targeted mostly poor women of color by the thousands. The ‘40s through the ‘70s saw a series of ghoulish human radiation experiments where mentally disabled children and prisoners, among others, were unknowingly dosed with radiation to test its effects. Black people have also been subjected to risky surgeries, assumed by doctors to feel less pain than whites, and, even today, people of color receive a lower quality of medical care going by almost any metric you care to use.
It’s not surprising, then, that the NOI was receptive when Kennedy came calling. According to a blogger named Kent Heckenlively, who edits the anti-vaccine site Age of Autism, Kennedy met with the Nation of Islam’s Tony Muhammad, the Western Regional Representative for the NOI, for the first time in the summer of 2015. “Minister Tony got a call from one of his members,” Heckenlively wrote, “saying that Robert Kennedy, Jr. wanted to meet a member of the black community who had the courage to take on the vaccine/autism issue.”
Minister Muhammad told Jezebel that he met Kennedy through a white anti-vaccine activist named Lucy Cole, who was working with the Vaccine Injury Awareness League, a group that frequently collaborates with Kennedy. “She was just seeking a way to find some black leader who they could sit down with,” Muhammad said. “To connect with what’s happening with vaccines and black boys.”
Muhammad says it was the first time he’d specifically heard the vaccine-autism connection, but he didn’t vaccinate his own children out of general safety concerns. (“We always felt we were a target.”) Following a meeting with Kennedy and other vaccine skeptics, he drew a comparison between vaccines and the Tuskeegee experiment. Soon after teaming up with Kennedy, Muhammad decided it was time to take the issue to the Nation of Islam leadership: he and a group of the white anti-vaccine activists flew to Chicago to meet with Louis Farrakhan. “At that time we decided to get involved with warning and educating our community,” Muhammad told Jezebel. “This has flown over the black community’s head.”
The NOI formed an organization called Vaccine Justice or Else!, and held a protest in front of the CDC. (Dave Gorski of the blog Science-Based Medicine covered that meeting at the time, and was among the first people to write in detail about the new relationship between anti-vaxxers and the Nation of Islam. So did a science blog called Respectful Insolence that often covers the anti-vaccine movement, and which called the new relationship “despicable.”)
In November 2015, Muhammad told an anti-vaccine blogger that vaccines were his new focus, and that it was his mission to warn black people in “every urban city” about the dangers:
“This movement has taken on a new life in the black community, and it is my job, on behalf of the Hon. Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation, to make sure I go to every urban city to warn our people that there could possibly be another Tuskegee going on right under our nose which actually according to the numbers that I have been getting on black boys who have been ill-effected, actually make the Tuskegee Experiment look like a Sunday school picnic.”
During the debate over SB 277 in California, Muhammad and the NOI came out strongly against the bill, telling members of the California Legislative Black Caucus they’d be considered traitors if they voted for it and likening it, again, to Tuskeegee.
After the failure to stop SB 277, Muhammad didn’t shift his focus from vaccines: throughout 2016, he embarked on a cross-country tour to screen Vaxxed in black community spaces, and the NOI held a “summit on vaccine safety” in October 2016. They also held followed by a screening of Vaxxed for NOI members.
The friendship with Kennedy and the Vaxxed filmmakers gives the NOI a new and powerful propaganda tool: the film itself, which is presented as an authoritative, scientific, impartial look at vaccines. The NOI’s theories on vaccines, in turn, got a big boost from the film, a pseudo-scientific veneer of respectability, and a new, specific conspiracy —the idea that the CDC is concealing the dangers of the MMR vaccine—to graft onto existing and deep-seated distrust of vaccines and the medical establishment.
Vaxxed, Muhammad says, “helped me to do my own research,” and it helped convince him that pharmaceutical companies are not to be trusted.
The anti-vaccine movement has traditionally been led by higher-income white people who are more likely to trust their own (usually internet-based) research than professional medical advice. For now, doctors who work with predominantly black pediatric patients aren’t seeing a huge rise in vaccine refusals.
“I’m not hearing any more refusals from Black families than I used to,” writes Dr. Byron White, a Virginia-based physician who has worked in pediatrics. “I’ve worked in different practices, so my numbers vary by geography, but I would get full refusals from parents less than eight percent of the time. In Black families, less than three percent.”
The main obstacle keeping the Nation of Islam from effectively spreading an anti-vaccine message is a basic one: in 2007, the group’s core membership was estimated at around 50,000 people and there’s no indication it’s grown much since then. The group’s rhetoric can also be alienating. According to the L.A. Times, a broad coalition of black social justice and political groups were disgusted by the Tuskeegee comparison during the SB 277 debate:
“Unfortunately, recent attacks on the measure have been vicious, unfounded and distort the science and history of childhood immunization within our community,” said a statement by the California State Conference of the NAACP, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Charles R. Drew Medical Society, the California Black Health Network and the Network of Ethnic Physician Organizations.
“Our organizations denounce assertions that vaccination of black children would be another Tuskegee experiment,” the statement said.
“I’m not so clear how many African-Americans are following through on the advice of the NOI because they’re somewhat peripheral,” says Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, a physician and author and speaker who lives in the Bay Area. But she’s watched the NOI and anti-vaccine forces try to grow their support using means they think will sway black people: “One of the things they did to broaden their base was to engage rappers in this effort, Like Snoop Dogg, he was the main one.” (Snoop Dogg made a video in April 2016 declaring “Fuck that, I’m not taking no flu shot.” The NOI has also said that the rapper T.I. showed up at their 2016 vaccine summit.)
Pierette also pointed to an incident earlier this year where children in a Somali immigrant community in Minnesota suffered a large measles outbreak. Parents there got the idea that vaccines cause autism from Wakefield himself. There was a sharp drop in immunization rates, according to the Star-Tribune: “For Somali 2-year-olds, they were as high as 92 percent in 2004, but today stand at just 42 percent.”
That means that anti-vaccine rhetoric can have a direct measurable impact on community health, even if the overall numbers are small. “The concern is that it could happen elsewhere, absolutely,” Dr. Pierette says.
If families who live in urban areas are convinced by Kennedy and Muhammed’s message and decide to significantly delay vaccinating their kids or avoid vaccinating altogether, the public-health risk is clear. They would make themselves and a large community around them susceptible to vaccine-preventable diseases. Not to mention what it does to the infants themselves: even delaying vaccines can put them at increased risk of fever-related seizures.
And the people pushing this message are getting around. In recent months, Andrew Wakefield himself has largely receded into the background; he appears to be busy holding Vaxxed screenings in Europe, particularly his native England. But Bigtree, with whom he made Vaxxed, has made several joint appearances with Muhammad and Kennedy. At one recent appearance at the D.C. Press Club, they were joined by actor Robert DeNiro, who has a son with autism and has very publicly promoted the theory that vaccines cause autism.
At the event, Muhammad declared that “the Tuskeegee experiment could be back, alive, and well. It took a Kennedy to shut down that experiment. Now we have to ask ourselves as a community, could it be that it’s happening to us again?” Muhammad added that he’s visited 30 cities to show Vaxxed to audiences “that are full of poor people.”
Later this month, Kennedy, Bigtree and Muhammad are set to appear together at a Baptist church in Atlanta for an event titled “State of Emergency.” The flyer for the event asks “Tuskeegee Experiment, Again?”
And there are signs that these ideas about vaccines are edging further into the mainstream. On June 14 of this year, the influential New York radio station Power 105.1 aired an interview on the Breakfast Club, their most popular show, with Freddie Gibbs, a hip-hop artist who recently joined the Nation of Islam. Joining him was Tony Muhammad. One of the Breakfast Club’s hosts, Charlamagne tha God, asked Muhammad, “What’s some of the work you’re doing with vaccines?”
“Well you know i’m the one that Bobby Kennedy came to,” Muhammad began. “Bobby Kennedy was given some startling information. There is a scientist who works right now for the CDC. Forty years ago we had the Tuskegee experiment, and that experiment was done by the United States Health Service. It was so atrocious they changed their name to the CDC. It was Ted Kennedy that shut that down. And 40 years later we found out that the Tuskegee experiment has not stopped.”
For the next twelve minutes, without any real objection or pushback from the hosts, Muhammad was allowed to deliver an error-filled virtual monologue on the dangers of vaccines, which he linked to an uptick in both autism and ADHD.
“I’ve never vaccinated any of my children and they’ve never been sick,” he told Gibbs and the hosts at one point. “It’s the vaccinated children that get sick.”
“It ain’t new, and it’s spiritual,” Muhammad said on air, going on to claim to that black boys are more susceptible to being harmed by aluminum than black girls and encouraging parents to wait to vaccinate their kids. Muhammad also claimed, like Wakefield, that by 2032 “one in two children will have autism. Eighty percent of the boys. They’re absolutely creating zombies and Frankensteins, and we’re the targets.”
Muhammad told Jezebel he’s hoping to get other celebrities involved in the anti-vaccine effort. “I’m not going to mention their names, but since that interview we’re about to have some big meetings. We’re gonna do our own documentary. We’re going to do our own studies. We’re not going to rely on white scientists who are persuaded by political pressures for the sake of injecting my child.”
At the same time, he said, he doesn’t hold a grudge against NOI members who decide to vaccinate. “I never tell people what to do. If people want to vaccinate, go ahead, play Russian roulette. That’s your right.”
The NOI held a meeting on June 22 for black clergy members in Atlanta to try to create a broader black anti-vaccine coalition. And on August 27, they’re promising to march on the CDC yet again. “We’re gonna march on the CDC and we’re gonna shut it down,” he says. “We’re going to go in so deep, God willing. We’re not going to stop until people see there’s a problem in America.”