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Malcolm X: Make it Plain | Article

Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam


Taking over from the organization's founder, Elijah Muhammad helmed the Nation of Islam during a period of limited growth. Malcolm X's arrival in 1952 ushered in a time of dramatically increased membership and his significant national profile. The only question was: could the Nation of Islam have two leaders?

A traveling silk seller named W.D. Fard appeared in the Detroit ghetto on July 4, 1930. Fard said he had come from Mecca, and he proclaimed a new belief, a variant of traditional Islam. God was black, Fard taught, and so was the first man created in His image some 66 trillion years ago. The world was run by 24 black scientists; a rogue scientist created the white race, and these devils were given dominion over the earth for 6,000 years. According to Fard, their time would be up in the 20th century, so the black man needed to create a separate Nation of Islam within an America run by whites.

The Messenger
In 1931 Fard established the first Nation of Islam temple in Detroit. Imprisoned for a time, he vanished in 1934. This left the Nation in need of a new leader. The man who emerged was born Elijah Poole in 1897 in rural Georgia. Like Malcolm X's father Earl, Poole left Georgia and came north in search of opportunity and to escape Southern racism. He met Fard and one day heard from him that Fard was in fact Allah; or more precisely, the latest in a series of Allahs. Re-named Elijah Muhammad and referred to him as God's Messenger, Poole established a new temple in Chicago, the city that would become the Nation of Islam's headquarters. Pale and wiry, Elijah Muhammad ate only once during his 18-hour days. He preached in the worst parts of town, drawing blacks with a message that mixed racial pride, hatred of the white devil, and the need for economic self-sufficiency. Islam, in Muhammad's words, gave "the so-called American Negro...that qualification that he can feel proud and does not feel ashamed to be called a black man."

The Movement
Operating from a former animal hospital, the Nation had only a handful of temples and a few hundred members when Malcolm X joined in 1952. But with Elijah Muhammad's blessing, Malcolm helped the Nation of Islam dramatically raise its profile. His message of personal pride and economic self-reliance was attractive to many blacks, as was the notion that they did not need any favors from white America. The Nation of Islam set up its own schools, stores, and restaurants; men learned history and religion, while women were taught nutrition and child rearing. Strict discipline and distinctive uniforms helped set members apart. The Muhammad Speaks newspaper, created by Malcolm X, spread the Messenger's teachings.

The Rift
Elijah Muhammad had encouraged Malcolm in his ministry, appointing him the Nation of Islam's national representative. "I want you to be well known," Muhammad said, because "it will make me well known." But "people get jealous of public figures," the Messenger warned, and as Malcolm increasingly became the Nation of Islam's public face, some sought to prevent him from becoming Elijah Muhammad's heir. Tensions between the two men grew; Malcolm chafed at the Nation's cautious response to the shooting of Los Angeles Temple secretary Ronald Stokes in 1962, and became unnerved by repeated reports of the Messenger's adulteries. For his part, Elijah Muhammad reacted angrily to Malcolm's comments on the assassination of President Kennedy  and forbade him to teach or speak to the press for 90 days.

Cassius Clay
In early 1964, during his "silencing," Malcolm and his family spent a week at Cassius Clay's compound in Miami. The boxer, who was preparing to fight heavily favored Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world, had been visiting Muslim temples for a couple of years and sought Malcolm's spiritual guidance. Malcolm offered to convince Clay to join the Nation of Islam in exchange for Malcolm's reinstatement, but the Nation refused. Then, after Clay won the fight, Elijah Muhammad officially enrolled him into the Nation of Islam and re-named him Muhammad Ali at the Nation of Islam's annual convention to which Malcolm was not invited. Soon Malcolm broke with the organization that had made him a Muslim. He formed his own group, while the Messenger's loyalists, including Malcolm's brother Philbert, denounced him. Less than a year later he was dead, gunned down by members of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad would always disclaim any responsibility for the murder.

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