Though the Nation of Islam’s legacy attracts various critics and supporters, it played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960 s. Targeting the black ghettos of northern American cities, the Nation of Islam reached out to this most detached class of urban society. Alienated from mainstream organizations of the Civil Rights Movement and more affluent members of black society, the Nation created a movement aimed to increase black unity. In cities like Chicago, the Nation used a message combining Islamic teachings and a black nationalistic philosophy as a weapon of protest and a means for the redefinition of the black community.
Through the leadership of such people as W. D. Fard, Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X, the Nation provided a real alternative to the Christian-based, non-violent strategies of the broader efforts for civil rights. With a unique reinterpretation of the Islamic faith and the creation of strict laws for its followers, the Nation’s leadership intended to attack the evils that plagued ghetto life.
Rather than integrating with and reforming the white society responsible for centuries of oppression, the Nation of Islam pushed for the racial and economic segregation of blacks. Despite apparent corruptions within the Nation’s history, the true success of the organization involved the encouragement of the black community, shackled by a history of slavery and oppression, to liberate themselves and to redevelop a sense of black pride. The Nation of Islam intended to solve black urban worker’s problems through a combination of black nationalism and the Islamic religion. In order to appreciate how the Nation uses these ideologies, one must trace the rise of black nationalism and the influence of Islam in this country.
... , intent on not only establishing a strong black nation within America but on placing blame directly on ... the Industrial Workers Movement and the Civil Rights Movement that connects the two. Both of these movements were based on ... the worker instead of the employer. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was ... 1920’s and 1930’s, and the modern Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. ...
The separatist ambitions of the Nation of Islam find their roots in the nationalist movements of Marcus Garvey in the early 1900 s. Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, proclaiming that, “the Negro needs a nation and a country of his own.” This desire for a separate nation lies at the heart of what would become the black nationalist movement. Millions of people worldwide became followers of Garvey, including Elija Pool of Georgia and the family of Earl Little, with their son Malcolm, of Nebraska. With this foundation in the UNIA, Elijah Muhammad, as Pool became known, and Malcolm X, shaped the philosophies of the Nation of Islam.
Further explaining his views, Garvey noted that, “nationhood is the strongest security of any people,” but envisioned this black nation in Africa, requiring a mass exodus of African-Americans to another continent. Although the Nation of Islam applied Garvey’s idea of nationhood to solve the problems of the black laborers of Northern cities, the Nation had no intention of anyone leaving North America. In addition to being influenced by a history of black nationalism in the United States, the Nation of Islam draws inspiration from early American Islamic sects. Clearly, Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America serves as the most direct influence for the Nation. This Islamic movement sought to identify the source of black inequalities in this country. In the words of its founder, the movement clung to “the ideal that salvation for the Negro people lay in the discovery by them of their national origins; …
they must know whence they came, and refuse longer to be called Negroes,” adopting the name “Moors.” Essentially, Noble Drew Ali used Islam as a means to redefine the black American in such a way that it filled a follower with pride, a desire for self-help and a way to understand white oppression. As a young man, Elija Pool attended one of the Moorish Science Temple meetings after his wife implored him to seek help with a drinking problem. Surely, this early exposure to Islam deeply impacted Elijah Muhammad. As the leader of the Nation of Islam, he used the Islamic faith to appeal to his followers and help them develop a sense of self-worth. Ali’s teachings also described the white race as corrupt and destined for destruction, allowing the Moors to gain control. Moorish Science temples, established in various northern cities, became centered in Chicago, where the eventual headquarters of the Nation of Islam resided.
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Finally, Ali’s philosophy includes a rejection of Christianity and the Bible. Although the Nation of Islam also rejected Christianity, its leaders often invoked Biblical tales to help explain the injustices of white supremacy and the alternative that Islam posed. With roots firmly planted in past movements, the Nation of Islam in the Wilderness of North America, as officially known, sprouted in the 1930’s, eventually blossoming in the early 1960 s. In the midst of widespread racism, segregation, and violence against blacks, a mysterious figure known as Mr. Far rod Mohammad or W. D.
Fard emerged. Though his origins remain a mystery, the man who laid the foundation for the Nation of Islam reportedly had light-skin, possibly of Asian descent, and apparently had a past mired in crime. Claiming to hail from Mecca, Fard organized an estimated 8, 000 blacks in Detroit during what were the hardest years of the Great Depression. As intended, Fard’s message appealed to the hopeless black masses by teaching them of their long, rich history before slavery.
Acting as a door to door salesman, Fard used the opportunity to enter people’s homes to present his teachings. He argued that blacks represent a dignified, superior race and that white people constitute a race of devils. Within this context, Fard explained the racially motivated injustices blacks suffered through the years. Moreover, he challenged his listeners to reclaim the glory afforded their race, hastening the destruction of the white oppressors. He denounced the teachings of Christianity, instead advocating Islam, citing its role in African history. Although he frequently made use of the Bible in his lessons, he explained that the Holy Qur ” an of the Islamic faith contained the true teachings of God.
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Eventually, Fard began proclaiming himself as Allah in the form of a person. As membership in the fledgling organization swelled, a temple in Detroit opened. As a regular attendee of this temple, Elija Pool emerged as Fard’s successor and ultimately, the most important leader in the Nation of Islam’s history. In many ways, the rise to power of Elija Pool, better known as Elijah Muhammad, mirrors the rise of the Nation of Islam itself. Born in 1897, the grandson of a slave in Georgia, Elija’s name derives from the biblical prophet who served his people before the Apocalypse. Growing up in the racially heated world of the South, Pool bore witness to a vast array of injustices and reportedly witnessed a lynching as a young boy.
Having married and started a family early in his life, Pool eventually moved to Detroit to find better employment opportunities. His views on life in the North soon soured, as he worked non-stop to feed his family, while still contending with white oppression. Pool, seeking answers to African-American grievances, became interested in the teachings of Marcus Garvey. The appeal of black nationalism and empowerment inspired Pool to become a member of the UNIA. With Garvey’s deportation in 1927, the organization and Pool’s life came crashing down. Elija Pool’s first encounter with Islamic teachings came at a meeting in Noble Drew Ali’s temple in Detroit.
He found strength in Ali’s teachings, and using every opportunity to spread Islamic beliefs, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Moorish Science Temple. In 1930, Noble Drew Ali died and a power struggle ensued within the movement. Several members of Ali’s following, including Elija Pool, swore their allegiance to a man named David Ford. Ford, who used the alias W. D. Fard among others, had served under Ali, running his temple in Chicago.
Moving to Detroit, he began a splinter group of the Moorish Science Temple of America. Over the next three years, Pool soaked in the teachings of Fard and eventually took the name Elijah Muhammad, a Muslim name. Fard, who saw himself as Allah, took Muhammad, as the choice of name indicated, as his prophet. In 1933, Fard disappeared and Elijah Muhammad became the leader of the Nation of Islam, a role he filled until his own death in 1975.
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Having lived a life similar to so many of his followers, Elijah Muhammad understood the problems faced by working-class blacks in cities like Chicago, and created an organization designed to attack these injustices. Chicago has served as the Nation of Islam’s headquarters ever since Muhammad created the Temple No. 2 there in 1934. A city considered by many Black Muslims a holy place rivaling the importance of Mecca, Chicago stood as the perfect location for the Nation’s activities because the black population and their experience in that city found Muhammad’s teachings quite appealing. Having received hundreds of thousands of black migrants from the South in the first half of the twentieth century, the city struggled to fully include its black population. The large numbers of migrant workers that left the deep South for Chicago brought drastic changes for the city.
The initial great wave of blacks to Chicago occurred during the first World War. Black migrants found opportunities in the factories of northern cities as thousands of their white countrymen headed overseas for the battlefields of Europe. In these war years some 65, 355 blacks came to Chicago, marking an increase of 148% in that city’s black population. Clearly, the opportunity to earn higher wages became the primary impetus driving the migration. Newspapers like the Chicago Defender further inspired the move North, painting the city as a promised land, with higher wages, superior living conditions, and an escape from the Jim Crow South. Chicago, which served as the terminus for the Illinois Central Railroad, easily became the most accessible northern city for the migrants, especially those hailing from Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.
The city offered a wide selection of jobs, whether serving in the stockyards, steel mills, or foundries, in such companies as Swift, Armour, Pullman, and Industrial Harvester. The reception of the multitudes of black migrants varied. Hull House, founded by Jane Adams, encouraged white Chicagoans to “give them (blacks) a chance to make Chicago a better home than they could find in the South.” Despite the efforts of Hull House to infuse recent migrants into Chicago life, the experience for most migrants in the Windy City betrayed the notion of a promised land of the North. As most white residents of Chicago grew increasingly alarmed about the influx of Southern blacks, these migrants found difficulties fitting in with the established blacks already in the city.
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For most of the migrants, the black churches of the South had served as a powerful force for community building. However, the established black churches of Chicago like Quinn Chapel, a Methodist church, and the Olivet Baptist Church, catered more to the middle-class blacks. Newly arrived Southerners, many of which suffered impoverished conditions, found these churches too swank and uninviting for what native black Chicagoans called the “common herd.” These churches stressed formality, with elaborate decorations and dignified services. Over 50% of these poor, ignorant, recent migrants abandoned their Church going ways. Women disproportionately represented the migrants who remained affiliated with the Church. This development helps explain the appeal of young men to the male-dominated beliefs of the Nation of Islam.
Alienated by the middle-class churches, many poor blacks sought out alternative sects and forms of worship. For example, small congregations often converted stores or homes into places of worship. To a degree, these storefront churches allowed the lower-class blacks to recreate the sense of community and uninhibited emotional outpouring they remembered from their days in the South. For the many thousands who remained unattached with black society, the Nation of Islam attempted to fill this absence of internal cohesion. Compounding the weak social ties in black Chicago, migrants faced a slew of other injustices as more and more people arrived from the South. Despite the increased opportunity for employment, the jobs relegated for blacks required little or no skills and often suffered from a susceptibility to layoffs.
With few opportunities to break free from their subservient status, blacks gave up a life of de facto slavery in the South only to become enslaved by the capitalist system of the North. The realization by black Chicagoans that racial injustices, as seen in the South, existed as a country-wide problem, added to the African-American’s sense of inferiority. The white power structure of Chicago tended to ignore the emerging black ghettos of the south side, demonstrating that the hope of improved conditions might be out of reach. The Black Metropolis, a newspaper out of New York City, noted the growing problems in Chicago in the face of even more arrivals from the South. “The saturation point was reached, and although the migrants had jobs, there were literally no houses to accommodate them… the Black Belt had to expand, and this situation aroused exaggerated fears throughout the city.” These fears bubbled over in the Chicago Riot of 1919.
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This so-called “Red Summer” saw increased violence by white Chicagoans on their black neighbors. In the end, 38 people were killed, with over 500 injuries. By 1930, 233, 903 blacks lived in Chicago, ranking the city second in the United States in African-American population. The Great Depression brought economic hardship on all the lower-class laborers of Chicago, but the double insult of racism compounded the plight of blacks. By 1935, 36% of black men in Chicago found themselves unemployed or holding only temporary jobs, compared to 21% of white men. In addition to the economic injustices, deplorable housing conditions and the creation of black ghettos plagued many of the recent migrants.
Chicago’s south side ghetto clearly represented the most pronounced African-American neighborhood in the country. An astounding 65. 6% of blacks in Chicago lived in a part of the city where blacks numbered over 90%. The clearly defined “Black Belt” of Chicago’s south side stretched from 22 nd Street to 29 th, including Wentworth Avenue to the lake, and from 39 th Street to 55 th, including Clark to Michigan. With such distinct boundaries the ghetto essentially represented an isolated black community economically and politically dependent on the white dominated city that surrounded it.
This feeling of separation helped the Nation of Islam establish its premise that black nationalism should exist. The difficulties of ghetto life got worse with the deteriorating, inadequate and overcrowded housing and insufficient welfare institutions. High levels of crime, poverty, alcoholism and drugs, and otherwise general ugliness defined these slums. These inferior conditions tended to instill within the inhabitants of the ghetto the feeling that these conditions reflect the appropriate status of African-Americans, strengthening the black’s sense of worthlessness. Kenneth Clark, author of Dark Ghetto, notes that, “the dark ghetto is institutionalized pathology; it is chronic, self-perpetuating pathology.” The Nation of Islam attacked this sense of worthlessness by blaming ghetto conditions on white power and hostility. The gradual political and economic breakthroughs for blacks coupled with the realization that racism has no historical or biological justification led many blacks to turn to the Nation of Islam.
By the 1950 s, black Chicagoans enjoyed limited improvements. Blacks in Chicago had more political power than any other city in the country. However, with these increased powers came the realization that these advances were largely formal and ceremonial. Black leaders often allied themselves with the least progressive and most corrupt elements of Chicago politics, and the results often failed to meet the basic needs of the people. Though an estimated 472, 000 of Chicago’s black citizens lost their jobs during the 1930 s, job opportunities increased during World War II. Black laborers enjoyed higher salaries by the 1950 s, but only 55% of what the average white citizen of Chicago made.
The political, social and economic improvements of the 1950 s did not satisfy the desire for real change in Chicago’s Black Belt. However, these improvements empowered a number of blacks who realized that the conditions of the ghetto could not be justified by race, and thus, became susceptible to human control and change. The Nation of Islam provided a structure within which changes in society could occur. During the early 1960 s, the power of the Nation of Islam had reached its zenith, in large part because of the conditions experienced by blacks in the preceding few decades not only in Chicago, but throughout the urban centers of the North. Incomes had improved for blacks in Chicago, but not drastically. In 1947, 65% of blacks earned less than $3000 a year and the unemployment rate hovered around 4.
5%. By 1960, although only 44% earned less than $3000 annually, the unemployment rate rose to about 9. 5%. The marginal improvements masked continued economic inequities as the last great waves of migrants from the South came to Chicago. The black population of Chicago in the early 1960 s sought alternatives to their current status, and the Nation of Islam’s message provided a compelling option. James C.
Davies in Violence in America, remarks on this radicalization of part of the population. “Revolution (or rebellion) is most likely to take place when a prolonged period of rising expectations and rising gratification is followed by a short period of… reversal during which the gap between expectations and gratifications quickly widens and becomes intolerable.” This revolutionary spirit found identification in the black nationalist message of the Nation of Islam. The fundamental beliefs and goals of the Nation of Islam addressed problems encountered by blacks in Northern urban centers like Chicago.
E. U. Essen-Udo m, who studied the activities of the Nation of Islam in the early 1960 s, described the general mission of the Nation as the attempt to “combat forces that weakened Negro society,” intending to “provide the Negro with a spiritual and moral context within which… pride and confidence may be restored.” The Nation acts as a channel through which the energies of the black ghetto, their desires and hopes, may be funneled. The Nation becomes a last resort for those whom society has put last. An integral belief of the Nation asserts that the plight of blacks in America derives from the fact that white people are devils.
Secondly, the Nation attempts to revive the black’s sense of pride and self-esteem by advocating black superiority. This superiority finds support through a revision of history that sees the black race as the master race, and the white race as a troublesome off-shoot. A third belief of the Nation suggests that the key to a glorious future hinges on the black race rising to its rightful place, corresponding with the destruction of the white race. Finally, the Nation of Islam, realizing the need for immediate results, offered economic programs to encourage black businesses, cutting their dependency on the white power structure surrounding them. The desire to create a unified black community lies at the heart of the Nation’s beliefs.
During the early 1960 s, while the Nation enjoyed its peak membership, the last of the great migrations from the South took place. A high number of the blacks in Chicago’s ghetto were not born in the city, creating a detachment from the greater black community. Where the black church failed to create social cohesion for so many, the Nation of Islam rallied thousands of poor ignorant blacks of the ghetto. This so-called “United Front of Black Men,” as Elijah Muhammad referred to it, targeted all blacks in America. Muhammad knew that the blacks in the lowest class were the most likely to accept this unity, even though he intended to have even the most affluent of blacks in his movement. The Nation hoped that a united front of blacks would empower the black community, increasing financial resources, allowing for quicker mobilization of efforts and shielding blacks from white supremacy and the misery of their ghetto home.
If organized, the Nation could respond to examples of injustice like police brutality, racially motivated violence, inadequate schooling, and the lack of protection under the law. Although the Nation failed to unite all blacks, Elijah Muhammad, drawing on his own experiences in the ghetto, understood that without organization the basic needs of the downtrodden black community would continue. Borrowing from his time in the Garvey movement, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam promoted the policies of racial segregation. “Today’s world,” remarked Muhammad, “is floating in corruption; its complete disintegration is both imminent and inescapable.
Any man who integrates with the world must share its disintegration and destruction.” Instead of working within the system hoping to bring about change, the Nation rejected the system altogether. The laws and politicians elected to enforce them had so often betrayed the urban blacks that the system became seen as inherently evil, and incapable of reform. This leaves racial segregation as the only real option for the black community. To help establish this separation, members of the Nation of Islam discouraged voting, paying taxes or engaging in an interracial marriage.
Elijah Muhammad never demanded a specific chunk of land, but he wanted “Some Good Earth” in order to build “a separate nation for ourselves, right here in America.” Related to the racial segregation, the Nation sought to establish complete economic autonomy for the African-American community as well. The ghetto suffered the injustices of the city that surrounded it, but ultimately, it depended on that city for jobs and welfare. Elijah Muhammad argued that “our men, women and children should be taught to believe in the capacity of our group to succeed in business in spite of the trials and failures of some of them.” Economic disparity embodied the source of many of the diseases that plagued the black ghetto, and became a major concern for the Nation. Considering that at the time of their introduction to the Nation most members were on welfare, unemployed, in prison, in debt or otherwise downtrodden, room for great economic growth existed. Black workers were encouraged to work hard, to avoid excesses and to live an overall frugal existence. Leadership believed that “the Nation should be able to feed its members.” The Nation also helped organize large-scale economic projects.
C. Eric Lincoln, who studied the Nation of Islam in the 1960 s, points out that in Chicago the Muslims “operate department stores, groceries, bakeries, restaurants, and various kinds of service establishments.” The revenues from these black businesses were often invested in social programs and community betterment. For example, the Nation built a large complex in Chicago housing various stores, a doctor’s office and a dentist for the usage of members. By encouraging fiscal responsibility among members of the black community and hoping to alienate itself from dependency on white jobs and goods, the Nation of Islam sought to create a vibrant, yet separate black economy in places like Chicago. In the end, the greatest achievement of the Nation could arguably entail its ability to promote black businesses. In all of its dealings, the Muslims understood the real needs of the poor, black inner-cities.
This ability to reach an overwhelmingly dejected population allowed the Nation of Islam to reach a level of credible influence in the 1960 s. The Nation provided answers to the problems of blacks that other Civil Rights Movement organizations failed to fully understand. Factors within Chicago, as well as on the national scene, made it easier for the Nation of Islam to specifically target certain members of society. As many of Chicago’s blacks found their lives mired in the socioeconomic doldrums, the members of the Nation found their greatest success with these members of society most in need of an alternative message, an altered self-image, and a new hope for their future.
Without question, economic depravity represented the characteristic most common among people targeted for membership by the Nation. In fact, the national headquarters located on Wentworth Avenue, reside within the black ghetto. As members of the lower class joined, the Nation’s membership swelled with the unemployed, addicts, pimps, prostitutes, pool sharks, gamblers and other victims of the vice so often associated with ghetto life. Ex-convicts or actual prisoners made up another significant percentage of the Nation’s constituency. Whereas several of the Civil Rights Movements more renowned organizations largely ignored the voices of the criminal, the Nation sought them out, promising rehabilitation. In the words of Malcolm X, a most influential member of the Nation and an ex-con himself, the black prisoner “symbolized white society’s crime of keeping black men oppressed and deprived and ignorant, and unable to get decent jobs, turning them into criminals.” The Nation taught them that their life of crime was not their fault, but the fault of the oppressive society within which they lived.
The poor migrants from the South became another sector of the black ghetto targeted by the Nation for potential membership. Typically, the migrants came to Chicago with about an elementary school education, a lack of the skills needed to attain decent paying jobs, and entered the established African-American community as a stranger. Poor and alienated from both white and much of the black communities, thousands of migrants turned to the Nation of Islam for support. Young men made up a disproportionate number of the Nation’s members. Statistics show that in 1960, 80% of the members in the Nation ranged in age from 17 to 35. This clearly represented the most detached members of Chicago’s black community.
Young men found the Nation’s male dominated leadership and message a welcomed difference from the black Churches of Chicago, where women made up a majority of the congregation. In fact, ex-Christians composed the majority of the Nation’s members. For many, the sense of community they shared with their churches in the South did not continue once they moved north. The moderate churches like Olivet and Quinn tended to discuss their concern for black issues, whereas the Nation appealed to the activist tendencies of young men and people without hope.
A final observation of the Nation’s growing membership shows that most members were American citizens. The Nation’s leadership felt that a nation of blacks should not contend with the potential corruptive forces of whites or foreigners, regardless of their intentions. In a sense, the Nation desired a united black movement, of blacks, for blacks and by blacks. Clearly, the bulk of the Nation’s recruiting efforts targeted the lowest class African-American. The recruitment techniques used by the Nation of Islam directly led to their ability to reach the poorest members of the black community. Members of the Nation considered the middle-class black man the most unreachable member of the African-American society.
Supposedly, the limited success they enjoyed within the white man’s world made them unlikely to support a movement designed to create widespread change. Concentrating on the poor black masses, ministers of the Nation visited jails, penitentiaries, pool halls and bars, and anywhere else a black man in need of help might be found. These same ministers attended black churches, meeting with people at the end of the service, asking them to visit the temple for information on civil rights violations. The passing out of pamphlets and bean pies on street corners and the sale of Final Call, a newspaper published by the Nation, allowed minister to reach potential members. By far the most effective way to reach new recruits, however, included something called “fishing.” This involved members of the Nation entering the ghetto in groups of two or three seeking out people willing to attend a temple meeting and listen to Islamic teachings. These recruiters, who appeared clean-cut in a suit and tie, with their polite mannerisms, projected a powerful image of an African-American.
Additionally, their willingness to enter into the homes and lives of poor urban blacks allowed the Nation to reach an audience largely ignored by black activist groups of the day. “Fishing” as a means of recruitment offered potential members personal contact with people from their own community who had obviously improved their station in life. By the early 1960 s, the Nation of Islam enjoyed its highest membership, and although official numbers remain a secret of the Nation, an estimated 100, 000 people belonged nationwide. The beliefs of the Nation of Islam coupled with their recruitment efforts led to its widespread popularity.
An important factor that helped the recruitment of new members into the Nation of Islam involved the organization’s portrayal of the white race. Specifically, the Nation considered whites an inferior people, designed to test the strength of the black race. The Nation used this notion of the white race to explain slavery and the centuries of oppression suffered by blacks. This worldview suggests that the blame for the African-American problems resides in the oppressive system designed and maintained by whites, rather than an inherent weakness within the black race.
According to the Nation’s teachings, blacks with his religion of Islam, represent the first and greatest race of humans on earth. The Nation explains that a black god called Yakut created the white race 6, 600 years ago. These white people were designed to rule over the black race until their eventual destruction. This view of history clearly has no factual basis, but the largely uneducated blacks of the Nation, with little knowledge of history, bought into this version of the past.
Within this historical context, one attained a better understanding of white supremacy and could take comfort in the fact that white dominance would eventually cease. Empowered with the teachings of their Prophet, members of the Nation no longer accommodated or feared the white devils among them. At a temple meeting, Elijah Muhammad argued that only the white race was “capable of herding millions of followers into gas chambers, set off atomic bombs, and run special trains to a lynching at which women and children are served cokes and ice cream.” The white race then, became the target of black frustrations, and in a sense, provided a focal point for the galvanization of the ghetto. In large part, an explanation for the success of the Nation of Islam in places like Chicago becomes apparent when one realizes that more mainstream organizations and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement failed to fully address the needs of the repressed urban blacks.
The focuses of civil rights groups generally centered on the plight of Southern blacks, using the black churches as a means of organization. The black church, although still important, lacked the ability to create social connectedness for all working class blacks in northern ghettos. The Nation of Islam, establishing itself as a direct challenge to Christianity, united many of these disenfranchised people. For members of the Nation, Christianity represented the “white man’s religion,” and the black preacher served as a tool to pacify blacks and keep them under control. This anti-Christian message attracted many young urban black men, seizing the chance to rebel against their parents, and forsaking the Church that seemed slow to respond to the immediate needs of the poor.
Furthermore, members of the Nation often despised how black churches squabbled amongst themselves over insignificant things, rather than uniting in an attempt to gain valuable rights for the people. The slow progress of the Civil Rights Movement was blamed on its desire to include non-blacks and to work within the white dominated church to bring about change. Members of the Nation of Islam resented the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as well. With their reliance on the “slave religion” and willingness to work with the white oppressors, leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. were thought to have internalized the worldview of whites. In addition, King rarely spent time in the North, choosing to serve blacks of the South.
King’s principles of loving your oppressor came under fire too. Members of the Nation argued it an impossibility to love your oppressor, and that any attempt to do so created a new generation of “contented, docile slaves.” The black leaders with an academic background were not trusted either, noting that they “have been in the white man’s schools longer and have been more thoroughly brainwashed.” The Nation often criticized rival Civil Rights groups. For example, followers argued that “the NAACP is not a Negro Organization,” citing its bi-racial membership. “When Negroes in those organizations open their mouths to speak words of praise, its always for white people.” The perception that the NAACP was too slow, expensive, and particularly in Chicago, closely allied with the white political power, further angered members of the Nation.
Other civil rights organizations were scorned as well. For example, CORE was resented because its headquarters were located in a rich part of New York City and its leadership was considered phony. Overall though, many blacks of the urban North felt that the Civil Rights Movement offered little relevance to the plight of Northern blacks. There was a lack of a sustained effort for change in Northern cities and the subtle racial segregation in these cities was harder to defend by law. The tactics and strategies of the Civil Rights Movement were largely ineffective in Northern cities and were ultimately rejected by the Nation of Islam. Although the Nation did not necessarily encourage violence, the non-violent tone of the Civil Rights Movement was not a popular strategy in the North.
In the face of blatant injustice, immediate needs were not met, and non-violent protest seemed to only delay reform. Adhering to a non-violent course of protest implies a respect for human rights and life that the Nation saw absent in the action of the “white devils.” Elijah Muhammad did not support the idea of sit-ins, pointing out that it involved “going into stores where we were neither wanted nor invited.” Instead, he asked his followers to “ignore the whites and develop their own businesses as the whites have.” Despite the many concerns the Nation of Islam had with the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, the Nation did serve an important role in the reforms of the early 1960 s. Both the Nation of Islam and the Civil Rights Movement form in response to the racial segregation faced by blacks throughout the country. Both had visions of black empowerment, and although most Civil Rights groups saw this occurring through a full integration of the races, the Nation saw this happening independently and in spite of segregation.
Leaders within the Nation of Islam and other civil rights groups often contained a charismatic power that drew people to their respective organizations. The ability of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X to energize the black ghettos of the North finds its equal in the personalities of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. In the end however, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may owe the Nation of Islam a debt of gratitude. The Nation’s warning of possible violence and hatred of whites scared enough politicians into accepting the more moderate requests of racial integration.
In alienating itself from the mainstream organizations of the Civil Rights Movement, though still seeking the empowerment of the black race, the Nation of Islam helped embittered blacks of the North create a new self-image. In fact, most of the goals and philosophies of the Nation of Islam were purposely created to help the African-American break from their cycle of poverty and sense of worthlessness. In the middle of a Civil Rights Movement that brought gradual changes for the working-class blacks, conversion to Islam became a means of immediate life transformation. Malcolm X, whose conversion took place during a ten year prison stay, remarked that “I found Allah and the religion of Islam and it completely transformed my life.”As long as one didn’t know the truth,” argued Malcolm X, “he lived in darkness.
But once the truth was accepted and recognized, he lived in light.” For the thousands of poor blacks who joined the Nation by the early 1960 s, Islam allowed them to rise above the misery of the ghettos and to look forward to a potentially brighter future. The religion of Islam not only offered a spiritual framework for the Nation, but in many ways it represented a viable alternative to Christianity. Islam has played a major role in the history of Africa, beginning with its introduction by Arabs to the continent before the year 1000. Estimates show that somewhere between 10% and 40% of the African slaves brought to the New World were Muslims. Though most blacks converted to Christianity as part of their slave experience, Islam remained a part of their past.
Essentially, slavery eliminated an important part of the African identity and served as the root cause for many of the modern problems faced by blacks in this country. Conversion to Islam symbolized a clean break from slavery’s legacy, negating one’s identification with the white oppressors and embracing African heritage. The religion taught by Elijah Muhammad and his ministers had only fragile ties to the traditional teachings of Islam outlined in the Qur ” an and Sunnah. The reinterpretation of Islam served to better reach the poor black masses. For example, although the religion of Islam began in Arabia, the Nation taught that the faith had an African derivation. The belief that W.
D. Fard was Allah and Elijah Muhammad his prophet, represents perhaps the Nation’s greatest break from orthodox Islam. According to the Islamic faith, Allah has never taken the form of a person, and certainly did not pose as a door to door salesman in twentieth century Detroit. According to Islam, Muhammad of seventh century Mecca embodies the only true prophet of Islam, not Elijah Pool, originally of Georgia.
These revisions by the Nation became, however, a powerful tool for reaching new members. Surely, the thought of a god among them inspired potential followers. It lends gravity to the plight of blacks that Allah found it necessary to descend to earth, offering guidance and wisdom. The notion of the white race as devils represents another major break from traditional Islam. Islam actually promotes racial harmony, even between religions. In fact, Muslims consider Christians, “People of the Book;” a reference to the centrality of Old Testament stories in both religions.
The Nation of Islam created this white devil image because it provides a mythological foundation upon which white oppression could be studied and understood. In a way, the racist attitudes of the Nation entail a sort of reverse psychology, in which the tables are turned and blacks assume the position of superiority. The philosophies of black nationalism also contradict general Muslim beliefs. Muslims encourage the creation of ties within the Muslim community, but they reject separation based on race or tribal loyalties. In addition, Islam teaches its adherents to submit to the will of God. This seems more in line with the non-violent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement rather than the potentially volatile activist attitudes of the Nation.
Several other differences exist in the two practices of Islam. For most Muslims, the month of Ramadan continues to change from year to year, but for followers of Elijah Muhammad, Ramadan celebration always occurs in December. The shorter days made fasting from sunrise to sunset easier, but most importantly, this so-called “December Fast” replaced Christmas for those who converted from Christianity. Within more traditional sects of Islam, followers prepare for Paradise after death.
The Nation of Islam denies the existence of heaven, instead, encouraging members to make a paradise of this life. This attitude starkly contrasts with the black churches that focus on salvation, teaching their constituency to tolerate this life in order to ensure everlasting paradise. These churches see suffering as a necessary part of proving your piety, but for black Muslims, without heaven waiting, there becomes a more immediate need to overcome oppression. In the end, the use of Islam by Elijah Muhammad has caused concern for more traditional Islamic sects. In response, Muhammad notes that “my brothers in the East (Arabia) were never subjected to conditions of slavery and systematic brainwashing by the slavemasters for as long a period of time as my people here were subjected.” The unique experience and suffering of the African-American required a reinterpretation of traditional Islam in order to feed into the reawakened sense of worth many members of the Nation embraced. Perhaps the adoption of an Original Name signifies the most outwardly symbolic token of the rebirth of the black Muslim.
Members often replaced their surname, which presumably originated from their slavemasters, with an “X.” This “X” also represented their status as an ex-slave and ex-Christian. Moreover, the “X” symbolized the mystery concerning their actual African name. Once members of the Nation proved their faith and loyalty, they earned Islamic names, such as boxer Muhammad Ali, once known as Cassius Clay. The adoption of the Original Name became a powerful reminder for the member that their lives had indeed changed. They no longer saw themselves as a “Negro” bearing the name of their oppressor, but as a proud black Muslim. In an attempt to improve the self-image of working-class blacks, the Nation of Islam promoted a series of rules to govern member behavior.
For example, the Nation gave new members an eighteen page list of foods they can and cannot eat. Food items on the banned list include foods typically associated with the slave diet and considered “fast roads to death.” The list of banned food included cornbread, black eyed peas, collard greens, rabbit, possum, squirrel and catfish. The prohibition of pork, which finds its roots in traditional Islamic beliefs, found new meaning for the Nation. “The hog is dirty, brutal, quarrelsome, greedy, ugly, foul, a scavenger thriving on filth,” argued one Muslim minister. “It is a parasite to all other animals. It will even kill and eat its own young.
In short, the hog has all the characteristics of a white man!” In addition to avoiding restricted foods, members were encouraged to avoid overeating, limiting themselves to one meal a day. Other rules within the Nation, as explained by Malcolm X, were designed to eradicate “vices that destroy the moral fabric of our community.” Members were asked not to keep late hours, use narcotics, drink alcohol, lie, steal or gamble. Furthermore, the Nation promoted a conservative view of the black Muslim family. The father of the family took on the leadership role, both in regards to the spiritual and economic well-being of the family. The wife served to support the husband in his endeavors and to provide a loving home for the children. Although the rights of black Muslim women were certainly limited, men were expected to show great respect for their wives.
The Nation hoped to eliminate instances of adultery and domestic abuse through this respect for women. The strict moral guidelines and rules designed by the Nation sought to attack actual problems that plagued ghetto life. As if to cement this change of life, members of the Nation were forbidden to socialize with Christians. Moreover, members could not misrepresent the teachings of Islam, although apparently this rule did not apply to Elijah Muhammad himself. The ambitious campaign to improve black education represents another of the Nation’s attempts to redefine the African-American’s self-image.
By the 1970 s, the Nation had established 14 schools for Muslim children throughout the country. These were called universities, the second of which was built in Chicago. Elijah Muhammad described the need for a Muslim education, noting that white schools were “designed by the slavemasters or their sons to keep the Negro in place.”The so-called American Negro needs self-education… in order to get the respect and recognition of others.” Enrollment at these schools rarely exceeded a few hundred, but children were taught by predominantly Muslim teachers, with a curriculum that reflected their Islamic faith and the need to improve black pride. Courses included the many sciences, mathematics, reading, history, art and the study of the Arabic language, the official language for Muslims. The schools were very strict, forcing boys to wear a suit and tie and extending the school year to fifty weeks a year.
The schools stand as one of the great success of the Nation of Islam, representing the only nationalist group in American history that created their own private schools. One Chicago domestic worker with a son in the Muslim school remarked that, “They teach the children how to behave up there, and they teach them something about ourselves, too-all about what the black people have done in the world, not just the white. You ought to know something about your own people… especially if you ” re going to live in a free country.” The Nation of Islam, though its view of black power and denouncement of the white race assured a lack of mainstream acceptance, specifically empowered the African-American working-class of northern industrial centers. The Nation’s greatest achievements occur during the early 1960 s, at a time when civil rights gains occurred slower than the expectations of the black community. The radical ideas of the Nation appealed to a community in need of radical change.
The Nation attempted to design a true community, including myths of origins, a sense of self, and industry, all grounded in moral guidelines and spirituality. The success of the Nation in encouraging black businesses, albeit, wrapped up in a desire for racial segregation, remains one of the organization’s most important achievements. It simultaneously reduced the black community’s dependency on white business, and provided a source of pride for the black businessmen and the consumer that preferred to “buy black.” The focus on improved education for working-class blacks represents a further success of the Nation. With a curriculum and faculty reflecting African-American interests and needs, this emphasis on education helped members of the black community challenge the impoverished conditions they found themselves in. The Nation of Islam also successfully brought to the attention of other Civil Rights Movement organizations and the average American the injustices faced by black urban workers of the northern ghetto. The radical beliefs of the Nation coupled with the ability to capture the attention of the American public, especially through Malcolm X, showed people what means black Americans were willing to use to force changes.
To many Americans, the media’s portrayal of the Nation of Islam remains the prototype for African-American Islamic communities. A study of the Nation reveals an organization, despite its various successes, that suffered from its own weaknesses. The importance of Elijah Muhammad in the rise of the organization cannot be overstated, but the Nation’s prophet proved corruptible by his own power. Though he forbade adultery, he reportedly kept several young mistresses. While many of his followers lived in deplorable conditions in Chicago’s ghetto, Muhammad lived in a large mansion in a more opulent part of the city. Although revered as a prophet by black Muslims, he never learned to speak Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur ” an.
His abandonment and possible assassination of his one-time pupil, Malcolm X, represents perhaps the source of his greatest criticism. Though the leadership of the Nation suffered various corruptions, the organization made a clear contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. The Nation of Islam’s legacy remains mixed. Elijah Muhammad used a vastly reinterpreted version of Islam to meet the needs of the urban poor, but for many of his followers, the Nation served as a stepping stone into a more traditional Islamic faith. Today, African-American Muslims constitute the largest ethnicity of Muslims in this country, accounting for between 1.
5 and 4. 5 million of the 6 million Muslims in the United States. In many ways, contemporary Islamic communities live in the considerable shadow of the Nation of Islam. As the crisis of the Civil Rights Movement fades into the past, the rhetoric of the Nation has become less radical. Rather than pushing for black nationalism, the Nation seeks to better align itself with the world community of Muslims.
Perhaps the move towards more traditional Islam reflects the fact that the version of Islam designed by Elijah Muhammad no longer finds an audience. In effect, the African-American working-class no longer seeks out a radical redefinition in the face of blatant segregation alist policies. Despite the apparent evolution of the Nation, it remains dedicated to the poorest members of the African-American community. The Nation leads efforts to provide AIDS treatment to poor, urban blacks. The Nation has also developed a security business called N. O.
I. Security that polices some of the most crime-ridden parts of American cities. The Nation continues to earn media attention, especially in regards to its organization of the Million Man March in 1995, and in the outspoken nature of its current leader, Louis Farrakhan. As a nation, the organization began in the Great Depression and reached its greatest importance during the racially charged early 1960 s. The Nation of Islam, however, remains a vital organization within the African-American Islamic community and within black society as a whole..