70 year Commemorative of The Nation of Islam in North America
(FinalCall.com) – When the truth is eventually widely known about the impact of the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad on 20th century American life, history will reflect a pervasive, and monumental impact on the lives of, as well as the way all people in this society define themselves–their identity, their culture, economics, and politics.
While Mr. Muhammad always expressed his “very high opinion” and “admiration” of Noble Drew Ali, who began in 1913 teaching Black descendants of slaves in America of their identity and birthright as Muslims; and of the Hon. Marcus Garvey, who, in the 1920s reasoned that “Negro independence–economic, military, and political,” was the only method by which Black people could “uplift” themselves to earn respect; by the early 1960s Mr. Muhammad and the Nation of Islam actually became new role models.
“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad was prophetic in his anticipation of the kind of world the new millennium would bring,” Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, author of “The Black Muslims in America” said in an exclusive interview.
“As a matter of fact, he was 50 years ahead of his time. Whatever the merit of the criticisms that have been raised against his understanding and his interpretation of Islam, his contributions to the recovery of a significant element in the religious heritage of African Americans and his successful laying of the groundwork for the reestablishment of that experience speaks convincingly for itself,” he explained.
Islam, as one of the great religions of the world, added Dr. Lincoln–Chair of President Bill Clinton’s One America Initiative (the year-long, so-called “race initiative”) and professor emeritus of religion and culture at Duke University–will play an appropriate role in spiritual life all over the globe in this new century.
“We in America can thank Mr. Muhammad for the major role he played in helping us to understand and prepare for what lies ahead in the multi-culture, where religion is so basic to human understanding and cooperation,” he said.
The narrow view of the impact of Mr. Muhammad’s work sees the 1975 multi-million dollar quilt that was the infrastructure of the Nation of Islam itself–Temples of Islam in more than 150 cities in North America, the United Kingdom, Jamaica, Ghana, Bermuda and Belize; Universities of Islam in 46 of those cities; the Muhammad Speaks newspaper press and printing plant which published the largest Black-owned weekly in U.S. history with a weekly circulation that reached 950,000 copies; Good Foods, Inc., processing eggs, meat, and produce, some of which were grown on Nation of Islam-owned farmland and distributed nationally by a Nation of Islam-owned truck fleet; the import and distribution of hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh fish every month; Guaranty Bank and Trust Co.; and vast real-estate holdings as well as retail food and clothing outlets in major cities from coast-to-coast.
But that is only the superficial view, the narrow view.
In addition to the Nation of Islam and dozens of various splinter movements, there were many, many parallel movements “running alongside,” which were made up of those who chose to remain outside the ranks of the Nation itself. What those activists were able to learn from the message and the example of Mr. Muhammad gave them insight into the type of self-development and self-determination that the Black community needed.
More broadly, the founding of the Nation of Islam introduced a new model, “the paradigm of how we’re going to get out of this mess over here in this country,” Dr. Anderson Thompson, professor of History and Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago, said in an interview.
“(The Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s) contribution is immeasurable,” said Dr. Thompson, who has studied a variety of nationalistic movements in America and elsewhere. “I don’t know that we can actually ever capture the true essence of this man, and all the movements that may have sprung from him and around him.”
Mr. Muhammad’s work affected the Civil Rights movement greatly, according to Dr. Thompson and other prominent scholars. “It caused people in the movement to have to take a double look at what they were doing. And he was always the conscience of what was best for the masses of our people while the Civil Rights movement was taking place,” Dr. Thompson continued.
The widespread attention paid to the Nation beginning in the late 1950s presented American and world public opinion with a challenge to the conventional way in which the Black identity–religion, culture, economics, and even diet–were perceived.
Mr. Muhammad’s teaching “challenged for the first time Christianity, and problematized it, and laid the basis for what we now call ‘Black Liberation Theology,’ ” said Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. “Before (Mr. Muhammad), there was no question about Christianity and Christianity’s perception of God and Christianity’s perception of the devil.”
The Black “Freedom Movement,” or “Liberation Movement,” which grew out of the Civil Rights struggle between 1954 and 1965 owes its “clear understanding and uncompromising criticism of the oppressor,” to the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, according to Dr. Karenga, who also is chairman and founder of the “Us” organization and the originator of Kwanzaa, the universally recognized, African-centered, winter holiday observance.
Following the “Black Power phase” of the movement from 1965-1970, “the NOI and Black nationalism had their most definitive effect, with their stress on power, unity, self-determination, self-defense, self-respect, institution-building and confrontation with the established order,” he said.
Out of this phase grew Kwanzaa, Black studies departments at colleges and universities all over the country, Black independent primary and secondary schools, several Black Power Conferences, the Black Arts Movement, draft resistance and resistance to imperialist wars, and the resurgence of Pan-Africanism.
But the benefit of this brand of the movement did not stop in the Black community. The victories won in battles waged by Blacks coming out of the 1960s expanded the realm of freedom for all “marginalized and oppressed people,” informing and inspiring the struggles of Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, women, older Americans, the disabled, and others on a national and international level, according to Dr. Karenga.
Black draft resistance and resistance to “imperialist wars” modeled after Mr. Muhammad’s incarceration beginning on May 8, 1942 for Selective Service violations during World War II (along with many of his followers, including his brother Willie and his oldest son Emmanuel), and other activism frequently occurred during and after periods of war, according to Dr. Leonard Jeffries, former Chairman of the Department of Black Studies at City College of the City University of New York (CUNY).
“Looking at it historically, I have this concept that after each major war, the circumstances are such that oppressed people can make a move to restructure their lives, and if they have the right dynamic going, activity and progress toward that can take place,” Dr. Jeffries, who is a professor of political science said in an interview.
After the U.S. Revolutionary War, the first Black institutions–churches, schools, and Masonic orders–were formed. After the Civil War, Blacks broadened their political, economic, and social institutions.
Marcus Garvey’s message really took root in the U.S. in the 1920s after World War I, Dr. Jeffries said, and again after World War II and the Korean conflict Black expectations were high, and there was another opportunity for a move to take place, and it did.
“It was a very important period. That’s when the work that had been conceived of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in the 1920s and 1930s began to fulfill itself, in the 1950s and the 1960s.”
Many radical, activist organizations, and the stronger, more revolutionary organizations, “reflected the model of the Nation: self-determination, controlling land, controlling family, controlling communities, and standing up against oppression,” Dr. Jeffries continued.
As Americans–even modern conservatives who historically opposed everything the Civil Rights movement sought to achieve–embraced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the rhetoric of his historic “I Have A Dream” speech, only a few analysts will point out that radical movements, led by the Nation of Islam, literally had to “jump start” the Civil Rights movement again, when it stalled after Dr. King’s assassination.
“It was really the awareness that the Civil Rights movement hadn’t accomplished everything it set out to do” that added even more importance to Mr. Muhammad’s presence in the 1970s, according to Dr. Martha F. Lee, associate professor of politics at the University of Windsor in Canada. “And his message, in a sense, brought to other Americans’ attention, that the Civil Rights movement hadn’t fully redressed the legacy of slavery within the American state.”
As a result, since the 1970s, “elements of Black nationalism have penetrated the entire Black community,” writes Dr. Alphonso Pinkney, professor of Sociology at Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY). “Few families or individuals have escaped its influence. Furthermore, expressions of Black nationalism cut across age, educational, and regional lines,” he states in “Red, Black, and Green: Black Nationalism in the United States.”
The larger society has memorialized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, despite the fact that he moved far beyond that accommodationist posture, with his campaign from the Birmingham Jail in 1965, and his opposition to the Viet Nam war in 1967.
“The larger society wants (Dr. King) trying to say we should get along, and little white kids and Black kids will be marching off in the sunset,” said Dr. Jeffries. “It’s a pattern. You de-emphasize those who call for a nationalist formula, and you emphasize those who call for an integration into white values and white cultural dynamics.”
The Hon. Elijah Muhammad–and Min. Louis Farrakhan, who has restored the teaching and the work of Mr. Muhammad–is either ignored entirely, or persecuted by white cultural and political institutions more than all other Black leaders because he is an icon of independence and “nationalism” for Blacks and because he teaches the Islamic faith that is constantly reviled by white American leaders as the main threat to world order and American interests and values in the 21st century. And then on top of all that, his theology departs even from “orthodox” Islamic principles with regard to the identity of Master W. Fard Muhammad, Mr. Muhammad’s teacher and the Founder of the Nation of Islam in North America.
“Identity.” If there is one word that scholars universally repeat when recounting Mr. Muhammad’s impact on the Black community, it is “identity.”
The Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s “teachings concerning the importance of self-reliance are particularly important because self reliance and understanding one’s history are critical to understanding one’s identity,” said Dr. Lee, who is the author of “The Nation of Islam: A Millenarian Movement.”
“Once you know who you are, and what your past is, then you have a better chance of attaining and maintaining political power,” she continued.
Dr. Thompson expressed similar views. “So, the question of identity started taking shape during the 1960s and I think the Nation can take a lot of credit for pushing the idea of ‘who-we-are-ness,’ whereas the other (Black) groups were more concerned about being Americans. In fact, they’re still talking about being Americans, their final goal is to become an American citizen, whereas for us that would be a means, not an end.”
True self-knowledge and identity are fundamental to Mr. Muhammad’s intent, and to understanding the affect of his work. From the very first day when Master W. Fard Muhammad began teaching Islam in Detroit in July 1930, he gave his adherents new names–more than 25,000 names during the three-and-a-half years he personally led the Nation–corresponding to their acceptance of their new identity. Mr. Muhammad steadfastly continued to stress the importance of Black people being known by their own names, and not by the names of the whites who owned them during slavery.
“Some of the so-called Negroes are ignorant to the important advantage of having their own nation’s names,” Mr. Muhammad wrote in 1957 in the First Edition of his booklet “The Supreme Wisdom.”
“They think there is nothing to a name. I say they are right, but only in regard to the names they are NOW using, and not in regard to their own nation’s names, which they don’t have. The Bible says, ‘A good name is better than gold.’ To continue to bear the slave masters’ names makes them the property of their slave masters and they can never hope to receive equal recognition in the civilized world,” Mr. Muhammad pointed out.
After more than 35 years of emphasizing self-knowledge, self-respect, love, and unity to Blacks in America, the lesson concerning names began to take hold in a measurable way in the late 1960s. The increasing use of “free names” by Blacks in America is due “both to the teachings of the NOI, and secondly to historical emphasis on self-definition and self naming by the nationalist movement as a whole,” said Dr. Karenga. “Brother (Oscar) Micheaux, Carlos Moore, Noble Drew Ali, and others all made this point.”
In the early 1960s when Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali announced that he had accepted Islam, and that he would no longer be known as Cassius Clay, the sports world and the society at-large rejected his conversion. He was mocked by sportscasters and even opponents who refused for years to recognize his new name.
Today, there is hardly a professional or major college football or basketball team in America that does not have at least one player with a Muslim name. The political establishment, journalism, broadcasting, and the entertainment industries have also come to grips with Blacks using Muslim names, “free names,” African names, in their ranks.
Another important component of self-awareness and identity is commonly thought of as “Black pride” and a Black value-system. “I think the Nation stood in the 1960s as a very important model of how you move internally, controlling your mind and your family and community development; and externally of how you deal with the larger system of oppression,” said Dr. Jeffries. “The larger society does not like (Black) nationalism. Those of us who are in the larger society, struggling, trying to achieve parity with it, want to accept as a model, mastering ‘European-ness,’ ‘white-ness.’ There’s a comfort zone if you master ‘white-ness.’
“The general society pushes us to try to have this standard, to look white, to act white, to walk white, to think white, and now it seems to get a ‘white one’ is the standard,” he continued. “That can mean a white diploma, or a white job, or a white partner.
“So Garvey is not considered. Any influence of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has not been considered influential by this larger society. And certainly the Black revolutionary figures, Nat Turner and others, are not considered. They want us to have the model of quiescence and fitting within the design of the society,” said Dr. Jeffries.
But that same standard does not necessarily apply to whites, according to Dr. Thompson. “I think we need to break down what the United States really represents. It’s not the easiest thing to do because most people just simply are in denial. But the United States is a confederation of nations,” he said, explaining that most other nationalities represented in American society are proud of their roots.
“They claim to be Americans, but you have in this country, a European confederation,” he said, and now, with recent migration, there’s even “an Asian confederation.”
There are the British, the German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Greek, and even Korean, Chinese, and Russian “nations” in America, Dr. Thompson insists. And they are not ashamed of who they are. “They’re positive when they unfurl their flags, and march, and have Polish pride, and Irish this, and Columbus that. They get a pat on the back for expressing their nationality, their nationalism. That’s just part of the American pie.
“There’s only one nation here that does not have a land base outside of America that they can have embassies, and dollar bills, and insignias, and flags, and consulates, and embassies and things, and that would be the Black nation,” he said.
Determined to do something about that inadequacy, Mr. Muhammad has steadfastly called for “a separate state or territory … either on this continent or elsewhere” exclusively for the rehabilitation of the people whose parents or grandparents are descendants from slaves.
“One of the things that the Hon. Elijah Muhammad called for, and I remember very strongly, was land,” said Dr. Jeffries. “We need our own land, and that the society owes us, and that there should be a reparations demand. We should have land, possibly in the ‘Black Belt.’ But the question that you can’t make your mark in the society unless you have your own becomes a serious contribution that was made” by Mr. Muhammad, Dr. Jeffries insisted.
Mr. Muhammad of course, was not the first Black leader in this country to emphasize a land-based solution and reparations payments from the American government to “supply our needs in this separate territory for the next 20 to 25 years–until we are able to produce and supply our own needs,” as stated in his program “What the Muslims Want.”
The idea of a land base is a continuum. Beginning with Paul Cuffe in 1815, other notable 19th century figures who advocated strongly for land as the basis of liberation for the descendants of slaves–primarily envisioned as somewhere on the African continent–were Edward Wilmot Blyden, Henry Highland Garnet, Dr. Martin Delaney, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (who put forth the first plan for financial indemnity for services rendered during slavery: $40 billion, an estimated “$100 a year for 2 million of us for 200 years”), Captain Harry Dean, and Duse Muhammad Ali.
There were other Black leaders who sought separate, autonomous colonies or communities for Blacks in North America. “One of the best known promoters of the idea of separate colonies within the United States was Benjamin ‘Pap’ Singleton, a native of Tennessee, who organized a successful movement of settlers to the state of Kansas in 1879,” editors W. Augustus Low and Virgil A. Clift write in the “Encyclopedia of Black America.”
No plan for a 19th century all-Black state came closer to reality, however, than that of Edwin P. McCabe. Originally a Pullman car porter, Mr. McCabe joined the Kansas exodus in 1879, where he was elected State Auditor in 1884. By sending boosters of his idea of an all-Black Oklahoma throughout the South, he was so successful that when that territory opened in 1889, between 7,000 and 10,000 Blacks crossed the border to get a foothold in the new land, according to Mabel M. Smythe, editor of “The Black American Reference Book.”
The dream of a Black and free Oklahoma lasted for only a few years, however. Bishop Turner visited Oklahoma and successfully persuaded some of the territory’s Blacks to join his American Colonization Society, and to follow him to Africa.
In addition, of course, there was the widely documented advocacy of the Hon. Marcus Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) actually owned ships–the Black Star Line–to transport Blacks back to Africa, in the early 20th century.
In 1940, even Dr. W.E.B. DuBois along with Oscar Brown Sr., advocated a separate Black territory, under the banner of the “49 th State” movement.
Just as the Nation of Islam spoke throughout the last half of the 20th century of a land base and for reparations to support it once it had the land: “We had a number of (previous) petitioners who wanted the same kind response from the American government and also the private sector. But the Nation operationalized these things,” said Dr. Thompson. “Whereas a number of other groups may have petitioned in a formal manner, the Nation operationalized all the things that you see happening today.
“But it’s now being done by another class of people. People who are more acceptable to the system, and also who want to be a part of the system. That’s another reason why (some previously “militant” causes are) more popular now,” he said. “Many of the things (which the NOI fought for) of yesterday were considered revolutionary, whereas today they are just part of the fabric of Black American life.”
Ironically, many of those pioneers who advocated for land-based or “nationalist” solutions to the problems facing Blacks in America have Islamic roots or ties to the faith.
Mr. Cuffee, a noted shipbuilder and captain who circumnavigated Africa 18 times, may have been descended from Muslim families in Ghana. He petitioned the New Jersey legislature, asking that it petition the U.S. Congress to free every slave and allow each Black person desiring to leave America to be able to do so.
While Mr. Blyden remained a Christian, he published 15 articles for publications such as the Methodist Quarterly Review under the title: “Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race.” After two expeditions to the interior of Sierra Leone, Mr. Blyden frequently praised Muslims for their ban on alcoholic drinks, their devotion to knowledge, and for the stimulus they gave to artisan crafts and to trade, according to writer Adib Rashad.
Mr. Blyden learned Arabic and taught the language to his students, and he believed that in order for Pan-African unity to take place, Liberia and Sierra Leone–the two African countries with direct ties to freed slaves from America–“should have regular intercourse with the Mohammedan states of the interior with the aim eventually of incorporating them into the Negro Republic.”
Capt. Harry Dean, born in 1864, was a descendant of Mr. Cuffe. His father’s family came from Morocco to Philadelphia where they were merchants. He founded the first Black nautical training school in America, and he maintained his Islamic faith, even distributing Islamic literature in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle.
For the Nation of Islam itself, the challenge now means a greater leadership role in the spiritual, social, and political aspects among the Black “mainstream”, according to Aminah Beverly McCloud, author of “African American Islam.”
“Only if we take the reigns,” Ms. McCloud said in an interview, “because there is an impetus in this country for the immigrant community to define what is Islam, and they’re very adamant.” The Nation of Islam must define what Islam is within the American culture, she said.
From the Nation, Muslims want to remind people in the American society of the great contributions that have been made by members from within its ranks, as well as by those who carried the same torch while remaining outside. There is hardly a list of the 10 most influential Black leaders of the 20th century that does not include both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, although their mentor, Mr. Muhammad, is rarely mentioned.
“We should remember the saying: ‘I can never forget the bridge that brought me across,’ ” Min. Abdul Akbar Muhammad, international representative of Min. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, said. Instead, “what the Black community in America has attempted to do is to rob the Honorable Elijah Muhammad of the credit that he justly deserves for producing men, movements, and groups that you looked up to and that you thought were so great.
“It’s good to know the origins of that which you belong to, that which you’re thinking about belonging to, or that which you love and may not belong to, but which you look at as the hope for yourself and your people throughout America.”
The Nation of Islam deserves a place of honor in the minds and hearts of all Black people for its important contributions, he said.
“The Hon. Elijah Muhammad gave us a saying,” he continued. “It goes like this: ‘In all of our studies, history is most attractive, and deserves all of our research, as it develops the springs and the motives that act most powerfully on the destiny of men.’ ”
(Donald Muhammad contributed to this report.)