When I first wrote my Saviour’s letter in January 1969, addressed to the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s home at 4847 South Woodlawn Avenue in Chicago, I never dreamed that I would meet our Dear Holy Apostle there. Mine was a long path getting there.
In the ranks of the FOI at Muhammad Mosque No. 26, then located on Filmore and Geary Street in San Francisco, under Captain Jerry X and Minister Henry Majied—a follower since the 1950s, and founder of Mosque No. 8 in San Diego—I strove to be a “Crack Fruit,” laboring to get the word of salvation to our people where I lived then, in San Jose, California, and I endeavored to apply my talents and the training I’d received at San Jose State University as a contributor to the Muhammad Speaks newspaper.
During the summer of 1968—after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—media outlets recruited Black interns. I was one of them and worked in the Newsweek magazine Los Angeles Bureau. At the time Newsweek was one of the U.S. media elite’s “Seven Sisters”—ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time magazine, and Newsweek. For a year before that I edited and published a weekly so-called “underground newspaper” at San Jose State, called The Son of Jabberwock.
In the ranks, I sold the Muhammad Speaks newspaper all around what was known as the South Bay Area—San Jose, Santa Clara, Milpitas, all the way to Salinas in the farm belt. I even won a contest once, selling the most chicken dinners in the mosque to my paper customers. The prize was my FOI uniform.
In pursuit of my professional dream once I was in the Nation of Islam, I was aided by a special mentor, Brother Wahid Muhammad, then Brother Lt. William 5X. Brother Wahid recognized my zeal to help the cause and formed a special squad called the Public Relations Committee, which he led. I was the only other member. With his permission, using the facilities of Mort Levine’s East San Jose Sun newspaper where I had worked, Brother Wahid and I produced newsletters and flyers promoting mosque activities.
As a reporter, I also contributed articles to Muhammad Speaks. Introduced by Brother Angelo X Perez, we went to the mountain headquarters of legendary United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez, who embraced us warmly and let me take a photo of him holding up a copy of Muhammad Speaks. “Truth is the Best Weapon” was the bold, front-page headline.
I went to Soledad Penitentiary and wrote about the birth of the movement by the men who became known as the “Soledad 3”—George Jackson, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo—political prisoners who were charged with the death of a prison guard, after our story exposed a years-old plot by prison guards to target and then assassinate inmates they didn’t like—including W.L. Nolen, whose father we interviewed—by having stooge inmates pick fights, which the guards would stop by murdering their intended target.
I followed Mr. Jackson’s transfer to San Quentin, interviewed his mother Georgia Jackson, and his younger brother Jonathan who both insisted he was innocent, and denied parole again and again and again after a $40 gas station holdup, because he spoke out against the wicked criminal “injustice” system.
I covered the attempt by Jonathan Jackson to free his brother in a hostage exchange for Superior Court Judge Harold Haley, whom he captured in a bold courtroom takeover that was joined by a jailhouse lawyer named Ruchell Cinque Magee. Jonathan Jackson and the judge were both killed during the attempt, and George Jackson remained incarcerated.
The funeral of Jonathan and the assassination and funeral of his brother George, one year later almost to the day followed on my palette of stories along with the arrest of Dr. Angela Davis, accused of murder in the escape plot.
Dr. Davis was put on trial in San Jose, and in addition to covering her trial and acquittal, I even managed to take her an occasional bean pie to the lockup. I sent my six-page account of Dr. Davis’s trial and acquittal to Muhammad Speaks editor Richard Durham via Western Union Telegraph.
All the while advertisements would appear in Muhammad Speaks declaring: “Editors and Writers Wanted,” and each time one would appear I would rush a letter and my resumé. I always received polite replies, once or twice even a form letter from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad himself, also from editor Richard Durham, then from his successor John Woodford, telling me my letter would be kept on file.
Then, in a turn of events as dramatic as my rush into the ranks of the Believers, my life in the Nation was upended. I did not get the assignment to be the student minister over what would now be called a Study Group, in East Palo Alto, California, where I resided and worked at a local college.
After more than 20 years of fault-free service, our minister was set down by Mr. Muhammad. A brother who had just been released from prison comforted me, advising me that the entire Northwest—Oregon, Washington—had no one representing the Teachings, and that I should write the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and ask for a post.
In the meantime, I attended a “unity meeting” called by Minister Majied, then in Oakland. There, Brother Nadar Ali, whom I had known from college, and who was then in Chicago, leading the Nation’s fledgling import business, advised me that John Woodford was no longer editor of Muhammad Speaks, and knowing my background, he said I should write the Honorable Elijah Muhammad—again.
This time, it seems like less than a week had passed and I got an “Air Mail Special Delivery” letter from Mr. Muhammad, signed by him personally, with money, asking me to come right away to talk to him in person.
I took what I thought would be a short leave from my job as a staff member at Foothill College, in Silicon Valley. Was I in for a surprise? I didn’t leave Chicago for weeks.
When I arrived in Chicago, I was met at the airport by Brother Roosevelt 4X, a longtime follower, who told me he actually learned to read and write his own name by practicing, over and over his Saviours’ Letter, until he had copied it perfectly. Brother Roosevelt took me to stay at the 50th On The Lake motel on Lake Shore Drive, and my real adventure began.
The next day I was taken to the home of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad for dinner. Guests had to arrive before 5:00 p.m. sharp, or be turned away at the door.
At the dinner table I was so nervous, I sat motionless at the table, not wanting to call attention to myself, as though those in the family who ate there every day would not notice me, a total stranger, sitting there numb and in awe of being in the presence of the Messenger of Allah, our Messenger. We believed Messenger Muhammad could listen to our thoughts. I sat there like a bump on a log.
Finally, Mr. Muhammad looked at me down the table and said: “Well Brother, what are you interested in?” I blurted out, in a squeaky voice: “To be editor Sir.” After that I was beyond the mythical “Seventh Heaven,” far above the legendary “Cloud Nine.” I was a dinner guest for a couple of more days before I was asked to come during business hours.
Mr. Muhammad told me at that meeting that I was to go to the new Muhammad Speaks newspaper plant, and while there: “See what’s good. See what’s bad. And look out for the interests of the Nation.” With those instructions I went over to the office. After that, I had dinner every day at the original Salaam Restaurant at 83rd and Cottage Grove Blvd., in the Chatham neighborhood.
The brilliant author Leon Forrest had taken over as editor, and he welcomed me with open arms. The staff had several brilliant writers and photographers. I was shown the operation of the brand-new Goss Suburbanite offset printing press Mr. Muhammad had bought, capable of producing 30,000 copies per hour. I looked at the meat packing facility in the building and other food production, including the manufacture of Omar On The Nile, natural fruit beverage.
Every day I returned to the “Plant” as the building was called, and I helped Mr. Forrest edit some of the copy from the reporters. But I had fallen out of the circle that involved The Messenger. I was soon taken to the Shabazz Restaurant on 71st Street rather than to the Salaam, and I was stuck, lost in the bureaucratic maze of the top leadership, and going nowhere fast.
After about a week, I was at wit’s end, when Brother Nadar told me that in order to get back to see Mr. Muhammad, I should write a report on what I had seen at the Plant, send it to Him and request another meeting with him. Soon, I was back at The House—which is how the Believers referred to the Nation of Islam headquarters—this time in a meeting that included Mr. Forrest, the editor.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad asked Mr. Forrest: “Well, Brother, what do you think about him? Can you use him?” Mr. Forrest said, he needed a Copy Editor, and so it was agreed, I was hired as his assistant that summer of 1972.
After nearly a month, I returned home and packed up my family. My wife, who already had two sons, was expecting our child, and we set out, driving in my new Plymouth Barracuda, to Chicago, and a new career.
The times were challenging. My daughter was born, literally at home in our third-floor walkup apartment during a blizzard in November. Money was tight. But oh, our spirits were soaring.
After nine months or so as copy editor, during which time Mr. Forrest taught me everything he did to put out the newspaper, he left one Friday and did not come back. I learned that his first novel, “There is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden” was just about to be published, and that he was given a teaching position at Northwestern University. He had written the Honorable Elijah Muhammad what amounted to an unusual resignation letter.
He informed The Messenger about his new book and his new teaching assignment, and said that in order for him to continue as editor, he would require a substantial salary increase, and that he would wait at home for a response. So far as I know, Mr. Forrest never received a reply.
Meanwhile, I assumed the reins and the staff continued to publish the paper, on time, as though nothing had happened among the top management. After about four weeks or so, I received a telephone call from The House. One of the secretaries there told me: “Brother Editor, The Messenger wants to speak with you.” That’s how I learned I had gotten the position.
I am so thankful to Allah for that opportunity. I was blessed beyond measure, traveling around the country, going to Mobile, Alabama where the schooner Clotilde (often spelled Clotilda) arrived in 1859, the last slave ship to arrive in this country. There I met a ship, chartered by Mr. Muhammad, carrying two million pounds of our fresh fish, the Nation’s first shipment of Whiting H & G (headed and gutted) fish, a product which would gain legendary status in the mid-1970s.
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad sent me, among a delegation, on a month-long trip to Jamaica with Mr. Muhammad’s younger brother Jams Muhammad, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, and Muhammad Ali, and a dozen more, all as guests of Prime Minister Michael Manley. I never dreamed I would live among the wonderful people I met—members of Mr. Muhammad’s family, some of his top laborers in Chicago, Minister Farrakhan among them.
Now, 49 years after those frightening moments when for me, everything seemed to crumble right before my eyes, before I found haven, as though in the very “Bosom of Abraham” itself, I am truly blessed to say All Praise is Due to Allah for the many blessings I have known as a result of my efforts to help the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad bring about the Resurrection of the Black man and woman in North America with the Muhammad Speaks newspaper.
(Askia Muhammad is an award-winning journalist, radio host and author. He served as the first Muslim editor of the legendary Muhammad Speaks newspaper, as editor of The Final Call, and continues to serve as Final Call senior editor based in Washington, D.C.)