|Leader of the Nation of Islam|
|Preceded by||Wallace Fard Muhammad|
|Succeeded by||Warith Deen Mohammed|
Elijah Robert Poole
October 7, 1897
Sandersville, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||February 25, 1975 (aged 77)|
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
(m. 1917; died 1972)
|Children||at least 23 (8 with Evans, 15 with others), including Jabir, Warith, and Akbar|
|Occupation||Leader of the Nation of Islam|
Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Robert Poole; October 7, 1897 – February 25, 1975) was an American religious leader, black separatist, self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah, who led the Nation of Islam (NOI) from 1934 until his death in 1975. Muhammad was also the teacher and mentor of Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad Ali, and his own son, Warith Deen Mohammed.
In the 1930s, Muhammad established the Nation of Islam, a religious movement that promoted black pride, economic empowerment, and separation of black and white Americans. His ideas were strongly influenced by Wallace Fard Muhammad, who was the founder of the NOI. Elijah Muhammad taught that Master Fard Muhammad is the 'Son of Man' of the Bible and whom God intervened in the affairs of black people and the original nation of the western hemisphere through based on his knowledge and his works. After Fard's disappearance in 1934, Muhammad was left to lead the NOI and saw it grow from a small, budding black nation to a large movement. He was unique in his embrace of both black nationalism and pan-Africanism, as well as traditional Islamic themes; he taught that black people were the people of God, and after being civilized would bring all of humanity into righteousness, out from the wickedness of the white race's rulership.
During Muhammad's tenure, membership in the NOI rose dramatically, going from a mere handful of mosques to over sixty by the end of the decade. Muhammad's teachings promoted black self-sufficiency and self-reliance over integration, and he encouraged African Americans to return to their African homeland. Muhammad also rejected the civil rights movement for its emphasis on integration, instead promoting a separate black community.
Muhammad's controversial views on race and his call for blacks having an independent nation for themselves, made him a controversial figure, both within and outside the Nation of Islam. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was accused of promoting racism and antisemitism. He was also accused of being a black supremacist and encouraging violence against whites and police. In 1963, Muhammad was convicted of violating the United States' civil rights laws for ordering his followers to cross state lines to attack black civil rights activists in 1961. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, but served only a short time before being freed on appeal. He continued to head the NOI while in prison.
Muhammad died on February 25, 1975 after a period of declining health. He was succeeded as head of the NOI by his deputy, Wallace Muhammad, who renamed the organization as the World Community of al-Islam in the West. Wallace Muhammad later changed his name as part of his own transition to Sunni Islam (or "orthodox Islam") and is now known as Imam Warith Deen Mohammed.
Elijah Muhammad's legacy continues to be controversial. He has been variously described as a black nationalist, a black supremacist, and a religious leader who fought for the rights of African Americans. His ideas and teachings have been credited with inspiring the Nation of Islam, black pride, and black self-reliance, while also being criticized for promoting antisemitism and racism.
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Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah Robert Poole in Sandersville, Georgia, the seventh of thirteen children of William Poole Sr. (1868–1942), a Baptist lay preacher and sharecropper, and Mariah Hall (1873–1958), a homemaker and sharecropper.
Elijah's education ended at the fourth grade, after which he went to work in sawmills and brickyards. To support the family, he worked with his parents as a sharecropper. When he was sixteen years old, he left home and began working in factories and at other businesses.
Elijah married Clara Evans (1899–1972) on March 7, 1917. In 1923, the Poole family was among hundreds of thousands of black families forming the First Great Migration leaving the oppressive and economically troubled South in search of safety and employment. Elijah later recounted that before the age of 20, he had witnessed the lynchings of three black men by white people. He said, "I seen enough of the white man's brutality to last me 26,000 years".
Moving his own family, parents and siblings, Elijah and the Pooles settled in the industrial north of Hamtramck, Michigan. Through the 1920s and 1930s, he struggled to find and keep work as the economy suffered during the post World War I and Great Depression eras. During their years in Detroit, Elijah and Clara had eight children, six boys and two girls.
Main article: Nation of Islam
While he was in Detroit, Poole began taking part in various black nationalist movements within the city. In August 1931, at the urging of his wife, Elijah Poole attended a speech on Islam and black empowerment by Wallace Fard Muhammad (Wallace D. Fard). Afterward, Poole said he approached Fard and asked if he was the "Mahdi" (redeemer), Fard responded that he was, but that his time had not yet come. Fard taught that black people, as original Asiatics, had a rich cultural history which was stolen from them in their enslavement. Fard stated that African Americans could regain their freedoms through self-independence and cultivation of their own culture and civilization.[better source needed]
Poole, having strong consciousness of both race and class issues as a result of his struggles in the South, quickly fell in step with Fard's ideology. Poole soon became an ardent follower of Fard and joined his movement, as did his wife and several brothers. Soon afterward, Poole was given a Muslim surname, first "Karriem", and later, at Fard's behest, "Muhammad". He assumed leadership of the Nation's Temple No. 2 in Chicago. His younger brother Kalot Muhammad became the leader of the movement's self-defense arm, the Fruit of Islam.
Fard turned over leadership of the growing Detroit group to Elijah Muhammad, and the Allah Temple of Islam changed its name to the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad and Wallace Fard continued to communicate until 1934, when Wallace Fard disappeared. Elijah Muhammad succeeded him in Detroit and was named "Minister of Islam". After the disappearance, Elijah Muhammad told followers that Allah had come as Wallace Fard, in the flesh, to share his teachings that are a salvation for his followers.
In 1934, the Nation of Islam published its first newspaper, Final Call to Islam, to educate and build membership. Children of its members attended classes at the newly created Muhammad University of Islam, but this soon led to challenges by boards of education in Detroit and Chicago, which considered the children truants from the public school system. The controversy led to the jailing of several University of Islam board members and Elijah Muhammad in 1934 and to violent confrontations with police. Elijah was put on probation, but the university remained open.
Elijah Muhammad took control of Temple No. 1, but only after battles with other potential leaders, including his brother. In 1935, as these battles became increasingly fierce, Elijah left Detroit and settled his family in Chicago. Still facing death threats, Elijah left his family there and traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he founded Temple No. 3, and eventually to Washington, D.C., where he founded Temple No. 4. He spent much of his time reading 104 books suggested by Wallace Fard at the Library of Congress.
On May 8, 1942, Elijah Muhammad was arrested for failure to register for the draft during World War II. After he was released on bail, Muhammad fled Washington D.C. on the advice of his attorney, who feared a lynching, and returned to Chicago after a seven-year absence. Muhammad was arrested there, charged with eight counts of sedition for instructing his followers to not register for the draft or serve in the armed forces. Found guilty, Elijah Muhammad served four years, from 1942 to 1946, at the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan. During that time, his wife, Clara, and trusted aides ran the organization; Muhammad transmitted his messages and directives to followers in letters.
Following his return to Chicago, Elijah Muhammad was firmly in charge of the Nation of Islam. While Muhammad was in prison, the growth of the Nation of Islam had stagnated, with fewer than 400 members remaining by the time of his release in 1946. However, through the conversion of his fellow inmates as well as renewed efforts outside prison, he was able to redouble his efforts and continue growing the Nation.
Muhammad preached his own version of Islam to his followers in the Nation. According to him, blacks were known as the "original" human beings, with "evil" whites being an offshoot race that would go on to oppress black people for 6,000 years. The origins of the white race would come to be known as Yacub's History within Elijah Muhammad's teachings. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X talks about when he first encounters this doctrine, though he would later come to regret that he ever believed in it.
He preached that the Nation of Islam's goal was to return the stolen hegemony of the inferior whites back to blacks across America. Much of Elijah Muhammad's teachings appealed to young, economically disadvantaged, African-American males from Christian backgrounds. Traditionally, black males would not go to church because the church did not address their needs. Elijah Muhammad's program for economic development played a large part in the growth in the Nation of Islam. He purchased land and businesses to provide housing and employment for young black males.
By the 1970s, the Nation of Islam owned bakeries, barber shops, coffee shops, grocery stores, laundromats, night-clubs, a printing plant, retail stores, numerous real estate holdings, and a fleet of tractor trailers, plus farmland in Michigan, Alabama, and Georgia. In 1972 the Nation of Islam took controlling interest in a bank, the Guaranty Bank and Trust Co. Nation of Islam-owned schools expanded until, by 1974, the group had established schools in 47 cities throughout the United States. In 1972, Muhammad told followers that the Nation of Islam had a net worth of $75 million.
On January 30, 1975, Muhammad entered Mercy Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, suffering from a combination of heart disease, diabetes, bronchitis, and asthma. He died there of congestive heart failure nearly one month later at age 77 on February 25, 1975, the day before Saviours' Day. He was survived by many children, including his two daughters and six sons by his wife, most notably future leader Warith Deen Muhammad.
During his time as leader of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad had developed the Nation of Islam from a small movement in Detroit to an empire consisting of banks, schools, restaurants, and stores across 46 cities in America. The Nation also owned over 15,000 acres of farmland, their own truck- and air- transport systems, as well as a publishing company that printed the country's largest black newspaper. As a leader, Muhammad served as a mentor to many notable members, including Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan and his son Warith Deen Mohammed. The Nation of Islam is estimated to have between 20,000 and 50,000 members, and 130 mosques offering numerous social programs.
Upon his death, his son Warith Deen Mohammed succeeded him. Warith disbanded the Nation of Islam in 1976 and founded an orthodox mainstream Islamic organization, that came to be known as the American Society of Muslims. The organization would dissolve, change names and reorganize many times.
In 1977, Louis Farrakhan resigned from Warith Deen's reformed organization and reinstituted the original Nation of Islam upon the foundation established by Wallace Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan regained many of the Nation of Islam's original properties including the National Headquarters Mosque #2 (Mosque Maryam) and Muhammad University of Islam in Chicago.
Ernest 2X McGee was the first national secretary of the NOI and had been ousted in the late 1950s. McGee went on to form a Sunni Muslim sect and changed his name to Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Khaalis attracted Lew Alcindor, whom Khaalis renamed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jabbar donated a house for use as the Hanafi Madh-Hab Center. Khaalis sent letters that were critical of Muhammad and Fard to Muhammad, his ministers, and the media.
The letters stated blacks had been better off "from a psychological point of view" before Fard came along because it weaned them from Christianity to a fabricated form of Islam. Both, in his opinion, were bad. His letters also revealed what he knew of Fard, alleging he was John Walker of Gary who had come to America at 27 from Greece, had served prison time for stealing, and raping a 17-year-old girl, and had died in Chicago, Illinois at 78.
After the letters were sent, 7 of Khaalis' family members were murdered at the Hanafi Madh-Hab Center. Four men from NOI Mosque No. 12 were accused of the crime.
Rumors were circulating among Nation of Islam members that Elijah was conducting extramarital affairs with young Nation secretaries—which would constitute a serious violation of Nation teachings. After first discounting the rumors, Malcolm X came to believe them after he spoke with Elijah's son Wallace and with the women making the accusations. Malcolm X publicly accused Elijah of "having 8 children with six different teenage girls" who "were his private secretaries." Elijah confirmed the rumors in 1963, attempting to justify his behavior by referring to precedents set by biblical prophets.
On December 1, 1963, when asked for a comment about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X said that it was a case of "chickens coming home to roost". He added that "chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." The New York Times wrote, "in further criticism of Mr. Kennedy, the Muslim leader cited the murders of Patrice Lumumba, Congo leader, of Medgar Evers, civil rights leader, and of the Negro girls bombed earlier this year in a Birmingham, Alabama church. These, he said, were instances of other 'chickens coming home to roost'." The remarks prompted a widespread public outcry. The Nation of Islam, which had sent a message of condolence to the Kennedy family and ordered its ministers not to comment on the assassination, publicly censured their former shining star. Malcolm X retained his post and rank as minister, but was prohibited from public speaking for 90 days.
Rumors were circulating that Muhammad was conducting extramarital affairs with young Nation secretaries—which would constitute a serious violation of Nation teachings. After first discounting the rumors, Malcolm X came to believe them after he spoke with Muhammad's son Wallace and with the girls making the accusations. Muhammad confirmed the rumors in 1963, attempting to justify his behavior by referring to precedents set by Biblical prophets. Over a series of national TV interviews between 1964 and 1965, Malcolm X provided testimony of his investigation, corroboration, and confirmation by Elijah Muhammed himself of multiple counts of child rape. During this investigation, Malcolm X learned 7 of those 8 girls had become pregnant as a result of this. He also revealed an assassination attempt made on his life, through a discovered explosive device in his car, as well as the death threats he was receiving, in response to his exposure of Elijah Muhammad.
The extramarital affairs, the suspension, and other factors caused a rift between the two men, with Malcolm X leaving the Nation of Islam in March 1964 to form his own religious organization, Muslim Mosque Inc. After dealing with death threats and attempts on his life for a year, Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. Many people suspected that the Nation of Islam was responsible for the killing of Malcolm X. Five days after Malcolm X was murdered, in a public speech at the Nation of Islam's annual Saviours' Day on February 26, Elijah justified the assassination by quoting that "Malcolm got just what he preached", but at the same time denied any involvement with the murder by asserting in the same speech: "We didn't want to kill Malcolm and didn't try to kill him. We know such ignorant, foolish teaching would bring him to his own end."
Elijah's pro-separation views were compatible with those of some white supremacist organizations in the 1960s. He met with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan in 1961 to work toward the purchase of farmland in the Deep South. For more than ten years Elijah received major financial support from white supremacist Texas oil baron H. L. Hunt due to Elijah's belief in racial separation from whites. The money helped Elijah to acquire opulent homes for himself and his family and establish overseas bank accounts.
He eventually established Temple Farms, now Muhammad Farms, on a 5,000-acre (20 km2) tract in Terrell County, Georgia. George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, once called Elijah "the Hitler of the black man." At the 1962 Saviours' Day celebration in Chicago, Rockwell addressed Nation of Islam members. Many in the audience booed and heckled him and his men, for which Elijah rebuked them in the April 1962 issue of Muhammad Speaks.
Elijah married Clara Muhammad in Georgia in 1917, with whom he had eight children. Elijah also fathered at least nine children from extra-marital relationships. In total, it is estimated that he had 23 children of which 21 are documented.
After Elijah's death, nineteen of his children filed lawsuits against the Nation of Islam's successor, the World Community of Islam, seeking status as heirs. Ultimately the court ruled against them.
Children via his wife, Clara Muhammad: Two daughters and six sons including notable:
Children via mistresses:
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Elijah Muhammad on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
Elijah Muhammad was portrayed by Al Freeman Jr. in Spike Lee's 1992 motion picture Malcolm X. Albert Hall, who played the composite character "Baines" in Malcolm X, later played Muhammad in Michael Mann's 2001 film, Ali. He was also portrayed by Clifton Davis in the series Godfather of Harlem.
'We didn't want to kill Malcolm and didn't try to kill him,' he explained. 'We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end.'
|Booknotes interview with Claude Andrew Clegg III on An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad, March 30, 1997, C-SPAN|