Malcolm X’s conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI) and his subsequent rise to incredible historical significance are extremely important moments in American civil rights history (Colley 2014, p. 394). What is less appreciated, although of equal importance, is the constant influx of new converts through the incessant proselytizing of the Nation. From 1957 to 1958, estimates suggest that as much as 5% of the total US male prison population was recruited to the NOI (Colley 2014, p. 395). While no such figures exist for women’s prisons, there were still significant recruitment efforts made there as well (Colley 2014, p. 395). Throughout this rise, prison wardens and government officials cautioned federal and state governments about the dangers posed by the Nation. These officials suggested that the followers of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad sought to undermine “racial harmony” (Colley 2014, p. 395). This “harmony” was undiluted white supremacy and these bad niggers were organizing against it. From the Nation’s perspective, they were on a quest to restore agency, self-respect, dignity, and a sense of purpose to Black communities (Colley 2014, p. 396). It is within this context of a hypocritical system that denied people of colour opportunities for individual and collective achievement that the NOI arose. I’ll be exploring the Nation’s emphasis on Black achievement, their deconstruction of the dominant white supremacist discourse of the time, as well as elucidating the integral contributions of the Nation in broader social movements. I will begin by describing the Nation’s core beliefs before situating it within the historical context of the US, then examining why the ideology appealed to Black Americans.
In 1930, W.D. Fard sold silks door-to-door in Black Detroit neighbourhoods. He claimed to be a prophet sent by Allah to bring the true heritage of Black people to light. Fard believed that the original people on Earth were Black and that all members of the Black race were descendants of the lost, and now found, tribe of Shabazz. White people or “white, blue eyed devils,” as they were called by the Nation, were created 6000 years ago by the evil scientist, Dr. Yacub. In the 6000 years Allah had given white people to rule the earth, they had enslaved the Blacks and sentenced them to social and moral death by severing their connections to their original languages and cultures. The Nation believed that the period of white rule was coming to an end and that Allah would restore the “noble Black race to its rightful position as ruler of the world” (Colley 2014, p. 397).
These beliefs differ in drastic ways from the teachings of Islam outside of North America. Most notably, in the paramount concern with the future and origins of white people. This stratification of Islamic beliefs is evidence of the deeply Americanized context of the NOI. It was a dramatic evolution of Islamic beliefs that had to appeal enough to convert a predominantly Christian audience. The Nation’s extremely potent in-group mentality was a direct response to the “virulent discrimination” faced by its members (Colley 2014, p. 399). As such, the Nation was constructed to catalyze tangible socio-political mobility.
The vast expansion of the NOI coincided with consistent losses of agency and economic security faced by Black communities (Colley 2014, p. 398). The teachings of the Nation addressed these grievances in direct ways. Black Muslims described the African American as a prisoner who is “demonized, dismissed, and overlooked” (Colley 2014, p. 398); given the historical treatment of Black people, it is a compelling characterization. The Nation sought to end the systematic oppression that stripped the dignity and agency from their target audience (Colley 2014, p. 399).
To the NOI leadership, the ultimate achievement of this goal could only be made possible through racial separatism: the establishment of a new state for Black people, hence the Nation of Islam. This call for a new state in North America stands in contrast to a number of other spiritual movements that arose in colonial contexts, many of which called for mass migrations back to Africa.
However, making tangible improvements to the day-to-day lives of Black people was more pressing than the establishment of a new state. Restoring agency, dignity and a sense of purpose for Black communities were seen as vital milestones to this end. This meant creating opportunities for economic security and individual achievement through the establishment of an ecosystem of interdependent Black-owned businesses, support for the constant educational attainment of all members, and the imposition of an extremely strict “moral code that included abstention from alcohol, smoking, and drug use” (Colley 2014, p. 400). The Black Muslims also voiced potent critiques on the hypocrisy of white liberals (Colley 2014, p. 407).
I do not consider these ideas as necessarily religious. I’ll cite heir adoption into the principles of the non-religious Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP) and modern Black Lives Matter (BLM) as proof. While the BPP’s Survival Programs may not have evolved directly from the NOI, the focus on creating opportunities for individual achievement by improving the immediate material concerns of Black communities certainly follows in the Nation’s footsteps (Heynen 2005, pp. 410-420; Newton 1966). Similarly, BLM’s focus on addressing “current and the generational pain” through the rehumanization of Black people is undoubtedly connected to the Nation’s emphasis on individual and collective achievement (BLM, 2019).
That being said, the Nation’s leadership, and the Honourable Elijah Muhammad in particular, were insistant that followers obey the authority of the American State. They went to great lengths to distance themselves from many of the movements initiated by NOI members. The Nation’s teachings were present in much of the activism of the 20th century.
The NOI had three key objectives in mind: (1) to attain self-determination in North America, (2) the promotion of collective economic security through individual achievement, and finally, (3) the “[reconstitution of] the Black nation by embracing Blackness as an ideal” (Akom 2003, pp. 307-308).
In theory, this priority on Black achievement seems a noble ambition and a natural response to the immense pressures of the time. However, the practical application of these principles had a number of issues. Rather than seeking to eradicate the clearly demarcated racial hierarchy in American politics, the NOI embraced this division; oddly using overlapping justifications as the Jim Crow laws to push for the establishment of a Black ethno-nation-state--separate but equal. Black Muslims were told to defer to the legal authority of the places they inhabited: beit prison, a racist government or eventually the leaders of a Black-run nation.
This deference to authority also materialized in patriarchal gender roles which were particularly concerned with protecting Black women from white men. I will note that this protection was likely motivated as much by men attempting to assert what they thought to be “proprietary rights” over Black women as genuine concern for the well-being of Muslim women, except this time, embarrassingly, the men happened to be Black (Colley 2014, p. 408).
It is important to note that the same educational seminars that taught young women how to be “good wives” became “[spaces] for broadening the scope of motherhood to community activism” (Karim 2006, pp. 19-30). This reappropriation of gendered space was undertaken for women by the women of the NOI rather than the male-dominated leadership (Karim 2006, p. 26).
The concerns of the Nation’s leadership were focused, quite acutely, on “[presenting] poor African American men with an opportunity to reclaim their manhood and sense of pride” (Colley 2014, p. 409). Men were expected to provide for their families while women were the home-makers. This limited view of masculinity and femininity did bolster the confidence and self-efficacy of the male demographic who could live up to those expectations (Colley 2014, p. 410). However, in an organization primarily concerned with the freedom and self-determination of all Black people, it reeks of hypocrisy to then decree that half of the population should aspire to spouse-hood rather than their own pursuits (Turman 2015). The framing of Black women as both “tools of the devil” and “beautiful Black sisters” who deserve the utmost “respect, love, admiration, and protection” highlights the precarious position women occupied in the Nation (Turman 2015).
The Nation also had a strange approach to religious freedoms. They pushed for reform that would allow for the practice of Islam in prisons across the US and achieved impressive legal victories along the way. That being said, the belief that all Black people, globally, were a part of the Nation and non-members were simply unaware of this “fact” raises the question of how non-Islamic Black people would be treated in the theorized nation-state. I also wonder how non-Nation Muslims would be treated because Islamic beliefs in Africa and the Middle East were very different from what was being taught in New York. My research did not supply enough information about the issue to make a prediction. What is quite clear, however, is the role White America plays in advancing the interests of the NOI leadership.
While the framing of white people as a devil race genetically determined to wreak havoc on the world was, well, objectively untrue, the sentiment was born from centuries of--well--white people wreaking havoc on the world; Malcolm X did not speak untruthfully when discussing the architects of his oppression. I argue that the extreme depiction of white as blue-eyed devils was integral to the wider goals of the organization. I remind you that the Nation was especially concerned with lifting the collective self-worth of Black Americans at a particularly egregious era in American racial politics. The landmark Brown v. The Board of Education ruling was swayed substantially by the finding of Black children refusing to play with Black dolls when presented the option to play with white ones. This study suggested an internalized feelings of inferiority amongst Black children. These feelings of inadequacy were further exacerbated by the limited prospects for social and economic mobility in adulthood. “Separate but equal,” as found in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896, clearly did not have enough rhetorical weight to lift the spirits of African Americans when the material inequalities were so evident. As such, a more drastic approach was taken by the NOI. The rehumanization of Black people required an assertion of “Blackness” as an ideal. This process began with a revisionist take on history that was no less truthful than the whitewashed history being taught at the time. This was promptly followed by supplying a resource of tremendous scarcity, hope: hence, the Nation told its people that Black people were the original people with a history of greatness and the 6000 years of white domination was coming to an end within decades of the Nation’s emergence.
Black Excellence is a modern colloquial term that refers Black people and the enterprises that make the “Black community” proud. It is purposefully vague because it transcends the nurture of any single community, yet, it is most typically used to refer to acts of individual achievement. The NOI encouraged Black Excellence by deconstructing the social superiority of White America. It was not simply Black supremacy, but rather the connection of a population--whose history was eradicated through centuries of oppression--to a glorious past. It was not, “you are Black, thus are better than white people,” but rather, “your Blackness is connected to a history of greatness thus, you can be better. Here is how.” The significance of having the Black race as the original humans woven into an Islamic belief system arose through the particular context of a racial apartheid in which historically disenfranchised people are forced to make sense of a changeless, cruel world. Is it then any wonder why this social construction of Blackness is heavily romanticized and steeped in anti-whiteness (Austin 2003, p. 54)? Ultimately, the NOI never had the political clout to structurally disadvantage White America; however, if they were given self-deterministic privileges, I do not believe that their hierarchical understanding of the world would produce a dramatically different society than the one it arose from. The hierarchy, this time, would just place certain Black men at the top of an authoritarian structure that had little interest in correcting the homophobia and sexism of their day.
Activism and Final Conclusions
As mentioned earlier, the leadership encouraged Black Muslims to adhere to the law of the land even when it was unjust. Despite this, it was the Muslims that created the first Black protest movement within the American prison system; although, this was done without the blessing of Elijah Muhammad (Colley 2014, p. 395). The leadership attempted to distance itself from such protests because they believed that activism contradicted their respect for authority. While the leadership did not openly support such a movement, they did not denounce the movements either (Colley 2014, p. 395). After all, the organization did benefit greatly from the pipeline of converts coming from the prison system.
Despite Elijah Muhammad’s lack of support for activists, there was a strong ethos of resistance and social organization from Black Muslims: women, youth groups, and imprisoned populations were involved in effecting social change across the country. Malcolm X represented a particularly eloquent contingent of the Nation’s activities. His rousing rhetoric combined poetic expression, Islamic and Judaeo-Christian teachings, concrete statistics and intricate critiques of White America (McCann 2010, p. 405). Elijah Muhammad’s death marked a shift in the orientation of the leadership. His successor, Luis Farrakhan, adopted an approach that was similar to the one that led to Malcolm’s ejection from the Nation (McCann 2010, p. 405). Farrakhan notes the structural dimensions of oppression by citing programs like COINTELPRO and the what Gary Webb dubbed as the “Dark Alliance” as proof (McCann 2010, p. 406). The Dark Alliance refers to the introduction of crack cocaine to Black communities by the CIA to raise money for the Contras (McCann 2010, p. 406). Farrakhan’s organization of the 1995 Million Man March--in which an estimated 400,000-850,000 people gathered in Washington, DC as part of a broader grassroots movement--best embodies the differing philosophies of the two leaders. Elijah Muhammad’s allure was intricately woven into his lack of a public presence and unassumedness while Farrakhan was a prominent public speaker and activist (McCann 2010, p. 406).
Notwithstanding the differing political philosophies of the two leaders, Black Muslims remained active in social movements throughout their respective eras. The increase in collective self-worth in Black communities meant that people believed that they were worth fighting for. The self-efficacy that followed translated into a newfound agency. Not only was Blackness an ideal to strive towards but the Muslims believed they had the ability to achieve individual and collective greatness. The common heritage and culture taught by the Nation was built to deconstruct to white supremacist ideology that dominated American society. Luis Farrakhan and Malcolm X are often cited as role models and their importance to the identities of Black youths cannot be understated (Khan 2011, p. 137). Though the religious and spiritual prominence of the Nation has waned since the astonishing heights reached during the civil rights era, its legacy continues to exist in art, culture, as well as the ever-present popularity of emblematic figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
The Nation of Islam espouses a particularly Western interpretation of a world religion that does not centre on the absolution of white guilt. Its mere existence may be its most poetic protest.
I'm having some difficulty writing this section.
What I want to say is to be wary of what your activism really means when it is put into practice. I have a lot of difficulty forming opinions of the Nation. On one hand they were extremely effective in raising the collective self esteem and self efficacy of their audience. They revealed truths about white America in a way that could not be ignored. On the other hand, they fell horribly short of being truly revolutionary because of their failure to leave outmoded notions of hegemonic masculinity with the white superstructure they were criticizing. The Nation was not campaigning for a truly open and horizontal society that would be open to all but rather for one that maintained the verticality of the past; this time with a select group of Black men at the top. I am not a fan of theocratic regimes and I hate the moral absolutism often accompanying dogma, be it religious or otherwise. I know with certainty that I am not part of the long lost tribe of Shabazz. As much as I may not like saying it, I know white people were not genetically altered to be blue eyed devils by some evil scientist. I know that whiteness will not end with a reverent bang but with generation after generation where the drive in-groups to dominate out-groups becomes a little less powerful. That last part is important because to varying extents, we, and our ancestors--no matter how idealized--are guilty of succumbing to those feelings.
What I want to say is that despite all my problems with the Nation, I admire them. I admire that they could band together and convince people of all walks of life to adopt a world view that ran contrary to everything that they had learned before. I suppose it makes me hopeful, in a weird sort of way, that we can convince people as well; a tentative optimism that people can be persuaded to work towards an inclusive and sustainable future. We just need to find the right story.
Akom, A. A. 2003. "Reexamining Resistance as Oppositional Behavior: The Nation of Islam and the Creation of a Black Achievement Ideology." Sociology of Education 76 (4): 305-325.
Austin, Algernon. 2003. "Rethinking Race and the Nation of Islam, 1930-1975." Ethnic and Racial Studies 26 (1): 52-69.
Black Lives Matter. n.d. “Healing Justice.” Accessed June 24, 2019. https://Blacklivesmatter.com/healing-justice/
Colley Zoe. 2014. "'all America is a Prison': The Nation of Islam and the Politicization of African American Prisoners, 1955-1965." Journal of American Studies 48 (2): 393-415.
Heynen, Norman. 2005. “Bending the Bars of Empire from Every Ghetto for Survival: The Black Panther Party's Radical Anti Hunger Politics of Social Reproduction and Scale”. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99(2), 406-422.
Karim Jamillah. 2006. “Through Sunni Women’s Eyes: Black Feminism and the Nation of Islam,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society 8 (1): 19-30.
Khan, Katy. 2011. "The Influence of the Nation of Islam on African American Singers." Muziki 8 (1): 136-146.
McCann, Bryan J. 2010. "Genocide as Representative Anecdote: Crack Cocaine, the CIA, and the Nation of Islam in Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance"." Western Journal of Communication 74 (4): 396-416.
Newton, Huey. P. 1966. The Huey P. Newton Reader. New York City: Seven Stories Press.
Turman, Eboni Marshall. 2015. "The Greatest Tool of the Devil: Mamie, Malcolm X, and the PolitiX of the Black Madonna in Black Churches and the Nation of Islam in the United States." Journal of Africana Religions 3 (1): 130-150.