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 rehuma