Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole October 7, 1897 — February 25, 1975) was an African American religious leader. He was the leader of the Nation of Islam organization from 1934 until his death at age 77. Muhammad was a mentor to Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and boxerCassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., whom he renamed Muhammad Ali.
Elijah Poole was born in Sandersville, Georgia the sixth of thirteen children of William Poole, Sr. (1868–1942) and Mariah Poole (née Hall) (1873–1958). Both were sharecroppers. William Poole was also a Baptist preacher.
Poole’s formal education ended at the fourth grade; he began working to help support his family. By age sixteen, he had left home and began working in factories and at other businesses. He married Clara Evans (1899–1972) in 1917.
In 1923, the Pooles, like thousands of other blacks, migrated from the Jim Crow south to the northern states for safety and better job opportunities. Poole later recounted that before the age of 20, he had witnessed the lynchings of three black men by whites. He later said, “I seen enough of the white man’s brutality to last me 26,000 years”. The Pooles settled inHamtramck, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Poole struggled to find and keep work as the economy suffered during the Great Depression. During their years in Detroit, the Pooles had eight children, six boys and two girls.
In August 1931, at the urging of his wife, Elijah Poole attended a speech on Islam and black empowerment by Wallace Fard Muhammad. Afterward, Poole said he approached Muhammad and asked if he was the redeemer. Muhammad responded that he was, but that his time had not yet come. Poole soon became an ardent follower of Wallace Muhammad’s and joined his movement, as did his wife and several brothers. Soon afterward, Poole changed his surname, first to Karriem, and later, at Wallace Muhammad’s behest, to Muhammad, and assumed leadership of a local temple.
Influence of Wallace Fard Muhammad
The man known to Elijah Muhammad as Wallace Fard Muhammad was an enigmatic figure. Little is known about his past. Disputes over his date and place of birth (both Hawai’i andNew Zealand have been stated), and even his birth name have made many biographies suspect.
By 1930, Wallace Muhammad had come to Detroit and formed Allah’s Temple of Islam. He attracted as many as 25,000 members with his proto-Islamic, Afro-centric teachings.However, Muhammad taught dogma that differed greatly from orthodox Islam and added elements from Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist movement. Muhammad conducted a series of lessons and correspondence with Elijah Muhammad, and others, which eventually were codified as the doctrine of the Nation of Islam. As the temple grew and became better organized, Wallace Muhammad was named its “supreme minister”. Muhammad developed the Fruit of Islam, a militaristic and exclusively male defense arm within the Nation of Islam, and appointed Kalot Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad’s younger brother, as its leader. He also developed the Muslim Girls Training program and founded the University of Islam outside the public school system to provide Islamic education.
In 1932, a mentally unbalanced member of the Nation of Islam, Robert Karriem Harris, committed a highly publicized ritual murder of a fellow Nation of Islam member, James J. Smith. Wallace Muhammad was arrested, but was released on the condition that he leave Detroit. He relocated to Chicago, where he founded Temple No. 2. He 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 Muhammad continued to communicate until 1934, when Wallace Muhammad disappeared. Elijah Muhammad succeeded him and was named “Minister of Islam”.
Following Wallace Muhammad’s disappearance, Elijah Muhammad deified him; he taught followers that Wallace Fard Muhammad was God in person, calling him an incarnation of God and predicting his eventual return.
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 University of Islam, but this soon led to challenges by boards of education in Detroit and Chicago, which considered the children truants. The controversy led to the jailing of several University of Islam board members and Elijah Muhammad himself in 1934 and to violent confrontations with police. Muhammad received probation, but the university remained open.
Leadership of the Nation of Islam
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, Muhammad left Detroit and settled his family in Chicago. Still facing death threats, however, Muhammad left his family there and traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and founded Temple No. 3 and eventually to Washington, D.C., where he founded Temple No. 4. He also spent much of his time studying at the Library of Congress.
On May 8, 1942, Elijah Muhammad was arrested for failure to register for the draft. After he was released on bail, Muhammad fled Washington D.C. on the advice of his attorney, who feared a potential lynching, and returned to Chicago after seven years’ absence. Muhammad was soon arrested again, charged with eight counts of sedition for instructing his followers not to 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. The organization had retained it membership level during his imprisonment and it only grew once he returned. From four temples in 1946, the Nation of Islam grew to 15 by 1955. By 1959, there were 50 temples in 22 states.
By the 1970s, the Nation of Islam owned bakeries, barber shops, coffee shops, grocery stores, laundromats, a printing plant, retail stores, had numerous real estate holdings, and owned fleet of tractor trailers and 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, it 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.
One of Elijah Muhammad’s top ministers from 1952 to 1963 was the former Malcolm Little, a native Nebraskan who had become a small-time criminal in Detroit, Boston, and Harlemknown as “Detroit Red” (an allusion to the reddish tinge of his hair). Also the son of a preacher, Little had converted to Islam while imprisoned in Massachusetts at the urging of two of his brothers, Philbert and Reginald, who were both Nation of Islam members. Upon his release in 1952, Little joined the Nation of Islam and, in keeping with its naming convention, he changed his surname to the letter “X“, symbolizing the rejection of slave names. The charismatic Malcolm X quickly became one of the Nation of Islam’s most famed and prolific ministers; he traveled across the country speaking and founding new temples and the organization’s membership grew greatly during his tenure. Boxer Cassius Clay, who quietly began attending Nation of Islam events circa 1961, was one such member. Although Clay had converted to Islam long before his memorable first match with Sonny Liston in 1964, it wasn’t until the day after he’d defeated Liston for his first heavyweight championship that he publicly identified himself as a Muslim and demanded to be called “Muhammad Ali”.
However, by the early 1960s, certain elements within the Nation of Islam perceived that Malcolm X was monopolizing the mainstream press for his benefit and possibly had ambitions to succeed or even force out Elijah Muhammad as its leader. Tensions only increased in 1963, when author Alex Haley began working with X on his autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, Elijah Muhammad forbade his ministers from commenting on the incident. However, in an interview, Malcolm X violated the directive and coldly equated President Kennedy’s murder with “chickens coming home to roost“. As punishment, Elijah Muhammad barred him from speaking to the press or at any Nation of Islam temple for ninety days. X complied. Another source of tension was his discovery that a Chicago Tribune article claiming that Elijah Muhammad had fathered eight children by six teenaged girls were true. In a meeting with Malcolm X, Muhammad justified it as his need to plant his seed in fertile soil.
In March 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and founded the independent Muslim Mosque, Inc. and later founded the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity. After a pilgrimageto Mecca, where he saw and worshiped with fellow Muslims of all races (including whites), he altered his views radically. He converted to traditional Sunni Islam and, upon his return to the United States and self-renamed El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X expressed far more moderate views and a willingness to work with other black leaders and condemned racism. He also condemned Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.
Alex Haley posthumously completed and released The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Elijah Muhammad died of congestive heart failure on February 25, 1975 at the age of 77.
George Lincoln Rockwell
George Lincoln Rockwell was an ex-Navy pilot and veteran of both Word War II and the Korean War who adopted National Socialist philosophies and founded the American Nazi Party in 1959. Rockwell became an admirer of Elijah Muhammad and, despite their racial differences and opposing racial views, Rockwell had become enamored of forming an alliance with the Nation of Islam. He believed they had a common enemy: the Jews. In 1961, Rockwell told his followers that Elijah Muhammad “has gathered millions of the dirty, immoral, drunken, filthy-mouthed, lazy and repulsive people we sneeringly call niggers and inspired them to the point where they are clean, sober, honest, hard working, dignified, dedicated, and admirable human beings in spite of their color … Muhammad knows that mixing is a Jewish fraud and leads only to aggravation of the problems that it is supposed to solve … I have talked to the Muslim leaders and am certain that a workable plan for separation of the races could be effected to the satisfaction of all concerned — except the communist-Jew agitators”.
At the 1962 Saviour’s Day celebration in Chicago, Rockwell spoke to Nation of Islam members, including Elijah Muhammad. Many in the audience booed and heckled Rockwell and his men, but Elijah Muhammad, in contrast, was enthusiastic and later rebuked those who jeered in the April 1962 issue of Muhammad Speaks.
On August 25, 1967, George Lincoln Rockwell was assassinated by a former follower named John Patsalos, who used the alias “John Patler” as a member of the American Nazi Party. Ironically, Patsalos, who was of full Greek ancestry, had had a falling out with Rockwell over the issue of whether or not he could be considered sufficiently “Aryan” due to his dark hair, dark eyes, and olive complexion.
Malcolm X home firebombing
In the early morning hours of February 14, 1965, a Nation of Islam-owned home in East Elmhurst, Queens where Malcolm X and his wife and three children resided was firebombed. No one was injured. Malcolm X publicly accused Elijah Muhammad of ordering it. The family had previously been ordered to vacate the premises; the incident occurred the day before a scheduled hearing to postpone the eviction. James X, another Nation minister, called it a publicity stunt by Malcolm X.
Malcolm X assassination
Members of the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 25 in Newark, New Jersey: Norman Butler, Talmadge Hayer, and Thomas Johnson, were ultimately convicted for their roles in the murder of Malcolm X. His widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz (1934–1997), believed for the remainder of her life that the assassination was ordered from the highest levels of Nation of Islam leadership. Louis Farrakhan, who had joined the Nation of Islam in 1955, steadfastly denied that the Nation or he himself was involved. However, in a 1993 speech, Farrakhan angrily shouted, “Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats!” In 1994, Qubilah Shabazz, the second of three children of Malcolm and Betty Shabazz, was charged in a plot to assassinate Farrakhan. The charges were dropped in 1995. In a 2000 interview with Mike Wallace of CBS News, at which Malcolm and Betty Shabazz’s eldest daughter, Atallah, was present, Louis Farrakhan stated to them, “I may have been complicit in words that I spoke leading up to February 21, ”, and told them that he regretted, “… any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being”.
In 1973, seven men, who were later identified as Nation of Islam members from a Philadelphia temple calling themselves the Black Mafia, broke into the Washington D.C. home of Hanafileader Khalifa Hamaas Abdul Khaalis. Weeks earlier, Khaalis had written open letters criticizing and mocking Elijah Muhammad and Wallace Fard Muhammad. The men brutally murdered five of Khaalis’ children, his nine-day-old grandson, and a guest. Khaalis himself was not at home. Five of the men responsible were ultimately convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Elijah Muhammad was not charged in the crime, though it was suspected he had some level of involvement. Khaalis swore revenge and years later his movement attacked and held hostages in the Washington, D.C., offices of B’nai B’rith in the 1977 Hanafi Muslim Siege.
Children out of wedlock
Malcolm X was not alone in his disenchantment with Muhammad’s hypocrisy. Others in the Nation of Islam were also upset that Muhammad allegedly used the organization’s funds to support the mothers, their children, as well as his own family. After Elijah Muhammad’s death, nineteen of his children filed lawsuits against the Nation of Islam seeking status as heirs. Ultimately the court ruled against them.
The Nation of Islam after Elijah Muhammad’s death
After Elijah Muhammad’s death, the Nation of Islam splintered into three distinct factions. He had not named a successor, but his son, Warith Deen Muhammad, was named the new leader of the organization at the following day’s Saviours’ Day celebration.
Under Warith Muhammad, the Nation of Islam became a more moderate organization. It accepted white members and the Fruit of Islam was disbanded. Eventually Warith Muhammad’s faction was renamed the American Society of Muslims. He delivered the first Muslim invocation in the United States Senate, and, in 1993, with President Bill Clinton in attendance, said an Islamic prayer in an interfaith service.
Louis Farrakhan left the Nation of Islam and founded his own organization, which retained the Nation of Islam name and hewed more closely to Elijah Muhammad’s ideology, including the tenet that Wallace Fard Muhammad was Allah on Earth. He re-established the Fruit of Islam and began publishing the Final Call newspaper.
In the early 1990s the city of Detroit co-named Linwood Avenue “Elijah Muhammad Blvd.”
Portrayals in film
Elijah Muhammad was notably portrayed by by Al Freeman, Jr. in Spike Lee’s 1992 motion picture, Malcolm X. Co-star Albert Hall, who played the composite character “Baines” in the film, later played Muhammad in Michael Mann’s 2001 film, Ali.
Muhammad was also thanked in the 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings; the film is also dedicated to him.