Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer


November 28, 1992 

By Jonathan Tilove

NEWARK, N.J. – There is a bullet hole in the front door of the Sister Clara Muhammad Islamic School, a vestige of the days when sectarian violence and assassinations marked black Muslim life.

But today the humble storefront school is an oasis of discipline and calm, its front windows lined with proclamations of thanks from local governments. It used to be that even blacks were searched entering the mosque next door. Now even whites are welcome. They don’t come, but they are welcome.

Meanwhile, over in Brooklyn, just up from the Slave Theater in Bedford Stuyvesant, a loudspeaker outside The Final Call Bookstore blares the message of Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. He is outlining his three-year economic program for the black community. Inside, clean-shaven young black men in brown suits, starched white shirts and bow ties sell the Nation’s tapes, books and pamphlets, as well as their newspaper, The Final Call.

“Unite or Perish!” screams a Page 1 headline. The teaser: “We can see every hour and every day how the white man’s world is narrowing and his time is growing shorter . . . Pg. 20.”

With the release of the film biography Malcolm X, a new generation is being introduced to the black Muslim movement, a movement that nearly three decades after his assassination is split into competing camps, each with a compelling but incomplete claim to his mantle.

While Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam are still imbued with Malcolm X’s fiery black nationalism, W. Deen Mohammed and his followers have embraced a universal, color-blind Islam that fulfills the spiritual journey on which Malcolm X had embarked in the last year of his life.

“In a sense they each seek to pick up a different emphasis, both of which I think coexisted in Malcolm’s mind until the end of his life,” says Robert Franklin, director of the Black Church Studies Program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “I think neither has a compelling claim of being the sole heir to Malcolm’s legacy.”

The black Muslims date to the arrival in Detroit in 1930 of a mysterious peddler, Wallace Fard, who announced he had come to prepare black Americans for Armageddon, the final confrontation between them and their white oppressors.

Within four years, Fard had vanished. Leadership of the movement fell to his top minister, Elijah Muhammad, who declared that Fard had in fact been Allah incarnate and he, Elijah Muhammad, his Messenger.

The Nation of Islam, as the new religion was called, offered blacks living under the heel of white supremacy a proud and defiant counter-philosophy of black supremacy. In many ways, it presaged the whole movement toward Afrocentrism and black nationalism.

Politically, the Nation demanded a separate black territory in reparation for slavery. In the meantime, race mixing should be banned and separate schools established.

Built on discipline, clean living and “doing for self,” Islam offered blacks order amid the chaos of ghetto life. For the many, like Malcolm X, who embraced the faith while in prison, Islam offered a way to reclaim their lives.

The movement split after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975. W. Deen Mohammed, who succeeded his father, largely disbanded the Nation organizationally and dropped all the racial dogma, moving his followers to the orthodox Islam practiced throughout the world.

Some of his followers were dismayed. After a few years, Farrakhan resurrected the Nation with its original teachings.

It is difficult to get a good reading on the number of black Muslims in America.

C. Eric Lincoln, the Duke University professor of religion who wrote the classic study, The Black Muslims in America, estimates that roughly 1 million of America’s perhaps 6 million Muslims are black. They are spread across the country, with the largest concentrations in big cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark.

Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of religion at Vassar College who is working with Lincoln on a new study of black Muslims in America, estimates that W. Deen Mohammed has between 100,000 and 200,000 believers, and Farrakhan about 50,000.

But if Farrakhan’s religious following is relatively small, his political following is large and growing, judging by the crowds he draws – 40,000 at a Saviour’s Day rally at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta last month.

To many blacks, Islamic or not, Farrakhan is fearless. He says the things they think but won’t say.

To many whites, he is simply fearsome.

In fact, Farrakhan has been more comfortable than Malcolm X or Elijah Muhammad ever were in associating with other black leaders, and he is less likely to call whites “devils.”

But to the white community, Farrakhan still remains off limits, in large part because of a series of comments he made, while supporting Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy in 1984, that quickly earned him a reputation as an anti-Semite.

Farrakhan aggressively denies that he is an anti-Semite, but he seems to thrive on the controversy. Often, the emotional high point of his speeches are attacks on Jews for what he maintains is a history of evil-doing toward blacks.

“It enables him to posture as a defiant leader and voice of the angry and alienated underclass, and this, of course, brings him very close to the kind of Malcolm persona, the defiant, uncompromising leader who says the things that other people feel but are afraid to say,” says Franklin of Atlanta’s Candler School of Theology.

Because of their bow ties, their spit-and-polish security force, the Fruit of Islam, and their penchant for controversy, the Nation of Islam has a high profile.

In Washington, D.C., the Fruit of Islam has had some notable successes in cleaning up drug-infested public housing complexes. Only last month, the Los Angeles Police Commission contracted with the Nation to patrol 15 apartment projects.

In 1985, Farrakhan secured a $5 million interest-free loan from Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to develop a line of Clean ‘N’ Fresh hair and skin products and create jobs in the black community.

Most recently, the Nation has been in the center of controversy with its promotion of oral alpha interferon as a “black cure for AIDS.” Health organizations have dismissed the drug as ineffective, though the National Institutes of Health this month agreed to clinical trials.

Despite its high profile, the Nation is very wary of the mainstream press.

Farrakhan, according to his personal assistant, has not granted an interview in two years, and he refused a request for an interview for this story. His office also declined to provide a spokesman. No member of the Nation is supposed to talk to a reporter without permission from Farrakhan’s office in Chicago.

Nonetheless, through numerous public speeches, tapes and writings, Farrakhan’s views are well-known.

By contrast, W. Deen Mohammed and his following, though much larger than Farrakhan’s, are far less known.

Mohammed is a man of peace and quiet and nary a hint of charisma. He may be one of the least angry black men in America. Twice he has voted for George Bush.

As a boy, W. Deen Mohammed, at his father’s insistence, learned Arabic so he could read the Koran untranslated. He came to realize that the Nation’s racial theology was irreconcilable with color-blind orthodox Islam.

It was the same revelation that Malcolm X had in the last year of his life, after he left the Nation.

When he succeeded his father in 1975, Mohammed dropped the name Nation of Islam, disbanded the Fruit of Islam security force and discarded the racial dogma he felt his father had used to transform true Islam into a black social and political movement. He proclaimed that Fard had not been Allah incarnate, and Elijah Muhammad had not been his “Messenger.”

While some could not tolerate Mohammed’s changes, many stayed.

“I think it was hatred that really attracted me in the beginning,” recalls Ali Muslim, the local imam, or leader, in Newark. Growing up in Prichard, Ala., he says, “I had no doubt that white folks were the devil.”

But, he says, if resentment toward whites may have brought him into Islam, it is no way to be Islamic.

“We try to appeal to people’s good nature. We think it’s more effective than building an organization on hate,” says Muslim. “Hate doesn’t tend to last. In reality, people are motivated mainly by kindness and politeness and courtesy.”

Many Muslims have stopped working for someone else and started their own businesses. They have made it. They have become middle class. Far more than the community at large, they are intact families. Some even voted Republican.

“I’d say we’re more American now,” says Azeez Muhammad, a leader of the League of Muslim Voters in New Jersey.

Today, W. Deen Mohammed has no national organization at all. Every city, like Newark, has its mosque and its school, which teach Islamic values, Arabic and all the usual academic subjects. And that’s it. Mohammed travels and talks and writes. His followers are Islamics, just like any other Islamics in the world.

In addition to the sects led by Farrakhan and Mohammed, there are numerous smaller black Muslim groups, the most significant of which is led by Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, formerly known as H. Rap Brown.

Brown was once among the most ferocious of the black power advocates of the 1960s. Like many others, he came to Islam while in prison, in his case while serving a sentence in New York for robbery and assault.

Soon after his release in 1976, Al-Amin became the imam of a Muslim community with 27 mosques in the United States and the Caribbean. It practices a non-racial orthodox Islam.

Just who will benefit from the movie and the renewed interest in Malcolm X remains to be seen

“I think the ones who will go to Farrakhan will be the ones who want to prove the white man wrong,” says W. Deen Mohammed. “The ones who will come to me will be the majority and they will be coming because they want to be at peace with their souls.”

But Farrakhan has certain obvious advantages: the charisma, the anger, the edge. He already has the allegiance of rappers like Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

And yet, when Malcolm X broke with the Nation and Elijah Muhammad in 1964 it was Farrakhan who clamored loudest for the death of his mentor, Malcolm X.

“Only those who wish to be led to hell or to their doom will follow Malcolm,” Farrakhan wrote in the Nation’s newspaper three months before the assassination in a Harlem ballroom in early 1965. “Such a man is worthy of death.”

For his part, W. Deen Mohammed says he does not know whether his father ordered the killing or simply contributed to the hateful atmosphere that encouraged it.

Back in 1973, there was a bloody struggle for control of the mosque in Newark. Imam James Shabazz, a close associate of Malcolm X, was gunned down in his driveway and rival Muslims were decapitated in apparent retaliation.

But today in Newark, all is calm.

“We have good relations with the followers of Minister Farrakhan,” says Imam Ali Muslim. “Some even bring their children to our school. We’re not into hard feelings with each other.”

And, when it comes to their differences in theology, Muslim says, “We understand that some grow faster than others. Some are still in kindergarten while others have gone into high school.”


Written by jonathantilove

July 26, 2022 at 1:25 am

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