|“||America represents herself as a Christian nation. ... They profess to be a friend and defenders of all peace-loving and freedom-loving people. The only people we really see that they want to be friends of are themselves and their kind. They are really sincere when they say that they are freedom-loving people. Above all, the White man the world over wants to be free to rule and dominate the aboriginal people.||„|
|~ Elijah Muhammed, Message to the Blackman, 1965|
Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Robert Poole; October 7, 1897 – February 25, 1975) was a religious leader, who led the Nation of Islam (NOI) from 1934 until his death in 1975. He was a mentor to Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and Muhammad Ali, as well as his own son, Warith Deen Mohammed.
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 third 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.
Poole married Clara Evans (1899–1972) on March 7, 1917. The Poole family was among the hundreds of thousands of black families forming the First Great Migration leaving the oppressive and economically troubled South in search of safety and employment. Poole 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, Poole 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.
Conversion to 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 Blacks, 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.
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. Muhammad was put on probation, but the university remained open.
Leading 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, Muhammad 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 long absence. Muhammad was arrested there, 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. 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. From four temples in 1946, the Nation of Islam grew to 15 by 1955. By 1959, there were 50 temples in 22 states.
Muhammad preached his own version of Islam to his followers in the Nation. According to him, blacks were known as the 'original' human being, with 'evil' whites being an offshoot race that would go on to oppress black people for 6,000 years. 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 wouldn't 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.