Born in the USA : AN ORIGINAL MAN: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad.<i> By Claude Andrew Clegg III</i> .<i> St. Martin’s Press: 377 pp., $25.95</i>

<i> Anthony M. Platt is the author of "E. Franklin Frazier Reconsidered" (Rutgers University Press)</i>

After World War I, a generation of new African Americans came of age and formed the cutting edge of a movement that would irrevocably change the politics of race relations in the United States. Included in this talented group were important writers like Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and such well-known activists as A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. Together with W.E.B. Du Bois, by then a veteran of many civil rights struggles, they set about in different ways to bury the accommodationist ideas of Booker T. Washington.

Nobody in this distinguished group, however, left more of a mark on black consciousness than a slight, unimposing man who started out life in rural Georgia in 1897 as Elijah Poole and rose to become the supreme minister of the Nation of Islam and self-proclaimed “messenger of Allah.” For more than 40 years, he remained in control of the Nation of Islam, taking it from a minor sect in the 1930s to the most admired and feared radical organization of the 1970s. When he died after a long illness in 1975, he was buried in a silver-lined coffin. Thousands of mourners, including foreign dignitaries and a representative of the Ford administration, attended his funeral.

Elijah Muhammad’s life is the stuff of legend. Our knowledge of the man whom James Baldwin once called a “royal presence,” is derived from people with either too many myths to sustain or too many axes to grind. There’s Muhammad the betrayer as told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X; a pious Muhammad as interpreted by actor Al Freeman Jr. in Spike Lee’s version of history; or Muhammad as public enemy No. 1 according to J. Edgar Hoover’s planted stories. In “An Original Man,” Claude Clegg III, professor of history at North Carolina A&T; State University, gives us more information than we’ve ever had before and new ways to think about the man whose organization bequeathed us Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, two of the most controversial African American leaders of the 20th century. Drawing upon previously classified government documents, interviews with relatives and a wide variety of public information, Clegg sets out to do what nobody else has tried to do: Make Elijah Muhammad into a flesh-and-blood person.


The origins of the Nation of Islam, like Elijah Muhammad’s youth and early adulthood, remain murky because Clegg has to rely on self-serving accounts and suspect data gleaned from FBI databanks. Those who know the most refused repeated requests for interviews, thus preserving the mythic history. The author picks through what evidence is available, hedging his analysis with speculative cautions, but provides little more than an outline of Muhammad’s formative years in Detroit in the 1930s. Between a variety of industrial jobs and long bouts of unemployment, Muhammad somehow linked up with W.D. Fard, a hustler who stood out from the pack of self-proclaimed gurus and quickly built up a loyal following, that included a mesmerized Elijah Poole.

When Clegg moves on to interpretation, he gives us much to reconsider about the man who would be king. He shows that though the Nation of Islam was founded as a religious organization, it never resembled any recognized faith and has always been regarded by serious Muslim organizations as a fringe group of heretics. Under Wallace Fard Muhammad, the Nation of Islam was born, not as the foreign import conjured up by its enemies but, according to Clegg’s convincing interpretation, as a thoroughly home-grown hybrid. In addition to its trappings of unorthodox Islam, the movement’s canon drew upon Christian scriptures, Jewish parables, rituals of the black church and of fraternal societies and science fiction. The Masons provided Fard and his followers with their affinity for mysticism and numerology and, despite the movement’s bedrock anti-Semitism, it was from Jews that they derived their earliest dietary restrictions and their self-identification as a chosen people.

If it was Fard who gave the Nation of Islam its foundational myths, Clegg demonstrates that it was his successor, the renamed Elijah Muhammad, whose single-mindedness and organizational acumen transformed it into a “military theocracy arranged along dictatorial lines.” With about 20,000 members at its high point in the early 1960s, the core of the Nation of Islam was predominantly poor, urban, male and young. But the influence of the movement far exceeded the size of its cadre. By 1962, more than 150 radio stations were broadcasting Sunday addresses by Muhammad, and the money was rolling in--from agricultural projects and food stores, from sales of “Muhammad Speaks,” from fishing operations in Peru and interest-free loans from Libya and from massive fund-raising efforts, such as the annual Savior’s Day conventions at which it was not unusual for several thousand attendees to each donate $125.

While the Nation of Islam became known for its “fiercely enunciated” rhetoric, Clegg makes the original argument that its “thoroughly conservative” economic policies were as American as apple pie--exploitation of the rank and file, gangsterism and nepotism. Muhammad put most of the company’s holdings in his own name and ruled the operation like a “Middle Eastern sheikdom” through his direct control over the Nation of Islam’s security force. The movement was always “proudly anti-Communist” and generally hostile toward civil rights organizations. Muhammad may have encouraged African Americans to “seek sanctuary in his Nation of Islam, but remained rather vague about the logistics of territorial separation, not to mention a precise destination.” Followers were told to clean themselves up, make money for the movement and “wait for divine intervention to settle the score between the races.” The only people who got really rich in the movement were Muhammad and some of his close relatives and trusted cronies.

Under Muhammad, the Nation of Islam developed its domestic and foreign relations largely on the basis of economic opportunism and principles of racial chauvinism that, in Clegg’s words, revealed “striking consistencies” with fascist ideology. Ties were cultivated with ultra-rightists like H.L. Hunt, the Texas oil billionaire, and white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party. Meanwhile, Muhammad championed Japan during World War II and the North Koreans in the 1950s but opposed both sides in the Vietnam War. “Let them fight,” he said, “and let them kill off as many of each other as they can.” As for non-Islamic Africa, he had no love for a continent that still encouraged “ignorance and savagery” and refused to allow his followers to adopt standards of beauty or dress that in any way evoked “jungle styles.”

The last years of Muhammad’s rule were chaotic and murderous. As their leader got sicker and the civil rights movement became more militant, a battle of Shakespearean proportions began within the movement. Following the defection and assassination in 1965 of Muhammad’s most trusted lieutenant, all hell broke loose, partly as a result of revenge by forces close to Malcolm X and partly because of internecine struggles over succession stirred up by the FBI and other intelligence agencies, which did their best to promote the bloodletting. Clegg adds to our growing understanding of state repression by thoroughly documenting the national pattern of harassment and dirty tricks carried out against the Nation of Islam and fully sanctioned by the highest levels of the government.

At the end, the Nation of Islam was wracked by scandals about financial corruption and Muhammad’s sex life. It was widely known that he was the father of at least 21 children, eight with his wife Clara and 13 with a succession of personal secretaries. While women whom he got pregnant were shunned, his behavior was justified as “the fulfillment of prophecy.” Clegg’s failure to analyze gender politics within the movement is a serious omission. He has a penchant for euphemisms when describing Muhammad’s out-of-control sexism--”indiscretions,” “romantic escapades,” “secret nights with inamoratas,” “love children”--and resorts to pop psychology to justify how these affairs “acted as a release, however unethical, for the pressures that had accumulated in his life.” Muhammad’s license to violate his own organization’s prohibition against “illicit sexual activities” needs to be addressed in the context of the Nation of Islam’s rampant misogyny.

After Muhammad’s death in 1975, his son, Wallace, repudiated his father’s bogus theology, opened the movement’s doors to nonblacks and changed its name to the World Community of Islam in the West, thus joining the fastest growing faith in the United States. But this was by no means the end of the Nation of Islam. In 1979, Louis Farrakhan broke away, taking his followers with him to start a “new” organization. In 1995, after 16 years of relative obscurity, the reborn Nation of Islam marched at the head of an estimated 1 million black men into Washington, D.C., where Farrakhan reminded the country that Elijah Muhammad lives on.

While Clegg’s important book makes us reconsider Elijah Muhammad as an American entrepreneur and master of organizational politics, Elijah Poole the man still eludes his biographer. Nor does this book give us enough of a sense of the complex ways in which his ideas resonate so deeply within African American communities. As long as racism and inequality thrive in the United States, there will be a place for secessionists like Elijah Muhammad who, in James Baldwin’s words, invest the wretched of the Earth with “a pride and a serenity that hang about them like an unfailing light.”