National of Islam (NOI) leader Elijah Muhammad (pictured) stands as one of Black America’s most-influential and controversial figures, with Malcolm X, current NOI leader Louis Farrakhan, and Muhammad Ali among his early followers. Muhammad was born on this day 1897, and his journey from his humble beginnings in Georgia to worldwide notoriety is a riveting story.
Muhammad was born Elijah Robert Poole in the small town of Sandersville. He was one of 13 children with his sharecropper father, William, and domestic worker mother, Mariah. Later moving to the town of Cordele, Poole would marry Clara Evans in 1919 and have eight children with her.
With opportunities in Georgia increasingly becoming scarce and needing to provide for his family, Poole and his entire family moved to Michigan in 1923 — altering his life course forever.
In 1931, Poole was asked by his wife to listen to a speech about Islam and Black power from the mysterious Wallace Deen Fard Muhammad. The NOI’s brand of Islam was tailored to the struggles and upliftment of African Americans, appealing to many who felt the oppression and racism of the times. Poole would convert to Islam, with Fard giving him the surname Muhammad.
With his entire family embracing the NOI’s teachings, Muhammad moved to Chicago and led the Chicago’s Temple No. 2. Wallace Muhammad had a run-in with Detroit police and moved to Chicago.
The Nation’s leader would disappear in 1934, with Elijah Muhammad stating the man was Allah (God) in human form, shifting the leadership over to himself.
The year 1934 began the swift rise of the NOI, with the NOI publishing its first issue of the Final Call To Islam newspaper (now known simply as the Final Call). Muhammad made his way back to Temple No. 1 in Detroit, clashing with leaders there over assuming the mantle left in Fard Muhammad’s void. He would later make Chicago’s temple the main base of operations, opening Temple No. 3 in Milwaukee, and Temple No. 4 in Washington.
After serving time in prison for avoiding the draft between 1942 and 1946, he emerged from the situation and sought to spread the NOI’s message to a larger scale. With teachings that dictated that White people were created as a race of devils and Fard Muhammad’s supposed incarnation, Muhammad grew the Nation into a formidable entity with several businesses, schools, farmland, and real estate across the country.
In 1972, Muhammad said the net worth of the NOI was $75 million.
Listen to Elijah Muhammad talk about Black Power here:
Muhammad served as a mentor to the aforementioned boxing great Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. Muhammad and Malcolm X feuded over the direction of Islam preached within the NOI sectors, with Malcolm X converting to an orthodox form of Islam later.
There has been some speculation that Muhammad ordered the assassination of Malcolm X who served as the NOI’s national spokesman. Farrakhan himself was also said to be involved in the plot, but has denied involvement.
Muhammad also attracted controversy over allegations that he fathered several children with female followers within NOI outside his marriage, with some estimating he had 21 children in all. It was also rumored that many of the followers Muhammad impregnated were underage but charges have never been filed.
Muhammad died of congestive heart failure on February 25, 1975, a day before Savior’s Day, which celebrates the birth of Wallace Fard Muhammad.
Muhammad’s legacy lives on not only through the teachings revived by Farrakhan in the late 1970s but also in a pair of books he penned: 1965’s “Message To The Black Man” and 1972’s “How To Eat To Live” are both still widely read by many. The NOI’s radical message has undergone changes over the years, with Farrakhan still remaining at the helm as a fiery orator.
What has been a constant for the NOI since the days of Muhammad’s leadership is the idea that Black Muslims and African-Americans band together for the betterment of the race.