|The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998
Message from the Wilderness of North America:
Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, c. 1960
Message from the Wilderness of North America:
Claude A. Clegg, III
Editors' Note: This radio talk by Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), the subject of the following essay, was aired in the New York City area on radio station WNTA on November 23, 1960. The recording of the broadcast comes from the New York State Archives, New York State Police Non-Criminal Investigations Files. The original reel-to-reel tape on which the address was recorded was physically restored and copied onto cassette audiotape. The analog recording was converted to digital RealAudio file format. We have produced two versions of Elijah Muhammad's broadcastone in low fidelity for slow modem connections, and one of higher fidelity, optimized for 28.8 Kb/sec. and faster Internet access. Click on the appropriate audio button below to hear the talk, and then read Claude Clegg's essay. The length of the recording is 23 minutes, 56 seconds.
| Elijah Muhammad 1960 Radio Address
(for 28.8 Kb/sec and faster connections).
Elijah Muhammad 1960 Radio Address
(for 14.4 Kb/sec and faster connections).
This photo was widely distributed to
the press. From the author.
Ideologically, the Nation of Islam mirrored the times in which it found itself. Its racial separatism, economic nationalism, and religio-cultural inventiveness were murky reflections of the ideals of both the civil rights activists and supporters of white supremacy who were drawing ever-bloodier battle lines over the future of America, especially the South. In a very real sense, Elijah Muhammad and his followers, skeptical of the possibility for meaningful social change in the United States, were on a middle ground. They shared the goals of "freedom, justice, and equality" for blacks that were integral parts of the integrationist agendas of mainstream civil rights groups, but were also sympathetic to the notions of racial purity, territorial separation, and cultural chauvinism that were embraced by ardent segregationists. This ambivalence was always within the ethos of the Muslim movement. The widely publicized, high-stakes conflicts between civil rights activists and white segregationists illuminated the progressive facade of the Nation, best illustrated by the willingness of its spokesmen to fiercely denounce the Kennedy administration for failing to act decisively in Birmingham and other crisis areas. However, these tumultuous events also revealed the conservatism of the Muslims, as witnessed in their preoccupation with economic expansion, their purposeful disengagement with electoral politics and confrontational forms of social protest, and their moral asceticism.
By early 1960, these philosophical and programmatic tendencies had become lucid to those who understood how the organization had evolved since its emergence in Depression-era Detroit. But interestingly, these patterns had not been static or inevitable products of the past three decades. During the late 1950s, for example, the Nation of Islam, under pressure from Sunni and other "orthodox" Muslim groups, began to take on some of the trappings of traditional Islamic sects. Arabic was taught in its Universities of Islam (or grade schools), greater homage was paid to the Prophet Muhammad, and Elijah Muhammad even made hajj to Mecca in late 1959. However, whatever potential for ideological innovation that existed among the Nation's leadership was lost on this latter event, which disillusioned Muhammad regarding the prosperity and virtues of the larger Islamic world. Poverty, political corruption, fiscal mismanagement, and other social ills that afflicted Africa and the Middle East challenged his more romantic, preconceived theological ideas about the region. Ironically, the hajj caused Muhammad to seize more securely upon the racial Islam of Fard Muhammad and to turn the Nation of Islam away from the East (and "orthodox" Islam) as a religious model which African Americans should emulate. By the time he returned to America in January 1960, Elijah Muhammad had become convinced that his fate as a leader was tied to a black constituency that was drawn to the Nation because of its heterodoxy, not in spite of it. To the dismay of his "orthodox" Islamic critics, he acted accordingly and declined to offer anything more than lip service to traditional interpretations of the Qur'an.
From The Library of Congress.
Related to all of the things that were going on in the Nation of Islam in 1960, large media organizations began to notice the Muslim movement at the turn of the decade. Most of the coverage was negative, portraying the Nation as a hate group teaching black supremacy. However, images of the fiery, charismatic ministers of "the Honorable Elijah Muhammad" championing black pride, economic self-help, and moral uplift attracted large numbers of blacks to the Muslim movement, leading to the establishment of Nation of Islam temples throughout the country. While white media and black newspapers (which had discovered him first) gave Elijah Muhammad a national audience, only with the founding of Muhammad Speaks in 1960 did the Muslims have their own organ through which to tout their program. Needless to say, the power of the media was not lost on Muhammad. Within a couple years, the widely distributed Muhammad Speaks would go from being a monthly to a bi-weekly newspaper, and Muslim ministers would welcome interviews with journalists and debates with academicians. Likewise, Muhammad himself, who was sixty-three years old in October 1960, given to fits of coughing and wheezing, and not charismatic in the conventional sense, would weekly record hours of sermons which were broadcast by radio in nearly every major city in the country.
The radio sermon of Muhammad broadcast by New York City station WNTA on November 23, 1960, was delivered within the context described above. To those who simply happened upon the half-hour talk with no prior knowledge of Muhammad or his Nation of Islam, the message itself would have been hard to follow, given that terms such as the "Tribe of Shabazz," the "slave masters' children," and the black people's "God, Allah" have meanings specific to the cosmology and theology of the Nation of Islam. However, to those familiar with the organization and its leader, the speech was a typical Muhammad exposition. The tone is sincere and candid, and the pace is a deliberate one, unembellished by extreme shifts in volume or emphasis. The talk is in Muhammad's peculiar vernacular, which only casually observes rules of grammar and syntax. At this time, when men young enough to be Muhammad's sons were heading most Nation of Islam temples, the paternal, instructive feel of this talk was becoming rare within the movement. Yet, as would be the case until his death in February 1975, the ideology and religious doctrines conveyed in the speech were Muslim standards.
As in most religions, the theology of the Nation of Islam (which the author has discussed at length elsewhere) attempts to account for a number of the great mysteries of life, such as the purpose of man, the nature of God, the origins of evil, and the end of time (or "the last days" and beyond). Through an elaborate mixing of assorted philosophies and beliefs, from Freemasonry and numerology to Jehovah's Witness doctrine and variations of Islam and Christianity, Muslims addressed all of the major questions, some more systematically than others. Muhammad's talk does not start at the beginning; that is, it does not expound the Nation's version of genesis in which God, or the "Asiatic black man," creates himself and then other gods, and then fashions the universe and earth, peopling it with black people who were righteous by nature but who were destined to create "the devil," or white people, who were inherently wicked. Time restraints and an awareness that many in his audience were uninitiated certainly had a bearing on his selection of themes to discuss. But the allusion to the glorious past of the Black Nation, to the pristine origins of the Allah and his people, are there.
"They are not Negroes, nor are they colored people," Muhammad asserts early in his speech. "They are descendants of the Asiatic Nation from the Tribe of Shabazz." This statement asks the listener to suspend judgment about who he/she believed African Americans to be in order to allow Muhammad to redefine the terms of the black experience in America. In Muslim lore, black people are from East Asia, or the Middle East and northeastern Africa, having roots that are trillions of years old. The "Asiatic" blacks in America are from the stalwart Tribe of Shabazz, one of the thirteen original black tribes which created and ruled the earth in antiquity. To the Muslims, terms like Negro and colored are labels created by white people to negate the past greatness of the black race.
From The Library of Congress.
Perhaps the best known, and most controversial, element of the Muslims' message was their contention that whites were devils. Briefly stated, in the belief system of the Nation, whites were created six thousand years ago by Yacub, a black god-scientist who had mastered genetic engineering. This process, called grafting, started with genes taken from black people, which were manipulated in such a way as to create hews of brown, red, yellow, and finally white skin color. As predestined by prophecy, the white people would be void of any propensity toward justice or righteousness and inclined toward all things foul, evil, and unjust. Yacub had incorporated these traits into their nature. They would be given six thousand years to rule, plus a grace period, all of which would end in the late twentieth century.
In his speech, Muhammad is only implicit on this point; there is no mention of Yacub, grafting, or devils. However, there are sufficient references to the "nature" of white people for even the uninitiated listener to grasp the kind of racial determinism that Muhammad is advancing. "[Y]ou must know," he advises his presumed black audience, "that you are under a people that by nature they cannot do good by you. It is not in their blood. It's impossible.... [Whites] were put on the planet earth to rule our people under evil and injustice and to destroy them.... They are born murderers." Within these statement are a number of sub-themes that are perhaps not immediately apparent.
First, there is the obvious anthropomorphism of evil as manspecifically, as white man. For the African-American listener, this puts a face on the devilthat of the oppressor. This sort of demonization is an old convention, to some extent found in all religious nationalisms and "chosen people" ideologies. It differentiates the sinner from the saved, and in a related way, the oppressor from the oppressed. To the Muslims, history is destiny and prophecy, and there is an end, in which the righteous, with Allah's assistance, prevail. On another level, this is part of the theodicy of the Muslims; it explains the inequities of the racial status quo and the durability of white supremacy in the presence of an omnipotent, just God, Allah. It is not enough to say that whites oppressed blacks, but that whites "were put on the planet earth" to torment the "Original People," the white man himself having no control over the tide of history (prophecy) and simply playing out his ill-fated role in Allah's larger plan.
More familiar to his general audience, Muhammad's history of the black experience in America dwells on the same themes of white devilry (or "tricknology") and domination. The history is a tale of absolutes: irrepressible white barbarity and abject black victimization. The starkness between black and white responses to each othernotice that no episodes of black resistance or white humaneness are mentionedis designed to further illustrate how different the nature of the two peoples were. The enslavement, oppression, and destruction of black people is imagined to be so thorough that they become "blind, deaf, and dumb" regarding any history prior to their arrival in America. Consequently, they forsake their God, Allah, and consume everything that the white race has to offer, from European names and Christianity to alcohol and pork.
Muhammad's history of America incorporates enough elements of truth to give it credibility with some prospective converts. Unflattering references to actual historical personalities, such as John Hawkins, George Washington, and Dwight Eisenhower, who have treated blacks "like animals," make his appeal to African Americans that much more cogent, given that they are being compelled to re-evaluate their patriotism and place in American society. For Muhammad, race is static, and so is the burden of history. Even educated blacks who "take it for pride to be called an American" were deluded and disconnected from their "Asiatic" roots. The social mobility they had experienced in United States was in no way indicative of their capacity to become Americans. Similarly, white Americans of the twentieth century were still saddled with the sins of their ancestors. They were still collectively the "slave masters' children," their bloodlines tainted by past crimes against blacks. According to Muhammad, black and white racial incompatibility was so pronounced that integration could hardly soften the racist tendencies that whites had exhibited toward African Americans. These themes, including original sin, cursed bloodlines, and the forsakening of God (Allah), are, of course, biblically based, as is Muhammad's solution to America's racial problems. "Now is the time for the blacks to be separated," he counsels. In embarking on an exodus from the United States, blacks would learn to "know the truth of themselves, the slave master and his children."
The separatism of the Muslims is traceable to black nationalists of previous times, such as Martin R. Delany, Henry McNeal Turner, and Marcus Garvey. His call for black emigration, though cloaked in prophetic terms, both concedes the futility of resisting white supremacy and at the same time, acknowledges the exterminationist tendencies evident in some of the violence that was being used against civil rights activists of the period. To him, a mass departure from America, reminiscent of the Israelites' flight from Egypt, was preferable to living "under the shadow of murder and death. . . ." Within the context of the early 1960s, this proposal did appeal to those blacks who were living on the margins of American society, or were caught up in the euphoria over the decolonization of Africa, or who simply could see no dignified future for themselves or their children in the United States. At the same time, the separatism of the Muslims was in sharp contradiction to the goals of integration and racial reconciliation that civil rights proponents were striving toward. Though he would have hardly admitted it, Muhammad, in fact, was not just appealing to whatever separatist impulses that existed within the black community, but to the duality of African-American identity. He was counseling blacks to give up the slave master's names and religion, but to embrace his capitalist economic model and many of his notions of race, all be they inverted to suit Muhammad's needs. Even his stated desire for blacks to be "separated...in a place to ourselves" was couched in equivocation, for he never publicly specified an exact destination for the exodus or made any serious attempts to bring it to fruition.
The argument for separation was a convenient one, framed in a way that relieved the Muslims of having to effect it on their own. While African Americans were at "a crossroads where they have to make a choice" regarding their future, it was Allah who was ultimately responsible for ushering in the last days. Furthermore, the wicked would be gathered and destroyed by Allah, but the righteous could not initiate this process through armed struggle, civil disobedience, or any other disruptive means. This was a conservative approach to social change, an acknowledgment that black peopleor at least the Muslimsdid not have the agency to change their situation alone. The racial separatism that Muhammad practiced was more symbolic than anything else, restricted to constructing a black identity and creating black-run institutions and businesses. The earth-shaking changes, such as the destruction of the "white devil" and the monumental task of transporting and resettling twenty million black people elsewhere, were left to Allah, who would choose his own time to act.
Altogether, the themes entailed in Muhammad's talk are representative of where the Muslims were ideologically by 1960. Territorial separatism, Islamic heterodoxy, economic self-help, and a puritanical moral code would be the enduring motifs of subsequent years, though pressure from critics in the "orthodox" Muslim and civil rights communities never completely subsided. As revealed in his speech, Muhammad flirted with politics and was particularly critical of the failures of various administrations to protect the rights of African Americans. But mounting censure by law enforcement agencies, especially the FBI, led him to avoid forms of activism that might encouraged more state repression. On this score, what Muhammad omits from his speechfor instance, there is no reference to the recent presidential electionis as revealing as what he includes. In a sense, the Nation of Islam was coming into its own, increasingly aware of the power of the media, the appeal of its racialized Islam, and the economic wherewithal that its expanding membership provided. Yet, in other ways, 1960 was a critical year for the Muslim movement, inaugurating an era in which internal and external forces would present some troubling dilemmas.
Elijah Muhammad, "Radio talk," WNTA (New York), November 23, 1960; Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America (Chicago: Muhammad Mosque of Islam No. 2, 1965); C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961); E. U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: The Search for an Identity in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); Claude A. Clegg, III, An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997); and Malcolm X (with Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965; Reprint, New York: Ballantine Books, 1988).
About the author:
Claude A. Clegg is a native of North Carolina. He has a bachelor's degree in political science and Afro-American studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan. He is an associate professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington, and the author of An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad.
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Message from the Wilderness of North America:
Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, c. 1960
Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History
Audiotape of Elijah Muhammad address courtesy of New York State Archives, Albany, N.Y.
Comments to: email@example.com
JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 Fall 1998