Mr. Muhammad Speaks

(Mr. Muhammad Speaks by Alex Haley was originally published in the March 1960 issue of Reader’s Digest. In 2007, Reader’s Digest republished the article in Alex Haley: The Man Who Traced America’s Roots.)

In July of 1959 Mike Wallace of CBS-TV hosted a five-part series report entitled The Hate That Hate Produced about the Nation of Islam, a militant branch of Islam that was gaining more and more converts across black America. The television program presented a highly sensationalized, one-sided account of the Nation of Islam as an angry, separatist, potentially violent movement and had been put together without the full cooperation of the Black Muslim leadership.

Alex Haley, as a rookie reporter for the Reader’s Digest, pitched a proposal to his publisher to do a story about the Nation of Islam which gained their interest. That was when Haley sought out and met Malcolm X at the Temple Number Seven Restaurant in Harlem.

Despite initial resistance from Malcolm, who accuses Haley of being the white man’s spy, Malcolm X gave his consent to do the interview if, and only if, Elijah Muhammad, the movement’s leader, approved of the idea. Haley then flew to Temple Number One in Chicago to meet with Elijah Muhammad. Upon Haley’s return to New York, Malcolm X informed him that he had been given permission to do the interview.

Haley’s article, Mr. Muhammad Speaks, appeared in the March 1960 issue of Reader’s Digest, giving white America its first objective profile of the Black Muslim movement and its brash, militant spokesperson, which both Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad compliment. Virtually every other major publication quickly followed suit, with profiles of Malcolm X appearing in Life, Look, Newsweek and Time. In 1962, Haley, along with white colleague Al Balk, wrote another piece entitled Black Merchants of Hate for the Saturday Evening Post.

Mr. Muhammad Speaks

As head of a fast-growing, anti-white, anti-Christian cult, this mild-looking man is considered “the most powerful black man in America”

As another Negro and I walked down the main hall of the New York City Public Library, a third, a stranger, joined us. He apologized, “I couldn’t help overhearing that you were discussing Mr. Muhammad. It seems that whenever I notice two of us talking, he’s the subject.”

I had recently arrived from San Francisco. There, too, Negroes were talking about the small, light-brown man who calls himself “Elijah Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah to the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in North America.” The founder and leader of a vitriolically anti-white, anti-Christian cult that preaches black superiority, Muhammad bluntly declares, “I am doing all I can to make the so-called Negroes see that the white race and its religion, Christianity, are their open enemies.”

With a program built on tenets allegedly taught to him by “Almighty God Allah in Person,” Muhammad has converted to his “Muslim”—cult pronunciation, moose’lem—religion an estimated 70,000 Negroes. (These should not be confused with the 33,000 true Moslems in America.) He has established over 50 “Temples of Islam” and numerous smaller missions that operate in rented quarters or private homes, in 27 states—north and south, and coast to coast. The largest are in Chicago, Detroit and New York; the fastest-growing, in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami. In addition, there are in Chicago and Detroit two “Universities of Islam”—the latter accredited through ninth grade—where “Future Leaders of Islam” attend classes 50 weeks a year, and third-graders start learning Arabic.

In an effort to eliminate Negro dependence on whites, Muhammad promotes Muslim-owned and patronized businesses: dress shops, barbershops, groceries, dry cleaners, restaurants, bakeries, a department store, apartment buildings. Now in the financing stage is a Chicago “Islamic Center,” which will cover two city blocks and cost 20 million dollars.

His appeal seems to be chiefly among the great masses of Negroes who have migrated to large cities and have been unable to acquire satisfactory new identities. To these, he offers a new way of life—a militant and arrogant black unity. “This is a fast-growing form of black fascism,” says Father William McPeak of All Saints’ Parish, Harlem. Dr. J. Oscar Lee, of the National Council of Churches, says, “The doctrine used is most dangerous. But we are forced to concede that its followers get a new pride and purpose.”

When I went to hear Mr. Muhammad, New York’s 5,000-seat St. Nicholas Arena was packed. The floor was lined with standees; 1,000 of the faithful were in the basement and many more were outside. They would hear the message on loudspeakers.

The meeting was opened by Wallace D. Muhammad, one of Muhammad’s six sons. Next to speak was Muhammad’s tall, whip-smart assistant, a New York minister named “Malcolm X.” He had been serving a sentence for larceny in the Charlestown, Massachusetts, state prison when he was converted.

“When I was a Christian I was a criminal. I was only doing what the white man taught me,” Malcolm X was saying calmly, conversationally.

Suddenly, shouting rose from the audience. From the rear marched two double rows of Muslim men. Between them walked a meek-looking little man wearing a blue suit and an embroidered pillbox fez.

Malcolm X waved furiously to stop the wild ovation. Then he introduced the shy-looking little man as “the boldest black man in America … the most powerful black man in America … the smartest black man in America.”

Muhammad took the rostrum. For two hours he shouted such statements as: “Everybody has failed the Negro! … Christianity has failed! … the FBI has failed! Christianity is a white man’s religion! It contains no salvation for the black man! … Properly read, the Resurrection means that we, the black men of North America, will rise from mental death—then, like Joseph, go on to become master in the land wherein we once were slaves. … Why, after 400 years of murder, rape and slavery, do our oppressors now wave the olive branch of integration? Our oppressors are determined to keep our eyes in the sky while they control the land under our feet—smite our cheeks, rob our pockets! … They do not want a united Negro! They do not want an Islamic Negro! They know that Islam frees black men from fear!”

Afterward, Muhammad’s words were discussed throughout Harlem—in apartments, along the sidewalks, in taverns and restaurants. Exclaimed a retired U. S. Coast Guard steward: “What kind of fools sit and hear him run down God?” A social worker at her desk: “The man is either a gifted opportunist or a psychotic!”

But for every antagonist, at least three defended Muhammad. For example, a woman in a beauty parlor said, “Muhammad just talks facts, and white people call it hate Negroes already got plenty to hate—he’s just bringing it out! If they want to stop Muhammad, the quickest way is to stop the Faubuses.”

“It’s got to go further than that,” said another. “Integrate schools—what have you got? Graduation day, white kids go in one direction, and black another. They know better than to ask for the jobs the white kids get. The Constitution says the same thing for all the citizens—it just gets twisted when it’s us!”

And still another: “You read where some of them Southern churches fire preachers for just talking tolerance. Sunday morning is the most Jim Crow day in this country. It’s going to be a bad time in heaven, I think.”

None of it was surprising to a professor of sociology, who said, “I’ve studied this man. He would never have got off the ground without so many evils to point out, But Muhammad’s the extravaganza. Go to a routine temple meeting if you want to see the real spadework.”

I went to Harlem’s Temple of Islam No. 7, the next Sunday afternoon. Facing us there was a blackboard; painted on it was an American flag, captioned “Slavery Suffering, Death”; opposite it was an Islamic Star and Crescent, captioned “Freedom, Justice, Equality.” Printed between the two was, “Which One Will Survive the War of Armageddon?” After an inflammatory harangue by a 26-year-old Korean War veteran named “Curtis 2-X,” all non-Muslims were invited to step to the rear of the temple to declare themselves.

All new converts begin a series of intensive lectures and lessons. The core of these is fierce black-race pride: “You are superior. Act it.” “Principles of Belief in Islam” come next: keep up prayer; spend of what Allah has given in the cause of truth; speak truth despite circumstances; keep clean internally and externally; love the brother or sister believer as oneself; he kind; kill no one whom Allah has not ordered to be killed; worship no God but Allah; fear no one but Allah; never be the aggressor, but always defend yourself if attacked.

In other edicts that alter personal habits, Muhammad prompts even his severest critics to agree when he says he attacks “traditional reasons the Negro race is weak.” Alcohol, tobacco, drugs are banned, along with swearing, gambling and dancing. A Muslim woman may not use cosmetics; she may never be alone in a room with any man but her husband. Old friends of new Muslims are astounded at the incredible changes of personality which take place as converts swap lifelong habits for new spartan standards.

Adult Muslims attend classes one night a week. Men take “physical hygiene”—body-building, military drilling and judo. Selected students between 18 and 30 compose the elite corps, “Fruit of Islam,” who travel in chartered buses to wherever Muhammad speaks.

“It’s nothing more than you find in the YMCA, CYO, Masons or Boy Scouts,” New York minister Malcolm X said of “physical hygiene.” But law-enforcement officials view it differently. New York City deputy police commissioner Walter Arm points out that in emotionally tense minority communities, a Muslim interpretation of “defend yourself,” backed by the well-trained “Fruit of Islam,” could easily ignite a riot.

I applied through Malcolm X to interview the leader, and flew to Chicago to be available when his heavy schedule would permit an appointment. Elijah Muhammad had come a long way from Sandersville, Georgia, where, in October 1897, he was christened Elijah Poole, the son of a Baptist minister.

After an eighth-grade education, Elijah moved to Detroit where, he says, he met “Allah in Person” in 1931. This was a man named Fard Muhammad—”the first and only man born in Mecca who came to America for the express purpose of teaching the so-called Negro.”

Fard Muhammad allegedly tutored Elijah, who then founded the first Temple of Islam, in Detroit. Moving later to Chicago, Elijah was arrested for lecturing against Negroes’ fighting “the white man’s war.” Absolved of sedition but found guilty of draft-dodging, he served three years in the Federal Correction Institution at Milan, Michigan.

Released in 1946, he concentrated on grooming dedicated assistants. The staff has at its core Muhammad’s six sons. A son-in-law, 210-pound Raymond Sharrieff, is “Supreme Captain” of the “Fruit of Islam.” Malcolm X is an ubiquitous aide-de-camp who flies about the United States counseling city and territorial ministers, who in turn designate subordinate lieutenants, sergeants and corporals within the congregation. This deep-rooted organization gives Elijah Muhammad a control and direct power unequaled among Negro leaders.

Nowhere is the Muslim bond of unity displayed more graphically than in their business establishments, which do brisk trade. But Muslim cash registers provide only part of the revenue that reaches Muhammad. At the St. Nicholas Arena in New York I saw no coins in the offering—nothing but bills fluttered into the large paper sacks which ushers passed in the packed ball. More money comes from monthly bazaars and sidewalk sales of jellies, pies, candies and cakes.

All together, enough U.S. Negro dollars flow in to Mr. Muhammad to enable him to finance new businesses, amass funds to begin the $20 million Center and purchase a large, modern Chicago apartment building. (From the latter he evicted white tenants, moved in Negroes, then lowered the rent—a point not lost upon non-Muslim Negroes.)

A few days after the interview I was invited to dine with the Muhammad family. Muhammad spoke in a calm voice—mostly of his problems. The FBI, for instance, was building a thickening file on the organization’s activities. He knew that a Congressional probe was rumored, and that the Internal Revenue Service maintains keen interest in Muslim finance. But he said that he fears no agencies. “I have all I need—the truth,” he said.

Five times during dinner, Mr. Muhammad excused himself to take long-distance calls. As the evening waned, he occasionally gave a glimpse of his dreams, “What 20 million Negroes could finance for themselves with lust a dollar apiece a month!” he once exclaimed. Again, he mused, “— a million black people under the Crescent …”

Among every 300 Negroes there is one registered Muslim—anti-white, anti-Christian, resentful, militant, disciplined—and sworn to follow Elijah Muhammad to the death. How far can he go?

In Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Philadelphia and New York, I talked with top-caliber Negro professional men, with scholars and executives to whom the mere thought of cult membership is repugnant. I heard unanimous denunciation of the anti-white, anti-Christian aspects of the Muslim program. Yet all these people felt that beyond doubt Muhammad is a figure to be reckoned with—because there is so much truth in his charges.

As long as inequity persists in our democratic system, Elijah Muhammad—or some variation of him—will be able to solicit among the Negro population enough followers to justify the title, “the most powerful black man in America.” It is important for Christianity and democracy to help remove the Negroes’ honest grievances and thus eliminate the appeal of such a potent racist cult. ~ Alex Haley.

(Mr. Muhammad Speaks by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published in the March 1960 issue of Reader’s Digest. © 1960, 2007 The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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