During the spring of nineteen fifty-two I joyously wrote Elijah Muhammad and my family that the Massachusetts State Parole Board had voted that I should be released. But still a few months were taken up with the red tape delay of paper work that went back and forth, arranging for my parole release in the custody of my oldest brother, Wilfred, in Detroit, who now managed a furniture store. Wilfred got the Jew who owned the store to sign a promise that upon release I would be given immediate employment.
By the prison system wire, I heard that Shorty also was up for parole. But Shorty was having trouble getting some reputable person to sign for him. (Later, I found out that in prison Shorty had studied musical composition. He had even progressed to writing some pieces; one of them I know he named “The Bastille Concerto. “)
My going to Detroit instead of back to Harlem or Boston was influenced by my family’s feeling expressed in their letters. Especially my sister Hilda had stressed to me that although I felt I understood Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, I had much to learn, and I ought to come to Detroit and become a member of a temple of practicing Muslims.
It was in August when they gave me a lecture, a cheap Li’l Abner suit, and a small amount of money, and I walked out of the gate. I never looked back, butthat doesn’t make me any different from a million inmates who have left a prison behind them.
The first stop I made was at a Turkish bath. I got some of that physical feeling of prison-taint steamed off me. Ella, with whom I stayed only overnight, had also agreed that it would be best for me to start again in Detroit. The police in a new city wouldn’t have it in for me; that was Ella’s consideration-not the Muslims, for whom Ella had no use. Both Hilda and Reginald had tried to work on Ella. But Ella, with her strong will, didn’t go for it at all. She told me that she felt anyone could be whatever he wanted to be, Holy Roller, Seventh Day Adventist, or whatever it was, but she wasn’t going to become any Muslim.
Hilda, the next morning, gave me some money to put in my pocket. Before I left, I went out and bought three things I remember well. I bought a better-looking pair of eyeglasses than the pair the prison had issued to me; and I bought a suitcase and a wrist watch.
I have thought, since, that without fully knowing it, I was preparing for what my life was about to become. Because those are three things I’ve used more than anything else. My eyeglasses correct the astigmatism that I got from all the reading in prison. I travel so much now that my wife keeps alternate suitcases packed so that, when necessary, I can just grab one. And you won’t find anybody more time-conscious than I am. I live by my watch, keeping appointments. Even when I’m using my car, I drive by my watch, not my speedometer. Time is more important to me than distance.
I caught a bus to Detroit. The furniture store that my brother Wilfred managed was right in the black ghetto of Detroit; I’d better not name the store, if I’m going to tell the way they robbed Negroes. Wilfred introduced me to the Jews who owned the store. And, as agreed, I was put to work, as a salesman.
“Nothing Down” advertisements drew poor Negroes into that store like flypaper. It was a shame, the way they paid three and four times what the furniture had cost, because they could get credit from those Jews. It was the same kind of cheap, gaudy-looking junk that you can see in any of the black ghetto furniture stores today. Fabrics were stapled on the sofas. Imitation “leopard skin” bedspreads, “tiger skin” rugs, such stuff as that. I would see clumsy, work-hardened, calloused hands scrawling and scratching signatures on the contract, agreeing to highway-robbery interest rates in the fine print that never was read.
I was seeing in real life the same point made in a joke that during the 1964 Presidential campaign _Jet_ magazine reported that Senator Barry Goldwater had told somewhere. It was that a white man, a Negro, and a Jew were given one wish each. The white man asked for securities; the Negro asked for a lot of money; the Jew asked for some imitation jewelry “and that colored boy’s address.”
In all my years in the streets, I’d been looking at the exploitation that for the first time I really saw and understood. Now I watched brothers entwining themselves in the economic clutches of the white man who went home every night with another bag of the money drained out of the ghetto. I saw that the money, instead of helping the black man, was going to help enrich these white merchants, who usually lived in an “exclusive” area where a black man had better not get caught unless he worked there for somebody white.
Wilfred invited me to share his home, and gratefully I accepted. The warmth of a home and a family was a healing change from the prison cage for me. It would deeply move almost any newly freed convict, I think. But especially this Muslim home’s atmosphere sent me often to my knees to praise Allah. My family’s letters while I was in prison had included a description of the Muslim home routine, but to truly appreciate it, one had to be a part of the routine. Each act,and the significance of that act, was gently, patiently explained to me by my brother Wilfred.
There was none of the morning confusion that exists in most homes. Wilfred, the father, the family protector and provider, was the first to rise. “The father prepares the way for his family,” he said. He, then I, performed the morning ablutions. Next came Wilfred’s wife, Ruth, and then their children, so that orderliness prevailed in the use of the bathroom.
“In the name of Allah, I perform the ablution,” the Muslim said aloud before washing first the right hand, then the left hand. The teeth were thoroughly brushed, followed by three rinsings of the mouth. The nostrils were also rinsed out thrice. A shower then completed the whole body’s purification in readiness for prayer.
Each family member, even children upon meeting each other for that new day’s first time, greeted softly and pleasantly, “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (the Arabic for “Peace be unto you”). “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam” (“and unto you be peace”) was the other’s reply. Over and over again, the Muslim said in his own mind, “Allahu-Akbar, Allahu-Akbar” (“Allah is the greatest”).
The prayer rug was spread by Wilfred while the rest of the family purified themselves. It was explained to me that a Muslim family prayed with the sun near the horizon. If that time was missed, the prayer had to be deferred until the sun was beyond the horizon. “Muslims are not sun-worshipers. We pray facing the East to be in unity with the rest of our 725 million brothers and sisters in the entire Muslim world.”
All the family, in robes, lined up facing East. In unison, we stepped from our slippers to stand on the prayer rug.
Today, I say with my family in the Arabic tongue the prayer which I first learned in English: “I perform the morning prayer to Allah, the Most High, Allah is the greatest. Glory to Thee Oh Allah, Thine is the praise, Blessed is Thy Name, and Exalted is Thy Majesty. I bear witness that nothing deserves to be served or worshiped besides Thee.”
No solid food, only juice and coffee, was taken for our breakfasts. Wilfred and I went off to work. There, at noon and again at around three in the afternoon, unnoticed by others in the furniture store, we would rinse our hands, faces and mouths, and softly meditate.
Muslim children did likewise at school, and Muslim wives and mothers interrupted their chores to join the world’s 725 million Muslims in communicating with God.
* * *
Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays were the meeting days of the relatively small Detroit Temple Number One. Near the temple, which actually was a storefront, were three hog-slaughtering pens. The squealing of hogs being slaughtered filtered into our Wednesday and Friday meetings. I’m describing the condition that we Muslims were in back in the early 1950’s.
The address of Temple Number One was 1470 Frederick Street, I think. The first Temple to be formed, back in 1931, by Master W. D. Fard, was formed in Detroit, Michigan. I never had seen any Christian-believing Negroes conduct themselves like the Muslims, the individuals and the families alike. The men were quietly, tastefully dressed. The women wore ankle-length gowns, no makeup, and scarves covered their heads. The neat children were mannerly not only to adults but to other children as well.
I had never dreamed of anything like that atmosphere among black people who had learned to be proud they were black, who had learned to love other black people instead of being jealous and suspicious. I thrilled to how we Muslim men used both hands to grasp a black brother’s both hands, voicing and smiling our happiness to meet him again. The Muslim sisters, both married and single, were given an honor and respect that I’d never seen black men give to their women, and it felt wonderful to me. The salutations which we all exchanged were warm, filled with mutual respect and dignity: “Brother”. . . “Sister”. . . “Ma’am”. . . “Sir.” Even children speaking to other children used these terms. Beautiful!
Lemuel Hassan then was the Minister at Temple Number One. “As-Salaikum,” he greeted us. “Wa-Salaikum,” we returned. Minister Lemuel stood before us, near a blackboard. The blackboard had fixed upon it in permanent paint, on one side, the United States flag and under it the words “Slavery, Suffering and Death,” then the word “Christianity” alongside the sign of the Cross. Beneath the Cross was a painting of a black man hanged from a tree. On the other side was painted what we were taught was the Muslim flag, the crescent and star on a red background with the words “Islam: Freedom, Justice, Equality,” and beneath that “Which One Will Survive the War of Armageddon?”
For more than an hour, Minister Lemuel lectured about Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. I sat raptly absorbing Minister Lemuel’s every syllable and gesture. Frequently, he graphically illustrated points by chalking key words or phrases on the blackboard.
I thought it was outrageous that our small temple still had some empty seats. I complained to my brother Wilfred that there should be no empty seats, with the surrounding streets full of our brainwashed black brothers and sisters, drinking, cursing, fighting, dancing, carousing, and using dope-the very thingsthat Mr. Muhammad taught were helping the black man to stay under the heel of the white man here in America.
From what I could gather, the recruitment attitude at the temple seemed to me to amount to a self-defeating waiting view . . . an assumption that Allah would bring us more Muslims. I felt that Allah would be more inclined to help those who helped themselves. I had lived for years in ghetto streets; I knew the Negroes in those streets. Harlem or Detroit were no different. I said I disagreed, that I thought we should go out into the streets and get more Muslims into the fold. All of my life, as you know, I had been an activist, I had been impatient. My brother Wilfred counseled me to keep patience. And for me to be patient was made easier by the fact that I could anticipate soon seeing and perhaps meeting the man who was called “The Messenger,” Elijah Muhammad himself.
Today, I have appointments with world-famous personages, including some heads of nations. But I looked forward to the Sunday before Labor Day in 1952 with an eagerness never since duplicated. Detroit Temple Number One Muslims were going in a motor caravan-I think about ten automobiles-to visit Chicago Temple Number Two, to hear Elijah Muhammad.
Not since childhood had I been so excited as when we drove in Wilfred’s car. At great Muslim rallies since then I have seen, and heard, and felt ten thousand black people applauding and cheering. But on that Sunday afternoon when our two little temples assembled, perhaps only two hundred Muslims, the Chicagoans welcoming and greeting us Detroiters, I experienced tinglings up my spine as I’ve never had since.
I was totally unprepared for the Messenger Elijah Muhammad’s physical impact upon my emotions. From the rear of Temple Number Two, he came toward the platform. The small, sensitive, gentle, brown face that I had studied in photographs, until I had dreamed about it, was fixed straight ahead as the Messengerstrode, encircled by the marching, strapping Fruit of Islam guards. The Messenger, compared to them, seemed fragile, almost tiny. He and the Fruit of Islam were dressed in dark suits, white shirts, and bow ties. The Messenger wore a gold-embroidered fez.
I stared at the great man who had taken the time to write to me when I was a convict whom he knew nothing about. He was the man whom I had been told had spent years of his life in suffering and sacrifice to lead us, the black people, because he loved us so much. And then, hearing his voice, I sat leaning forward, riveted upon his words. (I try to reconstruct what Elijah Muhammad said from having since heard him speak hundreds of times.)
“I have not stopped one day for the past twenty-one years. I have been standing, preaching to you throughout those past twenty-one years, while I was free, and even while I was in bondage. I spent three and one-half years in the federal penitentiary, and also over a year in the city jail for teaching this truth. I was also deprived of a father’s love for his family for seven long years while I was running from hypocrites and other enemies of this word and revelation of God-which will give life to you, and put you on the same level with all other civilized and independent nations and peoples of this planet earth. . . .”
Elijah Muhammad spoke of how in this wilderness of North America, for centuries the “blue-eyed devil white man” had brainwashed the “so-called Negro.” He told us how, as one result, the black man in America was “mentally, morally and spiritually dead.” Elijah Muhammad spoke of how the black man was Original Man, who had been kidnapped from his homeland and stripped of his language, his culture, his family structure, his family name, until the black man in America did not even realize who he was.
He told us, and showed us, how his teachings of the true knowledge of ourselves would lift up the black man from the bottom of the white man’s societyand place the black man where he had begun, at the top of civilization.
Concluding, pausing for breath, he called my name.
It was like an electrical shock. Not looking at me directly, he asked me to stand.
He told them that I was just out of prison. He said how “strong” I had been while in prison. “Every day,” he said, “for years, Brother Malcolm has written a letter from prison to me. And I have written to him as often as I could.”
Standing there, feeling the eyes of the two hundred Muslims upon me, I heard him make a parable about me.
When God bragged about how faithful Job was, said Elijah Muhammad, the devil said only God’s hedge around Job kept Job so faithful. “Remove that protective hedge,” the devil told God, “and I will make Job curse you to your face.”
The devil could claim that, hedged in prison, I had just used Islam, Mr. Muhammad said. But the devil would say that now, out of prison, I would return to my drinking, smoking, dope, and life of crime.
“Well, now, our good brother Malcolm’s hedge is removed and we will see how he does,” Mr. Muhammad said. “I believe that he is going to remain faithful.”
And Allah blessed me to remain true, firm and strong in my faith in Islam, despite many severe trials to my faith. And even when events produced a crisis between Elijah Muhammad and me, I told him at the beginning of the crisis, with all the sincerity I had in me, that I still believed in him more strongly than he believed in himself. Mr. Muhammad and I are not together today only because of envy and jealousy. I had more faith in Elijah Muhammad than I could ever have in any other man upon this earth.
You will remember my having said that, when I was in prison, Mr. Muhammad would be my brother Wilfred’s house guest whenever he visited Detroit Temple Number One. Every Muslim said that never could you do as much for Mr. Muhammad as he would do for you in return. That Sunday, after the meeting, he invited our entire family group and Minister Lemuel Hassan to be his guests for dinner that evening, at his new home.
Mr. Muhammad said that his children and his followers had insisted that he move into this larger, better eighteen-room house in Chicago at 4847 Woodlawn Avenue. They had just moved in that week, I believe. When we arrived, Mr. Muhammad showed us where he had just been painting. I had to restrain my impulse to run and bring a chair for the Messenger of Allah. Instead, as I had heard he would do, he was worrying about my comfort.
We had hoped to hear his wisdom during the dinner, but instead he encouraged us to talk. I sat thinking of how our Detroit Temple more or less just sat and awaited Allah to bring converts-and, beyond that, of the millions of black people all over America, who never had heard of the teachings that could stir and wake and resurrect the black man. . . and there at Mr. Muhammad’s table, I found my tongue. I have always been one to speak my mind.
During a conversational lull, I asked Mr. Muhammad how many Muslims were supposed to be in our Temple Number One in Detroit.
He said, “There are supposed to be thousands.” “Yes, sir,” I said. “Sir, what is your opinion of the best way of getting thousands there?”
“Go after the young people,” he said. “Once you get them, the older ones will follow through shame.”
I made up my mind that we were going to follow that advice.
Back in Detroit, I talked with my brother Wilfred. I offered my services to our Temple’s Minister, Lemuel Hassan. He shared my determination that we should apply Mr. Muhammad’s formula in a recruitment drive. Beginning that day, every evening, straight from work at the furniture store, I went doing what we Muslims later came to call “fishing.” I knew the thinking and the language of ghetto streets: “My man, let me pull your coat to something-”
My application had, of course, been made and during this time I received from Chicago my “X.” The Muslim’s “X” symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my “X” replaced the white slavemaster name of “Little” which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. The receipt of my “X” meant that forever after in the nation of Islam, I would be known as Malcolm X. Mr. Muhammad taught that we would keep this “X” until God Himself returned and gave us a Holy Name from His own mouth.
Recruit as I would in the Detroit ghetto bars, in the poolrooms, and on the corners, I found my poor, ignorant, brainwashed black brothers mostly too deaf, dumb, and blind, mentally, morally, and spiritually, to respond. It angered me that only now and then would one display even a little curiosity about the teachings that would resurrect the black man.
These few I would almost beg to visit Temple Number One at our next meeting. But then not half of those who agreed to come would actually show up.
Gradually, enough were made interested, though, that each month, a few more automobiles lengthened our caravans to Temple Two in Chicago. But even after seeing and hearing Elijah Muhammad in person, only a few of the interested visitors would apply by formal letter to Mr. Muhammad to be accepted for Nation of Islam membership.
With a few months of plugging away, however, our storefront Temple One about tripled its membership. And that so deeply pleased Mr. Muhammad that he paid us the honor of a personal visit.
Mr. Muhammad gave me warm praise when Minister Lemuel Hassan told how hard I had labored in the cause of Islam.
Our caravans grew. I remember with what pride we led twenty-five automobiles to Chicago. And each time we went, we were honored with dinner at the home of Elijah Muhammad. He was interested in my potential, I could tell from things he would say.
And I worshiped him.
In early 1953, 1 left the furniture store. I earned a little better weekly pay check working at the Gar Wood factory in Detroit, where big garbage truck bodies were made. I cleaned up behind the welders each time they finished another truck body.
Mr. Muhammad was saying at his dining table by this time that one of his worst needs was more young men willing to work as hard as they would have to in order to bear the responsibilities of his ministers. He was saying that the teachings should be spreading further than they had, and temples needed to be established in other cities.
It simply had never occurred to me that / might be a minister. I had never felt remotely qualified to directly represent Mr. Muhammad. If someone had asked me about becoming a minister, I would have been astonished, and told them I was happy and willing to serve Mr. Muhammad in the lowliest capacity.
I don’t know if Mr. Muhammad suggested it or if our Temple One Minister Lemuel Hassan on his own decision encouraged me to address our assembled brothers and sisters. I know that I testified to what Mr. Muhammad’s teachings had done for me: “If I told you the life I have lived, you would find it hard to believe me. . . . When I say something about the white man, I am not talking about someone I don’t know. . . .”
Soon after that, Minister Lemuel Hassan urged me to address the brothers and sisters with an extemporaneous lecture. I was uncertain, and hesitant-but at least I had debated in prison, and I tried my best. (Of course, I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I do know that in my beginning efforts my favorite subject was Christianity and the horrors of slavery, where I felt well-equipped from so much reading in prison. ) “My brothers and sisters, our white slavemaster’s Christian religion has taught us black people here in the wilderness of North America that we will sprout wings when we die and fly up into the sky where God will have for us a special place called heaven. This is white man’s Christian religion used to _brainwash_ us black people! We have _accepted_ it! We have _embraced_ it! We have _believed_ it! We have _practiced_ it! And while we are doing all of that, for himself, this blue-eyed devil has _twisted_ his Christianity, to keep his _foot_ on our backs. . . to keep our eyes fixed on the pie in the sky andheaven in the hereafter. . . while _he_ enjoys _his_ heaven right _here_ . . . on _this earth_ . . . in _this life_.”
Today when thousands of Muslims and others have been audiences out before me, when audiences of millions have been beyond radio and television microphones, I’m sure I rarely feel as much electricity as was then generated in me by the upturned faces of those seventy-five or a hundred Muslims, plus other curious visitors, sitting there in our storefront temple with the squealing of pigs filtering in from the slaughterhouse just outside.
In the summer of 1953-all praise is due to Allah-I was named Detroit Temple Number One’s Assistant Minister.
Every day after work, I walked, “fishing” for potential converts in the Detroit black ghetto. I saw the African features of my black brothers and sisters whom the devilish white man had brainwashed. I saw the hair as mine had been for years, conked by cooking it with lye until it lay limp, looking straight like the white man’s hair. Time and again Mr. Muhammad’s teachings were rebuffed and even ridiculed . . . .”Aw, man, get out of my face, you niggers are crazy!” My head would reel sometimes, with mingled anger and pity for my poor blind black brothers. I couldn’t wait for the next time our Minister Lemuel Hassan would let me speak:
“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters-Plymouth Rock landed on _us!_” . . . “Give _all_ you can to help Messenger Elijah Muhammad’s independence program for the black man! . . . This white man always has controlled us black people by keeping us running to him begging, ‘Please, lawdy, please, Mr. White Man, boss, would you push me off another crumb down from your table that’s sagging with riches . . . .’
“. . . my _beautiful_, black brothers and sisters! And when we say ‘black,’ wemean everything not white, brothers and sisters! Because _look_ at your skins! We’re all black to the white man, but we’re a thousand and one different colors. Turn around, _look_ at each other! What shade of black African polluted by devil white man are you? You see me-well, in the streets they used to call me Detroit Red. Yes! Yes, that raping, red-headed devil was my _grandfather_! That close, yes! My _mother’s_ father! She didn’t like to speak of it, can you blame her? She said she never laid eyes on him! She was _glad_ for that! I’m _glad_ for her! If I could drain away _his_ blood that pollutes _my_ body, and pollutes my complexion, I’d do it! Because I hate every drop of the rapist’s blood that’s in me!
“And it’s not just me, it’s _all_ of us! During slavery, _think_ of it, it was a _rare_ one of our black grandmothers, our great-grandmothers and our great-great-grandmothers who escaped the white rapist slavemaster. That rapist slavemaster who emasculated the black man . . . with threats, with fear . . . until even today the black man lives with fear of the white man in his heart! Lives even today still under the heel of the white man!
“_Think_ of it-think of that black slave man filled with fear and dread, hearing the screams of his wife, his mother, his daughter being _taken_-in the barn, the kitchen, in the bushes! _Think_ of it, my dear brothers and sisters! _Think_ of hearing wives, mothers, daughters, being _raped_! And you were too filled with _fear_ of the rapist to do anything about it! And his vicious, animal attacks’ offspring, this white man named things like ‘mulatto’ and ‘quadroon’ and ‘octoroon’ and all those other things that he has called us-you and me-when he is not calling us ‘_nigger_’!
“Turn around and look at each other, brothers and sisters, and _think_ of this! You and me,
polluted all these colors-and this devil has the arrogance and the gall to think we, his victims,
should _love_ him!”
I would become so choked up that sometimes I would walk in the streets until late into the night.
Sometimes I would speak to no one for hours, thinking to myself about what the white man had
done to our poor people here in America.
* * *
At the Gar Wood factory where I worked, one day the supervisor came, looking nervous. He said
that a man in the office was waiting to see me.
The white man standing in there said, “I’m from the F.B.I.” He flipped open-that way they do, to
shock you-his little folded black leather case containing his identification. He told me to come with
him. He didn’t say for what, or why.
I went with him. They wanted to know, at their office, why hadn’t I registered for the Korean War
“I just got out of prison,” I said. “I didn’t know you took anybody with prison records.”
They really believed I thought ex-convicts weren’t supposed to register. They asked a lot of
questions. I was glad they didn’t ask if I intended to put on the white man’s uniform, because I
didn’t. They just took it for granted that I would. They told me they weren’t going to send me to jail
for failing to register, that they were going to give me a break, but that I would have to register
So I went straight from there to the draft board. When they gave me a form to fill out, I wrote in
the appropriate places that I was a Muslim, and that I was a conscientious objector.
I turned in the form. This middle-aged, bored-acting devil who scanned it looked out from under
his eyes at me. He got up and went into another office, obviously to consult someone over him.
After a while, he came out and motioned for me to go in there.
These three-I believe there were three, as I remember-older devils sat behind desks. They all
wore that “troublesome nigger” expression. And I looked “white devil” right back into their eyes.
They asked me on what basis did I claim to be a Muslim in my religion. I told them that the
Messenger of Allah was Mr. Elijah Muhammad, and that all who followed Mr. Muhammad here in
America were Muslims. I knew they had heard this before from some Temple One young brothers
who had been there before me.
They asked if I knew what “conscientious objector” meant. I told them that when the white man
asked me to go off somewhere and fight and maybe die to preserve the way the white man
treated the black man in America, then my conscience made me object.
They told me that my case would be “pending.” But I was put through the physical anyway, and
they sent me a card with some kind of a classification. That was 1953, then I heard no more for
seven years, when I received another classification card in the mail. In fact, I carry it in my wallet
right now. Here: it’s card number 20 219 25 1377, it’s dated November 21, 1960. It says, “Class 5A,” whatever that means, and stamped on the card’s back is “Michigan Local Board No. 19,
Wayne County, 3604 South Wayne Road, Wayne, Michigan.”
* * *
Every time I spoke at our Temple One, my voice would still be hoarse from the last time. My
throat took a long time to get into condition.
“Do you know _why_ the white man really hates you? It’s because every time he sees your face,
he sees a mirror of his crime-and his guilty conscience can’t bear to face it!
“Every white man in America, when he looks into a black man’s eyes, should fall to his knees and say ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry-my kind has committed history’s greatest crime against your kind; will you give me the chance to atone?’ But do you brothers and sisters expect any white man to do that? _No_, you _know_ better! And why won’t he do it? Because he _can’t_ do it. The white man has _created_ a devil, to bring chaos upon this earth. . . .”
Somewhere about this time, I left the Gar Wood factory and I went to work for the Ford Motor Company, one of the Lincoln-Mercury Division assembly lines.
As a young minister, I would go to Chicago and see Mr. Elijah Muhammad every time I could get off. He encouraged me to come when I could. I was treated as if I had been one of the sons of Mr. Muhammad and his dark, good wife Sister Clara Muhammad. I saw their children only occasionally. Most of them in those years worked around Chicago in various jobs, laborers, driving taxis, and things such as that. Also living in the home was Mr. Muhammad’s dear Mother Marie.
I would spend almost as much time with Mother Marie as I did with Mr. Muhammad. I loved to hear her reminiscences about her son Elijah’s early life when they lived in Sandersville, Georgia, where he was born in 1897.
Mr. Muhammad would talk with me for hours. After eating good, healthful Muslim food, we would stay at the dinner table and talk. Or I would ride with him as he drove on his daily rounds between the few grocery stores that the Muslims then owned in Chicago. The stores were examples to help black people see what they could do for themselves by hiring their own kind and trading with their own kind and thus quit being exploited by the white man.
In the Muslim-owned combination grocery-drug store on Wentworth and 31st Street, Mr. Muhammad would sweep the floor or something like that. He would do such work himself as an example to his followers whom he taught that idleness and laziness were among the black man’s greatest sins against himself. I would want to snatch the broom from Mr. Muhammad’s hand, because I thought he was too valuable to be sweeping a floor. But he wouldn’t let me do anything but stay with him and listen while he advised me on the best ways to spread his message.
The way we were with each other, it would make me think of Socrates on the steps of the Athens market place, spreading his wisdom to his students. Or how one of those students, Aristotle, had his students following behind him, walking through the Lyceum.
One day, I remember, a dirty glass of water was on a counter and Mr. Muhammad put a clean glass of water beside it. “You want to know how to spread my teachings?” he said, and he pointed to the glasses of water. “Don’t condemn if you see a person has a dirty glass of water,” he said, “just show them the clean glass of water that you have. When they inspect it, you won’t have to say that yours is better.”
Of all the things that Mr. Muhammad ever was to teach me, I don’t know why, that still stands out in my mind. Although I haven’t always practiced it. I love too much to battle. I’m inclined to tell somebody if his glass of water is dirty.
Mother Marie, when Mr. Muhammad was busy, would tell me about her son’s boyhood and of his growing up in Georgia to young manhood.Mother Marie’s account of her son began when she was herself but seven years old. She told me that then she had a vision that one day she would be the mother of a very great man. She married a Baptist minister, Reverend Poole, who worked around Sandersville on the farms, and in the sawmills. Among their thirteen children, said Mother Marie, little Elijah was very different, almost from when he could walk and talk.
The small, frail boy usually settled his older brothers’ and sisters’ disputes, Mother Marie said.
And young as he was, he became regarded by them as their leader. And Elijah, about the time he
entered school, began displaying a strong race consciousness. After the fourth grade, because
the family was so poor, Elijah had to quit school and begin full-time working. An older sister taught
Elijah as much as she was able at night.
Mother Marie said that Elijah spent hours poring through the Bible, with tears shining in his eyes.
(Mr. Muhammad told me himself later that as a boy he felt that the Bible’s words were a locked
door, that could be unlocked, if only he knew how, and he cried because of his frustrated anxiety
to receive understanding. ) Elijah grew up into a still-frail teenager who displayed a most
uncommonly strong love for his race, and, Mother Marie said, instead of condemning Negroes’
faults, young Elijah always would speak of reasons for those faults.
Mother Marie has since died. I believe that she had as large a funeral as Chicago has seen. Not
only Muslims, but others knew of the deep bond that Messenger Elijah had with his mother.
“I am not ashamed to say how little learning I have had,” Mr. Muhammad told me. “My going to
school no further than the fourth grade proves that I can know nothing except the truth I have
been taught by Allah. Allah taught memathematics. He found me with a sluggish tongue, and
taught me how to pronounce words.”
Mr. Muhammad said that somehow, he never could stand how the Sandersville white farmers, the
sawmill foremen, or other white employers would habitually and often curse Negro workers. He
said he would politely ask any for whom he worked never to curse him. “I would ask them to just
fire me if they didn’t like my work, but just don’t curse me.” (Mr. Muhammad’s ordinary
conversation was the manner he used when making speeches. He was not “eloquent,” as
eloquence is usually meant, but whatever he uttered had an impact on me that trained orators did
not begin to have. ) He said that on the jobs he got, he worked so honestly that generally he was
put in charge of the other Negroes.
After Mr. Muhammad and Sister Clara met and married and their first two children had been born,
a white employer early in 1923 did curse Mr. Muhammad, then Elijah Poole. Elijah Poole,
determined to avoid trouble, took his family to Detroit, arriving when he was twenty-five. Five
more children would be born there in Detroit, and, finally, the last one in Chicago.
In Detroit in 1931, Mr. Muhammad met Master W. D. Fard.
The effects of the depression were bad everywhere, but in the black ghetto they were horrible,
Mr. Muhammad told me. A small, light brown-skinned man knocked from door to door at the
apartments of the poverty-stricken Negroes. The man offered for sale silks and other yard goods,
and he identified himself as “a brother from the East.”
This man began to tell Negroes how they came from a distant land, in the seeds of their
He warned them against eating the “filthy pig” and other “wrong foods” that it was habitual for
Negroes to eat.
Among the Negroes whom he found most receptive, he began holding little meetings in their poor
homes. The man taught both the Quran and the Bible, and his students included Elijah Poole.
This man said his name was W. D. Fard. He said that he was born in the _Koreish_ tribe of
Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the Arabian prophet Himself. This peddler of silks and yard goods, Mr.
- D. Fard, knew the Bible better than any of the Christian-bred Negroes.
In the essence, Mr. W. D. Fard taught that God’s true name was Allah, that His true religion was
Islam, that the true name for that religion’s people was Muslims.
Mr. W. D. Fard taught that the Negroes in America were directly descended from Muslims. He
taught that Negroes in America were Lost Sheep, lost for four hundred years from the Nation of
Islam, and that he, Mr. Fard, had come to redeem and return the Negro to his true religion.
No heaven was in the sky, Mr. Fard taught, and no hell was in the ground. Instead, both heaven
and hell were conditions in which people lived right here on this planet Earth. Mr. Fard taught that
the Negro in America had been for four hundred years in hell, and he, Mr. Fard, had come to
return them to where heaven for them was-back home, among their own kind.
Master Fard taught that as hell was on earth, also on earth was the devil-the white race which
was bred from black Original Man six thousand years before, purposely to create a hell on earth
for the next six thousand years.
The black people, God’s children, were Gods themselves, Master Fard taught. And he taught that
among them was one, also a human being like the others, who was the God of Gods: The Most,
Most High, The Supreme Being, supreme in wisdom and power-and His proper name was Allah.
Among his handful of first converts in 1931 in Detroit, Master W. D. Fard taught that every religion
says that near the Last Day, or near the End of Time, God would come, to resurrect the Lost
Sheep, to separate them from their enemies, and restore them to their own people. Master Fard
taught that Prophecy referred to this Finder and Savior of the Lost Sheep as The Son of Man, or
God in Person, or The Lifegiver, The Redeemer, or The Messiah, who would come as lightning
from the East and appear in the West.
He was the One to whom the Jews referred as The Messiah, the Christians as The Christ, and
the Muslims as The Mahdi.
* * *
I would sit, galvanized, hearing what I then accepted from Mr. Muhammad’s own mouth as being
the true history of our religion, the true religion for the black man. Mr. Muhammad told me that
one evening he had a revelation that Master W. D. Fard represented the fulfillment of the
“I asked Him,” said Mr. Muhammad, “‘Who are you, and what is your real name?’ And He said, ‘I
am The One the world has been looking for to come for the past two thousand years.’
“I said to Him again,” said Mr. Muhammad, “‘What is your _true_ name?’ And then He said, ‘My
name is Mahdi. I came to guide you into the right path.'”
Mr. Elijah Muhammad says that he sat listening with an open heart and an open mind-the way I
was sitting listening to Mr. Muhammad. And Mr. Muhammad said he never doubted any word that
the “Savior” taught him.
Starting to organize, Master W. D. Fard set up a class for training ministers to carry the teachings
to America’s black people. In giving names to these first ministers, Master Fard named Elijah
Poole “Elijah Karriem.”
Next, Master W. D. Fard established in 1931 in Detroit a University of Islam. It had adult classes
which taught, among other things, mathematics, to help the poor Negroes quit being duped and
deceived by the “tricknology” of “the blue-eyed devil white man.”
Starting a school in the rough meant that it lacked qualified teachers, but a start had to be made
somewhere. Mr. Elijah Karriem removed his own children from Detroit public schools, to start a
nucleus of children in the University of Islam.
Mr. Muhammad told me that his older children’s lack of formal education reflected their sacrifice to form the backbone for today’s Universities of Islam in Detroit and Chicago which have better-qualified faculties.
Master W. D. Fard selected Elijah Karriem to be the Supreme Minister, over all other ministers, and among all of those others sprang up a bitter jealousy. All of them had better education than Elijah Karriem, and also they were more articulate than he was. They raged, even in his presence, “Why should we bow down to someone who appears less qualified?”
But Mr. Elijah Karriem was then in some way re-named “Elijah Muhammad,” who as the Supreme Minister began to receive from Master W. D. Fard for the next three and a half years private teachings, during which time he says he “heard things never revealed to others.” During this period, Mr. Elijah Muhammad and Master W. D. Fard went to Chicago and established Temple Number Two. They also established in Milwaukee the beginnings of a Temple Number Three.
In 1934, Master W. D. Fard disappeared, without a trace.
Elijah Muhammad says that attempts were made upon his life, because the other ministers’ jealousy had reached such a pitch. He says that these “hypocrites” forced him to flee to Chicago. Temple Number Two became his headquarters until the “hypocrites” pursued him there, forcing him to flee again. In Washington, D. C., he began Temple Number Four. Also while there, in the Congressional Library, he studied books which he says Master W. D. Fard had told him contained different pieces of the truth that devil white man had recorded, but which were not in books generally available to the public.
Saying that he was still pursued by the “hypocrites,” Mr. Muhammad fled from city to city, never staying long in any. Whenever able, now and then, he slipped home to see his wife and his eight young children, who were fed by other poor Muslims who shared what little they had. Even Mr. Muhammad’s original Chicago followers wouldn’t know he was at home, for he says the “hypocrites” made serious efforts to kill him.
In 1942, Mr. Muhammad was arrested. He says Uncle Tom Negroes had tipped off the devil white man to his teachings, and he was charged by this devil white man with draft-dodging, although he was too old for military service. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In the Milan, Michigan, federal prison, Mr. Muhammad served three and a half years, then he was paroled. He had returned to his work in 1946, to remove the blinders from the eyes of the black man in the wilderness of North America.
I can hear myself now, at the lectern in our little Muslim Temple, passionately addressing my black brothers and sisters:
“This little, gentle, sweet man! The Honorable Elijah Muhammad who is at this very hour teaching our brothers and sisters over there in Chicago! Allah’s Messenger-which makes him the most powerful black man in America! For you and me, he has sacrificed seven years on the run from filthy hypocrites, he spent another three and a half years in a prison cage! He was put there by the devil white man! That devil white man does not want the Honorable Elijah Muhammad stirring awake the sleeping giant of you and me, and all of our ignorant, brainwashed kind here in the white man’s heaven and the black man’s hell herein the wilderness of North America!
“I have sat at our Messenger’s feet, hearing the truth from his own mouth! I have pledged on my knees’ to Allah to tell the white man about his crimes and the black man the true teachings of our Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I don’t care if it costs my life . . . .”
This was my attitude. These were my uncompromising words, uttered anywhere, without hesitation or fear. I was his most faithful servant, and I know today that I did believe in him more firmly than he believed in himself.
In the years to come, I was going to have to face a psychological and spiritual crisis.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://al-rasid.com/shared_uploads/The.Autobiography.of.MalcolmX.pdf
Photo from: ModernBenjamin (2016). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Book Review. Retrieved from https://modernbenjamin.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/the-autobiography-of-malcolm-x-book-review/